Ajarae Coleman is an actress and founder of TheWorkshopGuru.com, a listing and review service for casting director and talent agent/manager workshops.
Fueled by recent media attention, opposition to casting director (CD) workshops is stronger than ever. It is an awkward time for actors like me who value workshops. We are being portrayed, contradictorily, as either: 1) poor, struggling, unwitting fools who are naively allowing themselves to be taken advantage of by these “scams”, or as 2) financially well-off opportunists who are unfairly using the system for our benefit, and buying “job interviews,” when so many other actors cannot afford to. Meanwhile, casting directors who teach workshops are being portrayed as: 1) money-hungry monsters who prey on the weak, long-suffering, easily-exploited actor, and 2) as casting clerks who have no real knowledge or helpful information to bestow upon actors.
The current discourse is disturbingly one-sided, and these characterizations are gross oversimplifications. Those of us who take workshops know that the vast majority of the casting directors who teach workshops do so not only because they want to earn extra cash, but also because they want to help actors, and want to have a forum in which to meet more actors.
And most actors who take workshops certainly understand that they are not guarantees of employment. Actors pay to attend workshops for any number of reasons: to learn more about the casting process; to improve their audition technique; to learn what it is like to audition for a specific office; to receive performance feedback from a professional whose job is to audition actors all day, to get feedback on their marketing materials; to meet an industry pro whose job is to find talented actors; to make a positive impression on a casting director who can bring them in to audition if they are a good match for a future role, and to network with other actors. There is much more happening in most of these classes than simple “payola.”
Workshop opponents reference a petition urging LA City Attorney Mike Feuer to “stop pay-to-work casting scams” as an indication that LA actors are fed up with being mistreated. But this petition is filled with signatures of people who do not live or work in Hollywood, have no idea how the business works, and will not be affected by any outcome of the petition. Of 14,906 petition supporters at the time of this writing, only 1,206 supporters (8%) are actually in Los Angeles. LA actors are not as fed up as workshop opponents would like to say they are.
One of the most illogical arguments against casting workshops is that they are “not actually educational.” One supporter of the aforementioned petition commented that “CDs are not qualified to teach actors because they have no acting experience.”
Many casting directors have extensive training as actors. Even when CDs are not former actors, they have a unique perspective on actors’ work because of the nature of their jobs. They watch hundreds of actors perform every month, review thousands of headshots and demo reels, engage in conversations with directors and producers about actors, and constantly evaluate actors’ performances.
Many current and former CDs and casting executives charge actors for educational content in forms other than workshops. They have created online audition programs, opened acting schools, and crafted marketing programs for actors. The quality of some of these programs demonstrates that many CDs are perfectly capable of delivering excellent educational content. This is why the Casting Society of America’s (CSA) Committee on Workshops does not strive to eliminate workshops, as recent reports suggest, but rather aims to re-introduce and enforce guidelines that will help ensure that workshops consistently are the well-planned educational experiences they are supposed to be.
Our business is collaborative, and you cannot help but get to know people as you work with them and learn from them. Workshops are a wonderful opportunity for talented unknown actors to become known by other industry professionals.
Networking in educational settings happens all the time. For example, the teacher of my weekly scene study class is also an episodic television and film director. He has asked casting to bring me in to audition several times for various shows he is directing or producing.
Was this illegal or even unethical? Of course not.
He wanted me to audition because he thought I could perform the roles based on his work with me in class. And that is exactly why a casting director would bring an actor she met at a workshop in to audition. The workshop itself is not a job interview, but the interaction could lead to a future job interview. It is ridiculous to suggest that it is inappropriate for people who are in charge of creating (or casting) projects to be able to discover potential collaborators in a setting that is primarily educational in nature. The opportunity to network, which occurs naturally by the nature of the class, does not preclude the opportunity to learn in a workshop.
