Not getting paid sucks. I’ll be honest. I like to make money and I like to make money acting. But paid work is sparse. I have grand designs of becoming an Equity and SAG-AFTRA performer and working as a successful Professional for…ever. But everyone has to start somewhere. I’ve worked a lot of years for pay and a lot of years for free.
If you’re like me, you might have had these conversations with yourself:
A Professional gets paid. I want to be a Professional. So I should only do work which pays. Right? Right. But what about being a Working actor? I want to be one of those too…. Though I know a lot of Professionals who aren’t working, but Working Actors who aren’t Professionals because they don’t get paid, and aren’t unpaid productions riddled with rickety sets and musty costumes with poor attendance and full of those… those…. AMATEURS!?!?!
Well, if you’re like me you have a flair for internal drama but external reality checks. If not, just stop. Breathe. Okay.
In deciding which projects to accept if they are unpaid, or exceptionally low stipend, these are the main questions I ask myself and ask my actor friends who are also in a quandary.
1. How sparse is my resumé?
There is no shame in a light resumé if you’re a fresh high school or college graduate. You’re just getting started. But you have to get started. My career counsellor in conservatory told us to expect to work for free for at least one year when we graduated. It’s just how it is. And she is right. I fell in with an Off-Off-Broadway theatrical company after graduation, seeing not a single cent for my labor, time or dedication. But in a year I could list four plays, two leads, three supporting characters and one award on my resumé. All New York credits. Those were put there because I was willing to work for free. And because I worked my ass off, but you know what I’m saying. Let’s compare and contrast:
This is what my resumé looked like when I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 2009. Pretty light, right?
Here’s what it looks like now:
Here’s what it would have looked like if I had not accepted any unpaid work:
2. Am I new to town?
No one likes to start over. But sometimes we have to. I just did. We all know how important it is to have good contacts in this industry. And the only way to make connections is to work with people. Get your face, your name, and your work out there!
3. What could the project offer me beyond monetary compensation?
A chance to work with that director you keep hearing about?
A juicy role you have always wanted to bite into?
How about a chance to buff up a neglected skill set? Take me in A Chorus Line. When I first took the role, there was a Professional or two I heard scoffed at my choice to “step backwards” and take non-paid work. However, I saw it as a FREE four-month workshop in which I could strengthen my own singing and dancing skills which were woefully neglected in New York. (I also knew Bainbridge Performing Arts had a really good reputation, which is another key factor in choosing what unpaid work I take.) I danced an approximate 166 hours through the process. Imagine how much money I saved on dance class fees, at $15/hr!
Besides, what chance did I have to play a lead in A Chorus Line, an exceptionally dance-heavy show, not being a classically trained dancer? You BET I took this opportunity.
There are other factors you should take into account before signing on or off:
- The performance/rehearsal space: where are you going to spend the next 2-4 months of your life? Your personal health and property are important. So is your time. Is it a bazillion miles away from where you live or work? Is it a dungeon? Is it outdoors? If your audition does not take place at those locations, be sure to do some research.
- The Company’s/Production’s Resources: what are they supplying and what you are expected to provide? Are you expected to pay out of pocket for costumes/props?
Lastly, as a general rule: Don’t get naked for free.
(Hell, don’t get naked unless you’re seeing six figures on your check and it’s important TO YOU. Or, just don’t get naked. It is totally up to you. For more on that discussion, see Helenna Santos-Levy’s article here.)
If you still have questions, feel free to ask me! This is just a place to start.
Don’t forget, do what you feel is right for you and what kind of journey you want to take. I wrote this article because I don’t want to see anyone lose out on what could be an opportunity with great benefits, just because money wasn’t one of them…
If I didn’t take A Chorus Line I certainly wouldn’t be with so many new wonderful friends, a healthy body, a pretty good high kick, and something to be really, really proud of.
NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: The above photos are examples of theater based resumes and crafted to suit the needs of that particular industry. Film and television based resumes will have a different layout.