Actor Ethics: Welcome to Colombia!

Yes, Sarah Bernhardt was probably unethical too. Actors!

I just blacklisted an actor, at least as far as my theater company is concerned, and I feel badly about it, because I don’t like banishing artists even when they deserve it. This individual did deserve it, however.

I held auditions a couple of months ago for a very difficult and complex production requiring special talents and a large cast. The turn-out was excellent, and the quality of talent was superb, with the actors obviously excited about the project. Since the script needs to be tailored to individual performers, the fear of an actor dropping out after being cast was especially strong (the maxim in the theater community is “cast early, cast often…”), so I took the unusual step of asking every auditioner who had a good chance of being cast to be honest about their commitment to the show. “If you want to be considered for this project,” I said, “I need to have your assurance that you are serious about it and will not tell me, after we have decided to cast you, that you have changed your mind. The show is like a big jigsaw puzzle, and casting you will affect whether we cast other actors, not just in your role but in roles that interact with yours. And I definitely do not want to cast someone who is going to turn around in a week or a month and say, ‘Sorry, I got a better offer.’ This is a commitment, and if we are committing to you, I need to know that you are committing to us.”

When the offers went out, a few actors nonetheless refused. One had just learned that she needed to seek more lucrative employment because her husband had been laid off; another had union problems. Over the next several months, there was another major loss, as an actress whom I had cast even before auditions—right before the delivery of her first child—told me that parenthood was more involving in reality than she had predicted when she committed to jumping into a major role so soon. I had thought this might happen, and, frankly, now felt that she was making the right decision.  I told her: “As a director, I was happy to let you be irresponsible for the benefit of my show, but as a parent, I’m glad your priorities are straight.”

The other day, however, one of the actors who had gladly accepted a role sent our producer a terse e-mail saying:

“Unfortunately, I can no longer do the show.  Thank you so much for all your help with everything; I’m very sorry for the inconvenience.”

Oh no, you don’t. I wrote back this:

“I just heard the disappointing news that you would not be able to be in the production. Given that this is several months after casting and that many qualified actors were told that they could not be cast (and have, in many cases found other shows), and that some work had been done already to make the part in the script tailored to what you could bring to it, this is both a hardship and an unpleasant surprise. You may recall that I was very specific at auditions about considering your audition on the condition of a good faith commitment to do the show if cast, and you assured me that this was the case. Given all of this, a flat ‘I can no longer be in the show’ is inadequate. I would like to have the courtesy of an explanation, which I assume will consist of events beyond your control, in which case I completely understand.”

The fact is that the act of accepting a role affects many people. Actors are told that they have not been cast, and make other plans. As time goes by, the options for casting diminish exponentially: most of the best actors, though not all, are engaged well before rehearsals start. If someone has an unanticipated life-changing event  that makes doing the show a hardship or impossible, I am understanding. But if I have been sandbagged, exploited, or lied to, I want to be told.

The actor’s answer really annoyed me:

“I understand your disappointment — but these things happen in our industry.  Actors back out all the time — sometimes the day before opening, with a contract.  If you had mentioned something about a “good faith commitment” during the auditions (and I’m not arguing that you didn’t), I don’t remember it.  I audition a lot, and I can’t be expected to remember everything that’s said in each audition. I figured the best thing for me was to back out now without having signed any binding contract, and with 4 months notice.  Had I signed a contract with  that would be a different story. Again, I apologize for any inconvenience.”

Well, let’s see:

  1. Of course the actor understands my disappointment; I’ve been screwed over. But thanks for the acknowledgment of my distress.
  2. Rationalization #1: “Everybody does it.” That ain’t going to work with this director. Yes, I know actors back out “all the time”; the entire business of theater has the ethics of a Colombian drug cartel. I served notice at the audition that this was not the standard I expected, or would tolerate.
  3.  “Sometimes the day before opening, with a contract.” Rationalization #2: “It’s not the worst thing.” It’s true; bailing on a commitment now is better than those despicable acts, and you didn’t kill my dog, either. That’s no excuse or justification; it is only the most disgraceful way to rationalize bad conduct that there is.
  4. “I don’t remember it.” Almost certainly a lie. My speech was a major part of the audition, outside the norm, and emphatic. “Gee, you say I promised to love honor and obey? I’m sorry—I just don’t remember it.” Right.  Everyone from the show staff at the audition confirms that this individual got the same speech as everyone else. If the actor really doesn’t remember it, it is because there was no intent to take it seriously from the beginning, which means that “Yes” as the answer to my question, “Can I consider this a commitment?” was a lie. Either way, the actor is a liar.
  5. I shouldn’t have to mention anything about a good faith commitment; I should be able to assume a good faith commitment. The response argues, “Hey, you never said I had to be honest, or at least I don’t remember it.” That is the reasoning of a someone on a lifetime holiday from ethics.
  6. As the actor pointed out, in theater even contracts aren’t legally binding on actors; what do you sue them for? But agreements, and mutual commitments, are ethically binding. We agreed not to cast anyone else in the part and to commit to this actor in return for a promise that the actor would do the show. If my company had cast the actor and then, after several months and many missed auditions and opportunities, the individual had heard from us that “We’re sorry—we just found someone we like better for your role. We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” what would be the reaction? Outrage. Fury. Indignation. “How dare a theater company string me along like that, and use me as a place-holder! I thought we had an agreement! I relied on their professionalism, honor and honesty!” Yet not only is the actor doing that to my show, it is accompanied by no comprehension or admission that it is wrong.
  7. Finally, the perfect capper: the non-apology apology. “I apologize for any inconvenience.” You can’t apologize while steadfastly maintaining that what you did was acceptable. You can’t be sorry for the inconvenience when you knew your conduct would cause it, and went ahead and did what you wanted anyway. And “inconvenience” is a dishonest characterization of the consequences of the breach. Try “knowing harm to the production, the company, the cast and the qualified actors who wanted your role.” Perhaps I should pass on your apology to them.

