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.
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.