3 Reasons to Stop Shaming Volunteer Theater… And One Time When You Should

Cartoon man holding out empty pockets

Today I’m going to talk about.. dun, dun, DUN!, actors working for free. Or at least very low pay. For the sake of this article, I’m gonna call this “volunteer theater”. I say that to simplify it. Because sometimes the term “volunteer” is used interchangeably in theater. There are some people that refer to acting (and other theater gigs) to “volunteering” if it pays absolutely nothing, AS WELL AS if it pays a low stipend. I prefer to use that term in cases where people aren’t paid a cent, but to simplify this article, I’m just going to use the term “volunteer” to refer to no pay AND low pay theater. (I would classify low pay as $100 or less but that’s up to interpretation.)

cartoon silhouette of actors

So… an audition notice is posted for a volunteer gig. Some people are wagging their tails, some people are shaking their fists in the air. That latter is usually a bunch of arm chair liberals who boast about being fair and equitable while demonizing the people producing volunteer theater and ignoring the fact that most of the time, these producers have no choice. I think that’s pretty much like me chastising someone for using a cell phone that was likely made with child labor, or any other outrageous thing that’s beyond our control.. Do we condone these things? Of course not. We do it because we’re worker bees. So instead of attacking us, why not go after the powers-that-be? And if you can’t do that, just do what you can to be progressive. (A little goes a long way.) But just because my clothes were possibly made in a sweat shop, doesn’t mean they’re not second hand. So figure that out.

Emoji with top hat and sunglasses, shrugging

Volunteer theater (which falls into the category of Community Theater) is give and take. And usually there’s a good reason for it. Here’s the cold, hard truth. I have a strong resume. And the simple fact of the matter is, I wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for volunteer theater because most of those roles were volunteer. The same is true for many other actors. Do I wish it were different? Sure I do. Of course, I’d also like it if beer came outta my kitchen faucet, but that’s not gonna happen either! Now that’s not to say I always think volunteer theater is excusable. But most of the time, it’s a grey area. So with that, here are three reasons to stop bitching about–I mean shaming–volunteer theater… and one time when you should.

1. Volunteer actors are still getting something out of the experience!

Silhouette of two men shaking hands

With the exception of some people, actors aren’t volunteering their time out of the kindness of their hearts. Whether or not they’re glad to volunteer, they are still getting something from being in a play. Sure I’ve heard the hashtag “exposure doesn’t pay the bills”. Well, neither does a $300 stipend. It’s money I could definitely use all the time, but it’s still not an hourly paying job or a salaried job. When I got paid that amount for playing Hippolyta/a random extra fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was great! But that was seven years ago–you think that money is gonna go to my electric bill this month?! But I was still glad to have it! On the other hand, when I played Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker four years ago I wasn’t paid a dime. But you know what I have now? A very strong role on my resume. That part had everything! A plethora of emotions, a heavy line load, stage combat, a period costume (moving in a 19th century outfit is much different from my 21st century clothes), and an accent! (Some productions don’t have her with an Irish accent, ours did though.) This role is demanding in every way a role can be. And now, finally, a director can look at my resume and say “OK, she can carry a show”. Getting that role was one of the best things to ever happen for me as an actor. I took the role, not just for the resume credit, but also simply because I wanted to! It was a good career move, and an enriching experience! I’ve also recently taken a small part for no pay, even though at this point in my life I usually don’t take small roles. Why’d I do it? Because it was my second show with them and repeating a company looks great on a resume. Plus, I got back into dancing because of it (the show was a musical) and that’s great. These are just a couple examples, but the point is, actors aren’t volunteering their time for shits and giggles–they are still getting something in return for their work!

2. Most volunteer shows want to pay actors… but can’t.

Running away balloon meme

As long as both the actor and the producer are OK with everything, as long as the producer has told everyone involved exactly what they’re getting into, as long as the producer is doing everything in their means to make this as smooth of a production as possible, and as enjoyable as possible, and with as much quality as possible, live and let live! I’m at a place in my life where I can do volunteer theater… but that likely won’t always be the case. The same is true for several actors. But I know that it’s important to strike while the iron is hot, otherwise I wouldn’t have my strong resume. I have produced many low budget shows. And I mean really low budget. But I still did everything in my power to make it a good experience for all. Did I make mistakes? Sure, but I learned from them. But all the while, I did things to alleviate the situation. I explained very clearly to participants that this is a shoe string production, so people will have to have flexibility (within reason.) I explained that because I don’t have the means that a professional company has that things will go wrong here and there, or we’ll have a smaller theater, etc. I had an open door policy where people could bring something to my attention if they weren’t happy about something and if there was a problem, I listened and fixed it. I treated everyone with the utmost professionalism and respect. In fact, I even wrote a letter of recommendation for a beginner stage manager I had that he can use for future jobs. I say all this because believe me, I’ve been in some volunteer shows where I was basically treated like cattle. And folks, just because someone signs up to do a volunteer show, that doesn’t mean you should walk all over them.

Newton's Cradle illustration with 7 gold balls, with the right one away from the others. From the left, they read "what", "who", "where", "when", "how", "why", and a question mark in the last one.

But here’s the bottom line. People have reasons for doing volunteer theater and not doing it. Both sides should be listened to. I offered an actor I knew a role in the last low budget show I produced. But he’s at a time in his life where he can’t do volunteer theater, and career wise, he doesn’t really need to. I didn’t know this of course. And ya know what he did? He politely declined. He didn’t bite my head off, he understood that I’d love to pay participants something decent, he understood that I’m just a person trying to make art, in a world that’s not kind to artists, so I’m doing what I can. And in turn, I understood that for valid reasons, he couldn’t be in my show. I respected his situation, he respected mine. This is not a difficult concept. And in other news, water is wet.

