3 Steps to Profiting from Unpaid Projects

Portrait Of Happy Woman Flexing Her MusclesEasily one of the most discouraging things about being a professional actor is the tendency of the rest of the world to treat you as though you have no profession at all. People will ask you what your “real job” is. Friends, family and even industry professionals will expect you to perform for free, for the love of it. But love don’t pay the rent, bunnies, and at a certain point, the value of the experience gained from non-paying projects will be outweighed by your empty refrigerator.

Still, there will be many times throughout your career (especially in the beginning), when you will be persuaded to take unpaid or low-paying projects. It’s going to happen. It will be a role you always wanted to play, or your very best friend in grad school will have a thesis project, or someone will get you drunk when you’re feeling particularly desperate—bow to the inevitability. The important thing is to figure out how to make these projects valuable to your career.

Step 1: Filtering

While we’ve previously visited the subject of choosing projects, the truth is sometimes your choices will be limited. Acting is an emotional business and sometimes decisions are made from the heart, or out of insecurity, rather than whatever part of your brain houses a facility for making grown-up decisions. And that’s OK. Most of the bizarre anecdotes with which you will plan to entertain the grandchildren you can’t afford will come from these adventurous times. But if you keep a few helpful filters in your brain at all times, these decisions might be easier.

  1. Will it haunt you later in your career? There are certain projects, whether they are in outrageously poor taste, or done in a way that violates some personal moral code, that will never be worth it. For example, I’m not necessarily opposed to nudity, but I’m sure not doing it for free. (Also, I def want some high quality cameras and state-of-the-art editing on that). If you would be ashamed to have it on a reel, consider extra carefully.
  2. Will it help you grow as an artist? If the role is one you wouldn’t normally get to play, it might be worth it to explore your range or try something new. If you’ve never been on a set, maybe a low-budget project is your ticket to experience. If the project is affording you any sort of education, it might be an opportunity worth your time and effort.
  3. Will it keep you sharp? There have been times, during a dry spell, when I’ve accepted projects that pay less than my usual standards just to keep myself from getting rusty. If it keeps the creative juices flowing and gives you an opportunity to work on your technique, it might be a good choice.
  4. Will it feed your soul? Sometimes, yeah, you do it for the love of it. There will be many, many gigs you accept for mercenary purposes. If you’re stuck in a streak of projects you take because “a job is a job,” you may need to remind yourself why you love what you do with a project that is pure fun and creativity. And that is absolutely fine.

If it keeps the creative juices flowing and gives you an opportunity to work on your technique, it might be a good choice. Many, many gigs you accept for mercenary purposes. If you’re stuck in a streak of projects you take because “a job is a job,” you may need to remind yourself why you love what you do with a project that is pure fun and creativity. And that is absolutely fine.

Step 2: Getting Your Head in the Game

It can be easy to get complacent about projects that don’t pay well. They don’t feel “real,” they are often extremely rushed, or filmed/performed under conditions that aren’t ideal, or you might be surrounded by people greener than you. It’s so easy to blow it off as a favor you’re doing a friend, that doesn’t require your full attention. But the fact is you just never know who might get a hold of work you produce. You never know who will show up, who will film something you never thought would get filmed, or who will pass on that student film you did ten years ago to someone who might cast you. So if you’re going to do a project, even a free one, make it count. It just makes sense to produce work of which you can be proud. Try not to throw away a single submission, and always put your best foot forward. (Artists have long memories). As long as you’re donating your time, you might as well make it something you could use in the future.

Step 3: Marketing the Result

If it’s filmed, demand copy. Even the oddest projects have potential to be spliced into a reel—you only need a few seconds of good acting! Anything you like, chop it up, put it on your Cast It Talent profile, use it for submissions (if it’s appropriate), and send it out! Also, any time you’re involved with an artistic endeavor is an opportunity for networking. Make friends, keep up with their work, maybe you’ll work with them again someday. Maybe people you help out now will return the favor later.

It is true that as you progress with your career, unpaid projects will hopefully decrease in regularity. You will turn many, many of them down, and that’s as it should be. However, we all pay our dues at some point, and there is no reason not to be smart about it. Remember even the baby steps are still moving you forward.

 

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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