How to know if unpaid acting work is useful

Unpaid acting work can indeed be very useful for you. There are of course things to consider though if it is to be of the best use of your time and hard work, or actually if it’s of any use at all.

First, is it totally unpaid, or is there profit share available? And yes, sometimes there is a difference, as if the company can keep the costs low and the audiences coming (stop sniggering please), there actually can be a profit at the end that you can keep and spend at your will, so do check on this and try to get a forecast. And/or there might be expenses involved to keep you at least ticking over, so do have a look at this too, although you may want to consider whether it would be effective expenses or not, keeping you in the black. For example if a company offers £10 a week expenses for a rehearsal period and play, that’s really not helping that much and they might as well just invest that money in the play or marketing to improve those aspects and get more audience in – and therefore more profit.

Right, money aside these are the other things to think about. One of the main aspects of unpaid work is the possibility of getting casting directors or agents in to see your work, and therefore to work with/for them. But, there are issues to consider on whether they will come or not, and therefore if accepting the unpaid work will be useful. So has the venue a good or reasonable reputation, with a good track record, and is it a play that might stand out? I’m saying working with a dodgy (Russian) director in a theatre just off Camden Road – not good; working at the Southwark Playhouse – good.

In terms of the play standing out, is there a USP that is going to draw a casting director along? It’s great that you’re playing Juliet in R&J in your first Shakespeare performance ever, but bear in mind that around the fringe, there is probably in the region of ten, maybe fifteen R&J’s a year, as well as the rest of the canon, and they’re not going to want to go to them all. However, if you are in with a reason chance of getting seen by the RSC, or you are wanting to write to agents, then hey, take the job; it could well be very beneficial. New writing is a good selling point, and if you are working with an author or a director who is in their ascendency – and it is known around town that they are in their ascendency – they this is a great ‘marketing’ point.

Now then, you may not have many credits on your CV as yet and you want to get some darts in the board, so unpaid gigs is a good way to do that too. But again bear in mind reputation; people know about other people in the industry through experience and being around, and if you are working with less that well-reputable, professional or serious colleagues, then these credits ain’t going to mean much. But if you are taking a pay cut to work at the Finborough or Hampstead Theatre say, then Jeez, grab it with both hands and both legs!

Most likely the play will get reviewed by the ever-increasing reviewing industry, and as well all know they are going to be reviewing you too. Now getting a good review is a nice thing, and getting a crap review is a bad thing, but try not to take either of them to heart, as in my opinion what matters during the performance of a play if what the audience gets and takes away from it. A reviewer can get more audience in though for the next performance, which is of course a good thing. But in terms of a good review for you, though it is fun and very nice to receive one (two you say; well done you) this can be very useful for putting quotes on a profile to give you some serious kudos, or when writing to agents or C.D’s to try to sign with them or get them to see you perform. Obviously if you are now to be considered a reputable actor and are in a hit play as the reviews say as much, there is a higher chance they are going to want to see it than not.

Finally - for theatre, there is the experience of performing in a good piece of work, which is immeasurable. It is incredibly satisfying to be part of a great play, and to come away from it after having done a good job and gained an appreciative audience is a great feeling. Working on a good unpaid play you will give yourself the opportunity to learn a lot, to experiment with character and emotions in the rehearsal room, work with other actors and learn from them and learn from the director (if they are a good one), and this is very valuable. And if a lot of elements come together to form a good play, then word might well get around, and there is a chance that at some point you could walk into an audition and the auditioners might have heard of the play, which will give you an advantage. It has happened to me, and again feels good to know that something you worked on is out there in people’s minds.

A word of warning though. Considering some of the above though, I have been in one hit play, one truly brilliant play, and one very good and very successful play – two of them at a reputable and central venue. And despite writing to agents and C.D’s before the play started and during the run with great reviews, I could not get anyone to see a performance. Something to bear in mind, although you might well of course find it easier than I did.

A little note on unpaid film work; again this can be very useful for the experience of working in front of the camera. And you can build a showreel to gain further work, and the necessity of having one now doesn’t need to be repeated here. But again try not to get complacent in taking lower quality projects. Student films can be fun (and indeed can be high quality and run professionally), but if you are looking to work your way up, do consider only working on however many lower quality or unpaid projects is necessary to get you to the next level of paid and/or higher quality stuff. I would say get a few short films on the CV, try and get at least one feature (more if possible); get a few virals/promos or commercials (they are very rarely unpaid but can be lower paid), and maybe a music video and some corporate video work, to ensure you have a good spread and are showing people looking at your CV that you have broad experience. If someone casting a commercial is looking at your CV of six student films, two short films and a music video, that’s nice, but all things equal my money is on the other actor’s CV with two virals/promos on it. That’s the way it is folks, so try get a good spread of work going, and the graduation to paid jobs won’t be long coming. Good luck.