Labor Day

“It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”. ~ U.S. Dept. of Labor
 
 
What a difference a month makes! In August – out of work for four months – I wrote about my frustrations with commercial self-tape auditions. The process had become so demanding and complex, that I questioned whether or not it was worth it. If booked, would I even arrive on a safe set? Factory workers, front line workers, and (soon) many teachers (will) know the critical importance of a COVID-safe working environment. We all want to work, but at what cost? Since then, I’ve had four live commercial auditions – three remote and one in-person. I’m happy to report that two weeks ago, I shot a national commercial. #adsgounion
 
As I’ve witnessed production slowly opening up (and sometimes closing), I’ve pointed out the simple economic fact that only those who can afford it, can produce. The amount of money and time (and time is money) it takes to ensure on-set safety for all cast & crew is notable. My in-person audition had only one actor at a time in the lobby (two at most), there was no sign-in sheet (less contact), hand sanitizer was everywhere, and just one session runner in attendance who was masked & shielded the entire time. Two days before my fitting, I was given a “quick turnaround” PCR COVID-19 test (the most reliable). Currently, there are three test types.
 
The on-set experience required patience. Every crew member wore provided masks and shields at all times unless they were eating. This commercial was shot on location, so breakfast was served in a parking lot, and lunch was served on a lawn area. In L.A. we have the option of outdoor dining 99% of the time – a Hollywood luxury for sure. Personnel Zones were assigned on the call sheet, so only the bare minimum of crew was allowed indoors. Actors had to wear masks & shields until camera rolled. The masks made it difficult to hear voices, so the director used a mic. Every hour or so, the on-set COVID Safety Person stopped work to spray all hi-traffic trailers with an aerosol disinfectant that looked like a mobile fumigation kit. He also made the rounds – like a high school hall monitor – making sure we wore our masks. Trailers kept their doors open (except when I changed my clothes in wardrobe). There were only three actors in the spot, so no more than two were on set. In the afternoon, a union rep happened to pay a visit. I felt very safe.
 
This was a perfect example of how, with detailed research and adherence to protocol, work can begin. If there is the smallest of human error, however, (i.e. one person attends a crowded function the night before) it can quickly go south. National headlines report famous people who’ve contracted the virus, but news about lesser known folks is hidden in the pages of local papers. This is why we must commit to solidarity with our fellow workers by demanding on-set safety, and be willing to walk when we feel unsafe. The possibility of being out of work for a year is a small price to pay when it comes to long term neurological effects or even death.
 
As you celebrate this Labor Day, commit to solidarity with your co-workers. Share information, speak up, and take personal responsibility for strengthening your immune system. Yes, the opportunity for work is what we all want, but in order to keep working we must remember we’re all in this together.

Overworked and Unpaid

Recently, I read the article, Dear Hollywood: We Don’t Want to “Go Back to Normal.” Normal Wasn’t Working. While it was written from the perspective of a professional crew person dealing with insane hours, on-set bullying, and impossible expectations, it made me look to see how actors were affected – specifically with commercial auditions. While the author’s complaints were legitimate (thousands have agreed with him), one could say “Well, at least he was getting paid”. Actors don’t get paid for auditions, but it absolutely is work.
 
I’m not here to suggest paid auditions. I knew the deal before embarking on this career, but back in the day, we had higher earning potential. I missed the “golden era” where an actor could buy a house from one commercial. Four years ago, I did two national network commercials – a car company and an insurance company, arguably big money clients – but my combined pay was lower than the national poverty level.
 
Since Quarantine, there are fewer auditions, but commercial casting directors are accepting more and more self-tapes. The ad agencies’ audition demands have moved from the casting offices, to the actor’s home. Not only are we freely giving these ad agencies our talent in the form of auditions (also giving them new script ideas in the process), but now we’ve become unpaid session runners, location scouts, editors, and DPs. And here’s the kicker: ad agencies have yet to sign on to safety protocols recommended by our union. So even after jumping through hoops with self-tapes and editing, we’re not even guaranteed a safe set.
 
Who needs actors? More and more we’re seeing auditions requiring real families, friends or couples who are quarantined together with “no experience necessary”. I used to feel a camaraderie with actors who booked, because I knew they pounded the pavement on the regular, but now we’re seeing non-actors booking spots – not by luck, but merely because they live with a professional actor.
 
“Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards; they simply unveil them to our eyes. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or weak; and at last some crisis shows what we have become.” Brooke Foss Westcott
 
Sure, the current conditions give ad agencies a good excuse. But just like the article mentioned above, the industry is growing comfortable asking us to do more (like re-shoot auditions, record different angles, submit within 24 hours, etc.) Capitalizing on our fears, the industry expects us to ask, “How high?” whenever they tell us to jump. Home schooling will begin soon, but the demanding audition requests will continue, because they assume we have more time and that we we’re desperate and grateful for any crumb of an opportunity to work.
 
Whenever I look back to why I became an actor, I’m reminded of my truth: I’m an artist who mirrors human behavior within the human condition. It has nothing to do with television commercials. I look forward to navigating what is next with grace, and with my dignity in tact.
 
“In every crisis, doubt or confusion, take the higher path – the path of compassion, courage, understanding and love.” Amit Ray