Actors For Free – The “Business” of Acting

(crossposted at

What appears to be a workshop of "A Snake That Eats itself" at Dayton Playhouse. Photo by Roujo.

A friend of mine, a theater professional with 20 years of professional experience was just offered an audition, via their agent, for a workshop of a new play. The director of this workshop is an Academy Award winning documentary director. The pay for 25 hours of work is $100 dollars. Total. That’s 4 dollars an hour…for a professional…with 20 years experience. Can you imagine a headhunter calling you and saying “Hey! this is a one week job with a great company! They aren’t going to pay you, but you’ll have an in, maybe, with an important company!”

So what do you get if you take this job? $100. Then the director is free to take what they have gleaned from your 25 hours of virtually free creative toil – and pay other (more famous) people to be in the final product- the one that will get reviewed, have a run, launch a career, launch a film. (Another dear friend was in the fringe production of Urine Town– rehearsed and performed for 4+ weeks, for free – when it came time to cast the Off -Broadway/Broadway show they producers wouldn’t even give him an audition).

Why are agents, people whose job it is to find actors paying work, and who themselves take a cut of that work, submitting their client for a free job? Because the director has an Academy Award and any whiff of fame and success sets the desperate pack a’salivatin’ – causing actors, agents and managers to totally forget that they are actually in business, one that depends on actors’ having value.

If the director can’t come up with any money to pay the professionals he wants to work with, does he have a right to do a workshop with professionals? If no one is willing to give you enough money to even pay minimum wage to your actors- isn’t that perhaps a sign that your project is of little value? I guess if you’re project is of such little value you would perceive the actors that create the project are of equally little value?

I can’t help but think- if actor’s wouldn’t work without getting paid- isn’t it possible the money would appear?

So my caveat is that I just performed in the Midtown International Theater Festival virtually for free. How is this different? First of all, it’s a performance, not a workshop, so I am free to invite people to see my work and thereby attempt to advance my career. But that’s really a minor and dubious perk. Most importantly – I had no illusions. There are no famous people involved, no agents or mangers hinting that this could be a great career move, or any pretense at all of this show leading anywhere-but the Midtown International Theater Festival. My choice to work for free was made with clear eyes and simply predicated on my joy of acting – a joy underscored by the fact that the play was only ten minutes long, the director is a friend and rehearsals were around the corner from my apartment so the commitment was minimal.

Joey and I will be launching our Kickstarter campaign for Better Left Unsaid on August 17th. The campaign raises only a percentage of what we need to produce Better Left Unsaid. Why is our budget so high? Well, 45% of our budget goes towards paying our actors, creative staff and crew (actors are about 10%). The other 55% pays for technology, space, food for our cast and crew, marketing, insurance, equipment and contingency. We could cut out paying people and more quickly raise the funds to produce the first video play to stream live, and it’s possible we will have to… but we believe in paying people for their time and their expertise and are doing everything we can to make that happen. Our wage only comes out to about $10 an hour for our actors- but anyone who chooses to work with us does so with open eyes. We are not important, or famous. We are two people, passionate about the opportunity to merge theater, technology and online video in an entirely new way.

And what do we guarantee our cast? A final version of their work in video form to use in their reels and on their websites. A share in any money the project makes. This project will be publicly presented and streamed all over the world so judging from past experience, there is a great chance they will walk away with press. The opportunity for actors to have their work seen by as large an audience as we can gather, with no limitations on theater space or geographical distance. And, Better Left Unsaid will also be permanently available for download on iTunes so a record of their work will never disappear. Perfect? No…. but we are committed to doing everything we can to pay the professionals that we work with.

What do you think? Are you an actor, a director, a producer, an agent, a writer? Why does it remain status quo to expect actors to work for no pay?

P.S. My friend turned down the audition.


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