Sometimes I imagine! On unpaid work

Sparked by an article at The Stage about potential “exploitative” working methods of You Me Bum Bum Train, I felt like writing a thing or two.

So, let’s just come out and say, I have never worked for You Me Bum Bum Train in any shape or form so I do not have a first hand experience of their working methods/process. I have seen their ads for unpaid internships many times and many times I chose not to apply.

But, I was reminded of the time I did assist on such opportunities, so the below is about that!

About twelve years ago, I “worked” for about three or so years as the assistant of a theatre director on large projects. I did almost everything that didn’t involve soldering bits of electrics – good thing too, because I would have brought down the entire grid, no doubt! Prop making, set building, directing, designing, stage managing, you name it I did it. I did it all for either no pay, or expenses only. I learned so much! In fact, I could say I learned almost everything. Almost everything of one person’s methods of making theatre. I got a hell of a lot out of it, so much so that I began to think I COULD DO THIS!

At the end of those three years I was knackered, and I felt rather unhappy that somehow I could not progress from getting expenses paid, to getting my knowledge and ideas paid. I was certain that I simply cannot have a day job to subsidize a theatre job. I wanted to be good at my theatre job and I wanted to be paid for it, so, I stopped assisting.

It took precisely a month to get a paid job in theatre. Paid for my ideas and knowledge. It paid very badly, but it paid. Then it took another nine years for me to leave the day job and for theatre to become the day job. So, for the last three years I have existed on my theatre work (for the record, no mummy and daddy pay my rent, they never have, although I am sure they wish they could!) When I say theatre work I mean – designing set & costumes, writing, devising, performing, teaching, running workshops, painting, model making, set building, producing, writing funding bids, stage managing, tour booking, production management, etc, etc… I am 34! This means that when I reached 31 I was able to start to “reap” the benefits of my education as my sole income.

Now, let’s get this straight. This is pretty complex stuff.

Sometimes I imagine a 20 piece band playing music live on stage while Alister and I play.

Sometimes I imagine working with such vast budgets I could flood a stage.

Sometimes I imagine working on a vast stage!

Sometimes I imagine wearing a different outfit I have designed every time I go to London.

Sometimes I imagine I have a house.

Sometimes I imagine I have a dog.

Sometimes I imagine shopping at Waitrose and buying everything I want.

Sometimes I imagine I can pay my way so happily I would not need to check my current account balance every day, a few times a day.

On occasions, now, I sometimes have assistants. Sometimes, I can’t manage the work load, or I can’t be in two places at the same time, so I pay people to help me out. I pay my assistants. Always!

Back to the complexity. People have choice. Except when they don’t. There is never an unpaid opportunity. It doesn’t exist. Someone somewhere is paying for it!

In the arts we are quite simply in danger of undervaluing our own work so much that it becomes hard to make the case for other people to value it. A good place to start this little campaign, is by paying the people we value and the people we literally cannot do the work without.

It takes time to make work. It takes time to fundraise for that work. Sometimes, it takes time to recognise what the work is, which bit of it is the work, this bit, that bit or all of those bits in one.

It is ok for time, to take its time. And it’s absolutely fundamentally necessary for the work for be ambitious. But just remember, someone somewhere somehow is paying for it.

In my mum’s words “The cheese in the shop costs the same for everyone”.

Sometimes, I wish it didn’t!