Who’d be a working actor? It’s not even a dog’s life

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.

33 responses to “Who’d be a working actor? It’s not even a dog’s life

  1. Hello Neil,
    The media landscape has changed, people are binge watching, following YouTube video’s. People are making money from the internet based shows. Is it time for us as actors to form production companies to generate good work for the internet, tap into this market.

  2. All too true Neil. With nearly 50 years experience as a professional actor I can clearly see the steady deterioration in standards and conditions over time. Training has become a business based solely on how many students can be crammed into a course with their all important fees, TV deliberately appeals to the lowest common denominator with cheap imports and mindless ‘reality’ shows, and governments see the Arts as a waste of resources, and a bit of a wank. How sad that we as a nation can’t even come close to the standard of countries like Denmark when it comes to making quality tv…
    Art is our “Mirror up to Nature”, and what it’s showing now is terrifying…

  3. Well said Neil. The really irksome thing, that constantly bugs me, is the lack of value seen in encouraging our creative kids. It is a direct result of the ignorant response of a government who do not understand the job of the arts. Families will car pool to take their talented, sports minded kiddies to another sporting event or practice in the hope they will hit the bigtime and earn squillions. But, take a couple of kids to a creative event/training (ie dance, singing or acting class) and you’re hard pressed to find many like minded parents. If we don’t support the artistic/creative talents of our children we will have to hope the holodeck becomes a thing of reality. I hope and pray that there are still enough brave young men and women out there with the courage to become the next generation of storytellers that we so badly need to hold the mirror up to society, and hopefully instil some sense of accountability into the stories they tell through the film, television and theatre platforms they work in. Yes it’s a hard life but if you are truly a troubadour then a little shortfall in your paypacket will not quench the thirst to tell our stories to an ever expamding audience.

  4. People who think Rand is a worthwhile weapon to defend the deplorable state the arts are in, must get their head examined. Rand is the guru of neoliberalism, always has been. As for her opinion about arts……………!
    Back to the situation of the arts in Australia:
    It is not just actors, musicians, playwrights etc. but also the visual arts which are under attack in this country (and in the State of NSW), viz. the closing of Sydney College of the Arts, affiliated with Sydney Uni, which itself has become nothing more than a money spinning business run by an accountancy group. Sydney College of the Arts and the National Arts School (independent but funded by NSW Govt) are in danger, and not only the teachers, but also the coming artists, ie. students. SCA has been told there will be no student intake from 2017 at all!
    Apparently culture and arts is something we can do without in this country, bean-counters and stupid reality shows is all we will be fed.

  5. The other issues for actors is that when you do get paid work (TV ads especially) they (usually ad agencies who are presumably paid up front) can take 90-120 days to pay their (relatively) tiny fees! What other industry would tolerate that? And they often cast a wide net – you show up to auditions with 10-20 (or 100!) others, instead of them arriving at a reasonable short list first (most pro actors have decent showreels and detailed resumes). Casting also takes place with less than 24-hours notice (and this is for major national campaigns) I can’t imagine an agency would ever call a Director, DOP or editor (or any crew!) and saying “we’re shooting tomorrow”? It’s all part of the attitude of “well, if they want the role, they’ll do anything” and sadly, this is often the case – which is why we are now at the position outlined in this story. My wife and I both appeared in a children’s live action TV – in lead roles for 3 episodes each and one together (7 eps total). It was sold to hundreds of countries and we each received about $1000 after tax – the “royalties” from that were about $400 a year each – depsite it being seen over and over again here and internationally. Seems to me a fair royalty for actors is 100% of the fee each time the show is re-sold? So, as much as I love the stage and screen – I now use my skills in the corporate arena who can pay well and on time (or, even – shocker- in advance!) Thanks for the story.

  6. This is why I keep banging on about the quality of our film and TV, or the lack thereof. If we got our arse into gear and made something genuinely good (like Fargo, Better Call Saul, Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, etc) then it would earn money which could be used to pay everyone better. At the moment we are a second tier film and TV producing nation.

    Are The Code and Cleverman really the best prestige TV shows we can come up with? Seriously?

    1. More attention needs to be paid to writing and development. Unfortunately the major networks have very little interest in this side of things. They want to pander to the safest, stupidest common denominator so nothing exciting can ever get past their gates.

      1. I find it odd that people haven’t worked out that the Australian television industry doesn’t exist to tell stories.

        In fact, it’s whole raison d’être is to do precisely the opposite. Ensure stories aren’t told that might educate the populace and, god forbid, spur dissent. And cram the airwaves with product placement as much as humanely possible.

        That’s why all the supposed “dramas” are exactly the same bland formula of domestic pabulum.

      1. Well said, Der: I was going to say just that. However, I of course would like to see twice as many of those quality productions hit our screens.

        I do not agree that they are sub standard as Billy the Fish says, in fact I think Wentworth far superior in acting, script and production values than Orang is the New Whatever.

  7. “…Melbourne, that only 15 years ago played host to six television serial dramas now boasts Neighbours.”

    Are you forgetting shows like Offspring, House Husbands, Winners and Losers, Dr Blake Mysteries, Upper Middle Bogan, Glitch, Wentworth….(should i keep going?) are all shot in Melbourne?

