“When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?, ‘ I say, ‘Your salary’.”
– Alfred Hitchcock
Would a technician do a large job for nothing? Would a plumber not charge you? Would a lawyer kindly forget to send you a bill? Probably not. For these are deemed to be ‘skilled professionals.’ Yet time and time again actors (and not just the young, sprightly ones) are offering their services for free or for the bare minimum wage.
For those of you who chose to take the university or drama school route, you will be the proud owner of that official piece of paper that declares you have a degree in your chosen subject. Does that not imply that you are skilled?
The competitive nature of the acting profession has made it an oversubscribed market where continuous waves of new drama graduates join the battle. The ferocity of the competition means that sometimes the sector will take advantage. This unfortunately can stem from as early as the initial drama school auditions. We’ve heard many tales of shocking auditions (and have a few scars of our own) – a familiar story is the scenario where you pay £30 for the privilege of being eyeballed by a panel for all of 25 seconds. This already sets up a feeling that the students should be honoured to apply let alone dream of winning a place. This for many can be a tough financial sting, particularly if applying to several schools. This places these establishments on even higher pedestals as hundreds of hopefuls grapple for limited places at the schools. Already we have a fierce battle on our hands.
Then once you have completed your degree, you enter the big bad world. Outside the drama school bubble, jobs are inevitably thin on the ground. Again, performers are expected to offer their services for free or for the promise of a profit share which is likely to equate to double figures, for hours and hours of hard work and dedication. It doesn’t make the performer feel like a professional, as they are clearly not being treated as such.
We are a small company with very little money. We put in many hours for free, as we see it as investment in the future of the company and ourselves. We hold the belief that one day we will be able to work full time, for Filskit. This is the aim, and it should, eventually, be an achievable one. However, when we work with others, wherever possible, we make it a priority to pay them. It stands as a mark of respect to those we work with, whose skills we require, just as we need to pay the lighting technician, the printing company for our posters and flyers, and all the others who are needed to make things happen.
We have to be honest that we are not always able to pay for rehearsal periods, unless we have supported funding, and as a result we minimise our cast numbers and intensify our rehearsal periods to help make this a minimal encumbrance to everyone involved.
Groups like Equity and ITC draw out clear guidelines for Equity minimum payment, whilst Arts Council England exists to support artists and make sure they get paid for their work. So why is there still such expectancy to work for free?
We were prompted to delve into this subject after reading an anonymous article on Ideas Tap. The contributor admits they have “a company of over 30 members, who work free of charge because they share our passion”. This may appear dedicated but at the end of the day “passion” doesn’t pay the bills. It is an unsustainable way of working and ultimately limits growth. We were guilty of performing for free when we first formed as we felt honoured just to be performing. But there comes a point where you have to see the value in what you are doing, or who else will? Maybe it is our responsibility as a young company and members of the theatre community to promote payment for services rendered, and offer performers the professional status they deserve.