10 Reasons Why Working for FREE & Getting Passed Over for Projects is Going to Keep Happening to You
First, let me say:
__DISCLAIMER: Everyone who knows me knows I hate complaining without finding a solution. I believe it's important to vent, but then there has to be a plan of action or we're still complaining about the same shit over and over again and being miserable.
_So if you think the theatre is a place that should protect your artistry and make decisions based soley on artistic merit, then you should stop reading this article right now, because that's not the world in which we live. This article is a result of my studying why shit happens in the industry and what I can do about it. If you're stuck in your feelings about being disrespected instead of ready to start understanding business and protecting you and your work in a world that cannot afford to protect you, then keep reading. Self-love and self-worth are about taking concrete actions on your own behalf to honor your value. These aren't just concepts to chat about or say endless "affirmations," they are about taking action to protect and honor you._
10 Reasons Why Working for FREE & Getting Passed Over for Projects is Going to Keep Happening to You
If you keep attaching free to your artistic work, then that is all you will ever reap from it: the joy of working for free.
I was deeply saddened recently by an amazing actor, with amazing credits being passed over for a part that she had workshopped ad nauseum. When it came to NYC, of course, they did not offer her the role. This was a social media post and many actors lamented with her, apologized and were enraged demanding that the union put something in place so that this doesn't happen again. That's a valid point.
1. Unions Cannot Protect You from Being Passed over on developmental projects when they get productions.
Don't be fooled by Hamilton or the Tony nominations.
Most plays do not make money or even break even _(google it if you think I'm lying)_.
Most plays, even Tony-winning or Tony AND Pulitzer nominated plays never make a profit. The union has power to negotiate when a play is making a huge profit (which is how Hamilton is now paying out to the originating cast). But that is one in a million.
Google your top 5 favorite plays and see if they made a profit. 98% don't. So a union can't fight for you to be paid for your free work on a production that didn't make a profit.
And here's why:
Unlike actors, producers and writers don't have the protection of a union. They spend years working for free writing something or producing readings of a play which may never see the light of day or if it does, never make money.
2. Why plays don't make money
It costs a minimum of a million dollars to mount a NYC production of a play (no matter what size) and at least half a million for a regional production.
Broadway, investors have to come up with at least $6 million dollars to just to rent a theatre.
Needless to say, investing in theatre is throwing good money after bad.
95% of plays never make money which was great when the National Endowment for the Arts funded the arts. Now that is not the case, so if a theatre doesn't make money, it simply does not survive. Most theatres are running like for-profit-organizations just to keep their heads above water. And many are failing at an unprecedented rate and the small ones are full of staff and actors simply making art for free.
So what's an artist (an actor) to do in this environment?
3. What the union can do for you?
Well, the good news is that the theatre union is fastidiously protecting health insurance, pension benefits paying out 100% for all healthcare.
You have no idea what a big deal that is...especially since all an actor has to do is work 12 weeks for 6 months of insurance or 20 weeks for a year. To be vested in the pension plan, you only have to work 5 years as an Equity actor. That's unheard of....
In a world where most insurance only covers 80%, has huge deductibles, one hospital visit for a broken arm or sick kid could potentially put an theatre actor in the poor house because 80% of a $300,000 hospital bill still leaves you $60,000 to shell out.
Actors Equity Insurance is saving you an extra $10,000 a year.
So add that in to each paycheck or your annual income. The Actors Equity insurance is the best health insurance on the planet. You get insured whether the job you're working actually makes a profit or not. That's unheard of in corporate America where folks are still paying huge monthly co-pays based on how much profit the company makes.
And in a capitalist economy where theatres receive virtually no government funding, this is a huge win. Health and pension are the places where the union comes through for us.
With each theatre job where you accrue health & pension weeks, add in how much money the Equity Health insurance is saving you.
This is pretty easy, go online and google average health insurance premiums in your city. In New York City, the average monthly co-pay is $850 a month. So, if you have Actors' Equity Insurance imagine you're saving $850 per month by doing free theatre jobs where you get Equity Health & Pension weeks.
If you had to pay for insurance (even with ObamaCare), you'd still be making $100-300 per month in health insurance payments plus huge deductibles, huge co-pays for doctor visits, labs, etc.
So, when taking a theatre job, do the math and include how much money taking that job and qualifying for health insurance is saving you.
Actors Equity health insurance can save you anywhere from $300-1000 per month in health insurance payments. All those super important annual appointments: prostate exam, mammogram, annual Ob_gyn appointments... all of those things plus the labs, MRI, sonnograms, tests, etc are covered by actors equity insurance 100%. No other health insurance does that.
So, when you're working an Equity gig, factor in the amazing insurance. Not to mention pension because, hey, social security may not be alive for much longer...
So, now that we've covered what the union CAN actually do for you in a capitalist economy, let's talk about the battles, it's noT likely to win.
4. The union is not going to be successful at getting producers or writers to attach an actor to a project is not going to happen, unless the play is making a shitload of money or profit.
One name actor (someone with a large following or huge nielsen ratings, a hit album, a hit TV show, large box office numbers) is almost a necessity now to getting anything produced.
It's not fame, it's following.
5. Why getting mad at rappers or Zoe Zaldana in black face as Nina Simone is not helping you?
Why the moral issues are abundantly clear here, I'm writing about how you as an actor can beat a system that based solely on money and get you paid what you're worth and acting in roles worthy of you?
Complaining about rappers or Zoe Zaldana's ethical choices ain't going to get you working and making a difference? It's just distraction.
**So, let's talk about the name game or fame and what that looks like?**
Do you have a following?
Because an audience following means butts in seats and theatres now have to make a profit from ticket sales or go under.
