Low Pay/No Pay Acting Work
I’m writing this in my dressing room at the Union Theatre, where I’m currently a cast member in the show The Spitfire Grill. I say dressing room in the loosest sense of the word. It’s an attic space directly above the stage, underneath the railway arches, lit by fairy lights and disco balls and with a few friendly mice running around. Its genuinely quite romantic and charming, as long as we remember to take the bins out. It’s a profit share production, which means that the actors only get paid if the production makes a profit. Just one more of a huge plethora of low pay/no pay jobs that many actors find themselves in at one point or another.
The low pay/no pay issue is always one that’s being hotly debated and discussed and to be honest, there’s no easy solution. The simple fact is, there’s too many actors, and not enough funding to support performing jobs that pay. But there’s rarely a voice that comes from an actor right there serving on the front line, so here is mine.
No-one WANTS to work for free. No-one goes into a job, and upon being offered a salary goes, “Nahhhhh it’s okay actually, I’ll do it for nowt.’ One of the arguments which certainly has a lot of strength is that unless we all stop accepting these jobs, actors will continue to get a bum deal. But imagine it from our position. We’ve trained our asses off at drama school. Paid thousands of pounds for the privilege. We’re now slogging away at dire, dull day jobs in order to pay our astronomical London rent in Zone 6. And you know, like, eat. A show at a fringe venue comes up. We know it’s going to be tough, not being paid for it but our need to be creative simply overtakes that. No-one gets into acting for fame and fortune (and if they do HAHAHAHAHAHA what a fucking idiot), we do it because we have to. Yeah sounds well wanky and LAUGH ALL YOU WANT but if you’re doing it right, the performing thing? Well, it’s like a physical ache, a need to get up and express and create.
That’s why we accept the work. Not to be martyrs, not because we enjoy being skint, not for some convoluted vanity project. We do it because we all have a creative hunger that is just desperate to be fed. It’s either six weeks doing a show, actually doing what you’re good at and trained to do, or six more weeks crying down the phone at RSVP. Sometimes it’s a total no brainer.
The camaraderie on the fringe is also like none other I’ve experienced. It’s not unusual for casts to bond together quickly and create little show families, but when there’s an agreement that you’re all there purely because of the love you have for your craft and to create something and for those reasons alone, it can be really quite special. And when no-one’s being paid, there’s never any arguments about whose round it is.
I’m genuinely not trying to romanticise it. Sometimes it’s fucking awful. I’ve done fringe jobs that I’ve hated, where some nights we were literally playing to two audience members, where the show itself is just bloody terrible and where there’s just no benefits you get out of it. I did a show once where I was having to work a full time office job from Monday-Friday, performing the show Tuesday-Sunday and teaching on Saturdays. For like, 8 weeks. I MEAN I WAS TIRED SURE. And the show itself wasn’t great, my part was tiny and I just thought, what the actual shit am I doing exhausting myself like this.
Therefore nowadays I genuinely think hard about low pay/no pay before I audition or accept it. I look at my bank balance to see just how much of a WHACK I’m gonna take. I weigh up how much time my other bread and butter jobs are going to take up in addition. I have a think about the venue itself, whether it’s somewhere that might pick up a bit of press, that IMPORTANT CASTINGY TYPE people might realistically come to. I have a look at the part within the show itself to see what it entails and whether that works for me, shows off my skillz (I.e belting loud) without highlighting what i’m not good at (I.e pirouettes). And at the end of the day, whether I WANT to do the show. There’s no point in accepting a job if you’re not going to enjoy it because, quite literally, you’re not being paid enough for it. You gotta get something out of it.
So as an actor, who is struggling and carving and grafting away at making a career out of this stupid, wonderful, cruel, incredible industry, I’m thoroughly on the fence. I would love for every acting job to pay me a proper wage. Not an extravagant wage, but enough to live on. But then again, I want to work, and be seen, and build my credits and network. And above all, be creative. And sometimes that DOES mean accepting low/no pay work. I would say think carefully about accepting those jobs and work out what’s in it FOR YOU. See where the benefits are and weigh up how knackered you’re going to be if you juggle the show with other jobs, or how skint you’ll be if you just do the show. There is no right or wrong answer for us lowly actors sadly.
But yeah. That’s why we do it. And why it continues.
Right, gotta go. That’s beginners. Hey, come see us? If we sell enough tickets, we might make enough to buy the next round.