    1. James these shows are series – not serials. Serials usually comprise 5 half hour episodes a week and run for 48 weeks a year providing many opportunities for guest roles and bit parts for many actors. Series are usually 10 – 13 episodes shot in as many weeks and have storylines constructed much more closely around the central charcters and hence less guest roles.

  8. Mubreypu, the basic logic of individuals only being worth their value in the market place is overly simple and myopic economics. Sure it has its place but it definitely has its flaws. It takes into account only what is valued at a certain point in time by certain individuals, and so does not produce the best outcomes. Popular is not always best. If we want to live in a cultural, intellectual and social backwater, then perhaps so. I would argue we should be evolving toward greater outcomes, and so valuing things that aren’t exactly popular but are worthy of value as they will produce more utility once the less evolved masses catch up.

  9. All fair comment Neil, but don’t blame the producers. Aside from the example you quote – from a producer displaying an attitude I for one do not condone – much of what you say applies to independent producers in this country too. The squeeze is very much on the producers who are always the last in line to get paid. Actors’ rates might not have gone up in 10 years (actually they have) but the licence fees have gone down.
    The arts deserve better and it’s an argument we should be making together.

  10. I’m fortunately quite a versatile actor and able to not work for a long time while struggling to survive. I have handed my card in many times only to have it handed back. “Hey Steve we like your work come on in” and off I go again…acting. I’m definitely in the middle and often at the bottom and rarely share a bench with the toppish end. I’ve been on TV week covers and been turned down for a student movie, been nominated for an AFI and forced by centrelink to brush up on my interview skills. Versatile I am!

  11. It’s all about technology – soon actors will all be replaced by computer generated CGI characters. But actors are not alone – 20 years from now our computers will be smarter than we are – work will quickly become a thing of the past for most people – probably the largest social change ever to hit the human race – but nobody is planning for it.

    1. Steve, it’s not just actors. There is now a computer that can write screenplays. We’re all (actors, directors, writers, etc) gonna be out of business soon!

  12. Is the author suggesting that what is seen as ” independent” art-making is, in his words ” creative amateurism” ? What then, defines a professional ? A regular wage from an established arts organisation ? A qualification from a drama school ? If so, which one ?
    What is missing from this article is the fact that there are ever-growing numbers of acting / dance/ music graduates coming into the industry every year, but no training institution seems to care that a great many of these graduates will not get paid work, yet are happy to accept fees for their courses.

  13. No wonder there’s no work for actors with all those depressing reality and panel shows on television – stop using amateurs and employ professional entertainers, please.

  14. How dispiriting to read the comment by Mubreypu. I guess he’d (she’d?) agree that the worldview of Rand and more generally the neoliberals is diametrically opposed to all that the arts, in all their forms, represent.

    So if his highest view of humanity and (dare I say) civilisation is that we are no more than “producers” and “consumers”, why bother to read Daily Review? He could be “consuming” something much more aligned with his/her thinking. The collected speeches of Eric Abetz perhaps :-)

    And no, actors are not like taxi drivers, any more than they’re like (say) lawyers.

    And, not to get distracted by the comments: well said Neil, excellent piece.

  15. Has the world changed that much ? I can remember a guy returning to my office one afternoon in the 70’s with coffee in hand to tell me that Bruce Spence was his cab driver from the airport. I wondered then how many weeks a year would he work as an actor.

  16. Actors are like taxi drivers – they have been surpassed by technology and by thier own false expectations of the value society places in them. As Ayn Rand said said value of the individual is measured in terns of what they produce for the market place. The market has clearly judged them to produce nothing that the customers cant produce themselves.

  17. Thank you Neil Piggott. Am now depressed again but grateful for your almost witty take on the state of the Nation’s Creativity. The days of Whitlam, Wran, Dunstan, Keating, Carr, Hamer – even Menzies dammit – are truly on History’s shelf. There are however many positions available in the bureaucracies of the Arts. That world is growing like topsy. Funny things happen on the way to forums. Stephen Sewell wants to start a new all-Antipodean theatre bless-‘im. That could be a start.

    1. Thank you, Neil, for describing my life so accurately, TLJ for the political context and Stephen Sewell for the ambition. If it’s to be called the Australian Theatre of the Middle Aged, Unfashionable Journeyman Artist, I’m there.

  18. The truth is often ugly, unpalatable. Well done, Neil Pigot. The concept of ‘Democratising’ is becoming an obscenity. How much worse could life be if our politicians were less patriotic?

  19. Very interesting. I am science trained but all my work is done overseas today and have difficulty finding work. Portrait artists have been overtaken by photographers, musicians by recordings and mass audiences, actors by world distributed movies and comedians by mass TV. This is very sad because evolution has programmed us to breed more artists than we need today. There must be an outlet for all these frustrated artists. May I suggest that artists to succeed must innovate and strive for such excellence that they stand out. Think all the wonderful movies we have made( Muriels Wedding, Strictly Ballroom, My Brilliant Career) the actors we have nurtured (Blanchett, Rush, Gibson etc.). We can do it, there is such a dearth of worthwhile art out there I’m sure there is gap we can fill.

    1. John you’re proving the point made by Neil. All of the movies you mention are over 20 years old. There isn’t the opportunity for actors to get the roles that enable them to develop the the profile of Blanchett, etc. and there isn’t the investment in the industry to enable great (& simultaneously high profile) work to be created any more

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