What To Do When They Don’t Want To Pay You

Know that you deserve to be paid

There is something everyone should know about working in the arts. Once you make the decision to devote your life to acting (or, indeed, nearly any artistic endeavor), you start pumping out a distinct set of pheromones that broadcast a single message to the rest of the world: I am a person you don’t have to pay. This is the science of the entertainment business, and you had better accept that now, because forewarned is forearmed.

There is no silver bullet that will kill this werewolf. You can be working with people you know and they might feel perfectly fine passing along a check months after the agreed-upon date. You can accept a highly recommended project that has elicited no complaints from colleagues, and still get screwed. You can sign a contract, and your employers might still fall victim to the notion that it is acceptable to play fast and loose with your paycheck. Many people in our society have simply been trained to believe that the arts are more hobby than career and compensation regulations are more guidelines than rules. So now that you know you are dealing with pirates, let’s learn how to parlay.

STEP 1: Know that you deserve to be paid.

Incredibly, many actors are drinking the Kool Aid on this one. Especially young actors. I have done this on a number of occasions. It is very easy when you are emotionally invested in your work to feel like mercenary concerns should be secondary. I’ve been in situations where I am working for a small, struggling company about which I care deeply, or with friends who aren’t complaining about the lack of pay, or where the project is doing such good things for the community it feels wrong to kick up a fuss. It’s easy to think that this one time, you can just grit your teeth, tighten your belt and hope they pay you in time to pay rent. Except let me tell you right now: it is not going to be just this one time. This is a curse that will haunt your career until you get some holy water and sage and perform your own DIY exorcism. You have to train yourself to believe you are worthy of being paid, on time, every time, in full and as promised.

Just because you love what you do does not mean you should be expected to survive on that love alone.

STEP 2: Take the necessary precautions.

Especially if you are a young non-equity actor, it is crucial to tackle the business side of acting correctly. I know that, realistically, it is likely you will do some side projects early on for exposure or personal growth or what have you, but it is important to approach even these as business endeavors as much as possible. Don’t accept an opportunity on a handshake. I did a short independent anthology a while back on the promise of footage for my reel. Against my better judgment, I didn’t push for a contract. A couple of heavy-hitting artists were working on the project and I felt that I knew what I was getting into, since all the actors involved were donating their time. We were treated very well and everyone ended on good terms. Many months later, after numerous emails to many involved, promises of edited footage were getting ever vaguer. I still have not received any of the promised material, and there is nothing to be done about it, because no one signed anything. Don’t let this be you.

STEP 3: Speak up. And keep speaking up.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask about compensation before accepting the job. Verify particulars before signing a contract, and make sure to get it all properly in writing. And then if things don’t go as planned, don’t be afraid to send emails. And then send more emails. And go over peoples’ heads if you have to. It is an unfortunate fact that pests are more likely to get paid.

So prepare to make a shameless nuisance of yourself. I am particularly serious about the “shameless” part. No actor wants to burn bridges, and I am a perpetual advocate of diplomacy, but you can stand up for yourself and maintain good relations. If the day ever comes where you have to choose between claiming your rights and staying in someone’s good graces, they probably were not worth your time to begin with.

This is your business. It does not devalue your art to demand compensation for the services you render. Rather, it sends the message that you believe what you do is worth something to society.

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com