Reflections on when to turn down a contract – Rachel Cole with John Waters
From Rachel: My very first paid job in the industry involved me being topless on stage.
(In my defence, I was wearing a lot of body jewellery, which made me FEEL significantly less topless, than I actually was.)
Having grown up in a conservative family this presented a huge ethical problem for both my folks and myself. Dad lamented, “somewhere underneath that makeup and lingerie is my daughter…”
I was not, in fact, working at Pure Platinum on Pitt Street (as Dad suggested). It was a job for the respected opera company- Opera Australia.
I soothed my folks; they needn’t worry. It’s not like I was Coco from Fame!! Note: My parents didn’t seem to know or care what Coco or Fame was. I assured them, the public needn’t pay $200 to see a slightly above average pair of tits on stage.
I then called Dad, Hitler and went to bed.
He didn’t understand!! I had big dreams of being in the ensemble of a professional musical one day.
So, I did that job. Not because I needed the money, someone was already paying me $26 an hour to read The Good Weekend on Reception at a Dental Practice. Not because it would be an amazing credit on my resume- I mean, how nice can you make Prostitute # 3 on the CV sound? And, not necessarily because it would creatively challenge me.
But, because I REALLY respected and admired the director and wanted to make that connection and work with her again in the future. She was a genius!
So the question is, would I do that same job now?
Probably not. That’s not to say it’s beneath me, or that it’s a step backwards, but quite frankly my boobs are no longer ‘up’ for the challenge.
The question of when to turn down a contract is contextual. What stage of your career are you at? How do you want to be seen? Do you want to be pigeon-holed as the hooker? Are you financially responsible for little mouths? Do you have alternative employment? Do you have a partner, by which touring means committing to long-distance? Can your body cope with the demands on the show? All worthy considerations!
It seems sage that someone significantly more experienced than myself should address these concerns.
You might know John Waters as Darcy Proudman in Channel 10’s Offspring, or as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family, or the host of Play School. John has toured for 25 years to New York, London and Tokyo with his tribute show to John Lennon, Lennon, Through a Glass Onion. On stage, Waters played Claude in Hair in 1969, Judas in Godspell and Pontius Pilate in the Australian concert production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He was in the original Australian production of They’re Playing Our Song, with Jacki Weaver and Rhonda Burchmore. He later appeared as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, with Lisa McCune. In 2005, Waters starred in David Williamson’s play Influence. He also played The Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show in 1998. In 2010 he starred in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of The Swimming Club.
John had a 20-year stint on the Australian children’s series Play School. He played Sergeant Robert McKellar in the TV series Rush. Waters joined the cast of All Saints in June 2006 as Mike Vlasek, the new head of surgery. From 2015, Waters joined the cast of the fourth season of the ABC TV series Rake.
In my interview with John, I asked him a whole bunch of, “What about in this instance?” questions. Here are his fascinating insights.
Touring which takes you away from Family
“It sounds terrible but, if the job is an important and good one and I want to do it, I prioritise that time for the work. That might mean being away, and then dealing with the slack that results from that, which is missing the kids, and me being unavailable on the home front. That happens a lot. I would have to be in a moral usurious position to financially say; ‘No, I’d rather be home that fortnight.’ There’s not often I can say that.
We have special licence in this industry – we love our families the same as anyone. Whilst it’s common for people to say, your job doesn’t define you; we are a slight exception to that. To us, it’s a calling as well as a job, and it’s not the kind of work you tend to overlook or put aside or refuse all together. We take the work, and hope and pray that everything will work out. Many times, the weight of everything back home is on my wife’s shoulders.
In Australia, we don’t earn the sort of money that tides us over for more than a few weeks, we have to keep earning. The moment we stop we get into trouble. It’s more of a hand to mouth existence in this country, because we’re so lowly paid even if were in a lead role on TV, compared to the UK or US.
Once I had kids, I felt the extra pressure of financial responsibility. You sort of look for work and think, ‘any work.’ I once flew to Melbourne to get paid $500 to be on Celebrity Wheel of Fortune in the 90s, because I was completely potless. It was a daggy thing, but nothing terrible about it. In fact, I had quite a lot of fun.”
The job isn’t paying Equity minimums
“This depends on the job. If it refuses to pay Equity wages for the sake of budget saving greed, then my agent or I wouldn’t go for it. Sometimes things are different. For example, in July, I’m going to Melbourne to do a Pro-am production of Paris: A Rock Opera, at the Melbourne Recital Hall. It’s a production that needs to display the show and what it’s like, so it has to be done by non-professionals plus some professionals to spice it up. To do something like that which is dear to my heart, I want a small salary and to cover my expenses. You can’t just say, ‘paying below scale is not on.’ Sometimes it can be a negotiation.”
You don’t feel passionate about the project
“As a jobbing actor, you really just have to keep working. Providing it is an acceptable job and presents a challenge, then we need to look at our own discrimination between what is a good job and what is a bad job. It is up to us to look at every new project as a glass half full – to move away from cynicism. Yes, you shouldn’t perform without enthusiasm. It doesn’t serve your creative process, or end product, which in turn will affect your career. YOU must make the job excite you.
