For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post. Today’s theme is, “Enough is enough.” Whatever that means to you, feel free to comment, link your blog, or repost online with any stories of your own. Thanks for reading!
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
If you want to get under my skin, complain to me about free food. This has been an issue around me lately. There are very few things that cause me to openly lash out against negativity. But after years of wondering if my bank account would bottom out at the grocery store (thank heavens those days are behind us), free food, either from a job or otherwise, is no reason to complain.
But recently, I’ve been getting particularly infuriated by this type of griping—and in the process, I’ve realized something. My aversion to complaints has a lot to do with being an actor. In the theatre world, there are plenty of factors fighting against you—lack of work, unsteady paychecks, too many people in one market. And so it’s necessary manages what is in your control—the amount of work you put into your materials, your marketing efforts, and above all—your attitude. A bad outlook or crotchety attitude is a sure way to ruin your chances in the theatre world—there simple isn’t time for it. And so I’m always shocked when this isn’t the case in other industries. In a way, it’s a form of privilege. You can afford to complain about your job, to not look at the bright side. In theatre, you find a way, usually with the help of all the other emotionally in-tune artists around you, to work through your frustration in a healthy, constructive way—or with a lot of wine. You know, healthy alternatives. Either way, you don’t complain at work.
Anyway, this ties into a story, I promise. From about 2011-2014, working as a background actor in NYC film and television was a decent source of income. I wrote a post on xoJane recently about why I left the gig, and it was surprisingly not attacked by the site’s typical commenters. So, hey! Look at that!
One of the final jobs I booked before I was able to join the film or TV union (at the time, SAG and AFTRA were still separate) was on a show that often filmed out in Long Island. So here’s where the earlier “don’t complain” thing kicks in—even writing this post makes me afraid that I will somehow burn a bridge. My xoJane article brought me so much anxiety that I considered asking to use an alias. On the other hand, the purpose of my story is to question, ‘Where do you draw the line?’ When are things broken enough that you do speak up? Nevertheless, it seems unfair to name the show I worked on that night. Let’s just say that working on it caused…Discomfort of Regal Proportions.
Non-union background at the time made $85 for 10 hours. After 10 hours, there was a small amount of overtime, but significantly disproportioned to the union members. A long union overnight can net you around $350. Joining the union is only a choice after a certain amount of work, or a certain type of work that waivers you through the process. This creates tension between the two groups. Yes, union members are paying dues to acquire the better pay rate, but many of the nonunion members would love to even have the right to pay those dues. It’s a tricky balance.
Booking one of these gigs fulfilled one of the five slots each week I need to make my desired amount of money (by desired I mean so I could pay my bills.) Although this was an overnight shoot and outdoors—the two dreaded descriptions—I needed the money, and figured I could keep a calm head after several years of these shoots.
It was mid-October, shooting for warm weather—translation: be prepared to be outside in shorts even if it’s cold. Casting is clear that you must be okay with this before getting into it. If you put your name in the hat and are chosen, keep your gripin’ to yourself.
The evening began as well as it could have, a huge crowd boarded a bus in Manhattan and we drove off the Long Island with our several options of “Hamptons-style wardrobe.” The irony of this business is that you are often requested to supply “Upscale clothing options” when you are paid minimum wage. I expected to get yelled at by the wardrobe team when my Forever 21 options weren’t up to snub, but they’d usual throw a fancy cardigan on me and everything would be fine.
A large tent held the nearly 300 people, all waiting for the night scene to come later that evening. As dinner was served and the sun began to set, rumors started spreading about the night coming to end before we were even used. Dreams of returning to our beds at a reasonable hour danced before our eyes, and so I kept a cool head about my phone battery slowly dying and my body feeling less than stellar.
It turns out that rumors are dangerous things in crowds, film set or not. With each minute that passed, the “angry” section of the BG actors became more and more petulant, making the rest of us look bad. Patience and a little respect goes a long way whenever everyone has had a long day. Groups in the tent begin to separate and solidify—and as usual, the people that complain about free food go one way, and the ones that know better, go the other.
By the time we are all called to set, at this point around 10pm, the Production Assistants are tense and tired of the whining. Before heading over, I ask if we can use one of the five completely open power strips to charge our phone (so we can keep our family and roommates in the know about what happened to us). No, get to set, leave your phone with your stuff. A friend of mine asks if we can wear sweaters in case we’re waiting for a while. No, there won’t be anywhere to store it. Get to set. I take a deep breath and head out with the rest of the lemmings.
