I've written about this before, but the subject has been coming up in all sorts of places including a meeting with an Equity representative at OperaUpClose (where I'm currently singing Eisenstein), chats with other singers, and when this article made the rounds on the social networks.
I have worked for free, paid to sing, worked for rates that make you want to cry, but also worked for sensible pay, and even pay that seems ludicrously generous. I don't want to try and write a rousing post on a theme of 'singers of the world unite and refuse to work for free/pittance'. It's not going to happen. Part of the problem is the idea that we need to undertake these freebies to fill out our CVs and gain experience in order to be in a stronger position when being considered for 'the good work'. I'm not even sure if it does in fact help us in the eyes of a panel, I've not heard much feedback either way from the decision-makers I've spoken to or heard speak publicly on the matter. Personally, I feel I become a better performer with every show I do, but it's getting harder and harder to justify working for next to nothing and I do find myself saying no more often than, say, a year ago. The other part of the 'problem' is that most of us performers love what we do, love being in shows so much that we are hungry for the rehearsal process and the stage (however small) and because of this we say yes more often than perhaps we should. Gullible idealistic bohemian fools? Maybe...
Like I said, I'm not going to save the world with a blog post, but since the conversation is happening and awareness for the issue is rising, I'd like to pass on a piece of advice I got from a colleague that helps me decide for myself if a job is worth taking. And I use the word job deliberately, as most of the offers that come in and require careful consideration by these guidelines use a word that has come to set off alarm bells in my head: opportunity. If someone offers you something they themselves call a fantastic opportunity, stop and think! It means they are setting themselves up as being a benevolent giver of favours, when more often than not they are asking for a favour themselves (this being you giving your time, effort, commitment, talent, training, etc... for free).
When such 'opportunities' come up, my rule is to check it against the three K's: kicks, kudos, kash.
Kicks - enjoyment, fun, artistic fulfilment. Is it a piece I really want to do? Are these people I'm going to love working with? Will it be a fun process that will also teach me something valuable? Is it for a charity I believe in?
Kudos - exposure. Will I be seen by a lot of people? Will there be important people (critics, casting executives, agents, potential sponsors) in the audience? Will the contacts I make with the company, cast, director, MD, etc over the course of the job lead to me being potentially recommended somewhere else?
Kash - money. Will this job pay my bills? Will it cover my immediate expenses incurred to undertake it (travel to audition, travel to job, dining out, coffee, accommodation)? Does the pay reflect the time I have to put in outside the rehearsal room to learn the material? Does a show fee reflect the fact that on a show day, to deliver my A game, it's best not to be distracted by other work? Does the pay help me offset the costs of my training (college fees, years of not working a steady job but spent honing my craft, the cost of lessons and coachings I undertake on a regular basis to stay on form)? Assess the number of hours/days actually involved in the process and work out the hourly/daily rate they offer and compare it to what you think your time is worth (and if you don't have an idea about that yet, get one!).
Checklist done, and the rule of thumb is to only take jobs that give you two out of the three. There will be exceptions. It's hard to say no to something that makes a very strong monetary argument for example. Or to a friend, or a heart-wrenching charity. However this checklist works for me for most things that aren't an obvious gut-reaction yes or no, and it might work for other people out there as a way of giving a bit of structure to the uhming, ahing, but-ing, and general nervous thinking that often comes with these 'opportunities'.
And remember (WARNING, the following paragraph may be considered by some to be condescending, I apologise in advance), once you say yes to something, whatever it may be, treat it like you would working for ROH. Deliver your A game, because it's your reputation on the line, and you're the one who committed to it by saying yes. I've seen people display really poor attitude on shows that they complained 'weren't real work'. Well, grumble if you must (just make sure you trust who you're venting to), but take the actual work seriously, because in this job word of mouth is king, and I've lost count of the times I've been asked 'Have you worked with X? What is he/she like?'. And I'm not who you'd call an 'important person' in the grand scheme of things. The people who sometimes ask me these questions, however...
In an ideal world we'd always be paid what our time is worth, but the reality is that everyone does freebies. We hope that one day we'll stop... But then again there are friends that I like to believe I will always say yes to if I can only afford to, because I love working with them. I love what I do, and feel fortunate that I'm here doing it thanks to enormous ammounts of support (both moral and financial) from family and generous individuals, trusts, etc. Here's to hoping that this love will develop into a steady career where my job is also my hobby!