Time, Time, Pay Time.

It’s crunch time for graduates. Term’s finished, summer’s over, we’re heading on into the long dark of October and the big question looms: “Have you got a job yet?”

It’s a big, scary, problem of a question, because of course as all of us know there’s a job… and then there’s a job. Is it in your field? Is it actually practicing your field as opposed to making the coffee? Does it pay the rent? Does it pay at all? This last a particular monstrosity of the arts where a so-called job listing may involve precisely zero payment for your time and expenses, and might even ask you to chip in to cover the costs of this “excellent career opportunity.”

But this isn’t, actually, a blog post about the issue of no-pay jobs in the arts because that subject doesn’t actually need a blog post: it’s just bad. A necessary evil perhaps, maybe a stop-gap measure while you desperately try and scrape together enough material for funding, but if you are not deliberately moving towards a place where you can pay your dancers for your time, if every project is subsistence and kickstarter then you need to take a long, hard look at your business model because you are doing it wrong. So this blog is, in fact, about negotiating those slippery grey areas between dancer and employer, and how we can treat people well, whatever end of the budget we’re on.

For Dancers

The most useful question I’ve found in reaching out to prospective employers is “What compensation will be offered for my work on this project?” It’s a little less black-and-white than “Are you paying me or what?” But at the same time places an expectation on the employer that my time is worth value and that I expect to see a concrete return beyond “exposure” or “professional development.” And the result? People value my time more!

But what is that value? Tip number two is to set a going rate for yourself for a couple of different types of work, and be prepared to ask for it. Ask your friends around you what they charge, and be ready to name your price in return if asked. Don’t try and keep what you charge secret because you’re hoping to undercut your friends, although do realize that sometimes your going rate simply will not be available. My basic rate for teaching is $50 an hour, although I have been known to be pulled down for friends, start-ups, or good causes in general. Performing is a lot more fluid, and varies depending on the time commitment I’m asked for, my relationship with the choreographer, and the status of the project.

Types of compensation I have happily accepted that is not money:

  • We cannot pay but we will find you housing and/or feed you every night you are there.
  • We have enough performers that you need only come on the nights you choose.
  • We will teach you how to build set/run sound/wire lighting in exchange for your skills.
  • Coffee

Types of compensation I would not readily accept instead of money:

  • Exposure
  • Photographs
  • Film – you should expect a copy of film anyway
  • And on one weird occasion… homeopathic gift vouchers

The first category of things all involve an active effort by my employer to offer things that will benefit me. The things in the second category are all (vouchers excepted) things that the choreographer already wants for themselves, and (vouchers included) can share at no cost. I am not going to dictate to anyone whether they should or should not work for low/no pay, and sometimes a project is very dear to your heart or simply worth doing. On the other hand, question how you are affording to work for low/no pay, and what steps you can take to move yourself and others away from that model: just because you are fortunate enough to be able do it doesn’t mean that anyone else can or should have to.

For Employers

State your business up front. Either that business is “I would like to hire YOU, what is your going rate/would you take this much money?” or that business is “I would like to hire SOMEONE and I can compensate you in this way.” Do not mess around trying to trick people into working for less – you should have a budget in mind before you start hiring, and you should be willing to pay the entirety of your budget for getting the work done to the people doing the work. Travel and expenses are not pay, and are a separate part of your negotiations.

If you are auditioning people for the work, set out your expectations as clearly you as you are able, and lock in those dates and times. If you said you’d see everyone, make sure you see them. If you want some people to come back, make sure the call back date is also posted. I have been waiting to write this article ever since I saw an audition notice that said “Those called back will be expected to spend the next week working intensely with the company.” … Seriously, who can afford to go a week without pay for the possibility of a job? A job that, incidentally, only just scraped in at minimum wage. Another audition concern: think long and hard about pulling the five-years-experience trick. Yes mature dancers are awesome, but you pulling this trick is one of the reasons that other employers can charge fresh graduates $200 a week to make a piece that will give them expose them and fill up their c.v.

That said, I’ve noticed a pleasant shift in choreographers recently towards really valuing people’s time, and I would like to see this continue. No-matter how important you think your work is, you should not oblige or pressure anyone to stay beyond the set work period especially if you know they have to do other jobs to make up the rent money that you are not paying them enough to cover. The only way freelancers can exist is by exceptional time management, and sometimes you really really can’t stay late after rehearsal.

And that rehearsal? Come prepared. Have stuff planned to do, and don’t make-up busy work if you find yourself done with it. Different types of dance will obviously have different kinds of work/planning, but planning to run one, fix the kick section for 20 minutes and then set the last eight bars is not actually that different from a 20 minute improvised warm up, 15 minutes discussing ontology and a 30 minute improvised score. Sometimes things go past time, and that’s ok… but that’s your issue and if that means you have to cut something else you do that. Also consider: do you really need everyone there for the whole time? Is there work they can do without you? Do people leave feeling like they spent their time in a worthwhile and productive fashion? Can you fix that?

When I work with dancers I have learned to establish a two-way contract: they will show up on time and stay for the whole time, barring emergency or long-informed absence. I will start on time, end on time, fill the time well and not ask for unscheduled extra rehearsals.

Thank your dancers!!!

…No, scratch that, thank anyone who spends their time for your benefit. They could be working, or laughing, or making out, or checking Facebook, or any number of things and instead they’re there for you. That’s worth some serious gratitude. And if you’ve said you’ll be there for someone? Show up. Know how much time you can spend and be responsible about how you spend it. Make it work for you too.

I hope that all of you out there are getting on and finding ways to spend your time that bring you value. I hope you, and others, value your skills enough to set up a system wherein you get compensated for them fairly. I hope that in a couple more years the idea of a no-pay job will be just as heinous in dance as it would be in, say, doctoring, and that “pay” will mean the same thing as “a living wage.”

Good luck!

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