In the Wings without a Cue: How Industrialization Upstaged America's Actors and How They Can Re-take Center Stage
The social, political, and economic forces of industrialization have transformed the actors' art, especially the relationship between the performer and the audience. When the consolidation of theatre ownership superceded the centuries old tradition of actor management, the transmutation of actors into commodities commenced. With the ascendancy of film as the dominant mode of theatrical production this transformation has accelerated until the creative interaction of living performers and audience is not merely an anomalous curiosity: it is nearly extinct. Industrialization has reduced the status of actors and their influence upon the workplace. Employment equilibrium has been distorted by the "star system" of production preferred by Hollywood: the rate of professional employment for actors is 15% on a weekly basis and 59% measured annually. Widely disparate rates of compensation where the industry-wide average annual salary is less than $10,000 while some individual performers with "clout" may earn more than $20 million per film are acceptable. In search of the widest possible market, "industrialized" performing arts purposefully lower audiences' expectations by relying upon formulaic dramatic texts and the over-use of spectacular effects. In the twenty-first century, the consequence of industrialization to the performer will be doubly dangerous and pernicious. The capitalist system of economic organization is now global and seeks to minimize national differences and regional cultural individuality in an effort to create the broadest commodity markets. Technology is on the verge of digitally creating emotionally believable cinematic performances that threaten to widen the gulf between performers and audiences to a degree that challenges the very existence of live performing art. The financial rewards of the actors' obsolescence may become too great for producers to ignore. Many involved in the performing arts consider the situation dire, yet actors, whose ignorance of the labor history of the actors' art in America has been deepened by the national prejudice against progressive unionism encouraged by the system, are generally not aware of how they came to suffer the status quo. The deteriorating economic situation of journeyman actors and moribund relationship with the audience is not accidental: it results from the business practiced by the owners of multi-national media conglomerates abetted by the stars who benefit so greatly from their dominance. This cultural study shall reveal, through general research of American theatre history, that the Depression-era Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project presents an alternative production model that provides livelihood for actors and inspiration for audiences. It shall reveal, by examining the economic scale and financial structures of the performing arts, especially movies, that there are adequate resources to find such an alternative today. It shall examine how technology threatens the deep relationship between actors and their audiences, a relationship that, for now, continues to require actors. These resources, currently concentrated in movie distributors' fees, are traditionally negotiable as profit-participation for individual talent. This study shall propose that artists in the performing arts move beyond the business craft unionism encouraged by the conglomerate owners and embrace the unifying conceptions of progressive industrial unionism. Only then will performers gain the bargaining power to unlock these resources to build a new actors' theatre by negotiating industry-wide profit participation through a consortium of industry guilds and unions.