Why Don’t Actors Think They’re Worth Minimum Wage?

I work with actors on a daily basis. Actors spend a lot of money developing their craft. Classes, coaches, workshops, and headshots are not cheap. Then when all the effort and investment pays off and an actor gets hired for an AEA showcase or an independent film, that actor is often paid less than minimum wage.

Is your skill and craft worth less than $7.25/ hr?  (the current federal minimum wage. It’s $9/hr in CA and $8.75/hr in NY) Then why are you accepting so little for your work? I’ve touched on this subject before, but now with a new AEA 99 seat contract looming in LA, the question remains. Why don’t actors think they’re worth minimum wage?


The debate over the new 99 seat contract in LA is about paying actors minimum wage for their rehearsal and performance time. Producers and actors have come out overwhelmingly AGAINST paying actors minimum wage. We want to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers, security guards, and retail employees, but when it comes to acting, even actors are against paying themselves minimum wage. That, my friends, is messed up.

The answers I most often hear are:  If I ask for more money, they’ll just go with someone else or The theatre can’t sustain itself if we pay actors minimum wage.

Let’s start with the first one. You may be right, if you ask for more money you may be passed over in favor of someone cheaper. In a relationship, if you assert your value and make it clear that you won’t date a cheater, your girlfriend may break up with you, but who wants to date a cheater? Who wants to work on a project where your skills aren’t valued? If your answer is, “I do.” That, my friends, is messed up.

I work with film students on a daily basis and somewhere along the line, they’ve been told that actors are a dime a dozen and that you don’t have to pay actors or treat them well and you’ll still get what you need from them.

Now, imagine that if in the above sentence, I replaced “film students” with “men” and “actors” with “women”. It would read:

I work with men on a daily basis and somewhere along the line, they’ve been told that women are a dime a dozen and that you don’t have to pay women or treat them well and you’ll still get what you need from them.

We’re outraged at blatant sexism but disrespect for acting doesn’t seem to ruffle any one’s feathers. We demand equal pay for women but balk at paying actors minimum wage. That, my friends, is messed up.

The second argument is that the theatre won’t survive if actors get paid minimum wage. To that I say: okay. If theatres fold because they can’t afford to pay actors a minimum wage, then so be it. They clearly have a flawed business model if they are reliant on an underpaid workforce. Wouldn’t we say the same thing about a business that paid low wages under the table to undocumented workers and then forced them to work in substandard conditions? Why do actors think they deserve to be treated this way? That, my friends, is messed up.

My hope is that by collectively asserting the value of acting, actors will actually be able to make a living from their work. Actors and non-actors: let’s talk about why this under valuing of acting talent exists and what we can do to make a lasting change.

10 thoughts on “Why Don’t Actors Think They’re Worth Minimum Wage?

  1. Tom Helmer says:

    Curious to know if you would allow your unique take on the minimum wage/99 Seat Theatre Plan debate to be shared on a couple of FB pages?

    Namely, PRO99 and the LA Theatre Network FB pages.

    I am an actor/stage manager from Philadelphia. I have great interest in the debate, I’ve served as a Councillor of AEA and chairman of the Liaison Committee in Philly.

    It’s a great take on the issue. Regards, Tom Helmer

  2. John Flynn says:

    The person who wrote this does not understand the situation you
    at all – does notunderstand what this community or how it evolved -people who do small theater are not in it to make a living they’re trying to do art – there is no living to be made in small theater – I am not sure there is a living to be made in theater at all – this is a problem and solutions have to be found but this proposal is not the proper solution – the majority of the actors who work in these theaters understand that this proposal is not about the minimum wage – It’s about an actror’s right to create.

  3. David Atkinson says:

    Dear Sir/Ms.
    Your assesment is dead right. In theory. I agree with everything you say, right up to the point of, “If theatres fold because they can’t afford to pay actors a minimum wage, then so be it.” BUT, you have left out the pertinent question – “If those theaters close, who will benefit and how?” The union also thinks that in this “market correction”, some members may forsake their union card. Who will benefit? To use your analogies, LA small theater is not fast food or security or retail. It is, for the most part, a very small, very specific thing, in a very specific place. The average Angeleno doesn’t prioritize it like they do a cheeseburger or their security or a pair of jeans. If we see ourselves like McDonald’s or Target, we are self aggrandizing to the point of foolishness. I would vote for these proposals in a second if we lived in a theoretical world, but alas, I do not see the practical gain and I don’t want to kill a beautiful “real thing” in order to gain a theoretical victory. I think the better analogy is this one – in theory, if we cease the welfare programs, the poor will be forced to go out and get a job, which will be good for them and for the whole country. After all, why should anyone get something for nothing?
    Sincerely and with respect.

