A hotly debated topic among actors of all backgrounds is getting, and more specifically, not getting, paid to act. While professional acting gigs are readily available in cities, it can seem that these paid opportunities are too few and far between. So the conversations keep coming up in acting circles, from green rooms, to backstage, to after-show bar tables.
Many actors, even professionals, are drawn to the art form because it brings them so much joy. Whether it was a transformative experience watching Annie as a child or a love that grew from the camaraderie of high school drama club, acting holds a very special place in the heart of many people. Because of this, there are many people who are willing to use their acting talents for free, even in for-profit enterprises. This type of volunteer free labor isn’t isolated to artists in the theatre world. Some people who spend all their free time knitting will give their scarves away to anyone who will take them. Poets will show up at open mic nights, again and again, sharing their works of art with the coffee shop crowd, but generating revenue only for the cafe owners. Many graphic designers are willing to put their digital pens to work to create that awesome concert poster for their friend’s upcoming gig, sometimes for little more than a ticket to the show, and if they’re lucky, a free beer. When you love something so much that you are willing to do it for free, the pleasure you get from the execution can sometimes be all the payment you need. Where, though, do we draw that line between accepting acting work because we love it, and being fairly paid for skilled artistic labor?
Sometimes these non-paying gigs are marketed to actors as resume building opportunities, and for true beginners, they are. It’s hard to get noticed at the professional audition if you have little to no credits on your resume, and building it up with non-professional experience is one way to overcome this obstacle. You also get the priceless benefit of the actual experience that comes from real-world acting work, laboring alongside professionals with higher levels of experience, getting notes from a director, and networking with artists that may connect you to paid work in the future. Playing a part in anything, no matter how small, can be an opportunity to grow if you open your mind to it.
Community theatres are some of the biggest sweat-shops of unpaid acting work. Civically subsidized amateur playhouses are a huge part of the American theatre landscape, introducing people to new works, and giving endless opportunities for small-time actors to try their hand at huge roles in a supportive environment. Many of these community theatres could not survive if not for actors willing to donate their time and artistry. Millions of patrons fill the seats of community theatres across America who may then, at some point, purchase tickets to a more expensive professional production when given the chance. Community theatre is a crucial part of the industry, so it’s important to keep this tradition alive.
But there is a certain validation that comes from getting paid to do what you love. For singers, that might be the first time you get paid to sing at a stranger’s wedding. For actors, that first paid role is a turning point; evidence that your talent is real and appreciated. And this is true to some extent – getting paid acting work can mean that you’ve reached a certain higher level of accomplishment in your acting journey.
The ultimate dream of many who love acting is to support themselves exclusively with paid stage and screen work. While this dream isn’t impossible, the truth is that most actors supplement their income with other endeavors. Whether that is coaching at a performing arts school, or sitting in front of a computer at an office all day, very few people rely on acting as a sole source of income. Even famous stage and movie actors pursue income from endorsements, writing books, and making public appearances. So while I don’t mean to dash anyone’s dream, any aspiring actor should be open to the idea of having multiple revenue streams to help pay the bills.
Becoming financially successful through any form of artistic expression is an admirable goal. Millions of people make money through the entertainment industry every day. However, beginning actors and veteran professionals alike should remember the other assets that can be gained from free acting work. Ultimately, if you love something so much that you’d do it for free, you’ll likely find yourself doing just that from time to time. And to fill your life with things that you love is an admirable goal, as well.