Should performers be working for free? The realities of unpaid work

As performers, we tend to accept the notion that we are our own business and we are expensive businesses to upkeep. We spend money on keeping our skills sharp and keeping our portfolios shmick. We spend money on our show reels, agency fees, union fees, specific clothing or shoes for shows and auditions, our websites, our online presences and the list could go on.  We will spend time and money on our physical appearances whether that means going to the gym or getting regular facials (yes, I’m serious). This is on top of the initial money we spend on our degrees, diplomas or certificates, and training. My question is, how much of these expenses do we actually earn back? For the majority of us, not a lot.

In recent years I’ve noticed a few sporadic discussions addressing the issue of performers earning well below minimum wage and sometimes living close to or below the poverty line. This article, from,  which was written a few years back details and addresses some of those issues. It pretty much tells us what we already know to be true, there is not enough work to go around in order for the majority of us to sustain full-time careers in our creative fields. Many of us are having to take on ‘day jobs’ in between gigs to make sure we can eat and pay our bills. However, there’s a bigger issue at hand. An issue that is sometimes spoken about but rarely addressed. An issue that is somewhat taboo and brushed under the rug. The issue is that too many of us are taking on unpaid work. No, I’m not talking about ‘work experience’ or things like an ‘internship’ I’m literally talking about working for free or for very little money.

It’s a rarely talked about stigma in our industry where people think they must continue to work for free in order to get a leg up. Perhaps this method works, perhaps those kids who slaved away countless hours of free rehearsals and shows have finally gotten to where they want to be. Or perhaps they continue to run in a cycle of ‘independent’ shows and productions where it is normal not to question the fact that everybody besides the performing artist is paid something. I get it, sometimes there is just no budget and these types of shows or productions are a way for everyone to do what they love. Generally speaking, rehearsals will be organised to suit everyone and time and care is taken throughout to make sure no one is being taken advantage of. Important people will get invited to opening nights and the performers get a real chance to shine. Unpaid short films will be submitted to film festivals and actors will get a chance to use the footage for their show reels. Sometimes taking on unpaid work can be beneficial if the performer is put in the right environment and uses it as a tool to grow. Sometimes, however, people are taking the piss and are just being damn unfair. We need a serious reality check because the show literally cannot go on without the performers. We are important.

If you aren’t a performer and you’re reading this and you’re thinking “what do you mean work for free?”, I mean exactly that. We are hired and asked to rehearse and perform without being paid. There are a plethora of independent theatre companies, independent musical theatre companies, independent film companies and other obscure organisations that will cast a performer and not pay them for their work. Notice how I use the word work? It is work, plain and simply put. Yes, it is fun and fulfilling and we love what we do but we have chosen this as a job not as a hobby. The same could be said for a personal trainer, they could feel a sense of fun and fulfillment while training clients but they still get paid because it is their work. When we talk about the arts, performing arts or art, the average Joe may imagine a wishy washy world of people flitting about on stage or painting strange pictures. Well, when people talk about engineering I imagine a weird world of people wearing masks building time machines. Ridiculous right? Just as ridiculous as assuming I’m cool with working for free while everyone else gets paid. I’ve heard of and been in numerous situations where everyone BUT the performer or artist gets paid. The director gets paid, the choreographer gets paid, the costume designer gets paid, the sound technician gets paid, the DOP gets paid and by god, the boom operator better get paid or they won’t be happy! Why is it ok to tell the performers they won’t be getting paid due to budget restraints? The performers worth is not weighed up as equally as those around them.

It seems a simple solution to me, cut everyone else’s pay down and pay your performers something. Even if there is no budget, give them something at the end of the job. I recently watched a fantastic independent production, it was professional and of such a high standard. I paid a decent amount of money for the tickets and felt good for supporting the independent theatre scene. However, I don’t exactly know who or what I was supporting. The actors weren’t getting paid. Was the money going back to the production? Were they just breaking even? Was it just sustaining the venue, set, lighting and costuming? Why were people giving up 2-3 evenings a week, their weekends and a whole two weeks for tech runs without getting paid? And on top of that, speaking from first-hand experience, they were probably taking time off their “day jobs” in order to do so. They were inevitably losing money not making money and for what? The love of their craft? A chance to do what they love? Looking good on their CV? That’s all well and good but I doubt there’d be a bunch of top notch, professional, highly skilled and passionate personal trainers who’d be willing to work that many hours for free so it looked good on their CV. 

