Pay to Play?

A Question from an NYC actor:

My question is about these “pay-to-play” deals that have sprung up all over the city, where actors pay a fee to get a few minutes with a casting director or talent agent. This fee is split between the CD or agent and the person(s) who set up the meeting. The situation seems to be enormously profitable for those parties, but I have serious doubts about how profitable it might be for the actors, who, ironically, are already the poorest people in the room.

Part One: do you think the typical “pay-to-play” deal is a worthwhile investment for an actor?

Part Two: do you agree with me that this kind of arrangement is unethical and exploitative? After all, in almost any other business, this situation would be known as a conflict of interest, and in some businesses it would even be illegal. What’s your view?

Wow, a difficult and complex question.  This isn’t the first time an actor has approached me with a similar question.  Here’s my take.  This is my opinion not just for the thoughtful actor who asked me this question, but for all actors looking to get further exposure.  I’d like to point out that we’re not talking about situations where actors are asked to pay in order to be cast in a film or theatre production; we’re talking about classes/ workshops/ lectures/ meet & greets where actors pay a fee in order to take part in a session(s) taught by a casting director or talent agent.

First, I’ll start with some of the assumptions you’ve made.  I have no idea how profitable these classes are for the organizers.  I do know that many actors I’ve talked to have found them profitable for their careers, but I also know many actors who have found them a waste of money.  However, it is incorrect to assume that the actors are always the poorest people in the room.  I know many actors who make a considerable amount of money working in their field who also attend these workshops.  I also know actors who are independently wealthy or who have parents or spouses who support them.   It’s an incorrect assumption to think that agents and casting directors are rich fat cats exploiting poor actors.  Agents and CDs are hard working people who work to support actors and producers.  Now, let’s address the questions you raise.
Firstly, I do not think that workshops where actors pay to meet casting directors and agents are unethical.  Why? Because an actor can learn a lot from an industry professional in a class room situation.  This is not a situation where an actor is paying for an audition; it’s an opportunity to learn from an expert.  If the session you’re signing up for is a paid audition for a specific project, then that sounds illegitimate to me.  However, a class where you can learn specific auditioning and acting techniques can be very helpful for actors.

Also, actors can choose to attend or not attend a workshop, no one is forcing anyone to choose that path; they can send mailings and invite CDs and agents to their shows.  There are many other ways for an actor to meet a CD or agent that don’t involve taking a paid class.  It is an actor’s responsibility to research a situation before choosing to spend his money on a class.  Every institution that holds classes is different, so call up to get more information about exactly what will be taught in the class.  If it’s just a meet and greet, find out exactly who will be in the room and what type of projects they cast.  Also, ask your friends who have taken these classes if they felt like it was a worthwhile experience.  Then, you can look at your budget and where you are in your career and decide if a particular workshop is right for you.

Secondly, there are many other industries that have similar set ups where entrepreneurs and those looking to get a leg up in their careers pay an established industry professional to impart wisdom about their industry.  Their are trade shows, lectures, classes, and workshops in almost every industry.   In the recent past, there have been issues with “pay to play” workshops, mostly in California where the events were advertised as classes but were really just lectures or meet and greets.  The issue here is about truth in advertising, so as I said before, do your research so you know exactly what you’ll be getting.  Paying for an opportunity to audition for or take part in a particular project is unethical, but to my knowledge, that is not the situation at the institutions in NYC.

It’s important not to forget that this is a business where money exchanges hands constantly, and it’s your responsibility as an actor to decide how to best spend your money.  I am not only a casting director, but I’m also a theater director, a teacher, and a consultant.  I offer free monthly workshops where actors can bring in a monologue and receive feedback on their work.  I also provide one-on-one audition preparation sessions for a reasonable fee because I like to work with actors and I have valuable knowledge and skills to share.  There are myriad ways for actors to get more exposure and more access, it’s just about finding the platform that works best for you.  I’d love to hear comments from people on all sides of this issue.  What are your experiences and what do you think?

2 thoughts on “Pay to Play?

  1. Minime says:

    Hi Destiny,
    Thank you so much for your comments. You are right about the fact that other industries do the same thing. That’s what the Learning Annex is for! Donald Trump and that Rich Dad Poor Dad guy make a killing doing such workshops.

    I think a lot of actors are disheartened by the process because we’re hungry and want to get results for our hard-earned money, quit our temp jobs, and make money doing what we love.

    I think like anything else in life it’s a matter of balance. Do these workshops as many times as your budget will allow, but focus on working. Work begets work. I got an agent through one of these workshops. And you never know when the perfect role for you will come up and the casting person holding the workshop remembers you.

    Speaking of which, keeping in touch, appropriately, is a big part of it also. It not only reminds a CD of who you are but shows that you can book work.

    But the bottom line, in my experience, is that when you’re working they find you. After my first commercial CDs and agents whom I mailed to in the past started calling.

  2. Destiny Lilly says:

    Thanks Minime,

    People I’ve talked to have had vastly different experiences: some positive, some not so much. It’s important to do your research. I’m glad to hear that a workshop has worked for you.


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