Growing up in Amherst, Ellyana Stanton was enamored with theater. She likes to say that in arts-saturated western Massachusetts, the theater kids were as popular as the jocks.
Stanton went off to study theater at UMass Amherst and, in 2008, she landed a role in a feature film that was shooting in Northampton. She soon found herself acting in commercials — work that helped her pay her way through school — and decided to make a career out of acting and working on sets. So she joined the actors’ union: the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, better known as SAG-AFTRA.
“And I built this really incredible film family right here in Massachusetts,” Stanton told The Shoestring.
That film family, however, is currently out on strike. Across the country, SAG-AFTRA actors like Stanton have been withholding their labor since July 14 after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to agree to a new contract with the workers. The union is fighting for better pay amid the changes that streaming services have brought to the industry, as well as contractual guardrails around technologies like artificial intelligence and digital recreation of an actor’s likeness.
On Thursday, Stanton and others will be taking that battle to Northampton, where they’ll be rallying together with local labor leaders and others standing in solidarity with their strike. The demonstration will start at 4:30 p.m. at Pulaski Park in downtown Northampton and is an opportunity for supporters in western Mass to stand with local actors who are part of the nationwide strike.
The Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation is organizing the event together with the union. The federation’s field organizer, Ian Rhodewalt, said that SAG-AFTRA is leading the labor movement by example.
“Workers’ strongest leverage to get safer working conditions and better wages comes from our ability to withhold our labor,” Rhodewalt said. “This is true whether you are an actor, dancer, stunt performer or other member of SAG-AFTRA, an automobile worker with UAW, a teacher with MTA, or as we saw recently in Hadley, a UFCW bookseller at Barnes & Noble doing a walkout.”
Many of the actors who make up SAG-AFTRA are “background actors,” or “extras.” And Stanton said that the union is fighting for the future of that important work.
“AI is huge for background actors,” Stanton said. “That’s a career for some people, and right now they want to scan people and use them for as long as they please to do so. And we don’t want that happening without our consent.”
Ayana Brown is another local actress who is on strike. A Springfield resident who grew up in Amherst, Brown came through the local theater scene at the same time as Stanton before landing a role in an off-Broadway production.
“From there, I started doing some background work, mostly in Boston, and I knew very early on that I wanted to join the union,” Brown said.
Brown has been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 2008 and said that the background work she did as a working actress was what taught her how movies are made and prepared her to now take on bigger roles.
“Being in the union, it afforded me better wages to sustain that lifestyle and I was able to work here and in New York,” she said.
Brown said that when people hear about the actors’ strike, they tend to think about the Hollywood A-listers. But she said the general public doesn’t realize that most actors are working people whose names may not be recognizable but who are vital to making good movies or shows.
“This is really about the many of us who make up the Screen Actors Guild who are creating content for these big studios and they’re profiting hugely off of the work that we did,” Brown said. She added that ultimately, all actors will benefit from the contract they’re hoping to win, “whether it’s myself or Will Smith.”
There are also other issues that Brown and Stanton said they want to see addressed in a new contract.
As an actress of color, Brown said she is excited about a proposal that every production has to have a hair or makeup artist who is well versed in working with darker skin tones and all different hair types. She said that over the years, she learned to do her own makeup so that she wouldn’t end up looking “ten shades lighter or ten shades darker.” Having those workers on sets is a racial justice issue, she said.
After the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new era of remote working, Stanton said that casting directors now often require actors to submit digital auditions instead of coming to do that work in person. That means actors have to invest in high-quality equipment to record their performances and do work that a casting director previously did — all costs that the actors have to eat themselves. She said some actors are hoping to be paid for that work.
“They’re asking us essentially to build this makeshift studio in our room, and that’s a lot,” she said.
Brown said that many productions in Massachusetts are shot in the eastern part of the state. But she said local actors hope to eventually have more content produced in western Mass.
“We have so many beautiful locations that we could use and we want more actors to come out this way,” she said. “But it’s good to know that if somebody is getting into our business and wants to be a union member, there will be a lot of traveling involved.”
Stanton also works as a medic on sets and, as a result, is also a member of another union: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. That union, which represents so-called below-the-line workers like sound technicians, set decorators and others, nearly went out on strike in 2021 for the first time in the union’s 128-year history. And currently, the Writers Guild of America is also on strike over some of the same sticking points that SAG-AFTRA has also identified.
Stanton said that those fights have been about the future of an industry increasingly moving toward a streaming model that has taken money out of the pockets of the people who do vital work on set. And for her, as a mother of three children who have all been in productions already themselves, the strike is personal.
“My kids are working actors and this is a fight for me as much as it is for them,” she said. “This is their future we’re fighting for.”
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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