Actor Neil Pigot watches another of his colleagues throw in his day job as pay rates for actors plummet. His friend guest starred in an episode of a highly rating television show and was paid $1,250 before tax.
Pigot argues that the flowering of low cost, do-it-yourself, creative amateurism combined with our political leaders’ failure to articulate the value of the arts has left those in the middle squeezed – the middle occupied by working musicians, ceramicists, painters, actors, dancers and modestly successful writers.
As another of my colleagues, a fine actor on stage and screen capitulates and pulls the pin on a 30 year career I am given to recall an incident that occurred while we were filming Blue Heelers probably about 20 years ago.
At the time there was another hugely popular show on Australian television called Mad About You, an American sitcom featuring Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt and a collie dog called Maui. During one of our rehearsals John Wood, the lead in our modest local police drama, was reading an article in a magazine lying around Channel Seven. The article informed that the dog in Mad About You was earning more per episode than the man who was arguably this country’s most popular television actor. Him.
Perhaps I’m embellishing the story a touch, but I seem to remember John storming over to the main building at Seven and demanding that at least the actors could be provided with on-site parking because if we drove to work we were forced to park on the street, and that meant downing tools every few hours to march out in our police uniforms and feed the meters.
With no mid-range theatre companies left, no radio and no telly that pays a reasonable wage, the profession has become unsustainable.
I recount that story to demonstrate the point that the life of the actor, as it is for artists of all disciplines in this country, has never been a particularly glamorous or ridiculously well paid one.
Unfortunately our politicians, perhaps confused by magazine stories about dogs earning $50,000 an episode seem to have come to believe that there are only two types of artists. The “good ones” who soar to the pinnacle of fame and fortune blessed with talent and determination in equal measure and the “self-obsessed wastrels” living in an obscure poverty stricken fantasyland of ridiculous ideas and dubious talent. Public nuisances who should really wake up and get a proper job. Well my friend has.
He was neither a star nor a wastrel, simply an artist toiling away in the middle. A man with two school age kiddies, a mortgage and his very own hound. This is where the majority of us artists live and dream alongside most of the rest of the people in this country.
Our leaders have committed to an enshrining of democratic amateurism as a cultural norm by quietly destroying the fabric of our cultural industries.
We reside there sending our kids to school and doing the shopping and worrying about our bills like other people, while at the same time quietly applying ourselves to the work that has been undertaken by writers, actors, poets, painters, dancers and musicians for millennia: trying to help people make sense of the world we live in, exploring our inner worlds, creating things of beauty, building bridges of understanding, resisting the homogenisation of the human experience and connecting people to their feelings.
Sadly, a succession of policy makers have decreed that this very human activity is not work, but rather something fundamentally unserious and valueless. And the public, it seems, agrees and have voted with their votes in favour of jobs and growth to the exclusion of compassion, entertainment, humour and insight.
Our leaders have told us we live in a time of cultural abundance when the tools of creativity are available to anyone with a laptop. They have committed to this enshrining of democratic amateurism as a cultural norm by quietly destroying the fabric of our cultural industries thread by thread.
In their place we have smart phones and the internet which have provided us with more digital pap than we could hope to point a cursor at. With them has come a flowering amateurism that has been seamlessly elevated over the professional, trivialising artistic endevour and undermining the already precarious living standards that artists used to enjoy.
Why have artists when the public can do it? They make their own videos and songs, write their own poetry and books, exhibit their own paintings and themselves and it costs nothing. And it’s often funnier. Like that one about the dancing cat.
Through the eviscerating of agencies like the Australia Council and the weakening of our film funding bodies they are vicariously promoting the idea that everyone can be an artist making stuff that can be sold to a self-selecting audience of fellow creators.
The exploitation of the dream that everyone can be a star, anyone can travel the road to professional riches is from the same public policy grab bag that has them spending $20 million on fireworks on New Year’s Eve so that you won’t notice that the hospitals aren’t working. Or that the NBN that is going to lift us out of the third world is caught in traffic because we haven’t invested anything meaningful in public transport for a century.
A failure to publically articulate the value of the arts and protect the creative and media sectors from collapse has meant that newspapers and magazines that once paid by the word and employed journalists and guest writers are instead recruiting readers to contribute articles, offering to compensate them not with money but with exposure and prestige. This of course has the extra advantage of limiting public discourse on government failings.
The little once a month avenues that provided crucial income to actors as they pieced together a living have gone. No more radio plays or readings on Radio National for example. Digital amateurism combined with a relaxation of local content laws means that a town like Melbourne, that only 15 years ago played host to six television serial dramas now boasts Neighbours.
Low cost competitive reality television that offers the lure of fame and fortune accomplished without any living commitment to the social values or practiced craft of the artist is its replacement. This python squeeze on payment for creativity is what will eventually convince many of my other friends to hand in their dance cards.
The result is a creative stratification that mirrors the social and economic inequality undermining our civic life. A concentration of big stars, blockbusters and major organisations at the top of the ladder.
The television producers and the networks have taken the governments lead. Actors’ daily rates are comparable to 10 years ago. Where once a ‘guest lead’ would be engaged on a three-day minimum, ensuring the bills paid and the kids fed for another couple of months, producers are now increasingly scheduling actors on to television shows for one day of shooting.
This is what happened to my friend. He is all over an episode of a highly rating television show for $1,250 before tax. When his agent questioned the fee the producer responded, “If he won’t do it, someone else will”. With no mid-range theatre companies left, no radio, no telly that pays a reasonable wage, for my friend like so many of my peers, the profession has become unsustainable.
The result is a creative stratification that mirrors the social and economic inequality undermining our civic life. A concentration of big stars, blockbusters and major organisations sitting at the top of the ladder looking down at an ant army of striving self-starters swarming on the bottom rungs hoping that their homemade Austin Powers spoof goes viral, their cutting edge play about three nude girls lost in a forest gets them a leg up to the main game, or their self-published memoir chronicling their deeply personal and overwhelmingly inspirational triumph over schoolyard bullying catches the eye of an international film producer.
And the middle, that place where professionals used to do their work for a reasonable living wage, home to independent bands, ceramicists and painters, working actors, contemporary dancers and modestly successful writers across all the disciplines has slowly, some would say, agonisingly been squeezed out of existence.
We all know that inexpensive things carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes, our milk and most of our household goods and it is no less true of those products we turn to for pleasure, diversion and understanding.
We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists, make jokes about how they never do a real day’s work or how they wear funny clothes, but we need to remember, with all the political and social consequences that this understanding entails, that artists are doing a job, a job that has played an important role in keeping the wheels turning on the civilisation we are a part of for thousands of years. History tells us that they have made a difference. The point? Lose us and in time I’m pretty sure you’ll get it.