Sure it’s a bummer not being able to provide decent payment, if any, upfront. But that’s not to say you can’t do things to attract more participants. How about having a crowdfunding campaign for actor/crew stipends, and keep it up throughout the run. You can have a QR code at shows, have a link on your theater website, post it frequently on social media, etc. I do this for volunteer shows I produce and both the actors/crew and the audience appreciate it. Other ideas include passing a hat for donations after shows, having a box for donations, etc.

Cartoon silhouette of a person pushing a large, heavy ball up a hill

I’m not gonna lie. Being in a shoestring show can sometimes mean a rough road. But that doesn’t necessarily means it’s a bad experience, and it certainly doesn’t automatically mean it’s a low quality show. Furthermore, volunteer theater deserves respect and it changes lives and keeps theater going! And actors are usually doing it because they know that this experience will pay off for bigger opportunities. Namely, making a living as an actor, working on some professional shows, getting a guaranteed job in theater, or all of the above. That’s sure as hell why I do it. Working in professional theater is something worth having–and seriously folks, since when does something worth having come easily?! That’s why I don’t work a “day job” for free–because it’s not my life’s dream to be a dishwasher, or a clerk, or an Office Assistant, etc.

3. Very little funding for theater.

Rolled up dollars sticking out of fresh soil

Real talk. There is very little funding for theater and other arts and yet, people who shame the ones who put on volunteer theater are usually the people who fail to see just how inequitable the funding world is. To be fair, maybe some of these people don’t mean to, and maybe their intentions are good but they are still doing harm. What’s more, we live in a society that constantly devalues and even demonizes the arts. So we do what we have to do. I’m surrounded by theater makers who put on mostly smooth productions including paying and nonpaying gigs. Do they work hard? You’re damn right they do and I commend them. But they also have help that a lot of others don’t. Such as money, family and friends to help, money, consistent mentorship, money, someone holding their hand the whole time, and oh yeah, money. Hell, most, if not all the places or people I’ve seen will only help with funding if the producer has already raised a lot of money and gotten resources–something that’s next to impossible if you’re poor. Also, most poor people don’t have time. Waiting months or a year or longer for a grant is a lot easier if you don’t have to worry about paying your rent, or facing other responsibilities. People say “life happens”. Ya know what else? Shitty life happens. If you tell me producers who put on paying gigs got this money and resources to do so without help that people like me can only ever dream of, I will say that is, at best, naïve. People like me aren’t so lucky so the stark reality is we have to cut corners. But you know what? In the last show I produced I had an audience member see the play at least three times! People commended me for the quality of the show. And actors have got strong roles on their resumes because of me, and I’ve managed to get good reviews.

Video still of M. Emmet Walsh in "Romeo and Juliet" with a caption that says "my poverty but not my will consents"

People have reasons for both producing, and acting in volunteer theater. Whether that’s big career goals, or simply doing it for the enjoyment. Volunteer theater provides this, that’s a fact! The problem isn’t producers putting on volunteer theater, and that’s because WE’RE FORCED TO DO SO. The problem is an utter lack of funding for theater–especially with underserved populations such as low income people, women, people of color, the disabled, LGBTQIA and more. If you have an issue with this, then attack the problem at it’s source! Go after the powers-that-be that make it difficult to produce theater in the first place, advocate for better funding for the arts, donate money to a small theater that despite their means, are doing innovative work (like this one for example) :D, see a shoe string production, mentor an underserved artist–do all of this and more. And if you can’t do any of this, that’s OK too. Just don’t pour gas on the fire by demonizing people of limited means who just wanna make their art.

OK, so when should you shame volunteer theater?

Well, the short answer is, any time they’re willingly unscrupulous in some way. First of all, if a company can afford to pay their artists but they choose not to, this is a big reason to shame them. That should be obvious, but some people who do this are the type that think actors should be licking their boots. Remember, the biggest point of this article is that most producers (including me) who put on volunteer theater want to pay their artists but we simply can’t. Another example of volunteer theater that’s behaving badly is any time they’re irresponsible. Are they not bringing on a fight choreographer when the show involves stage combat? Are they breaking copyright rules? Are they not getting event insurance? Are they turning a blind eye to unsafe conditions? Or basically doing anything else that’s a huge red flag? If so, run! When I choose to do volunteer theater, I expect the company to act professional, to treat me with respect, to be responsible, and do everything that’s reasonably expected of them to make it a good experience. Otherwise, I want nothing to do with them.

Here’s the bottom line: shaming the little people instead of the powers-that-be is adding to the problem. This is all a grey area, so stop and think. Doing community theater with modest means can pay off! After all, Steppenwolf Theatre got their start in the basement of a church! Perhaps we can create a society where volunteer theater is a thing of the past, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you wanna go for that, be my guest. But in the meantime, stop putting the burden on the wrong people. I guess what I’m trying to say is… if you see honest, hard working start up artists producing volunteer shows because they essentially have no choice but still wanna make good theater, you can do one of two things: cut them a check, or shut the fuck up! Either option is perfectly acceptable.

Gif of Sarah Lynn from Bojack Horseman that says "Suck a dick dumbshits" and blowing a raspberry

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *