How to decide whether to do unpaid work
This is a particularly pertinent question these days. Time after time, one sees great roles being offered only to be sorely disappointed by the lack of any pay; sometimes not even travel expenses are offered. It is not only disappointing but often hits the anger and injustice button, too. (I could write thousands of words on the frustration of this current situation for professional actors but that's another matter.)
With regard to theatre, there are several considerations to ponder over when an unpaid job seems appealing.
1) Is it a show-off role?
If it is, and you feel it would stretch you as an actor, providing you with the opportunity to explore your capabilities, then the next thing to weigh up is whether you could invite useful industry figures to attend the stage performance. Do you need to persuade casting directors / your agent that you are far more versatile than they thought?
2) Will industry figures see you in role?
This is a major consideration in your decision. There is a wealth of difference between working on a well-worn classic in a low profile fringe venue and creating a role in an original piece, staged in one of the major fringe (Off-West End) theatres in London. Basically, casting directors etc will not attend the first option but you stand a good chance of igniting interest if you are involved in an established, well-attended fringe venue with a good name for new works.
3) Does the writing excite you?
Chances are that a re-run of an old favourite will not excite the creativity in you as much as approaching a brand new character in a brand new play. The same applies to industry figures who are invited to countless shows every day of their working lives: another version of 'The Importance of Being Earnest?' or an new, edgy and current piece of writing?
4) Can you actually afford to work on this play?
Inevitably, you are going to find yourself out of pocket: even worse than not being paid is the fact that you are going to be digging into your own finances to support yourself throughout rehearsals and the run. Once more, if you believe that being seen in the play will pay dividends in the long run, then perhaps your pocket will just have to tolerate a substantial hit. In that case, absolutely contact all useful industry figures (tailored to your own ends) and collaborate with the rest of the cast (and the director) so that you all know who has been invited to attend the show, and when. You might even benefit from the invitee of another cast member who could remember your performance in the future. It's a very good plan to have the cast pinning a list of important audience members onto a wall in the dressing room.
5) Do not underestimate the expense involved in taking on an unpaid job.
Not only are you missing out on any income to sustain you, but you are constantly paying out for travel, food and all the extras that crop up naturally throughout the run of a play. Is it worth it? Use the contacts you have, make the very most of the role you have undertaken and maybe - just maybe - that unpaid job will conjure up proper, paid work for you.
If you can't answer 'Yes' to considerations 1- 4 above, then the answer is pretty simple and staring you in the face.