There is no easy answer to this question—not at the start of your career, not in the midst of it. Unpaid work will be around as long as it remains a foundational part of the creative industry’s economy, and while this very point is worth some serious consideration (and action, someday) it is important to remember that not every unpaid job is necessarily one to avoid. There are many positive reasons to work for free as an actor, for yourself and your community; the trick is knowing how to navigate good and bad opportunities, minimise exploitation and grow to understand your own self-worth.
When You Can Afford It
This should be your first, and most important, consideration. Work for free when you can afford to do so, and the unpaid job does not jeopardise other paid opportunities—acting or otherwise. It can be very easy, especially at the start of your career, to feel as though you’re setting a dangerous precedent turning down any offers whatsoever: if you don’t say “yes” today then they’ll not ask you next time. This, simply, is not true. The collaborators worth your time will call again with the next project, and should respect you for being professional enough not to agree to a commitment that will put a strain on your work/life balance (and ultimately affect the quality of your performance). The people who don’t respect this can’t be trusted; you’ve probably avoided a toxic work environment, and they will usually burn themselves out anyway.
Sometimes, a paid gig can present itself when you are already committed to an unpaid one. If this happens, and you believe that there is sufficient time for your producers to find a suitable replacement, it is probably best for you to take the paid opportunity. As above, good collaborators will respect your choice to do so, and will understand that paid work that sustains you financially has to take precedence.
Another important consideration: who is the person asking you to do unpaid work, and what is their level of industry seniority/financial security? If you’re approached by a first-time director fresh from a film school degree, it is safe to assume that she is probably investing the same—if not more of—her own resources into the project. If you’re contacted by a well-known casting agent looking to give you a “paid in exposure/experience opportunity” on a web series spec, consider that the larger scope of the production might render your involvement as more exploitative.
There is an inherent privilege displayed by artists who can afford to do sustained unpaid work; they are generally producers of their own projects who may enjoy greater financial stability than many of their peers. While you may still judge an opportunity of this kind as worth your time for a number of other reasons, the question of who is asking you to work for free can be a helpful decider for whether or not you sign onto a job, not to mention an effective means of judging a potential collaborator’s character.
One of the primary reasons you may work for no pay is the promise of some other form of compensation—usually in the form of an intangible ‘investment’ into your career. You may undertake work for exposure (although you should always be aware of people who use this in a job description), to gather material for your show-reel, or perhaps because you have an opportunity to collaborate with a writer/director/actor you’ve been hoping to work with. Of course, all jobs, good and bad, are excellent means of developing acting and career experience; when you are newly graduated from drama school you may feel as though another credit line on your Showcast page is reason enough to give up a weekend on location.
If you find yourself struggling to decide whether or not the job is worth the investment, ask yourself how you would feel if the one thing you were looking to take from it were to disappear: if that actor you love was recast, if your monologue was cut, if the film festival they’re sure to get into is shut down. If the job still feels like it would be worthwhile, then go for it—there is almost always more than one reason to invest yourself. However, if you think you’d be miserable without the promised payoff, heed this red flag and consider waiting for the next phone call.
Supporting your artistic community can be one of the most rewarding scenarios in which you work for free. Whenever you can, work with your peers to help elevate their careers, and you will find that their new opportunities often become your own. This kind of unpaid work can also be very empowering, as you can choose to invest back into the industry in a way that shapes it for the better. Offer your services to creatives and companies you feel should be elevated for what they say or how they work; lend your support and expertise to emerging voices that have otherwise been muffled or marginalised. And if these artists can see you treating your own career sustainably—contributing at personal cost without sacrificing well-being and dropping boundaries—you can be sure that this will be mirrored in their own professional development.
The Work Itself
Sometimes, you just believe in the project and want to be involved. There is nothing wrong with this, provided that you approach such a gig with all of the above-mentioned precautions and considerations. If you are in a stable enough position to undertake something because the idea or the script or the author or the director speaks to you: go for it. These are sometimes the most rewarding scenarios for unpaid work, as it engages with that germinal passion we have for doing the work we so love to do.
Start A Conversation
Never feel afraid or embarrassed to start a conversation about the unpaid aspect of a job. As actors, we seldom feel as though we have the power or standing to bring this topic up with the people putting a production together—sometimes you need to remind yourself that without you, there is nobody to watch or listen to: just blank sets and stages. Respect your position in the microcosm of production, and bring up any concerns you may have about compensation or exploitation.
Often, these conversations are positive ways of helping you navigate better conditions. If you can’t afford to do the job for free, perhaps the producer can find some kind of payment in the budget to accommodate you. If the unpaid aspect is fine but rehearsals clash with your regular paid job, you may be able to find a scheduling workaround. Starting a conversation about unpaid work is one of the best ways in which you can take yourself seriously as a performer. If you do, then your collaborators will have no choice but to do the same.
Learn What You’re Worth
There is no hard and fast rule as to when you should and shouldn’t work for free. However, you can start to develop your own set of guidelines to determine which unpaid jobs to take, and how they will benefit you with minimal negative impact. This comes from learning and respecting what you are worth.
As artists, we are often geared to sacrifice our own personal comfort and stability for our love of what we do: so fragile is the ecosystem of the arts, we hate to think we could be the one part of it that didn’t contribute sufficiently and brought it all crashing down. This attitude must be abandoned if we are to properly strengthen and evolve the creative industry so that it does not count overwork and exploitation as de rigueur. The more self-respecting you are as an artist, the more sustainable your practices can be and the firmer boundaries you can put in place, the more fulfilling your work will be. Paid or unpaid.