The elephant in the room, pt2

April 15, 2014 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

 “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean, free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t.” – Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson.

Heh. So when I said next week, obviously what I meant was “sometime in the next three months”. Sorry about that, I got very busy with prepping for some rehearsed readings, a clutch of auditions, a few small gigs and loads and loads of freelance work.

So when do you stop working for free?

It seems like the answer should be “When you’ve got a good showreel together and enough of a rep that people start chasing you for bits and pieces”, right? I mean, that’s why you started taking unpaid work – to build a showreel and to network, and once that’s done, surely you can stop wading through all the “unpaid opportunities” bullshit on the myriad websites.

Well, sort of. Certainly, you can be a damned sight more selective, and I’d advise not applying for any more free stuff unless you really like the look of a project/director/character, or you’re looking to fill a specific hole in your CV.

However, I do still think that there are things worth doing for free. If people contact me to take part in read-throughs/ rehearsed readings, I leap at every chance, paid or otherwise (and readings are almost always “otherwise”) – partly because I’m also a writer, and it’s always good to read other people’s work, but also partly because today’s read-through may yet translate into tomorrow’s audition, or even paid role. It’s a chance to work with other actors, and to show the extent of your talent in a low-pressure environment; to try new things at very little cost to you, time and opportunity-wise. I’ve done two this year, and will be doing a third this evening.

Also, if someone approaches me directly to be in a short film for free, I may still reject it; but I won’t simply reject it out of hand, either. A good friend of mine did a short for free last year because he thought it looked fun; it has since, directly and indirectly, led to paid work for him. You should try to see the potential in something to lead to better things. One of my first unpaid shorts led to me being offered another; that in turn led to me being offered a third, which then got picked up to be made into a low-budget feature. Of course, paid work should always take priority; but given a choice between making something potentially useful or being sat at home, eating your own body weight in monster munch and waiting mournfully for the phone to ring, I know I’d rather be out there keeping in practice. At this stage, I let the quality of the script dictate my involvement. This means I do still reject far more than I accept, and I’m happy with that.

As for theatre: despite the recent ruling about unpaid fringe theatre and its potential implications for future productions, the fact is that most fringe work will remain profit-share only for the foreseeable future. This is a major problem for actors, and will remain so for as long as rentiers can charge what they like for theatre space, something the current government would never dream of fixing (the new Culture Secretary thinks ticket touts are entrepreneurs, for crying out loud), but it leads to another chicken and egg situation: you don’t wish to give a large chunk of time for free (way more than a short film would), but you do want to do a play, because it’s a good discipline in which to stay practised, and it’s something to which you can invite casting directors and prospective agents.

I gave seven months of my time to an unpaid play once; I ended up taking on a lot of the production duties, built some of the sets, sourced half the props, acted as on-site armourer, got the poster designed and printed, found a sound designer, and did my utmost to co-ordinate the marketing.

In the end, one agent came along, and they weren’t interested, despite being very complimentary. I was glad to play a romantic lead (something I don’t see happening very often, given my scrawny frame), and met a lot of good people, with some of whom I’m still friends; but it didn’t achieve any of the things I wanted it to, and it meant I had to miss paid work due to the commitments it demanded.

Ultimately, with unpaid work in all media, there are three things at play:
– Your desire to work (for the benefits it may yield)
– Your reluctance to work for free
– The intractability of the industry at the low end of the business

As if so often the case with dilemmas, you can’t change one or more of the elements in play, and the one that you can change lies within yourself. As an actor, you need to work; and the industry will remain intractable (as illustrated in a lovely quote from the Terry Pratchett book Maskerade: “[The pay] was less than you’d get for scrubbing floors. The reason was that, when you advertised a dirty floor, hundreds of hopefuls didn’t turn up.”).

So ultimately, the question becomes: is your desire to work stronger than your desire to be paid for what you do? When the answer is an unambiguous no, that’s when you stop working for free.


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