In Defense of Artistic Work
“Sit in a full theater, and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, while the actor is the center. He doth not strive to make nature monstrous; she is often seen in the same scene with him … By his action he fortifies moral precepts with example; for what we see him personate, we think truly done before us: a man of a deep thought might apprehend, the ghosts of our ancient heroes walk’t again, and take him (at several times) for many of them … He adds grace to the poet’s labors: for what in the poet is but ditty, in him is both ditty and music. He entertains us in the best leisure of our life, that is between meals, the most unfit time, either for study or bodily exercise … All men have been of his occupation: and indeed, what he doth feignedly, that do others essentially: this day one plays a monarch, the next a private person. Here one acts a tyrant, on the morrow an exile; a parasite this man to night, tomorrow a precisian, and so of divers others. I observe, of all men living, a worthy actor in one kind is the strongest motive of affection that can be: for when he dies, we cannot be persuaded any man can do his parts like him.”
Ever since the birth of early capitalism in pre-Industrial Revolution England, the growth of commerce and market relations brought with it “a corresponding degradation and exploitation of workers.” This downward pressure on artisans and tradespeople also affected actors and playwrights, and led to mockery of them as vagabonds and rogues; men who ought to find more honest labor. While a precious few were able to make a sizable salary and have equity in companies, most worked for substandard wages and relied on other employment as well.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, know what I mean?
The myth remains, and too many of us internalize it, that what we do is not work. It is a frivolity. It’s not a sustainable profession. It’s dress-up and make-believe. We entertain in something called a “play.” We put on costumes and strut about say things other people write for us. George Clooney shrugs it off, contrasting the profession to “real work” like door-to-door insurance sales; Katherine Hepburn remarked that “Acting is the perfect idiot’s profession.”
Why the endurance of this derisive reductivism? Some myths endure.
1) There isn’t the production of something tangible.
We are not building a bridge or working on an assembly line or digging a ditch. Our hands are not dirty after a day at the office. We are not on our feet for eight hours a day. We do not construct a real, an animate thing — even a book — and therefore, our labor can be devalued.
True, we do not cook food for people to eat. We do not forge steel or mix asphalt for use in infrastructure. We do not create edifices or transport. We do not mend broken bones, we do not teach a child to spell, we do not make high-temperature superconductors.
We also do not create purposefully opaque financial instruments that short circuit the economy for no better reason than increasing a small handful of idle wealth piles.
What we do create are stories and ideas. What we do create are experiences and escapes for people eager to enter them, and while there, think. What we do create, in the best of it, are narratives that examine nature, investigate society, show the depths of humanity, and teach us how to live.
If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, storytelling cannot be far behind. As long as we’ve craved food, sleep, shelter, and sex, we’ve craved stories and songs as well. Do not for a minute think that the work behind the creation of that is any less than the work behind any of the others. A different kind of skillset? Undoubtedly. One that requires different muscles than many people use in their own day-to-day lives. But the intellect is repurposed for it; the muscles are repurposed to repeat a physical activity, the brain hardwired to commit words to memory and deliver them afresh seven or eight times a week, for them to be new and honest each time. For this, Mark Rylance noted a negative, “Memorizing the lines is easy; forgetting them is the hard part.”
Just because the work does not demand the skillset of data entry, of fitting joints together, of fixing a leak, of arguing a criminal case, of filing a tax return does not make it non-work. Write down the constraints for which occupations would be defined as ‘labor’ and we’d have a fairly narrow job market, especially as we reach a new age of automation. After all, oxen and machines replaced men in the fields; did the labor those men did before not count as work?
We’re not standing on our feet all day, we don’t sweat, we don’t arrive home covered in grime? If you believe this, then you’ve never seen a production of True West. Or the dressing rooms of a company doing Henry IV, Part One during a five-show weekend.
Anyway, I can think of many professionals who neither give blood, sweat, nor tears, nor come home dirty from an honest day’s work, nor produce something tangible. Consultants, for example. Chief Technology Officers. Chauffeurs.
2) It is entertainment. Entertainment is not work.
Is acting entertainment? Why, yes. But do we doubt that entertainers of other ilks train and work hard? Those who aver that acting is not a job will believe that international opera singers roll out of bed, gargle some mouthwash, and sing a little ditty; or that baseball players are rewarded with fortunes to play a simple game.
Yet what is a game to some people is hard work to those that make it look as such. I do not, nor should you, begrudge the hundreds of millions of dollars that Derek Jeter made over his career. He had been working at his craft tirelessly and unendingly since he was a pre-teen. He played a game that delighted millions, but do not think for a minute that it was not work for him to field thousands of groundballs or take thousands of hours of batting practice. Audiences paid to see him perform for their pleasure. He competed and he sweat to win and make every play. The market could afford to pay him a sizable fortune over his career, and he earned every single penny of that.
So too do thousands of actors work tirelessly to perfect their craft. Like professional athletes, many of us start performing in high school; many of us go to institutions with specialized programs or pursue advanced training, even getting Masters degrees to better our talent. We sign with agents, we work in various arenas and cities; we learn the dimensions of our fields and warm up long before the public arrives; we are superstitious, too. And even while we perform, we obsess over details and seek to better the outcome.
Acting is a verbal pursuit to some — reliant on words and communication.
It is an instinctual and visceral one to others — we depend on our heart and guts to act and react. It is a physical one, an intellectual one, and an emotional one. It is a profession that uses many different facets of the body and soul, and one that we do not so easily leave behind.
3) But I could do that.
No, you couldn’t. Jackson Pollack was not the first, but certainly the most famous artist to have his work scoffed at because “anybody could do that.” If anybody could do that, why didn’t they?
We do not haphazardly throw paint on a canvas. (Nor did Pollack, for what it’s worth.) The richest performances are those in which over the course of two and a half hours, you are utterly convinced that the person — whom you know to be an actor, because you’re reading what else she’s done in the playbill in your lap — is living out the very thing staged in front of you.
Those who dismiss acting as a simple pursuit that anyone could do are, again, forgetting the actual skills involved. It is not labor? It is labor. We study character and setting and lifestyle; we figure out intention and inner lives and perform in-depth character analysis. We memorize our lines (a ‘skill’ that continually baffles our older aunts and uncles.) We rehearse and re-rehearse and re-re-rehearse to make moments true and authentic, and continually try to perfect our stories. We dissect work in a scene to make a story more true; we problem solve; we work the muscles in our voice to sing, enunciate, and resonate; we work the muscles in our legs to dance, and move, and jump. We rarely take sick days; often if we miss a day of work, hundreds of people will have plans scuttled.
We receive applause at the end of our day of work, but we also fervently believe that teachers, firefighters, sanitation workers, and miners all deserve applause at day’s end as well. We love what we do, but so do many actuaries and lawyers. Our passion for our occupation ought not minimize the fact that it is, indeed, work. Put another way, a labor of love is still labor.
Or perhaps ‘opera singer’ and ‘ballet dancer’ constitute work because you can see the advanced skill. “Actor” is not because, as any inebriated yahoo at a Christmas party will tell you, “Yeah bro, I was in a play in high school.” People have done it, and reduce it, because in their minds, if they (and O.J. Simpson) can do it, it is not a specialized skill.
I ran a lemonade stand when I was six years old. That does not allow me to equate my business acumen with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. I built a clock in fourth grade shop class. I am not Elon Musk. I conducted a two-month fruit fly study in eleventh grade. I do not drunkenly roll up to entomologists and say “Yeah, I could do that. You get paid for that?”
Ours is a skillset that they do not understand and don’t care to, because its subtlety comes in its ease and imitation of self.
4) Actors do not contribute to the national economy.
Oh, humbug. Consider that in 2013, “Arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy, or 4.23 percent of GDP. Arts and culture produced more than some other sectors, such as construction ($619B) and utilities ($270B).”
Indeed. Theaters contributed $7.1 billion to GDP in 2013. Non-profit theater companies contributed $2.8 billion in GDP in 2013.”
Consider retail shops, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses frequented and relied upon by those attending performances; consider lumber, fabrics, optics, and other goods used for designing and building the materials used in productions.
The National Governors’ Association’s report Arts & the Economy leads off by acknowledging that the creative industries “create jobs, attract investments, generate tax revenues, and stimulate local economies through tourism and consumer purchases. These industries also provide an array of other benefits, such as infusing other industries with creative insight for their products and services and preparing workers to participate in the contemporary workforce. In addition, because they enhance quality of life, the arts and culture are an important complement to community development, enriching local amenities and attracting young professionals to an area.”
Theaters — and their actors, the integral factor of their productions — do all of these. Our labor is seen by millions. In fact, from spring 2015 to spring 2016, more than 47 million people had attended a live theater event in the United States. During that time, attendance at nonprofit professional theaters was over 36 million.
When we put aside the notion that our work is play and nothing more; when we confront and destroy the attitude that what we do is replaceable or frivolous, then may we begin to stand up and ask for a fair wage. For our work is real; it engages the mind, body, and soul; it is demanding, necessary, and skilled; it is unique, it is proud, it is of vast import to local economies. What you see us personate, if you think truly done before you, then: Our work is work.
 Matthew Kendrick. At Work in the Early Modern English Theater: Valuing Labor. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. 2015.