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Should you take unpaid work?

Unpaid work. Should you take it? What’s good unpaid work and what’s bad. Different designers have different views on the matter but for what it’s worth here are mine:

Let’s first set things straight. It’s important to make the distinction between unpaid work and “experience”. “Experience is where you work for free and get something back in return (namely experience. Ideally experience that you may not have gained elsewhere) Unpaid work however is when you do your job (Designer, Scenic Artist, Puppet maker, Costume construction) as you normally would but you are not paid for it. It’s the latter that I am very cynical of and my advice is that if you are offered unpaid work you should seriously consider its implications.


We recently sent out details of a design job for a theatre company that planned to tour some significant theatres in the UK. We published news of this job in good faith. However it transpired that the work was infact unpaid. I’m not very happy that we (sceno.org) had gotten into the situation of unwittingly advertising an unpaid position because on principle I don’t believe that any designer should take unpaid work.

Here’s why: You have probably trained for about three years, you (or your government) have invested considerable money in your career. You are a highly trained professional. If a show is going on a national tour and is charging admittance why on earth are you not being paid?

Designer and Puppet Specialist Ria Wicks recently sent us an email discussing this point:

These jobs make me so angry. They want someone with lots of skills to produce their entire design and construction, but are unprepared to pay for them. If they are a company that are touring premier venues then they shouldn’t be exploiting professionally trained artists. I, like many others in this industry have had 3 years training at university level, plus 6 years professional experience and it is still a struggle to convince people that I am trying to make my living. I know new designers need experience but if they continue to take on jobs like this then they will soon find they won’t be able to find paid work, and neither will I! These unpaid positions should be pitched squarely at students still at college.

And I couldn’t agree more. In the UK there are plenty of design courses (too many in my opinion) its there that such companies should look for “free designers”

While it’s true that you may gain experience from working for free I do not believe that that in itself is a big enough pay-off. Certainly if you are going to take such work you need to make sure all material, travel and living expenses are being paid.

What constitutes good work experience?

  1. An environment in which you will learn. Although you will be required to work you should make sure that in return those supervising you are mentoring you in some way.
  2. All material expenses are paid : there should be no room for negotiation on this, if they want you to cough up for the materials you use it’s time to say “goodbye”*
  3. Travel Expenses : Ideally these should be paid.
  4. Living expenses : if the job requires you to live away from home they should pay for your accommodation and any utility bills*
  5. Other rewards : The company should offer you every perk they have at their disposal. Free tickets, free use of their office/studio space. Free/Discounted tickets for future shows

*Theatre Design is an expensive business. If the company isn’t willing to pay for your materials then why should you? Why should you subsidise their company/organisation?

Unpaid Work

If you must undertake unpaid work (IE: doing your job for free), I strongly urge you to consider the following:

  • Is anyone else being paid? If so you need to seriously consider the appropriateness of the job. It is NOT acceptable for a designer to go unpaid whilst directors, actors, and other production staff earn a wage.
  • How much are the tickets selling for, unless they are free or significantly lower than average you should question why you are not receiving some of that money.
  • The Model Box, all artwork costs, technical drawings and other significant costs should come from the budget. There is no room for argument here, these items cost a lot of money. Why should you contribute more than other parties?
  • All reasonable travel expenses should be paid.
  • If the job requires you to live away from home you should receive living expenses.

My first point in that list is a particular aggravation for me. There are a number of “companies” who will happily pay actors and directors and not designers. That is in no way acceptable and if you are offered such a job you should politely refuse. Bluntly put such organisations are “cowboys” If they wish to engage in professional theatre they should be prepared to construct a professional budget.

Charities and “Charitable Organisations”

You may also find from time to time jobs that are advertised by charitable organisations. In the UK charities have to prove that they exist for the benefit of the wider public. However be aware that charities can employ key personal whilst using volunteers. If offered such a job you need to evaluate whether your position is “key” if so then should they really be offering the job as unpaid? Simply put: calculate whether your commitment to the job represents significant time and financial contribution, if you are in financial difficulties and if its a matter of conscience perhaps you would be better off finding a paid job and donating money to the charity instead.

Profit Shares

These are always a bit of a punt. Usually a group of friends team together to pool some money into a budget and hire a venue. Each persons contribution is either equal or worked out to a percentage. If the show does well you might get your money back. If it does fantastically you might even earn some money.

Things to look out for:

  1. Make sure the model box, technical drawings, costume drawings and all props/scenery are budgeted items and you will not be paying for them.
  2. Some profit shares will take into account “hours worked” be wary of these and make sure you log what you do.

Community Theatre

In the UK and other countries Community Theatre (As distinct from amateur theatre) serves to enable the community access to a professional theatre environment and to be part of a professionally produced production. As a general rule all of the production staff are professionals and the actors are community members volunteering their time, in some examples the cast is made up of both professional an community actors. These productions are often paid for by local councils and arts council funding. You should not be asked to offer your time for free.

No such thing as Free!

Remember there is no such thing as free! Your time is not free, you can’t get materials for free, you can’t travel for free, you can’t eat for free, you can’t house yourself for free. All of those things cost money, somewhere down the line someone has to pay – if you can’t afford to can you really afford to work for free?

Rules of Thumb

Of course most of this is my personal opinion. If you are excited enough in a project or are just starting out then perhaps there may be a need to work for free. However as Ria points out be aware of getting caught in a loop of free work. While you are working for free the chances of you meeting directors/companies who will pay you remain low and in my experience most people find themselves moving from one free job to another.



6 thoughts on “Should you take unpaid work?

  1. Fifi – You go sista,

    I love a discussded of Tumbridge Wells – i can feel the hate – especially as i have seen how brilliant a nd gifted an artist you are.

    Good to know the rants are not just for me – brilliant

    Now about that christmas job………..

    Posted by Leon | August 13, 2009, 8:52 am
  2. Martin, when’s the union being launched?
    Christmas? Love to.. what’s the fee

    Posted by Ria | August 13, 2009, 10:50 pm
  3. Hi Ria,

    Yes I never did reply to you about a theatre designers union.

    In the UK designers are entitled to Equity membership… who in my own personal opinion could do a lot more.

    As for Sceno.org setting up a union… well thats an expensive business and given that we fail year on year to raise enough cash to pay our bills I can’t see us stumping up the million odd quid or two we’d need for setting up a union!

    Posted by martin | August 15, 2009, 2:22 pm
  4. One of my proudest moments was when I (and the carpentry and paint staff) walked off a show leaving a half-built half-painted set with a note that said something like ‘good luck on opening night’. The producer had refused to make two contractually agreed payments and had suggested that he might decide not to pay us until after the box office receipts were in–if then. I’ve never regretted that decision! We were non-union but managed some worker solidarity nonetheless. Abuse of workers’ good will is rampant in theatre and it’s disgraceful.

    Posted by Terry | August 18, 2009, 1:29 am
  5. I belong to BECTU, but really it’s down to individuals who are feeding the fire of free labour.

    Posted by Ria | August 19, 2009, 8:18 am

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