Years ago, I was an apprentice in a ballet company. In a ballet apprenticeship, you are expected to take class with the company and go through the day to day rigor of rehearsals and life of a professional ballerina in exchange for the honor of doing so.
As a hungry baby ballerina, the exchange was worth it to me. I received valuable knowledge as I worked my way through the seasons, understudying and performing (for free) and was more readily prepared for a professional career when I received my first job offer a couple years later.
The very idea that I could, at any moment, be propelled into a professional career with the company was all the motivation I needed to willingly engage with that company in that manner. I almost never got to perform as a “soloist,” as is the case in burlesque, but the experience in the corps de ballet added to my value as a whole when I was finally hired on as a corps member, and I was easily cast into soloist roles within my first season with the company.
I think back on that experience when I witness fellow performers performing for free or even just a small amount in the burlesque world.
The difference to me is clear as day.
One was preparing me for a lifetime of performing, the other is just being used for someone else’s gain.
What is apprenticeship?
While I was performing for free in that company, I was exposed to amazing individualized coaching and mentoring, frequent stage experience, professional decorum applied in rehearsal and backstage, costume design/construction and life lessons from the company members. I was being taught how companies work and what my place would be if I continued on a professional path.
I was developing relationships with people that had interest in my future as a dancer. People that could open doors for me with their connections and expertise. People that would eventually be references to attest to my professional abilities and capabilities.
I was not just filling a space on the stage (or in a set list) to make the show or event appear more exciting.
I was part of something that was growing and becoming. Not just another act in a set list.
The whole idea of apprenticeship is to learn the tricks of the trade and take those lessons into your future as you become a professional. As competitive as the ballet world was, dancers were always willing to give feedback or help to a new dancer in the company, free of charge.
I don’t see that happening when I hear performers are performing for free. I see someone making a profit while using others’ talents to do the work, and not giving them anything in return except a stage.
What is the benefit to you if you perform for free or for less than the average in the burlesque or event world?
Exposure? Photos? Video? Free admission to a show? Free drinks?
In my four years in burlesque, I have never been able to pay bills or reinvest in my acts with any of those things.
Which reminds me of a post I saw recently: An Open Letter to Oprah
Performing for free in the burlesque world doesn’t really have a whole lot of value or benefit to you as a performer except to give you more stage time. But stage time isn’t the only thing that adds value to you as a performer.
If are lucky enough to meet another seasoned performer that will take you on as a mentee (not impossible, but rare, in my experience,) that would be lovely. Or maybe you’ll get lucky and the headliner of that show will venture out to the audience and actually see you perform and offer you a chance to travel and perform, again, rare.
State of Performer Pay
Recently, Matt Finish performed a survey on Facebook about how much performers are getting paid in each of their cities.
He even created a handy chart for the world to see:
While I have heard that it has upset some producers because they don’t want the venues to know about those lower pay rates, I have to say that I think publishing this is a step in the right direction.
As a producer, it is my responsibility to my performers to advocate for them and their pay with the venues. At least that is how I produce shows.
I won’t ever cut pay to make the show bigger or add more bodies so that people think they are getting more for their money.
I add valuable performers that show up, kick ass and are easy to work with.
Pay increases when people start to give a f*ck. When we take this art form seriously and show up. By adding value and giving the audience something that they want to pay for.
Why you shouldn’t perform for free (or less than $50 per act)
I recently had a venue owner confide in me that one of his monthly acts brings in a $10,000 bar. That’s right, a $10,000 bar in ONE NIGHT. While this venue may not be bringing in that much every night, you can bet he is willing to pay more to that act because they bring him that much profit. (He did not reveal if that particular event charged a door or ticket price.)
And while I’m sure most producers aren’t privy to that information, you can bet that if that place you are performing at is jumping at least once a week, they are probably able to “afford” a higher guarantee for the show you want to put on there. But again, it’s all a business decision for both parties.
Do you ever wonder why theater tickets are so much more expensive than burlesque show tickets??? (They aren’t even showing their boobs!!) I’m still working on figuring that out, but that’s probably for a whole other post…I feel like I opened up a huge can of worms with just this little post.
Performing for free is not really going to give you a leg up (haha, pun intended) in the burlesque world. You have to work your way up the ranks just like every other performing art. But I did learn that it is not for me. Read this post for more mistakes I made as a baby burlesquer and download my top 3 mistakes that I won’t post online!
That is why I have stopped doing festivals. It’s a business model that does not make sense to me as a performer and I have not reaped much benefit out of any of them except being booked in a few gigs of traveling performers.
To me I would rather invest in myself and my costumes.
If you feel the need to perform and are dying to get more stage time, then choose what is right for you. They do say that the more stage time you have the better performer you are. (I danced 12 shows a week in my time at Jubilee! and have performed for over 4 million people in my lifetime.)
Just know that the more often you perform for free, the more of a reputation you will earn in the community to producers. Some producers will not book me because I don’t perform for free, and that’s fine with me.
Your Value to Producers
To me, the exchange of financial compensation for art or talent makes perfect sense. The producer needs entertainment for their guests and the guests want to be entertained. No matter if you are a go go dancer or the headliner, you should be compensated because someone is making money off of you showing up, doing a song and dance and being amazing.
If they didn’t have talent to fill the show, they wouldn’t have a show to sell to an audience and all the audience would buy is drinks and food. They could get that anywhere, right?
The bottom line is this: advocate for yourself.
You have value as a member of a cast or crew, and everyone deserves to be paid for their efforts, expertise and time. Now a sliding scale absolutely makes sense, but that is a whole other topic…
I hope this helps clarify the murky waters of show pay and why you shouldn’t be giving your talents and hard work away for free (or very little!) Comment below if you have more to add to this post. (Be NICE!)
Until next time!
Athena, aka Gazella