There was more to the exchange: I said that the actor was not welcome to audition for any future productions, and that my opinion of the individual’s character and trustworthiness would not be withheld from other directors if it was sought in the future. The actor never did have the guts or decency to tell me the reason for the withdrawal, but I’ll know soon enough: it is another show. My offer was accepted while the actor was hoping to get another role, as insurance. Of course it is unethical to audition for a show that conflicts with a production one has already committed to. I won’t allow auditioners to do it, if I know that other productions in  similar time slots have already cast them. Unfortunately, I am unusual in this respect.

Colombian drug cartel, you know.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the result. Theater is a collaborative enterprise requiring mutual respect and trust, and I don’t need people like this in my productions, no matter how talented they are.


6 thoughts on “Actor Ethics: Welcome to Colombia!

  1. God bless you for your patience, Jack. I’d have probably sent him a message that would’ve fried his follicles! I’m very glad that I don’t have to deal with these characters as you do. Rather would I go back to running in drunks, dopers and deviants, as I did in my younger days. Of course, with actors you are dealing with a lot of those same people! I probably busted the daddies of a few of your aspiring thespians.

    BTW: Sarah Bernhardt, by many accounts, made Sandra Fluke’s sorority sisters look like Sister Mary Francis!

  2. I showed your blog to a young filmmaker-friend who had a similar experience recently with a wannabe-actor participant in his documentary who went casually bye-bye after a key scene was already “in the can,” so to speak, stranding the entire production and inconveniencing all concerned for several days and more dollars. His response to the director’s anguish included the argument that “it was only digital, not real film, anway” and that he didn’t have an Equity card yet (so he couldn’t be held to professional standards “yet”?).

    After reading your piece, my friend brightened considerably, and decided he did have recourse — if not to save the damage to his own film, at least to save the industry from this bozo — he could report him to Equity before the fact … and from an ethical standpoint, using several of your explications.

    Knowing the Gen Y’s aren’t prone to the habit of writing thank-you notes, I thought I’d let you know you were spreading The Word in a very practical sense. For myself, I find your arguments increasingly seductive on behalf of, so to speak, Managment over Labor, at least in the performing arts.

    • Thanks for passing this along, Penn. The cut-throat ethics of performers (and, to be fair, a lot of directors and producers too) is a constant impediment to making good art. I strongly advocate taking the time to publicize the bad apples, and to make sure this kind of dishonesty has real consequences.

  3. The theatre world is very small. This person knows that person who has worked with the person in question and on and on. The word is out. No doubt, the actor in question, will blab his actions to anyone who will listen. Some will support him; some will not, but each silently asking themselves, “Can I trust this guy on stage with me?”. “If I hire this man, can I trust him?” Sorry this happened to you Jack. There are more actors out there with ethics in their core than not.

    As a side note, I was curious – Actors are paid? The actor had a contract with you? Is your theatre an equity house? (My thought is No. I seem to recall another post stating you were non-equity) Not that it makes any difference. Mighty fine theatre is produced in both houses.

  4. Hey Jack, down here even critics jump ship for a better offer!

    Coincidentally, I was informed by a director of a similar situation while the show was in rehearsal. The replacement actor and the show took a hit from the critics who were unaware of late substitution. I understand that this is not uncommon and has increased of late. I’ll post your link on website to give it the further attention it deserves.

  5. Jack, as I’ve told you and other artistic directors MANY times: the ONLY way to stop this is for all of us Producers / Artistic Directors to band together and let every one of us know when this happens so we don’t cast them in OUR productions. If this was NYC, the actress who did this to you would have been DONE … her career FINISHED and DEAD by nightfall. It’s the only way they’re going to learn that their actions have consequences. We ALL need to communicate with one another the INSTANT this happens.

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