Act now, before it’s too late!

First published 11 May 2006.

“Life’s like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Roman philosopher and statesman

If I entered a profession that was extremely volatile—when and where I got my irregular paycheques was determined in large part by my skill, my reputation in the industry, my social networks, my initiative in drumming up new business, and sometimes just plain dumb luck, would anybody feel like lobbying for legislation to get me tax breaks, a bigger pension, and job re-training?  Or would you say “maybe it’s time you thought about career change?”

If you’re a member of ACTRA, you already know the answer to that question:

    Some of Canada’s best-known actors set up stage in the Ontario legislature Wednesday and asked the government to play a supporting role to the province’s artists.

Members of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists say they want legislation to pluck Ontario artists out of poverty.

The group wants better protection for child performers, training to help aging actors find new careers, lower taxes on artistic income, and a pension plan and affordable housing for older artists.

Ont. asked to aid aging actors“, Canadian Press (in the Toronto Star), 11 May 2006.

It seems to me that legislative protection for child actors is a good idea, given that they are prohibited from working in most other industries.  At the very least they should enjoy some of the same rights as adult actors.  Everyone is on board for that, I’m sure.  The article further notes that there are 21,000 ACTRA members, many of whom live near the poverty line and make only CDN $20,000 per annum, and that is where things start to get interesting.

    Colin Mochrie, best known for his roles on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Drew Carey Show, says the life of an actor is filled with ups and downs, something he says the government doesn’t always recognize.

“Actors’ incomes are often crazy,” said Mochrie. “You can have a huge year one year and then you can go three years without anything. But the tax system thinks (you) make that kind of money every year, and taxes accordingly.”

Ont. asked to aid aging actors“, Canadian Press (in the Toronto Star), 11 May 2006.

Forgive my ignorance, but how is this different from any other self-employed contractor—an information technology or management consulting desk jockey, a roughneck (oil rig worker), bed-and-breakfast owner, geologist, fisherman, hunting/trapping guide—in short any industry which can suffer an unpredictable boom or bust?  It’s not as if there’s a special “actor tax” that penalises them above all others.  Everybody who is not a salaried employee can have a great year or a poor one, and horror of horrors, the tax code does not have specific exemptions for them all.

Look, I am sympathetic to the notion that actors are not well-paid.  That is a shame, and I for one would be willing to pay higher box office prices to compensate.  I am also sympathetic to the notion of penniless older actors—although I think the onus is on them to plan for a brief career span, like football players, and save well in advance.  But this ongoing risk of poverty is also a well-known hazard of the industry.  For every Christopher Plummer there are a million has-beens whose star has never risen higher than bit player at Theatre Passe-Muraille.  Is the public—including, critically, the non-theatre-going public—to underwrite their lack of talent / social networking / other marketable skills / dumb luck into retirement?

You want lower taxes—fine, as long as the rest of us have lower taxes too.  You want protection for child actors?  Absolutely.  You want job re-training?  Bed.  Made.  Lie in it.  I’d like to support it but it’s too open to abuse.  Every jobless guy in the country would claim re-training benefits as an unemployed actor.  Just slap the name of any old community theatre group on your resume, and off you go.  How could the government possibly refute it?

Civil Servant: “You have no acting roles on your resume.”

Unemployed Actor: “I wasn’t a good enough actor.”

Civil Servant: “I can’t admit you to the re-training program without proof of your profession.”

Unemployed Actor:
“…If I could get any acting jobs, would I be here?”

You have a whole lifetime to think of an alternative earning strategy—don’t put it on the back burner until you can’t act anymore.  Same goes for retirement funding.  Don’t tell me you just figured out that whole aging thing now.  It looms in your future from day one.  At some point following day one, and at some point before the final day, you will have an opportunity to assess your historical earning power relative to your retirement expectations.  When these start diverging too rapidly — do something about it then, before it’s too late.  In other words if you’re in your late thirties and have not had the big break — maybe that’s a good time to develop a sideline in some other industry, before you’re broke.

Finally, if we really want to improve the lot of actors, then first and foremost we need to get basic storytelling and marketing concepts into the heads of writers and artistic directors.  The actors just emote and spit out memorised lines.  The folks who create jobs for actors are the authors of stage and screenplays, plus the directors and producers who decide to stage said works.  If there is not a lot of demand for actors in this province, maybe the solution is better material for them to work with.  Less introspective, dysfunctional-family drama and more drawing-room farces, I say.  Unfortunately most Canadian drama tends to be variations on a theme of “look at my boring and desolate smalltown childhood“; this is not box office gold, people.  In order to make money in the entertainment industry, you have to, shall we say, entertain.  Or put more bluntly, amuse the patrons enough to have them part with their hard-earned dollars on a regular basis.

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