Your boss heard that you really love the theater and would appreciate some extra hours on show site, so he offers you the chance of a lifetime to come and work on his next show for no money, as an intern of sorts. You jump at the chance to gain experience. The next gig comes along, and he asks you do it for no money again. Now you realize that you have no way to get to the show site because your gas tank is empty.
Everybody who has a valuable skill, or even motivation, will be asked to donate time and effort at one juncture in time. The entertainment biz is no exception. Some say that working for free is stupid and devalues what we do. Others see it as a donation of good will and charity. Some consider it a requirement to gain experience. I am putting together this article to lay out a guideline of when it is acceptable to work for free and when it’s not.
Okay to Work For Free:
Hanging Christmas Lights.
It is 100 percent okay to help your buddy to hang Christmas lights. If you don’t hold the ladder, he will probably fall and lacerate his L4 and L5 then rupture his spleen, leaving a horrible stench. By all means, please help impress his neighbors with 18 universes of rope light and techno-spots running off the 240V dryer outlet in the garage.
Your Buddy’s Bar Band.
It is 95 percent okay to help your buddy out with his bar band, as long as the venue hasn’t already provided a paid lighting professional. If there are open faders that you are allowed to flash and smash at your leisure, then get on it, brotha. Your flashy bumps and expertly timed random strobe are going to help break the next Mötley Crüe. It is 100 percent okay if beers are included. Duh.
Up-and-Coming Opening Act that You Respect.
If you are already being paid to run lights for the headliner, and the opening band can’t afford an LD, it is 85 percent okay for you provide lighting services for them at no fee. There are stipulations though. They must be respectful, thankful and appreciative. At least one of the band members, or at least entourage, must come out and say, “Thank You.” Last-second demands are an immediate set-scene-and-walk-away situation.
Charity Gig that Happens Once a Year.
It is 60 percent okay for you to help out your local lighting vendor at a charity gig that they do once a year. Whether it is a dance recital for the boss’s daughter or a local vendor who has donated a boatload of gear to help stop leukemia, it is okay to bypass the payroll department on this one. This is for a good cause. Perhaps your next paid gig will come from this charity situation. You might even be able to show off your skills to a potential employer. Semi-annual charity drives are not okay to work for free, however.
Church gigs are a tough one, because so many people are willing to help their church out for the greater good. Churches do so much good for some communities and just take way too much from other communities. It is 50 percent okay to work for free for your local church as long as these four requirements are met.
1. It has to be your local church.
2. You have to have gone there before you were ever asked run any gear.
3. You have to know the lead character by name, and they have to know yours.
4. There cannot be any I-Mag. If I-Mag is involved, then disciples needeth a paycheck.
5. If it’s for a big-name televangelist’s production, I suggest charging extra. They get their money by looking good on camera. Besides, those guys are loaded and pay no taxes.
NOT Okay to Work For Free:
It is not okay to work for free on travel days. A travel day is a day of your life that you will not get back. It is a day that you are unable to accept work elsewhere. You need to be compensated for that. Some people say half-rate for short trips under five hours and full rate for long trips over five hours. One guy has it down to a very simple policy: Anything that requires leaving his front door is a half-day rate. Anything that requires traveling past the Mississippi River is a full-day rate. I prefer a full-day rate myself.
Whether you agree to an eight-hour workday or a 10-hour workday, anything over that amount of time is overtime. That means time-and-a-half, double time or even golden time. A day-rate does not mean that you work for 24 hours straight for the same pay as someone who worked for eight then went home to eat chips in their underwear. Forty hours a week is also a full weeks work. Anything over 40 hours requires additional compensation. (Excluding touring shows).
Just as a Favor / Emergency Situation.
Just because your employer forgot to book a lighting guy on a gig does not mean that they can call you in last minute to work for free. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. They are in a bind because of their own lack of respect for the lighting requirements. They need you far more than you need them. When the talent is telling them to put up a front wash and they don’t know how to turn on the console, they will pay through the nose to have a lighting professional help them out.
Unappreciative Opening Band with Last-Minute Requests.
I feel the need to return to that opening act band that I mentioned earlier. If the opening band is unwilling to pay for a lighting guy, they are not entitled to make demands about the look of their show. If they don’t care enough to pay someone to care for their vision, then they sure as heck can’t rely on you to care for it. If they refer to you as AV guy, make sure to let them know that your services are not part of the package, and write a bad review on their Facebook page. Bands hate that.
Eternally On-Call Salaried Guy.
Just because you are paid a salary does not mean that you are eternally on call. Just because the band that was in your venue last night decided to refocus some Lekos without telling anyone about it ruins the corporate event that happens on your day off does not constitute an emergency situation on your part. The boss mongers need to realize that we are lighting technicians, not ambulance drivers. We get days off to go to the lake once in a while.
Also, remember that “Per Diem” is not an option. If you are out of town for work, you need to be compensated for being away from your kitchen and your bed. Do not let accountants attach your per diem to your income. Per Diem is supposed to be tax-free compensation, not income.
I hope this helps to clarify a few things and set your mind at ease.
Chris Lose is a freelance lighting designer who hails from Las Vegas.