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Blurred Lines

September 16, 2013

If you are a professional actor, do you allow yourself to do community theater or other unpaid theater if it’s a show you really want to be a part of?

I’ve been asking myself that, now that I’ve been carefully crossing the line into paid performing. After all, in D.C. at least, few of us can actually earn a living at acting. Those who do earn 100% of their income in the theater world tend to have non-performing jobs as well, like theater administration, teaching, and coaching — and choose to get by on a low total income.

There is also what in D.C. is called the “evening professional”, which is what I’m starting to be — someone who does paid work, but who has a full-time job utterly unrelated to the performing arts. It’s the place for those of us with little things like children and mortgages and whatnot, who still want to act.

But if a professional show pays a stipend or a small salary, often less than $1,000 at the good independent companies, can an actor move back and forth between paid and unpaid work

I have been warned against it by people who have been doing this much longer than I have. This is not because community theater is a bad thing — there are non-paying companies here that consistently put on professional-caliber productions in facilities that rival or surpass those of some professional companies — but because it suggests to directors that one is not sure if acting is a vocation or a hobby.

One veteran actor I recently worked with said she wants to get paid not because that $75 or $500 or $1,000 is going to make a significant difference to her bottom line, but because it shows appreciation for her as a trained professional. I agree with this entirely, but I am not sure it necessarily follows that I should reject a coveted role with a capable amateur company simply because the pay is $0.

Still, crossing back and forth between professional and unpaid work makes me nervous somehow.

Peter Sig

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2013 9:27 am

    I know in NYC, almost ALL the acting gigs are not paying. Here is mostly is just trying to work your way up that ladder so you can make something from it, so until then actors often do look for ways to get cast in non-paying shows simply because it’s a show they want to be apart of. However, there are always some small companies that pay. One of my favorite indie companies that I worked with in the past tells the cast they get 10% of the box office, simply because they do believe in showing that they appreciate their work. I love that concept so much! Plus, it helps get more people in the door to see some theatre which I’d say is a good thing. 🙂

  2. September 16, 2013 10:42 am

    This is a great question, and I’m looking forward to reading different responses to it. Last winter, I did a non paying show which really hurt me financially. I had to request a lot of time off work for it. After it closed, I told myself I wouldn’t do non paying gigs simply because I couldn’t afford it. Now nearly a year later, both my financial and job situations have changed, and I could probably manage a little better. I agree with Crazy Theatre Artists, though – when companies at least provide a stipend, it shows they care and they gain a lot more points in my book.

  3. September 19, 2013 7:48 am

    First of all, nice work on the title of this blog post—drive some google traffic to the blog! 🙂

    Anyway, I think the issue you are struggling with is something that every single actor goes through at some point, and it’s a very personal decision. Just a couple of comments I wanted to make about your post. You mentioned that you have children and a mortgage but still want to act… I just wanted to gently warn you off that way of thinking…every actor has financial and family obligations… many of which are less visible than a house and children, so please don’t assume that actors who don’t have children or a home can just act freely in whatever they want with no worries. It can really cause some bad feelings between you and castmates when one person assumes their situation is more difficult/important/etc …we are all in this together. (I don’t think you meant it in a bad way, I just wanted to say that as a person without those things it drives me nuts when people assume my life is somehow easier.) We all make different choices in life for a lot of different reasons, and we all have challenges, some are just less obvious than others.

    and since you asked, I’ll just say that I think there is a difference between community theatre and professional showcase-code theatre…Now, I’m not saying that there is necessarily a difference in quality (as you say, a lot of community theatre is brilliant and I’m seen some not-very-good professional theatre.) But I think the difference might be in the intention?? If you are doing an unpaid showcase-code piece of theatre in NY, you are usually working with other trained actors who are trying to work regularly in theatre and want to push themselves creatively/learn/get seen/get better/make connections for future work, etc. What I mean is, it’s a career. In community theatre, you are usually working with professionals in other areas who love performing as a hobby and want to do a good show and have some fun, but not necessarily make it a career. And both are totally awesome choices in life. But I think as an actor it’s good to decide which intention you have with your work? Maybe? What do you think?

  4. September 19, 2013 5:05 pm

    I think this is a very personal decision and that Granted is right, the decision will come out of your intention with your career. Where do you want your career to go? And what types of productions will support that future? Your answer is there.

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