Until recently, I had been looking forward to auditioning for the Microsoft Theatre Troupe’s fall production of “Sweeney Todd”. MSTT is all-volunteer – Microsoft covers all production costs, and all revenues go to charity (one is chosen for each production.) I was certain it’d be a huge time commitment, but with rehearsals practically across the street from my office, the blow would have been softened.

But then I discovered that “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, the improvised Star Trek TOS parody I appeared in this summer, had targeted the first two weeks of November as our return – a direct conflict with performances of Sweeney Todd. Suddenly, my decision was: audition for Sweeney Todd, which would likely be 12+ hours of unpaid rehearsal/performance time a week; or keep my guaranteed, paid part in “Where No Man…”, which would probably be a *total*of 4 hrs rehearsal and 12 hours performance.

It’s strange to realize that you’re evaluating your choices about your hobbies based on potential financial gain – especially since none of the shows I do pays a living wage. Usually, the money – if it exists – will defray travel and incidental expenses if I’m lucky. I’m doing this for the love of it, so I’ve done entire productions with no hope of compensation of any kind. In fact, accepting payment for my acting creates a tax nightmare at the end of the year. Why, then, would I take compensation into account?

(And for the record, I probably would have chosen Where No Man even if there was no pay involved – I just had too much fun doing that show to pass up a chance at a reprise.)

Part of the issue is making sure you’re not being exploited. All of the proceeds from MSTT shows go to charity – so while we’re not making any money, no one is making money off of our uncompensated work except a needy cause. On the other hand, sometimes performance opportunities arise where someone IS making money, and you’re not. I can remember when I was hungry enough for performance opportunities to accept such arrangements – what I wanted and got from those shows was experience, exposure, training, etc. At this point I’m lucky enough that I don’t feel I’m being turned down from shows for lack of experience. I no longer see the value in accepting a show that doesn’t meet my own personal goals and lines someone else’s pockets with profit. I’ve done volunteer shows for small nonprofit theatres and still consider it, but you have to be careful.

And then the other side of the coin is the principle of the value placed on one’s time. Most theatres are non-profit and need every cent they can get, so I frankly don’t expect anything significant. But the fact that a theatre or production makes an effort to provide anything says a lot about what value they place on their actors and the work produced. I don’t stop wanting to be valued just because the 9-5 workday is over. I take it as an honor whenever a show is willing to pay a stipend or percentage – they are saying something about the value of my time, and actually compensating me for doing something I love anyway.

But does it really qualify as a hobby if there’s money being exchanged? When does this become a second job? And what of the guilt when you feel as if you’re taking a paying role from someone who needs that money more? Strangely, I’d actually be hurting others in the long run by giving away my services where I’d otherwise be paid, because then theatres would just hire you for free instead of paying for the person who needs the money.

In the end I see it as a reimbursement sort of situation. Acting’s not a cheap hobby – to compete, I need professional headshots, gas for transportation to dozens of auditions, makeup, monologue books, voice lessons, group memberships, training… all things I’m willing to pay for in search of amazing experiences onstage, but it’s a nice feeling to know some of that investment finds its way home again on the merits of my work. I feel blessed that I have the resources to make that investment up front in hopes of finding those experiences.

My current project, which I’ll write about separately, adds a whole new layer since it’s technically a union show, but one that does not require me to join. With the union comes new rules, but most designed to protect actors and improve the experience. (Mandatory breaks within rehearsals, limited consecutive performances, etc.) I love the professionalism, but to go fully union someday (if asked) would mean giving up my freedom to do any show I wanted, but would open up a whole new world of audiences and collaborators. I don’t know what the future holds for me along those lines.

I still don’t think I’ll ever make these decisions entirely based upon the money. There’s so much more to consider when choosing projects to audition for. Where are the auditions? How many rehearsals? Will there be a high likelihood of press exposure? Is it a fun atmosphere? Is it professional? Is it a nice theatre to work in? How will the show help me grow as a person and as an actress? What production will be the most creatively satisfying? Who is working on the show?

And, frankly, if I didn’t have the mercifully regular creative outlet of TheatreSports, I might be clawing at peoples’ doors just for the chance to perform, regardless of conditions. So for that too, I’m thankful. Acting is normally a strange avocation since you essentially have to ask someone else’s permission to do it. TheatreSports has made me pickier about the opportunities I choose – is the experience I get in exchange for giving up TheatreSports for a few weeks worth it? Some shows don’t pass that test.

In the end, it still comes down to this: I can only do the shows I’m cast in, and you never know how these things will turn out. I am grateful to have had such an eventful and growth-filled year in the theatre, regardless of what recompense has made it my way. I’ve most definitely grown in technique and experience in dramatic acting, and that’s a gift I’ll keep with me long after the gas money is spent.