Unfortunately, actors are often the members of a production from whom the most is expected, and yet are often the ones who are least respected. Do I have your attention? Let me explain.
Actors have a burning desire to perform. It's something they are drawn to in an emotional, intellectual and some might even say spiritual way. It's a need to create, to share who they are through an ages old form of expression that gives a voice to their own creativity, and also to characters and stories that they often are passionate about telling. While this desire is commendable and helps perpetuate the art form in the face of all kinds of adversity, it also means that performers can be easily led or driven to undervalue their own abilities, craft, dedication, time, knowledge and experience. Of all the groups involved in the company that makes a show finally end up on the boards before a paying audience, it is often the actors that can be the ones paid the least, or not at all, where all others working on the production are paid better. It's sometimes said that "actors are a dime a dozen" since there's always more actors ready to participate if others are not. This same undervaluing translates down into how their time is respected, how their work is appreciated, how their skills are commended and more.
So as a performer, what should I do? What should I expect? What should I demand?
First, if you want to change things for yourself or for others as well, you have to be willing to accept nothing less that what you decide is right for you. This will mean passing on acting opportunities. This will mean that you may gain enemies in your artistic community. It may mean that you don't work at all, or rarely. So it's truly up to you what you want to create as your minimum acceptable agreement and standards. I, for example, decided many years ago that I was no longer going to work in theatre for free, among other expectations. I've now made it a standard to expect to be paid on par or better than the average being paid in that region. I take my skills and my 30+ years of experience into account with this consideration, as well as the time and energy I'll be devoting to that project.
So let's talk about items of consideration:
1) Pay - as above, until you demand to be paid and pass on jobs unless you are paid, it's likely you won't be paid. In a nice way, you need to communicate to those who would like to hire you as a performer that you have skills, and a lot of time involved, and homework time and more that goes into a thoughtful and skillful performance. That is worth something, like any job. Period. If the answer you get back is "we don't have the money", you can ask them "do you have the money to pay musicians? Director? For the set, costumes, building utilities, insurance, etc? Of course they do. If they make it a priority and adjust budget to do so, they can make it happen. I've seen it happen.
2) Time - A big piece for actors who are performing in addition to a full time job especially, is expectations of their time. Time is money, as the old adage goes. Respect of and careful use of your time as a performer is something every performer should expect. Now if you're lucky enough to work as a performer full time, then your daily job is performing and if they want to have you sit at a rehearsal for 3 hours without doing anything, then at least you're still getting paid. But if your pay is minimal and not based on hours worked, then by all means you can request and expect that the rehearsal schedule be structured as much as possible to utilize your time efficiently, with a minimum of wasted time and travel time. Also, if other people are arriving late, creating wasted time for all others involved, you should expect that problem to be dealt with professionally and swiftly.
3) Preparedness and efficiency in the process - I've heard stories of weeks of rehearsal being scheduled during which sheet music was never provided, where director or choreographer consistently showed up with no preparation, where hours of time was spent with no one in charge knowing what was supposed to be happening, or where no tangible work was accomplished. This is unacceptable. This again is a waste of your time and a disrespect shown to you and your work. All rehearsals should begin on time, with all members present (in lieu of some emergency) and with preparation ready so that work can proceed efficiently.
So, what to do?
First, make sure that things are clear up front. What is the rehearsal schedule, including what days/times you'll be called personally? What is the exact expectations for what you are doing in the show, how much you'll be paid and when will you be paid, what are the rules of the organization, the spaces you'll be working in, and the production itself, and what happens if those rules are broken? Knowing all these things up front and asking any clarifying questions goes a long way toward everyone working from the same set of expectations with accountability when those rules are not followed.
Next, if expectations are not met, a professional level discussion should be had between you and those in charge to discuss how things can be resolved to get back to a mutual level of expectation. If a mutual agreement can not be met then you may need to consider discussing severing your agreement with the production based on the fact that people are not meeting their side of that agreement. Hopefully all can agree to get things back on track with a check in process included to make sure things progress ahead properly for all concerned.
One thing I've learned and been reminded of over the years many times, is that if someone breaks the rules and isn't held accountable, then that incorrect behavior is reinforced as acceptable and they will do it again even worse. You are NOT doing anyone any favors by allowing it to seem to go un-noticed. If you want to work in an environment with people who share a high-standard so that the work can be excellent and the experience can be enjoyable for all, then the rules must be upheld and the standards must not be allowed to waiver.
Actors not doing their homework on character and lines is not ok. Directors arriving without preparation or ideas for rehearsal. People arriving late and assuming it's no big deal, despite the fact that all others just wasted their time waiting. These are the things that will drive the best people away from your organization. They already knew that they deserved better. As the best people leave, the quality of your productions goes down, audiences start going elsewhere, and your organization is doomed. I've seen it happen.
Instead, strive to be the best place for people to work, with respect and high standards. Soon you'll be the theatre where everyone wants to work, and where audiences want to see shows.
Spike, as his friends call him, has 30 years in the performing arts world as an actor, director, administrator, marketer, fundraiser. He has consulted with numerous theatres and other performing arts organizations and loves to help such groups and individual artists to achieve their success!