On Theatre

The Power of Working for Free

I meet actors just out of school who say, ‘I just can’t work for free anymore.’ And I think, ‘When did you work for free?’ Oh you did that Bard on the Beach project placement? Or one United Players show in the Summer between 3rd and 4th year?… Guys. Get a grip.

Mack-GordonMack Gordon on Going Pro-Bono and How that will Ultimately Lead to Success

There is a prevalent opinion, endorsed by established performers, that artists should no longer work for free. This is based on an insistence that what we do is a job. The world is filled with people who do not love their work and, therefore, making your living doing something fun can be marginalizing. A garbage man, toiling in the sun eight hours a day, five days a week, doesn’t think you should be paid as much as he is for your cute clown show.

For a long time, the desired ‘cushy’ jobs came with a price. You had to pay your dues by working for free. Journalists did unpaid internships because it was the only way to get in newspapers. Photographers did photo shoots with models for their portfolios with neither party seeing a dime. Actors went from school to community shows to build up their resume. These unpaid positions were necessary for the economy of culture. They were necessary for the education of the artists. You had to work your ‘joe job’ during the day, schedule around rehearsals and, essentially, shut your social life down for the duration of the show.

But somewhere along the way, a rallying cry of ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ clanged down the cultural hallway.

Now don’t get me wrong. That cry was important. ‘Don’t work for free,’ was a bossier, more uppity way to say the necessary: ‘culture is important and should be valued beyond applause.’

But I think things are getting a little out of hand.

I meet actors just out of school who say, ‘I just can’t work for free anymore.’ And I think, ‘When did you work for free?’ Oh you did that Bard on the Beach project placement? Or one United Players show in the Summer between 3rd and 4th year?

Guys. Get a grip. We’re in a fucking cultural depression in Vancouver. Actors who have been working here for ten years are leaving because they can’t get enough work. Please, by all means, continue to demand respect for your profession, but do it in a different way than sitting cross-legged on the capitalist altar demanding people with no money throw cash at your feet.

I better move on.

There is an inherent value to working for free. I’m not talking about writing copy for rich corporations under the guise of ‘getting your name out there.’ You’ve gotta be smart and you’ve gotta watch your back. Own your brand. But sometimes let people have a free sample of your brand in order to get the public at large wanting more of a taste.

If I run a grocery store on a block full of grocery stores I need to set myself apart. If I think my quality is the best, it’s worth giving out a few free samples to keep the customers coming back. If Bard on the Beach, or The Arts Club, or Stratford, or Shaw, told me I could have a position acting in a good role on their stage in an ‘unpaid internship’ I’d take it in a second. Work begets work.

In acting, networking is at least 50% of the job. It really is often about who you know. You can cold call artistic directors talking about your good qualities. You can go to parties and soirees and introduce yourself to producers. You can cloy and leach to successful artists crying ‘it’s my time soon! Look at me look at me LOOK AT ME!’ I’ve actually seen all those approaches work wonderfully.

But they’re not for me. I’m too shy or prideful or polite or whatever. I go to those parties because I like a lot of those people. And sometimes a little voice rings in the back of my head: ‘Go say hi to so-and-so,’ ‘Introduce yourself to what’s-her-face,’ ‘congratulate him on that show you hated,’ ‘invite her to this,’ ‘laugh at his jokes!’ ‘sustain eye contact!’ ‘get out there, get out there, get out there!’ And I just tell it to shut up. That might be what hustlin’ is about, but I’d rather hustle in a different way.

By sometimes working for free.

More than ‘who you know,’ this industry is about ‘how you know ’em.’ There is no better networking than forging a genuine relationship with someone. There’s no better way to forge a genuine relationship than spending time with someone. There’s no better way to spend time with someone than putting up a show with them.

When I signed on to do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Mnemonic, I knew I wasn’t going to get paid for it. Facebook posts outraged at me ‘giving it away’ ran through my head. But these guys were new in town, they seemed driven to produce, and they seemed intelligent. I failed to book any paying gigs for July or August (because, real talk, it’s fucking hard to book paying gigs). So I figured instead of moping about or whining, I’d do something for free. I’d make art for the sake of art. But not just for the sake of art; also for the sake of networking. No, Mnemonic can’t pay me now. But I truly believe they’ll be able to pay me in the future. And I truly believe they will pay me in the future. Because an audition is going to come down to me and someone else who’d probably do just as good a job at the role. And they’re going to go with me. Because they know me, because they worked with me, because they trust me. Loyalty, I pray to God, goes farther than hobnobbing.

So next time you have some free time on your hands, volunteer for an ushering shift, join a board, sign on for a show with a fledgling company that’s going somewhere. Work for free because you’re never really working for free. You’re building your toolbox, you’re growing, you’re learning and you’re letting people know you. It’s a fucking jungle out there and you’re going to need your friends.

Mack Gordon is an actor, playwright and director in Vancouver, BC. Read more of his thoughts at his blog, mackgordon.tumblr.com including his popular post “The Orphans of The Vancouver Playhouse” | Follow Mack on Twitter @mackgord and visit his website at http://www.mackgordontheatre.com.

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Mack Gordon

Written by Mack Gordon

There are 6 comments

  • Peter MacRaild says:

    I’m not really qualified to comment on acting or the theatre scene in Vancouver, but there are several points here that I find problematic. As an actor, you are a cultural worker, ie, your labour is employed to realize a project that, in most cases, is being purveyed as a commercial product. The availability of free labour in any industry, cultural or otherwise, weakens the position of those workers who are reliant on being paid for their contributions. The more work that can be foisted on the intern, the less work that has to be paid for. Essentially, you are articulating the logic of the intern: “I can afford to volunteer my time, and by doing so I am gaining relevant experience and forging a network I can exploit to my benefit down the road.” This is well and fine for personal advancement (leaving off the the problem of who is privileged enough to be able to afford the time to intern), but it has the unfortunate knock-on effect of lessening the amount of paid work available. I would think that this problem of employers not providing proper remuneration is why actors have organized themselves into guilds and unions.

    I realize pieces are created and shown at diverse levels of production and run the spectrum of amateur to professional, but a call to “work for free” should be uttered with caution. The dearth of paying work in Vancouver may not be unrelated to the size of the pool of those willing to do it for free.

    • Colin Ford says:

      Peter, your well articulated counterargument relies on the false assumption that the number of jobs in the industry remains constant. This is not true. If people like Mack were not willing to work occasionally without compensation, some brilliant pieces would never be realized. Mack said it himself: “Mnemonic can’t pay [him] now.” By working for free, Mack helps develop the artistic infrastructure that Vancouver badly needs to support more paying companies. In the long term he increases the amount of paid gigs that are available by nurturing fledgling companies like Mnemonic to maturity.

  • Michael Blonde says:

    This advice rings true no matter the sector, great understand from you position Mack!

  • Sharon Evans says:

    amen, brother. I am where I am today because of every volunteer job I ever did – from technical theatre to costumes for a heritage site, you are so right. Meeting new people, interesting new people, leads to new career directions which for me allows me to use all of my skills, talents, creativity – you name it to make the community of Calgary better.

  • Maria says:

    I’m with Michael, my career was founded on the experience I gained volunteering and on the unpaid practica that were an integral part of both my degrees. Art like social work has a funny relationship to capitalism and the profit based economy.. it is an important part of the community but in large measure not one that the members of the community at large are willing to pay the market price of. Part of doing the work is developing the market for the work, and sometimes that means doing the work for free because we believe in the work and want to show the community its value

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m not an actor, but work in the arts. I’ve volunteered and “worked for free” in my field for about five years, and here’s the thing: my volunteer work got me a low-paying but interesting job. That low-paying but interesting job got me a better-paying and interesting job. And I continue to volunteer my time and “work for free” on top of my full-time job because whether it pays off in exposure or experience (I’ve learned a lot by working for free), it’s definitely not a waste of time if you love what you’re doing.

    As an aside, I’ve seen Mack’s work in Vancouver and he’s extremely talented.

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