  4. Destiny Lilly says:

    Thanks for the comments. I am more than happy to have people share what I’ve written and people can feel free to comment on it.

    Acting is a job like any other, and actors should be paid for their work.

  5. Michael Alfera says:

    Hmm. I think the argument is more nuanced than this author presents it to be. The core of the problem is, in fact, that 99-seat theater organizations in Los Angeles simply do not have enough money to pay actors what they deserve. (As the director of a 501c3 nonprofit, I am painfully aware of how difficult raising funds for arts organizations is.) The author glosses over this point with two dismissive statements:

    (1) If a few theaters fold, so what? and (2) You don’t have a good business model if you can’t pay your actors what they deserve.

    Point (1) is frustrating because it’s exactly the thing that those arguing against raising actor pay are trying to prevent. These naysayers understand the realities of LA theater budgets and would rather do theater on a dime than not do it at all.

    Point (2) is frustrating because, well…performing arts have never been a good business model, pretty much ever.. That’s because the performing arts aren’t a business. They don’t exist to generate profit. Why do you think Beethoven’s piano sheet music has the name of a rich old lady from the 1700 printed in italics over the title? Because writing sonatas is not a good business model by its very nature, and you need people willing to fund you and your work if you’re going to be able to continue to make it your work.

    This is the crux of the problem. In Los Angeles, the money to support the work isn’t there. Or, if it is there, there’s just not enough of it. There are too many talented actors and producers doing great work in this city for the money that’s available to support all of it. And as long as that’s the case, I will continue to side with actors who love the craft so much that they would rather work for very little than not work at all.

  6. Rick says:

    As a NY based actor, it drives me crazy when I’m told that I just don’t understand the LA theatre community when discussing this plan.

    I sympathize with LA actors and theatre companies who are just trying to make art. Who likes to be told that doing something you love is about to be much more cumbersome? No one.

    That being said, Actors’ Equity is a union that needs revenue to collectively bargain on behalf of all its members. It receives NONE from maintaining the 99 Seat Theatre Plan. That means that a portion of my dues, which should be used towards achieving gains and maintaining actual contract work, are being used to maintain a plan that has ZERO fiscal benefit for my union. For this reason alone, change is necessary and I feel it my place to offer an opinion from the East coast.

    One reason I believe there is so much backlash from LA based actors is because many actors are also functioning as producers. I think that’s great. Who doesn’t want to create opportunities for themselves and their friends? The problem is that AEA doesn’t care about actors’ producing endeavors, nor should they. Producers are the very people we have charged our union with negotiating against. These producing AEA members should be pissed, our union is going to make it a hell of a lot harder for them to make their art. Nonetheless, one of AEA’s jobs is to protect all of its members, sometimes from themselves.

    When a union laborer “works” for free in a setting that is deemed professional, they devalue the work of everyone else in their union. This seems pretty obvious to me. I can just hear producers saying “Why would I produce my show in Chicago when I can get union LA talent for free?” If you don’t think this is used during decision making, you’re disillusioned.

    Similarly, when a union LA actor “works” a 99 Seat Theatre gig for free, it hurts all of us. I know that they have the very best intentions of making art. Unfortunately, when talking business, we must leave our unwavering passion for art out of the equation. This is a business. That’s why we joined AEA in the first place, to make sure we got paid and were safe at work. An arena that uses union talent and claims to be professional is never a place for volunteer work. Change is necessary.

    Will theatre companies replace AEA talent with non-union talent? Yes, but it’s not a bad thing. There seems to be a misconception that non-union performers are not as talented as AEA performers. This is simply untrue. Our union’s “power” comes from collective talent, but not all talent belongs to AEA.

    Will some theatre companies close? Probably, but also not a bad thing. I truly believe that LA can support multiple mid-level union houses, but not in the current environment where numerous tiny companies dilute the market and for better or worse, prevent most companies from graduating to utilize union contracts. Remember, looking through AEA’s lens, a couple companies offering several union contracts per show at the expense of a handful of companies that cannot afford AEA talent is a win.

    I have serious concerns about a faction of membership demanding that their union allow them to “work” for free the year that we renegotiate the production contract. We must present a unified front to the League in order to achieve gains in this most important negotiation. The production contract subsidizes the health fund for many members that work regionally across our country. This, while a unique issue to LA, has national implications.

    There are several other issues I have not addressed but should be continued to be discussed and I’d be happy to offer my point of view should it be prudent.

  7. John T says:

    Acting isn’t just like any other job. You aren’t a teacher or a construction worker or a police office or a Wal-Mart employee. Acting is most frequently a passion that becomes a vocation/hobby and SOMETIMES becomes a career. No one complains about community theatres not paying their actors in small towns. Because it is art, it is for the socializing and the community, it is for the fun and the creative expression, etc. It’s only in cities like Los Angeles and New York where these convesations happen as if controversial. Everywhere else in the U.S. there may be professional (some of it union) and non-professional theatre, but in Pittsburgh and Miami and Philadelphia and San Francisco, this is not some dark secret issue. There is no “right to act in a play and be paid a fair wage” in any government documents. Some people get paid to do it. Other theatres are “intramural” and for fun and art only.

    It’s like suggesting that someone who paints must be paid minimum wage to paint or plays the violin must be paid a minimum wage for that — which isn’t true at all. When is that true? If the painter is painting for a for-profit advertising firm, shows up to an office, to create advertisements for Budweiser or Whole Foods. Then they get paid a fair wage, as they should. Or if they become revered enough to have a gatekeeper at a gallery let them in and then sell their art. But only if there are buyers willing t pay for it. There’s no right to money for an artist. If the violinist plays for a major world symphony or plays on the record of a top-50 artist. Then they get paid a fair wage, as they should. But they don’t get it for rehearsing or laying in church on Sundays.

    If someone is a professional actor working on a for-profit film or television series or at a theatre that sells tickets for more than the production costs and is considered to be a for-profit enterprise or a high-end non-profit enterprise? Then they get paid. A fair wage for work done. Often a huge crazy wage for work done because they often only work for a short amount of time and are paid a lot. But they don’t get paid for going on auditions. And they don’t get paid to do monologues in their room.

    The assessment is right — if someone can’t pay their bills by working as an actor, or pay their bills in some other way (working another job, fmily help, inheriting money, or finding a patron who will support them, etc) — then they will generally try it for awhile and then matriculate to some other career or job. That’s how it works. The system works. Consider this — if you were a plumber or a mathematician — and you spent YEARS looking for and applying for jobs, but the only work you were offered were clubs you had to pay to join or internships, or what amounted to more job interviews, or more likely, no work at all? Everyone would say you were crazy to keep trying to be a mathematician or a plumber. But for some reason, actors and artists believe they should keep the dream alive. They’ve been told to “never give up on their dreams”. And to add to it — now the idea is that they should be paid to delusionally chase their dreams that aren’t paying out. It’s crazy. And lazy. And deluded thinking.

    And just because these small theatres in LA (and elsewhere) can’t survive if they pay actors more than the union contracts allow, doesn’t mean they should be wiped out as if they were ever intended to be for-profit businesses and places of gainful employment for people. Acting at a 99 seat house in LA — is a lot of things: it is for exposure, it is for fun, it is for expression, it is to champion new creative voices in playwrights/directors/actors/designers/producers, etc. But it isn’t realistic for that to be a place where you can earn a living. And never has been. It isn’t a long-term plan, except as art and recreation.

    So in the easiest calculation ever done —

    1. Is L.A. better with or without more art and theater being created? I’d argue better with.

    2. Is anyone forced to take the job of being an actor? No.

    3. Do those union contracts that allow for the 99 seats / Showcase contracts exist because they are trying to avoid paying minimum wage in a nefarious scheme to undervalue the work of actors? Clealy not.

    4. Do those contracts exist for the sole reason of NOT wanting to prevent union member actors from advancing their career by prohibiting them from participating in what amounts to high-end community theatre? Yes. They were developed to allow for a loophole so as not to hold back actors careers. NOT to encourage abusing them. And they also enforce other safe working conditions practices that are beneficial.

    5. Is it better for many actors both creatively and professionally to do those productions when being paid very little under union contracts that are basically a permission slip to do non-professional theatre so as to not stifle their careers or desires to act and improve their acting abilities? Certainly hard to argue that it does more harm than good. But again, decisions that each individual can make on a case by case basis.

  8. L. Dakin says:

    Hello, I’m on honorary withdrawal from AEA, but back when I was working in theater – I found the smaller regional theaters that had AEA Guest Contracts always went for the male roles. Meaning, if the show had the option to have 3-4 actors who were AEA, those slots were always slated for men, mostly male dancers or other hard to find types. As a female dancer/singer who looked youngish, my roles were always cast with local Non-Union talent. If the LA 99 seat theater contract changes to Guest Contracts – I suspect we’ll have a similar issue. Women will be cast from mostly Non-Union actresses, and the AEA contracts will go to Male Union Actors, especially if special skills are needed. (fabulous singer or dancer, etc.)

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