I believe you need joy. If you’re going to be a true professional in this biz and not someone who just loves the attractive project and won’t do anything else, you have to say, Ok this job is not terrible, that’s why I’m doing it, but things could be improved – and have a chat with the director and producer.
One for the heart, and one for the back pocket is a good way to go. I never really wanted to feel too exclusive about this business. There are some extremely artistic and rewarding jobs, but they can’t all be like that. You try to elevate the ordinary jobs, but you’ve got to be hard nosed and realistic.”
You are already contracted
According to John, it’s morally not on to leave a concrete contract early because you have found something else you’d rather do. “If you have a written or verbal contract which is definite and something else comes along, the second one has to be rescheduled or renegotiated. This happens to me a lot, and it can be devastating when it does. But you owe it to the people whom you’ve promised your time to do that job, and not somebody else. Give everything a chance to work together, but if it doesn’t, you are committed.”
For exposure or contacts, rather than money or passion
To John, this comes down to personal choice. “I definitely do jobs for free every now and then, when they’re for fund raising, or to do with helping new people in the business. I do play readings at the play writing conferences, and you get paid a nominal fee. Your own conscience tells you what you do and don’t want to do. It earns you good brownie points if you support the industry.”
Your agent isn’t on board
“This is generally in the field of unpaid or lowly paid work, because it’s your mate etc. When this comes up, you’re putting your agent in a spot. Sometimes you’re on their back, and then the next week you ask them to work for less. The agents lose a bit of their bargaining power once you start doing too much concessional stuff, so they have to be a pain about how special it is that you’re working cheaply.”
Fear of being pigeonholed
“If you’re playing the bad guy constantly or a string of criminal types and nothing else, and if those jobs are prominent, the job will brand you. Lots of unseen jobs don’t brand you. It’s best if you can, to hold off from taking those similar offers.
You’re entitled to give that as a reason for turning down the work. Lots of actors don’t like to go there, because they’re not some movie star who plans their appeal, or who tries to follow a commercial pattern to their career, but truthfully you’re just looking after your artistic integrity and finding work that challenges you.”
If you know you won’t take the job, don’t audition
“If you definitely know you wouldn’t accept it, you’re wasting everybody’s time by auditioning. However, there’s the aspect of: if a very famous director is holding auditions and you want to be in front of that director, then maybe you could give it a shot.
An audition isn’t an audition to audition for other things. Sometimes it works out that way. I.e. doing a screen test for one job and not getting that, but sometime later, another producer saw that screen test. Sometimes it happens, its good luck, rather than good management.”
Fear of being unemployed
“Being fearful of employment comes with the territory. If the answer is, to take a job that you wouldn’t have taken in other circumstances (when you’re not scared of unemployment), you know take the job. But there’s a line. You don’t want to do a job that you would loathe, or play a character that you would hate to play. Sometimes I look at the actors who play seriously distasteful characters i.e. child molesters etc., and it’s a big call.”
Non-acting jobs – presenting/reality TV
“Some actors never want to do work where you appear as yourself, and only want to appear in the guise of a role. I’ve done presenter jobs, MCing at big functions, and I quite enjoy that. Those things aren’t out of bounds for me. For those who stick to characters, it’s admirable. Some actor’s hate or feel they aren’t good at presenting, or live creations etc., but I am interested in that. I don’t like the sort of reality show, where you’re there to be lampooned, i.e. I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here I find them mildly amusing to watch, but I wouldn’t like to be in that.”
You have a moral objection
“You might object to the text of something which is entirely fictional. Where it becomes the case of a moral objection, is when the project is actively promoting something you morally disagree with. I.e. a play that justified holocaust denial, and then I wouldn’t be in it.
As you get into the middle ground there are more shades of grey about your moral objections. You’re going to have to let your conscience deal with that. Nudity etc., is mostly angled at women in the industry. I can understand why they don’t want to do it. In the TV of the 70s, you’d arrive on a set, and be asked to get your clothes off, and get into bed- the bold and naked drama, and nobody minded. And it gave birth to the kind of people who take their clothes off and ask questions later.”
The contract is very long and you fear the boredom of repetition
“Nowadays these contracts come up with the big commercial musicals and they do long runs. You’re being a bit spoilt if you say you’re getting sick of it.
It comes down to, if you’d love to give someone else a go at the job that’s fair enough. I dare say, given the climate at the time, and the likelihood of other work informs decisions to turn down work. In the imaginary scenario that The Addams Family had run for 3 years, I’d have stayed and enjoyed it. I never get tired and bored in long runs because this is live performance, it’s a different show every night- it’s 2000 different people.
You can’t control the length of contract, you can control the way you frame that job in your mind, and you try to make that job something that you can do well, and can enjoy. You have some control and are choosing to move ahead rather than sitting out of work. For some people, they’d rather wait on tables or drive Uber, but it’s best to stick with the real business if you can. If you have to Uber so be it (but maybe not Uber, drive a taxi and pay tax).”
Paris: A Rock opera, plays at the Melbourne Recital Hall from July 13: Melbournerecital.com.au
Tickets to John’s show Lennon: Through a Glass Onion can be found here: Lennononstage.com