Whether its unpaid internships, expenses-only student films or being a volunteer administrator, doing work for no pay is a subject done to death. Equity has a Lo Pay/No Pay working party, the Old Vic is in a sticky situation over its internships, and even the Arts Council Jobs site has an “opportunities” page. I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring on this controversial issue as however much we talk about it, it doesn’t get fixed.
I graduated from East 15 Acting School a year ago. Since then, I have done my fair share of profit-share plays, student films, and have volunteered at a local arts centre. I’m lucky. I have a supportive family and a network of friends and relatives which means I can live at home rent-free, with a wide array of sofa’s to crash on when I need to. That has meant I could afford to spend the first year since graduation not getting paid. Some people might say that I’m contributing to the problem by working for free.
However, a lot of these people are older actors who began their trade when there was a working rep system, before reality tv and the cult of celebrity, and before having a show reel was near on compulsory to be considered for anything on screen.
I’m not saying they don’t have a point – as long as there are people willing to work for free, someone will hire them – but I am saying that it’s not our fault for taking it. I have friends who upon graduation, refused to apply for unpaid work. Six months down the line, one decided it was maybe a good idea. I am still struggling to get a show reel together, and think there is at least one high-profile audition I didn’t get because of that fact.
This problem is not confined to the creative industries – I have a number of friends in other career paths that seem to have the same problem. However, in the creative industries it has become so normal that is almost expected of you. If you don’t do it, you come across as a bit lazy and big headed. I definitely felt like that upon graduation.
I decided to see this as “paying my dues”. It’s alright for a while, but you don’t want to be doing it forever. A year since graduation, I have decided I’ve done my fair share of profit share theatre, and therefore proved I’m not lazy, and have those all important post-graduation credits. I’ve now started getting paid theatre, and don’t want to go backwards. Most careers have some sort of progression, and although the acting route is a little more bumpy and indirect, the move from unpaid to paid is crucial. I need to act like a professional to be treated like one – and according to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of professional is this: “engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur”. Emphasis on the paid.