Since we are right on the water, and it’s approaching 11pm, it is—to say the least—brisk. I am in shorts and a thin tank top. We dance it out to stay warm and wait for our spots. A tired, sarcastic AD addresses the crowd, “You all get to see a performance this evening—of [insert Shakespeare play], performed by Broadway star [insert actress’ name], isn’t that great?” Talking to background actors is always such a joy, I’m sure. I don’t want to totally throw anyone under the bus, hence the vague details.
We are herded onto metal bleachers and given a brief explanation of how the night will go. Since the show is basically recreating a large outdoor production, it will take some time. We are asked to stay awake, look interested, and occasionally clap. I glance back at the cameras and see several of the principals wearing large winter coats in between shots, so I know I’m not making up this whole cold weather thing. Still, remember, if you complain, you risk not getting hired again, so a lot of us hold our tongue.
A few takes are completed and with each call of the word, “Cut!” we huddle together like kittens to keep warm. When we roll again, we separate, sit up straight and attentively smile toward the fake production.
I start to wonder how much time has passed and when we’ll have a short break to use the bathrooms or get some water. I feel like a enough has gone by that a quick jaunt back to the tent wouldn’t be a wild request. Apparently I’m not the first one who asked. I head back to the PA, tell them I’m running quickly to the bathroom and am instantly chastised for getting out of my seat. I’m shocked for a moment. “I just have to go to the bathroom,” I tentatively say.
“Were you told you could get out of your seat?” She snaps. Confused, I head back to my chair and tell the rest of the group that bathroom/water was a no-go. Then, a group announcement is made. “No one is going back to the tent for any reason until the shot is done, do not ask again.”
Another hour passes and people are getting desperate. A few people walk past the PA’s to the bathrooms, demanding access to their phones and basic human needs. I have to remind you that all but 25 of this massive group is non-union. Union members do have breaks, water accessibility, and are now receiving mass amounts of overtime and overnight fees. One nonunion BG actor from my area is told that if they leave set without permission, they can find their own way back to New York City. Things are not going well.
Nearing 2am, that magical hour of loopiness is upon us. In between shots, a man next to me begins to hum “Do you hear the people sing” under his breath. A few other people join in, and giggles and Les Mis take over the audience. A revolt is brewing.
And then it hits me—unbelievable nausea. Every now and then, when I spend too much time out in the cold, my body becomes so tense that it starts take a nose dive. Also, to be fair, we haven’t eaten or had water in three hours. But the nausea is my breaking point. My teeth and chattering and I feel like my eyes are trying to burn their way out of my eyelids. I battle with myself for nearly a half hour and then decide: enough is enough, it’s time to be a complainer.
I hobble off the bleachers, head up to our prison guard and say, “I’m going to be sick, move out of my way, I’m going back to the tent.” Panic fills her face and she moves. As I’m heading back to the tent, another PA catches up with me and says I should sit in the sound trailer. They clear a small spot for me near a heater and I sit and try to stop shivering as the nausea subsides. As I sit there, LIVING THE ACTING DREAM, I make a decision. This work is making me hate, HATE, the work that I grew up loving. I have no one to complain to because I’m not in a union, complaining will only be met with, “Then get out of the business.” But this is ridiculous. I’m without basic human necessities, and so are nearly 300 people outside. How is this worth $100?!
A sound begins to grow outside and I realize, by some miracle, the shoot is over and we are being sent home. A PA pops his head in and says I have to move now, we’re going home. I slowly get dressed, go through the sign out process, and head to a bus. My phone is dead.
Finally, in disbelief, I am sitting on a warm coach bus, getting ready to close my eyes, when we hear, “Raise your hand if you’re union.” About 12 people raise their hands. “Everyone else—off!” You see, my friends, union is paid a lot of money once they hit a certain amount of time on set, it’s called Golden Hour. They are getting very close to hitting this, which would cause the production to lose a lot of dough. So in order to get the union group back to the city, it is for some reason more efficient to kick everyone else off the nearly empty bus and make us wait another 45 minutes in the cold night before another bus arrives. First class heads off on the first life boat.
When we make it back to Grand Central in Manhattan, around 4am at this point, several actors have to wait on the curb of 42nd street because the Metro North section of the station is locked. I thank my lucky stars that the night is over and that I still live in Queens. I get on a subway, head back home, and never do background work again until I am able to join the union.
And so, although this terrible night was a not a common experience, it was enough. But the purpose here is that there are times when your complaints are worth making, when it’s worth speaking up, and when it’s time to recognize the difference between a health issue and a simple inconvenience. Sub-par free food does not fall into this category, life-threatening disrespect does. So if you ever happen to be watching an episode of a show with an outdoor Shakespeare performance, keep the audience in your thoughts, and see if you can spot the revolt beginning to grow.