The Actor Prepares: some SAGacious advice
A dramaturg in Nashville informs me that that there are seven strong university theater programs in his city: Belmont, Fisk, Vanderbilt, Trevecca, Tennessee State University, Lipscomb and MTSU. Together these programs are training around 250-300 young actors. He wants to cure Nashvillians of the brainwashing which has resulted from focusing inordinate attention on atheletes at the university level. As theater editor of the Tennessee Style Magazine, he believes that if he can garner public recognition and support for student actors, they in turn, would have a great deal to offer his community.
Of course his mission is hopelessly quixotic. Collegiate athletes are not just figures groomed in service to the sports culture, but are also minor league players serving our broader indoctrination into the all-embracing celebrity culture. Any supposed notion of community or local audience in Nashville will ultimately be eclipsed by the realm of fandom.
Dolly and other local legends never really “abandon their roots” as much as discover their fan base. In most ways, American Idols are just playing catch-up with their hometown audience as it transmutes toward its own Dollywood representative version of itself.
In this way, theatre is famous to NYC, so the culture here almost supports actors. Singer-songwriters are famous to Nashville, so the culture there almost supports guitar pickers. By support, I don’t mean financially, but simply the mutual endorsement and validation that a critical mass of one’s peers provides. The actors and songwriters all need day jobs until “they make it.” And even if and when they make it, no guarantee the fickleness of celebrity will not look past them later in their career, life.
Arnold was a successful body builder, actor and politician. He had to train in a very precise and dedicated manner to become Mr. Olympia, as do all professional athletes. As for him being at one time the highest paid actor in America, or the governor of the state with the most citizensâ€¦ go figure. No university training needed for either of those positions.
A life in art is different than a career in art. Universities training actors are schizophrenic precisely on this point. How in good conscience can they train actors for a career in theater? Probably all of the students in Nashville will graduate without as much as an Equity card. Even if they had an Equity card, 80% of Actors Equity will have no income whatsoever in any given year.
Any university that claims it is training students to become “working actors” is the equivalent to a snake oil salesman. They often implicitly claim this in their advertisements soliciting students in American Theatre magazine and elsewhere by listing their “successful” alumni actors. The scam being they don’t list the 95% unsuccessful.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average income that SAG members earn from acting is less than $5,000 a year.
The Annual Study on Earnings, Employment and Membership for the 2005-2006 Season released by Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) showed the annual median earnings to be $7,040.
And at the Frequently Asked Questions page of Screen Actors Guild web site one of the questions is:
How do I become a performer?
SAG’s refreshingly candid and wise answer? “Develop another career to supplement your income.”
Faculty at university theatre training programs honestly interested in preparing their students, as well as advancing theatre, need to present obtainable goals and models where “making it” can be defined outside the fickleness of fame. The vital theatre in this country is being created and supported by those who have managed to sustain their life in theatre within a culture that most often doesnâ€™t afford you a career.