Some of the current CSA guidelines governing workshops in effect discourage networking and relationship-building, perhaps in an attempt to ensure that workshops are not seen as auditions or employment opportunities (as mandated by AB1319, the Krekorian Act). For example, casting directors are not permitted to retain an actor’s headshot after a workshop. The CSA guidelines were established in 2010 to mirror AB1319, but the headshot rule is an example of an unreasonably cautious application of that law.
You will hear the phrase repeated ad nauseum by workshop opponents: “actors shouldn’t have to pay for a job interview.” I agree with that. So stop viewing casting workshops as job interviews.
Casting workshops are not auditions or job interviews, but rather opportunities for an actress to increase her chances of a future audition. Workshops train actors for auditions and introduce actors to people who can potentially bring them in for auditions.
It’s time for us to embrace our role in the industry as artist-entrepreneurs, and to approach our acting careers like any other businessperson would. That means we must excel at the service we offer to stay competitive with others who offer the same service. We must also understand how our particular sales process works. We cannot expect someone to discover us; we need to go out and get discovered. We cannot expect anyone to hand us an opportunity; we need to go out and find it.
So it is sometimes appropriate for actors to invest financially in our careers. Ask any business owner how much money she has devoted to training, marketing, and networking with potential clients. Ask an accomplished classical violinist how much he has spent on violin lessons. How about on showcases, concerts, and other opportunities to be seen playing his violin?
Workshop opponents seem to have this idea that because it is statistically unlikely for an actor early in his career to make a lot of money, he should not have to pay any money. How bizarre. Tell that to the young medical intern with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.
I am not suggesting that workshop studios should charge exorbitant prices for workshops. In Los Angeles, studios are aware of what other studios charge, and they must offer competitive pricing. There is a market, and it operates the way it should when actors are aware of their options and can make informed choices. There are studios that regularly offer workshops for $25-45, hardly a prohibitively expensive fee that only a wealthy actor can afford. When actors choose workshops wisely, according to specific goals, there is no need to attend more than one or two workshops each month.
If workshops disappear, access to casting directors will be largely limited to actors with representatives who can get them auditions and general meetings. Due to the realities of online casting and a freelance economy, CDs have fewer hours in a week to have generals. This would be true even if they did not spend any time teaching workshops.
Yes, I’m saying it. The idea that CDs can meet with as many actors in general meetings as they can meet in workshops is ludicrous.
But let’s imagine for a moment that it was true. Who is going to land these general meetings? Actors with top-tier agents and managers. That leaves actors who do not have strong representation with no way to connect with these casting directors. Workshop opponents complain that access to entry-level acting jobs is currently restricted to those who can afford workshops, but this objection is misleading. While many actors can budget to take a $40 workshop, the number of entry-level actors who can get generals is negligible.
Sure, if workshops go away, workshop-related businesses like mine will suffer, and casting directors who teach workshops will lose an additional source of income. But emerging actors will be most negatively affected in the long run because they will lose myriad learning and networking opportunities. It is naïve to assume that the workshop industry would somehow be magically replaced with a perfectly accessible free alternative.
Many workshop studio owners are actors who run relatively small businesses alongside their acting careers, and are appalled at the media’s implication that they are scamming actors. No workshop owners have been prosecuted since AB1319 was enacted in 2010 because no one is breaking the law. Some studios’ adherence to guidelines has been recently called into question, but even that does not mean they are breaking the law. The headshot mandate, for example, is not a law – it is a CSA guideline.
Workshop owners are figuring out how to move forward to ensure the law and guidelines are being followed; they are acutely aware that even if one studio fails to adhere, the entire industry is implicated. But they must also keep the interests of their actor clients in mind. For example, though CSA committee members believe a one-on-one CD-to-actor workshop format is not as educational as a group instruction format, many actors strongly prefer the one-on-one structure. Studio owners are working to reconcile this fact.
All in all, this whole issue has been completely blown out of proportion. Enough already. Let’s not buy into some crazy idea that the entire system should be brought down because of sensationalized reports of a few people abusing it.