Should We Be Happy To Work For Free - And Are We Damaging Theatre If We Do?

David Lane, 17 July 2012

Attended by: Ruth Mitchell, Michael Terry, Anna Scutt, Hannah Silva, Romana Bloodworth, Paul Henshall, Ben, Kirsty, Seth Honnor, Natalie McGrath

We discussed a show on in Plymouth at the moment, The World at Your Feet, which is employing graduate actors alongside actors from youth theatres, but neither are paid possibly because they share the same age range…but some are trained and some are not.

Actors in the group bemoaned the presence of adverts for work at the Actors' Centre that tried to encourage people to perform in shows for ‘the experience’: at worst a patronising position to take upon them as professionals (don't we have enough experience already? what are you offering me that's more valuable than the training I've already had?).

If we're being asked to work for free, we have the option to say no. It's not a job if you're not being paid, after all. We discussed Equity and the fact that because anybody can get employed to be in theatre now (you don't have to be a member of Equity) it was much easier to employ people for no money. We agreed that the culture of actors working for free is pervasive, and is damaging to the profession and dangerously contagious. Most people seemed to agree that an element of working for free when ‘starting out’ as an artist is necessary and to be expected, but that also, that didn't make it right. It devalues the service the actors provide, and perhaps actors need to make a bigger noise (or their representatives do) about them being service-providers rather than ‘artists’. Is language in the way of fair pay?

One member of the group said that as a rule they would never, ever ask actors to work for free. They have to be paid the Equity minimum and she would always work to get the right amount of funding to pay actors what they're worth. However the same person also said they'd been touring their own one-person show at a loss, because they felt they ‘had to be seen’ at certain festivals to endorse the quality of their work, and also to manufacture the opportunity to be seen by the right industry people (who may later commission or programme the work for a proper fee).

Those in the group who set up projects themselves as freelance producers were frustrated that meetings (often with people in venues or organisations who were on salaries) were not things they could be paid for - and that perhaps there needed to be more respect of that.

There was an assumption in the group that big venues and organisations can afford to pay actors no matter what; this isn't necessarily the case as they are facing huge cuts (age of austerity etc) but, again, whilst this isn't an excuse for actors to NOT be paid it perhaps isn't the case that venues and organisations are somehow secretly withholding money they DO have to make savings. Actually all venues or companies employing actors need to budget realistically, from the beginning, to pay everybody properly or not do the project at all.

Another group member said they'd found that if they weren't getting paid for work, very often that came hand in hand with not being treated particularly well.

We began discussing whether or not less work or less good quality work would be available for audiences if tomorrow the government made it illegal for anybody to work for free in theatre. Would the quality and the range of arts decrease if working for free was taken away from artists as a possibility?

There should be a ‘refuse to choose’ campaign where more organisations are put under pressure to not request actors' services (or any artists' services) for free.

We discussed state support for artists in European countries (France, Holland) where artists receive a sort of JSA to make work as a given - rather than having to ‘prove’ themselves continuously, they were free to make the work they wanted. This got into a discussion about the cost of training, that arts degrees are getting more and more expensive, and that our government doesn't value artists even if it does value the arts.

Are artists making a strong and clear enough voice / campaign to make transparent their value to the taxpayer? People can make a clear connection between the pursuit of medical science or agriculture as important to invest in, because it is directly linked to the treatment they'll have in hospital or the food that goes on their plate, but as artists perhaps we assume too readily that we are ‘valuable’ without making a case for it to the public. Do we need to be more obvious, literal, clear or forceful about how far the arts is part of everyday life for the populace (is it?)

Better part-time work in all industries might make it easier for artists to work for free if they have to. But free work on the whole sustains a culture of privilege where those who are in a position to work for free will do, and those that can't will not rise so quickly (if at all) to a point of visibility in the theatre industry. The theatre then becomes representative only of a middle class minority point of view - unless those making the work reach out more clearly to tell the stories of those whose stories are not represented (but even then, as people pointed out, the platform still sits with the privileged and why should they be custodians for the stories of the disadvantaged / poor / dispossessed / excluded / discriminated)? The industry has a responsibility to change the way it pays and trains at a grassroots level.

GET RID OF MONEY. This was the radical step suggested by one group contributor: 

as long as creativity and culture is treated as part of the economic system, it is governed and influenced by it, and its value associated with economic viability or return, rather than anything else.

Theatre of Barter? A theatre industry that exists on people trading food, clothes, habitation, sustenance?

This was a wide-ranging discussion that feels unwieldy to report in this way (i.e. succinctly!) but the overall conclusion was ultimately paradoxical:

1. anybody employing artists for a project should take responsibility and budget to pay them properly


2. everybody has the right to choose to work for free if they wish to, otherwise numerous projects would never see the light of day

Report Ends.


work for free, fair pay, Free, money, Value, free, unpaid work, value, Money, Wages, Payment, economics, Economics

Comments: 1

Anairda Artivista, 17 July 2012

It sounds like a very deep subject! I agree with the respect institution should have towards artists - in many levels, not only financial. This discussion reminds also the concept of the “third theatre” - probably more known in Latinamerica - which is the theatre of the “third” everything (third world, third genre, third state) and owns it self to all those who might not have access to the big shinny buildings; understanding that art can happen and is needed everywhere, anywhere.. That type of theatre/vision can't be dependant on always having the money FIRST to make it happen. Many of us started to create cause we wanted to be free, not dependant. And however, yes, because is obvious we love our freedom, a “dependant” society tend to not acknowledge the psico-social wealth creative workers provide.. so other professions have the support we don't enjoy..

So much more to say.. It would be great to keep discussing this…