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Professional Actors Should Work for Free… Sometimes

Situation One: a friend of a friend is putting together a benefit for this Amazing New Theater Group. The evening is billed as a night of improv and sketch comedy, and all proceeds go towards mounting a production for Amazing New Theater Group. Amazing New Theater Group is looking for actors to perform for free, to fill out the night’s events (but you’ll get great exposure). Should you do the show?

Situation Two: you meet someone online who works with a Well-Meaning Non-Profit that’s producing an evening of new works. The new works are all plays, and need actors… the plays are written by non-playwrights as part of a community out-reach program. The shows will require rehearsals, go up for one night only, and will involve mostly non-professional actors (and some who are professionals). Should you do the show?

Situation Three: your college friend, Earnest McGee, wrote a play that’s been accepted into a Play Festival. The play is very serious in nature, contains very controversial material, and is mostly stage movement and very few lines. There is a role you could play, with a lot of emotional vulnerability, and room for expression. And there’s nudity. Should you do the show?

Nothing is Ever Free

At one point or another, every actor is confronted with one of the situations above (or a close variation). If it isn’t performing live, it’s working on a student film, or an internet short, or some other performance venue… and it’s always “free”.

But is it really free?

Every time you commit to performing something, you’re committing your Time, your Energy, and your Personal Resources (especially if you’re also expected to donate costuming or props). That doesn’t sound free to me–it sounds like the actor is paying to perform. And that’s exactly what’s being asked… you are being asked to make a donation: your Time, your Energy, your Personal Resources.

And that gets expensive very quickly.

Exposure, Experience, and Getting Ahead

Most actors do free work because they’ll Get Exposure, Gain Experience, or in some undefined way Get Ahead. At least, that’s why we think we work for free.

The truth of the matter is that most of us perform for free because someone liked us enough to ask us to perform.

Part of being an actor is dealing with constant rejection (submissions for auditions, the audition itself, the callback, the lack of a callback, the reviews, the applause, etc). We put ourselves out there a lot, and most of the time, we get nothing for our efforts. So when someone asks us to work–even for free–we get a sense of reward and accomplishment, and we didn’t even have to do anything yet!

And that feeling is nice!

But a feeling is not enough reason to work “for free”.

Exposure

Most of the time, working for free gets you absolutely Zero Exposure. When anyone brings up Exposure as a reason for spending your Time, Energy, and Personal Resources, ask yourself: What kind of Exposure can I really expect?

Here’s the good kinds of Exposure:

  • Press
  • Agents
  • Casting Directors, Producers, or Other Industry
  • Professional Content Creators (writers/directors with established careers)

If none of those people attend your unpaid event, you got Zero Exposure. You might have performed for an audience, and that’s nice, but you were working for free in exchange for Exposure. If you got no Exposure, you got nothing for your Time, Energy, and Personal Resources.

Experience

Experience is a tough one… we all need to work in our craft to hone our skills. But Experience is a funny thing… it’s only worthwhile and helpful when it’s–well–worthwhile and helpful. Otherwise it isn’t Experience, it’s Repeating Yourself, which is another word for Practice. And while Practice Makes Perfect, it doesn’t require you to do something you don’t want to do, or to invest in a project that will not result in Growth, Knowledge, or new Relationships.

The good kinds of Experience:

  • Stepping Into a New Format (Stage –> Film, Film –> Stage, etc)
  • Resume Building (working with respected institutions or individuals)
  • Reel Building
  • New Works (short or preliminary projects that have a future paid possibility)

If you are new to acting, then there really is plenty of room for donating your Time, Energy, and Personal Resources in exchange for Experience. But if you are a somewhat established actor, with a good resume, a reel, and relationships with other professionals, then the opportunity for truly worthwhile Experience requires a bit more judgement. Is that project really offering Experience, or is it just another thing to do?

Getting Ahead

It’s impossible to determine which projects are going to result in a major success. Who could have predicted that the Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity would be the huge hits that they are? Or that the musical version of Debby Does Dallas would move to Broadway?

But it’s no stretch to say that most of the movies and plays that are created every day, all over the world, are going to be flops. They’re going nowhere. They just are… because it takes a lot of work to create these projects, and they aren’t all going to be successful. Even the really good ones.

With this in mind, it’s impossible to predict which projects are going to see success, and which will not.

Which means you can never, ever do a project for free in exchange for Getting Ahead.

Because no-one can ensure that will happen.

And if you’re doing a project for free in exchange for the possibility of Getting Ahead, you might as well stand on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street with a sign that says “Sign Me to a Lead Role in your Paying Project”.

After all, it’s possible that it could work!

Professional Actors Should Work for Free… Sometimes

There are times when you should work for free (or, rather, donate your Time, Energy, and Personal Resources). And those times are different for everyone… but you can figure out which to accept and which to turn down by running the opportunity through your b*ll$h*t filter.

  1. Ask about the realities of Exposure, and how whoever is offering the opportunity is going to ensure you’ll get it.
    If they can’t ensure you’ll get Exposure, assume you won’t.
  2. Ask yourself about the true extent of the Experience you will gain.
    If you have to struggle to determine what Experience you might gain, assume it’s none.
  3. Forget about Getting Ahead.
    It’s possible no matter what it is you’re doing.

If you’ve evaluated those three things, and you can come up with a solid answer, then the project might deserve your Time, Energy, and Personal Resources.

If you’ve evaluated those three things, and the answer is “Nothing in Return for my Time, Energy, and Personal Resources”, then I ask you:

“Why on Earth would you do the project?”

  • “Because the group/project/event is something I care about, and would support with a paid donation.”
    Great! Donate away… that’s a fine reason.
  • “Because I want to help out my friend/colleague/whomever.”
    Do they help you out? Is this a reciprocal relationship? Great! Donate away!
  • “Because I think it might be fun!”
    We all do things for fun. And that’s okay. But knowing you’re doing something just for the good feeling it gives you is very different than doing something because you expect to get something out of it.

The Real Cost of Free

You should know that when you work for free, you are establishing your price: free. Anyone who hires you for free is going to expect you to work for free in the future. Why wouldn’t they? You’ve done it before!

Additionally, any free project you’ve committed to performing with is a possible conflict for some other paid opportunity that can come up in the future. And since a responsible, caring performer doesn’t ditch on a show, it can lead to some very emotionally turbulent decisions. Talk to any performer who’s been in the business for some time and they can share a moment of having to choose between taking a paying gig, and hurting the feelings (or finances) of someone to whom they’ve promised a free gig.

So choose wisely.

When you expect Exposure, Experience, or to Get Ahead and what you get it Bupkis, it leads to feelings of frustration, anger, depression, and more.

But knowing what you will truly get out of donating your very valuable self to a project is not only empowering, it allows you to spend your Time, Energy, and Personal Resources on the things you want to see benefit from them.

An additional, personal rule of thumb: never work for free.

Even if you’re getting Exposure, Experience, or (God forbid) Getting Ahead, always request some kind of payment of value… even if it’s $5 that you turn right around to donate back.

You’re establishing that you do not work “for free”, but that you are willing to work at a discounted rate for the right project.

And who can’t respect that?

* This post was inspired by a similar post by David Hahn regarding Unpaid Gigs for Musicians.

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