I once read that if you had to write a disclaimer on a blog, you shouldn’t be writing the blog because you know it’s wrong – but I’m starting with a disclaimer. Theatre friends, if you think this blog is about you, it isn’t. It’s about the jobs I kept secret, it’s about the jobs I did when I’d only ever lit school shows before, the jobs where I didn’t know any better. I doubt the people this blog is about will ever, ever read what I have to say.
Recently, I lost out on a job I really wanted. That’s life, and it’s freelance life even more so – I’ve been rejected plenty of times before! I told my friends, and we all had a chat about why I’d possibly lost out on this job. Lots of excuses were made; I can’t drive, I’ve got shows booked around it, they’d already given it to a friend, I wasn’t good enough for the role (harsh, but most likely!) – all the usual reasons alongside pats on the back, and the promise that everything happens for a reason.
One reason that cropped up, however, was that the person who got the job might have been cheaper than me, and that made me see red. I charge a very reasonable rate for my work and if someone was charging less than me they’d be seriously undercutting themselves. “Why are they doing that?” I thought out loud, “Don’t they realise how important they are to the show? Why wouldn’t they charge a reasonable wage?”
I never used to charge a reasonable wage. In fact, the first three years I tried to get in to this industry, I worked for free. I’d jump at the chance to get experience on a show, often stating I’d work for free before anyone even mentioned money. I was new to theatre, I needed all the experience I could get! So I’d put 100% into my work, I’d spend every second I could reading desk manuals, programming and reprogramming, hanging fixtures, changing lamps – and all for free. When I was 18, and my ‘not going to university plan’ wasn’t going to plan, I applied to LIPA, was accepted, and realised that all my free work wouldn’t be very helpful when I was a poor student. I needed money. Yes, I was working full time in a shop and doing theatre in the night but if I got paid for the theatre work on top of my normal wage I’d be able to get to university!
So, I started to charge a small amount for my work and, very quickly, the people who I’d worked with for years for free vanished. The friendships I’d made and the working relationships I’d built up broke down. If I saw them in the street they’d hug me, ask me how I was, and say “no hard feelings, but we can’t afford to pay you, we need to pay the venue and the ticket people and the actors, we wish you could work with us again, but we just can’t afford you.” And I would wish them luck, and go and see the show and wonder why I didn’t deserve a wage but everyone else on the team did. Why they could work to pay their rent, but I worked out of the love of theatre. Suddenly I was jobless, I was jobless like whoever had come before me became jobless when I offered our skills for free.
I didn’t realise, that by working for free, I was stealing a wage from someone else. A job was there, a role needed filling or the show could not happen, and I did it for free. I undervalued myself and other people in my industry, and took a potential job from them that could have paid their rent, their bills, bought them a holiday or a meal, but I took it off them and myself by working for free, and now I needed money.
I worked for free for such a long time, not realising the repercussions. Even when I started charging, my daily rate was so small it didn’t end up covering my expenses – because I didn’t think my work was valuable. I didn’t think I had any right to charge for what I was doing, because there were people out there, in the big wide working world who were better than me.
Obviously, there are. Obviously there will always be people better than me at everything – but they’re not doing that job at that moment. I am. I am using my time and skills to provide a service and I deserve to be paid for it. I also deserve to be paid for the responsibilities I take on as part of that job. My wage doesn’t just pay for the fact that I will set up props and call a show each night – it covers the responsibilities of prompting, evacuating in a fire, ensuring health and safety procedures are followed, problem solving should a prop break, or the cast jump over a few pages, and stopping a show. Most of these things are very rare – my wage covers the fact that if something was to go wrong, it would be my responsibility to sort it, and my fault if it wasn’t sorted. Imagine having the responsibility of making sure all the actors were accounted for in a fire, to the point you have to run up flights of stairs checking dressing rooms and reporting on their status, and you weren’t even getting paid for it. Would you? Would you stay in that building while everyone has the freedom to evacuate? You’d be a fool if you did.
Work experience is a great thing. Work experience is a fantastic opportunity and something everyone should take part in – but as soon as your role becomes so involved that work couldn’t happen if you weren’t there, you deserve a wage. As soon as you become responsible for anything or anyone but yourself, you deserve a wage.
There are, of course, exceptions. In the first studio theatre I worked in, and the place I really learnt about hard work, no one took home a proper wage. It was a labour of love, and something we did to support writers, actors, designers and performers. I wrote for free for a magazine for months, but so did everybody else. Even the founder wasn’t taking a wage for the first year! While I’d love to say that a venture shouldn’t go ahead if it can’t afford to properly pay its workers, we all know how many things wouldn’t see the light of day if that was the case. But being the only person on a team wageless, or with a wage that it just a pittance? Unacceptable. Being a group of people working for free while one person at the top takes home a huge profit? Unacceptable. And we accept it far too often – especially in creative industries, but it only happens because we let it happen.
You are worth a wage. Everyone around you is worth a wage. Don’t put yourself down so much you don’t believe you deserve one. Don’t put your skills down so much you don’t believe you deserve one. Don’t put your industry down so much you don’t think you deserve one.
You’re worth your wages.