Top Tips for Understanding Contracts
Our tips for getting started with contracts to protect your rights as a working performer
By Christina Care
They’re not exactly a sexy topic, but contracts are super important when you’re working jobs here and there as a performer, and don't have an agent to negotiate on your behalf. Work can come and go, and new contracts are being drawn up for jobs daily. If you don’t have someone to help you navigate the terms of your employment, it’s really important to know what you’re signing your name to! Here's how you can get started...
Don’t accept a verbal agreement
While this can be common in an industry where lots of people trade work for a pint, if you’re doing a paid job for any extended period there should really be a contract. Of course, between friends and small struggling theatre companies, this can be tough, but it really isn’t a good idea to accept any paid work that doesn’t also come with a contract. Of course, we all want to come across as friendly and easy to work with, but it’s important to protect your rights where payment between you and an employer is concerned. First thing is first: get that contract in writing!
Read the whole thing
Yes, it can be a bit tedious, but it’s really important to read the entire contract. Set aside a quiet afternoon with your red pen in hand and make sure it all gets covered, even if it’s quite dry. Break it up with your latest Netflix obsession if you must – just make sure it all gets read!
Read it more than once
Okay you got through it once – now it’s time to read it again. It has to be crystal clear to you, as this is a binding legal document and if anything happens that you aren’t happy with, you need to make sure you’re protected by this agreement. Make notes of anything you don’t understand along the way.
Don’t be worried about looking silly – it’s more important that the terms are clear to you. Go back to whoever has given you the contract to check that you are in fact understanding everything that is being asked of you, and that is being given in return. If you need help understanding a contract or getting some basic legal advice, Equity is a great place to start - they also have some useful information here.
Understand what should be included, and what’s missing
Generally, any terms in a contract will be defined – and if a term isn’t defined, that can be a problem! But this is a common omission in contracts, when important terms aren’t defined properly. It should be clear between you and whoever has given you the contract what each element actually means. So, for instance, the “Extent of Services”, “Benefits”, “Notice” etc. are all important terms outlining aspects essential to the work you will do, how you’ll be compensated for that work, and how long you’re expected to be working. If there are holes, you need to speak up!
Remember that you can negotiate
If you find something you disagree with or want to negotiate, that is totally within your rights. Don’t just accept something because it’s in writing – you’re allowed to make changes, and ask for things to be added or removed, as you see fit. A contract is negotiable until it’s signed, and even then it can be re-negotiated but it takes a lot more effort to change (and if you’re asking for more, there will be little incentive for the other party to negotiate with you!). Performing work is generally fixed term, so there probably isn't a chance to go back and re-negotiate halfway through if it's a short term gig. So ask for what you want up front – there’s no harm in asking!
Be reasonable – research what you can expect
Of course, you have to be reasonable about what you ask for, but there’s no harm in at least asking the question. It helps to do your research first, talk to your fellow performers who have negotiated their own contracts, or seek out industry advice about what is legal and fair. While you’d be best advised not to ask for too much, don’t simply agree to something that makes you uncomfortable without consulting someone or requesting a change. Knowledge is power, so make sure you’re informed before you sign!
Remember, if you’re ever confused, stuck or just need some advice, Equity provide legal support and advice to all members for free. If there’s a problem, Citizens Advice provide free advice across the UK, or you can check out a list of helpful resources here. Be informed, be assertive and protect your rights as a performing artist.