The Consequences of Free Labor

I’m going to be slightly hyperbolic in this post because this is something that’s been bothering me for a while.

In April, I saw a play called “The Mysteries” at the Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan. It was a 5.5-hour adaptation of “The Bible.” Afterwards, I left feeling a mixture of rapture and guilt. It was a magnificent, ambitious piece of work that is rarely seen in the theater these days. And at the same time, I also felt immensely guilty afterwards. I felt drained and yet, if I was feeling like I’ve been marathon-watching “Lord of the Rings,” the cast probably felt like they were marathon-ing “Harry Potter.”

Not only did they perform for 5.5 hours for my enjoyment, they were also playing gracious hosts: serving me dinner, posing for Facebook photos and making conversation with me during intermission. It was well beyond your typical actors’ duties at a theater. The Bats (the Flea’s resident acting ensemble which perform in all of the shows at the theater) acted for 5.5 hours and then entertained the audience before, after and during intermission. Add that to getting ready for the show, cleaning up after the audience leaves, the actors in “The Mysteries” probably put in close to 7+ hours a night, 4 times a week. That’s almost a full workday.

And they don’t get paid for any of that time.

If you move to NYC and become an actor, then you too can pretend to get crucified for free!
If you move to NYC and become an actor, then you too can pretend to get crucified for free!

I recently wrote an article for “American Theatre” about student loan debt in the theater. The reason for it was because unlike other professions, a majority of people in the arts are not employed in it full time. And that is the norm. The average theater artist makes $35,000 a year, if they’re lucky enough to have constant employment throughout the year, since most of these artists work on a freelance/by-contract basis. When you have rent to pay, as well as loans and bill, it’s difficult to make $35k stretch very far. And unlike the more lucrative STEM fields, most people who graduate with a performing arts degree will never be able to pay back what they owe.

The “New York Times” recently ran an article about the actors in “The Mysteries,” who have to schedule their side job (usually waiting tables for $400-$800 a week) around this unpaid yet artistically fulfilling  opportunity. When talking about lack of pay/low-pay in the theater, supporters of it stress buzz words like artistic opportunity, resume building, not being able to afford to pay its artists or say that they are following present Actors Equity minimum.

When I first started out in journalism, I worked for clips, getting by on financial aid and on the satisfaction of seeing my byline. I traveled from Syracuse to New York City weekly during grad school so I could intern at “Backstage.” Over the course of a number of internships, I wrote long-form features and front-page articles, and shot and edited videos, all for class credit.

By the time I was done with grad school and sending out my resume, I was done with writing for free. Because I was burned out, I was tired of doing what I loved, something I was good at, without getting paid for it. I started to become less satisfied with my byline. Because what was the point of all this output if I wasn’t sure how I was going to afford rent in Washington Heights?

Journalism and theater aren’t so different sometimes. It’s a reality of most glamour industries (whether its the performing arts, fashion or journalism) that you have to pay your dues. Suffer for the first few years, work two jobs, do your passion for free, and eventually, you will be rewarded by actually getting paid for your work. Yet for today’s graduates, who are entering an over-saturated job market, usually saddled with debt, and spending 44 percent of their income on rent, such a gamble isn’t financially feasible. And I would argue it’s a detriment to the industries in questions for the following three reasons.

1) Homogeneity

Who can afford to live in New York City making $400, or even $800 a week? When you are building your industry on the backs of free labor, then you are automatically closing the doors to those who cannot afford to do that, either because they have families to support, or because they come from a middle- to low-income background and their parents cannot afford to pay their rent while they take that unpaid internship for three months. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to have a sister who lived in New York City, who put me up every week that semester, I wouldn’t have been able to take that unpaid internship, which wouldn’t have gotten me those clips which are essential when applying for journalism jobs.

If there’s a way to ensure that there is little diversity in artistic fields such as writing or acting, making the barrier of entry too expensive is one way to do it. An apt comparison is politics, where only those with the most money, who are bankrolled the entire way there, can make it to the top. The rest of us who don’t have a trust fund or who can’t afford to work for free, will sacrifice our dreams, or our sleep and personal life, in order to make rent.

2) Diminished Paid Opportunities

Getting paid in “exposure,” is one of those lines held over from a time when publishing and the arts weren’t in such dire need of audiences and relevancy. It assumes that there’s these industries are not saturated, that there isn’t a crowd of people swarming over the very few paid positions (like the zombies in “World War Z”).

Film-Speedy Zombies
That’s the swarm of people vying for one paid position.

In reality, the more people willing to work for free, the less incentive editors and artistic directors have to pay their freelancers and artists. After all, why pay a living wage when there’s hundreds of people already vying for a chance to work for just exposure? The “Huffington Post” pioneered the transaction of platform for word counts. At the same time, you can’t reasonably call something a career, or make something a career, if you do not get compensated for your work. When there is no payment, what is it other than a glorified hobby?

Maybe it’s the hopeful idealist in me (and I admit I do speak from a position of privilege, since I do work full-time in journalism now) but maybe if enough people start refusing to work for free, then perhaps it might teach those in power to value their underlings more. At the very least, it could bring those paid positions back.

3) Moral bankruptcy

One of the sources in the student loan article that I wrote, James Bundy (head of Yale Drama School and artistic director of Yale Rep) said,

“Artist compensation is a huge problem for the nonprofit theater…And there’s a lot of evidence that theaters are over-invested in fixed assets like buildings, and in fixed costs like administrative staff, and under-invested in compensating artists.”

When does taking advantage of unpaid/cheap labor go from opportunity to exploitation? Why has it become the norm that in order to make art, one must take advantage of the hungry, young and/or inexperienced?

The Flea Theater has a yearly operating budget of $1.3 million and they are currently raising a capital campaign for a new $18.5 million theater, yet they still can’t afford to pay its actors. “Entertainment Weekly” recently put out a call for free content even though its circulation is at 1.8 million and it recently fired its longtime film critic Owen Gleiberman.

What does that say about the value of labor? Or rather, the value of hard work to those who hold the keys to the employment castle? When did creative industries become one that valued the bottom line, revenue and buildings more than the artists themselves, where they are more willing to put money down to pay for real estate than to pay the actors or writers working in that building.

When did artists, writers, the people who produce the very things that are attracting your audiences become disposable? And when the people making the work for consumption become disposable, what does that say about the art form?

It tells the public, the audience, that the art form is disposable, filled with people performing, constructing, creating as a hobby. It’s not a real job and as such, not worthy of support.

And if creating artistically fulfilling work is just a past time, then why spend $50-100k+ in college just to major in a hobby? Maybe there’s something in telling all of our prospective artists and writers: “Kids, you will never make a living at this so just major in engineering.”

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