Between Acting Jobs: ‘Low Pay’ or ‘No Pay’ work

Actor John Currivan takes us through the his considerations for taking on less than monetarily satisfying work...

Please note: John is an actor, who has taken lots of kinds of jobs as an actor! he is not a legal professional, and this article does not replace legal advice regarding jobs you might take on. For any concerns about the payment being offered on a potential job, please contact Equity. For any other legal advice, seek out a professional legal adviser.  

One of the most memorable lines in theatre comes when Hamlet asks the grim, ultimate question: “To be, or not to be?” Actors who have been between jobs for a long time, seeking representation or starting out in their careers often face a much lighter, but still perplexing, dilemma if they are offered profit-share, low pay or no pay work. Below are some things we need to consider when we face the issue of accepting or rejecting low pay jobs and we ask ourselves: “To work, or not to work?”.

Consider your financial situation

As artists we may be happy to create art for passion and pleasure, but as professionals we need to embrace conversations about money and expect to be compensated for our skills and time. With unpaid performance work, you will probably need to keep working your day job too. Rehearsal and performance times must be flexible and fit your schedule.

We must put our business hats on and calculate the costs of doing low-pay work. Will we earn any money from this job? Will we lose money? Break even? Will we incur extra costs for travel, food, etc? Are expenses covered?

Working these jobs often becomes a labour of love, but nothing will betray that love faster than the discovery of unfairness within the company. If one member of the cast/crew/creative team is getting paid, we should all be paid, and lay that out IN WRITING! We should also always strive for parity, openness and honesty. Researching minimum payment rates for performers has never been easier. We should know these rates and value ourselves accordingly.

Take a look here to see a range of industry standard minimum rates for a variety theatre roles, or here on Equity's site if you have the login.

Be warned! There are some people out there who will boast about sell-out shows and shrug when actors ask about profits. Research the creative and production team. Talk to actors who have worked with them in the past. What kind of reputation do they have?

Ask to view the accounts and figures once the show is over, so you can understand how the profits (if any) were spent. Agree this before a project begins! If everything is above board the production company should have no fear sharing these files. Also, “no pay” doesn’t mean “no contract”. Decide and be clear with conditions you want to set them out clearly IN WRITING!

*NB (The all-caps phrase “IN WRITING” will appear a few more times throughout this article as a reminder.)

Consider your career goals

Even with our business hats on, we might consider a low wage job an investment that will pay off at a later date and sometimes “exposure” is worth it. Make sure that you exploit these opportunities to their full potential. Social media is great for telling the industry how busy you are and a role in a good show, with a reputable company, can really strengthen your CV. If the press comes you might even get some nice reviews out of it. Invite all the agents, casting directors, and creatives you want to work with, to come and see the show. They may not attend or even respond, but at least you might pop up on their radar as someone who is active in the industry.

If you have an agent, make sure they’re on board and inviting their contacts too! Ensure that the production sets aside complimentary tickets for your guests or that they are invited to any industry or press nights. Make it clear from the outset, that you want comp tickets available when you need them. It's one thing working for free, it's another when you have to pay for a ticket for someone else to watch you working for free. It might be worth agreeing a number of comp tickets beforehand IN WRITING… get as many tickets as you can!

Never let this kind of work encroach on availability for other work, particularly other auditions. You still need the freedom to make a living and grow in your career. If you are working for someone for low or no pay, they are not doing you a favour. You are doing them a favour!

Consider the artistic quality of the work

Some low-pay work may offer genuine and unique opportunities to develop your craft and career. Perhaps it’s a juicy role and an amazing script with a fantastic director and creative team. Accepting this kind of work may be worth it from an artistic point of view.

You may even develop relationships with future collaborators and artists. Again, you’ve got to exploit this opportunity to make it work. Not every collaboration will last forever or lead to fame, fortune and swimming pools filled with gold coins, but you will at least come out the other side with the knowledge that you made, or are still making, work that has genuine artistic merit and that matters to you.

Low pay projects are often the first step towards getting a fully funded, bells and whistles, production. Make sure that you get what’s called ‘first refusal’. This means that if the production is staged again, you have the chance to take up the role or refuse it. Most producers will be decent and offer it as a matter of course but try get it IN WRITING!

If you are working on a piece generated from scratch, it could happen that you put in some extra creative work, e.g. writing, re-working, improvising or devising scenes and scenarios. If so, you should get credited as a co-creator. Actors with flashes of genius have created some of the most iconic moments in projects. The “tears in rain” speech from the original Blade Runner movie was edited and rewritten by actor Rutger Hauer, before filming. I’m not sure if he’s credited as a writer or script editor, but if you’ve ever actually generated the exact words that end up in the script… congratulations you are a co-creator of the text. Get it acknowledged… IN WRITING!

Consider what you actually want

A low pay job has come up and you’ve considered the above. Now you need to ask, ‘Do I actually want this job? Or do I just feel like I should take it?’ If the job satisfies two out of the three considerations above, and you want to do it, then go ahead. However, if you do accept it you will need to find something concrete within those considerations, targets or goals, that will make this opportunity valuable for you. Set these targets and goals early on and make sure that you keep satisfying them throughout. This work is almost always a stepping stone into something else, bigger shows, better roles - and who knows - actual money, but it will only get there if you have strong personal reasons to make the efforts worthwhile.

However, if there comes a time during a low pay or no pay job, where your financial, career and artistic situations all fall to critical levels, then you may need to just walk away.

Abandoning a project midway might go against everything we believe in, but we need to retain it as an absolute last resort. You may find that the environment becomes toxic or hostile, or the quality of the work begins to fall, or that you’re giving up a lot of yourself and receiving very little back. You are offering up your time, skills and talents, don’t let them be wasted.

Don’t think that I’m advocating diva-like or spoiled-child behaviour. Throughout our careers we will need to face and deal with many problems, challenges and difficulties but nobody expects plumbers, shop workers or bar staff to work for free and remain in toxic environments. Why should it be different for actors? Value yourself and make sure that you are valued by others.

Lastly, the #metoo movement showed that there are people willing to take advantage of eager and passionate performers, of all genders. If a scene calls for something that you are not comfortable with, then you need to always retain the ability to say no. You need to set and know your own personal limits and stick to them.

Sometimes low pay work can lead to great things and sometimes not at all. “To work, or not to work?” Ultimately, the decision is yours.

John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.