As I mentioned before, it takes a minimum of one million dollars to get anything produced and 95% of plays never make that money back, so while you're working for free as an actor, so are the producers and the writers.
You're workshopping stuff for free, but producers are putting in a ton of upfront money with no guaranteed return. So the playing field is even.
6. What can you do to give yourself an edge? Become an Artist-Entreprenuer
You're not going to want to hear this. No actor or artist does.
Everyone, I mean, everyone wants to just be an artist.
Sorry folks that's not real anymore.
And the longer you hold onto that notion, the longer you will make no money and be passed over for projects you've invested lots of your free labor to develop.
Everyone who is making a living as an artist is self-producing.
Artists still think having an agent will get them a career...
Time to wake up.
7.Agents don't get you jobs, your brand, your reputation, your following is what gets you jobs.
Beyonce has a record company deal, yes. Does she stop self-producing?
Of course not, she drops a single on her own every now and then just to keep her audience happy because she making a piece of art that the record company has no control over.
Each time she releases a single on her own, she's reminding the record company that she doesn't need them, so they better do their thing.
Same thing works for actors.
**Actors who self-produce or hire a writer to write a play or film for them which they then produce are sending a message to their agents/managers: if you don't do your job, and do it well, I will get rid of you because I have a following who will continue to support my work and keep me in the game.**
Plus the business loves people who make their own product, from short films to web series to microbudget films: HBO made Lena Dunham (Girls) and Isa Rae (Awkward Black Girls) offers based on their projects. Theatres can't stop producing Daniel Beatty's (Emergency) plays and he sells books and all kinds of promo material.
8. The reason, you no longer have the luxury of just being an artist:
**1. The arts are no longer supported, so all arts organizations have to make a profit to survive**
**2. The internet has allowed artists/entreprenuers to build a place for fans to get their content and a place for producers to come find them and hire them to continue making work.**
So, if you're in the pot still stewing about what the industry owes you because you agreed to work on a project for free with no guarantee of being attached to it.
You're going to be cooking, stewing and losing for a really long time.
It's not that people want to intentionally screw you over, it's just that creators of work are trying to find a way to make a living from their content and if you feel cool about working for free or pennies to help them develop that work, well, then you're signing on for just that: working for free with no promise of future work.
That's hard to hear.
But that's the world we live in right now. The economy is tight, no one is making risky art and everyone is just trying to survive.
9. "Hamilton" is the exception to the rule.
Most of the award winning plays that you're watching on Broadway and off Broadway are not making a profit, they are actually running at a loss. Google your favorite plays and you do the math: most of them never broke even: even the famous writers we all love and adore.
They are not making money, so why should you make money especially when you agreed to work for free?
You're not in Kansas anymore, Miz Dorothy...
10. What You Can & Should Do
You can demand that you be attached to any project that you work on in the developmental stages.
I think it's important to ask.
Because the act of asking without any attachment to the result is a powerful way to start flexing your self-worth muscle.
You will, of course, be told "no" because producers won't produce projects with attachments. But the act of asking is important for you as an artist.
It's important that you start to feel like you have the right to ask for what you deserve.
_Because right now, you're complaining because secretly, you don't feel like you have the right to be paid what you're worth._
If Equity actors stopped working for free, people would pay them.
It's as simple as that.
The problem is we don't understand and honor our own worth, so why should anyone else?
But what everyone is banking on is this old model of theatre where we should be grateful for the honor of working on something for free.
As if honor were more important that your value as an artist.
That's an old model created in a world where theatre was the center of our entertainment world and there was no internet.
Yet that model is what continues to be taught in acting programs, in developmental labs and anywhere else, theatre actors are working for free because it benefits producers, not you.
**I'm not saying you should never work for free.**
If you want the experience of working with certain artists, or playing a certain role because it's meaty and lovely or will get you visibility that will help your career, then do it now!
What I'm saying is don't let working for free be the main way you create an acting career that will support, sustain and provide work worthy of you.
When you expect to be paid what you're worth, that will happen.
Until then, you will always be getting less than you deserve and complaining about it.
11. What can you do right now?
- STOP WORKING FOR FREE FOR OTHERS ON SHIT YOU DON'T REALLY CARE ABOUT
- INVEST IN LEARNING HOW TO WORK TO FORWARD YOUR ACTING CAREER
- THEN MAKE THAT YOUR TOP PRIORITY
- Write something, produce it.
- Scared of writing, not interested in learning?
- Do a kickstarter or indie gogo, raise money to hire a writer, a producer to make something for you?
- Hire a social media intern to teach you how to build a brand?
- Hire a life/business coach to demystify creating your own production company and show you how to make a profit off of the work you make
- Hire a coach to teach you how to raise money and self-produce.
- Do what Nate Parker did: stop acting for 6 years to make a film (Birth of a Nation) that you write/star/direct and sell it for the unprecedented amount of $17.6 million dollars at Sundance.
Or raise money to hire a team to help you do this.
Because now Nate Parker will never have to complain about being passed over for work.
He understood, the industry was not going to give him work just because he was talented. But rather, the industry was going to respond to how much he valued himself as an artist. He valued himself enough to put all of his energies towards creating work for him to star in.
He wasn't running around doing other peoples' work for free and wondering why no one valued him.
Free work is not valuable because, well, it's free.
That's just human nature.
So, what are you ready to do to value you?
Love, Light & Power,
April & TheDreamUnLocked Team
P.S. Stay tuned for next week's ActorsArsenal where we answer Mary Hodges' question:
_In an audition taping, when there are multiple characters in a scene, where should your focus be? Because it's camera, slightly off of camera (but that point of focus is for one character...? How wide of a net (frame) should you allow your focus to roam? Also is it appropriate to ask casting if they have a point of focus preference?_
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson