Morgan Faulkner earned her Equity card about six months ago, a status symbol among actors, a level of acceptance for professionalism in her industry. Since then she’s not found any work. (Well, she’s a waitress.)
Eight years ago, I directed Morgan at UNM in Once Upon a Mattress. She went on to earn her BFA in Musical Theater from Penn State and has been living in New York City for about a year. That Equity card may be part of her problem.
Getting an Equity card means you have benefits with any acting jobs you get. It means you are protected from having to travel in a cramped bus for more than ten hours in a day, six if you have to perform, too. Actors’ Equity Association represents American actors and stage managers and helps them earn a measure of security. More and more companies are hiring only non-Equity actors, sending them out on the road instead.
Union actors are more expensive, in part because the producers have to chip in to cover benefits. They have to work harder to figure out the route their show's tour will take because of those pesky length-of-travel restrictions. It’s just easier if you can treat your performers, well, less humanely.
Actors have Actors’ Equity; musicians have the American Federation of Musicians. As with actors, union membership makes musicians more expensive.
The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra just announced that it’s closing its doors, no longer able to pay its musicians. Those musicians, in seeking more security for themselves, became a bigger and bigger financial liability for the organization that provided them jobs.
Certainly musicians’ pay was only a part of the balance sheet that was out of balance for the symphony. Donations have been down since the economy tanked, ticket sales for classical music are ever harder to peddle while marketing costs continue to climb, and on and on.
Artists and arts organizations both have difficulties finding any measure of equilibrium in a free-market system. When a private company seeks to cut expenses to save itself money, an easy target is personnel, one of the two biggest slices of any budget pie chart. For arts organizations, it’s always the biggest. But if you cut the personnel budget, you cut artists who make the product and, without them, there is no product.
I do believe that art, the result of one’s passions, can be diminished if the artist is too comfortable; great art often emerges against impossible odds. I also believe, though, that we lose artists and arts organizations when they are given no security whatsoever.
Wednesday night, I was returning from a trip to New York, where I had caught up with Morgan and her job woes. While in the Dallas airport, I saw a man wearing an Ohio State jacket. I knew his apparel signaled his support for one of the sports teams from that university, rather than the university itself. Just for a moment, I imagined that his jacket championed the Ohio State dance department, or the marching band, maybe. My flight of fancy conjured up a world where the cooperative, nourishing world of the arts was not subject to the ferocities of markets, that we could provide a measure of comfort to the artists who give us so much.
Then I landed back in Albuquerque and read that the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra had closed its doors.
Terry S. Davis