Don’t get me wrong, these types of projects can have many positives to them. You have an opportunity to practice your skills, learn new skills, meet people and stay fit and ready for the big paid jobs. You gain footage, credits, and references for future professional work. Mostly, people are respectful and understand the time you are giving and are gracious and humbled by your efforts. Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes people are taking advantage of your time, your talent and your passion for your work. Sometimes people are greedy and don’t want to share profits. They know how passionate we are and how desperate we are to work and they use that to their advantage. It’s tricky to differentiate and sometimes we are just so swept up by the love of what we are doing. My concern is that so many young performers are being taken advantage of and they believe they have no rights. They are afraid to say anything or do anything for fear of being ‘black listed’ or ‘never working again’. Dancers will work for top choreographers for no money because they don’t want to get a bad name (see the #paythedancers controversy). Actors and musical theatre performers will work for production companies and directors for no money to show them how hard working and talented they are. They hope to make a good impression and finally get their big break but is this sustainable? Sadly, yes it is because there are always younger, fresher artists coming through the ranks who feel they need to do this type of work in order to get anywhere.

What we are doing is a job, plain and simple. In order to succeed in any field, one must be willing to make sacrifices and that does mean embarking on internships, taking on pro-bono work and yes, working for free. I accept this, as do many others but what I do not accept is being taken advantage of. We have rights and we have organisations that are willing to help us and step in if we find ourselves in trouble (Actors Equity and the MEAA). I suppose the main thing to take away from all of this is that we do have power and we are worth something. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you find yourself in an unfair situation or you feel you are being taken advantage of. Understand and know your worth and don’t be scared to say no to jobs if they aren’t paid. Furthermore, we all need to stop being so scared to discuss things like this.

If you have something to contribute please do, you may disagree whole heartedly with me! I want to hear your thoughts or opinions on any side of this issue feel free to share them.


*photo by Jimi Filipovski on Unsplash

* pay guide for your reference

Equity Minimums 2017







  1. AGirlWithNoName says:

    I agree completely. I know this article was posted a year ago, but I find myself in the same boat, struggling with the same thing. This unfair and frankly abusive practice of not paying actors/artists- especially the young ones is endemic in our industry. Being a rising senior and home for the summer I accepted an unpaid staged reading job for the month. Not only was it supposed to be low commitment- but the rehearsals were supposed to be flexible. Not only are they set and more than what was initially expressed- but when my actual paying jobs come in conflict and I ask for time off or to be excused: I am expected to drop the ball and risk being fired from those jobs in the name of being true to my art. I am not wealthy or from a family that is capable of supporting me in that way- so it is a large financial strain to risk work that was already hard to procure.

    For fear of alienating potential contacts, I will finish the show out, leave on a good foot but decline to extend my run should they decide to. I’ve learned my lesson.
    I am not of a class that can afford to accept work like this and many of us aren’t. I am done pretending like I am, for jobs where the ‘connections’ realistically won’t be all that worth it.
    I deserve to get paid for my work. And if you can’t pay me, someone else will. If protections were extended to non-union work- unpaid work would be the first thing targeted because practices like those are abusive, exploitative, classict and one of the things that continue to close doors to greater diversity in theatre. Theatre may not always be a lucrative business and money is often ‘tight’ but no one should work for free. I deserve to be paid.

    1. Veronica says:

      I think you really hit the nail on the head when you say ‘fear of alienating potential contacts’. We all have that fear that we will do something detrimental to our careers if we say no, ask questions or stand up for our rights. I’m so glad you came to this realisation that you are worth more. It takes experiences like this for us to understand our worth! I wish you the best of luck for all your future performance endeavours. Stay in contact, let us know how it all goes.

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