Actually Getting Paid for Designing Small Shows – A Primer



Oh, there is a subject right now that is so near and dear to my heart that must be discussed.

I know there are a lot of people out there that work small theatre gigs as designers, and I know also that there are a lot of people reading JimOnLight who work as crew, staff, or management for small venues that produce plays. Often this is a fun, rewarding experience as a designer, where you get to try out new stuff, use a very inadequate light plot in ways it’s never been used before (in your mind, anyway) and really do some Bohemian theatre work. You know, what a lot of us were trained to do: Theatre!

Unfortunately, there is one aspect of working in small theatres that will either be easy or very, very difficult for some reason — getting paid for your work. You’d think that this is something that would be cut and dry, no? Nope, in fact it is not cut, dried, rolled, or smoked. You either get really lucky and you work with a company that has its financials together, or you work with a company that is a bigger disaster than Chernobyl.


I just want to say that I’m not surprised by anything you’re about to read, I’m just a little shocked that in today’s age of having top be transparent financially, this kind of shit still goes on.  Again, not at all surprised, but it surely makes for good fodder.

I’ll keep the names to a minimum here, but I just had the displeasure of working on a tiny production a few months ago for a very small theatre company here in Oklahoma City, I still enjoy the occasional guerrilla Theatre piece as a designer. They’re managed by a small board of people who are more interested in picking the season’s plays than they are fundraising. The reason this little story is important is that none of the production staff have been paid, and they’ve opened, closed, and counted the ticket money on their season. The very scary thing was that I have an email from their board chairwoman that ostansibly says they hired us without having any money to pay us with in the first place. It would have been really swell to pay off a few bills of my own with that money — but it’s par for the course really, I did someone a favor, and no good deed goes unpunished, you know?

So let me reiterate:
We were all hired and promised fees, and the company had no money or ability for making good on that promise.

I picked up this little show as a favor to a friend, for a nil fee, which I was glad to accept.  Frankly, I’m fortunate that my rent wasn’t depending on that fee, because the other designers on the show certainly do, did, and still haven’t been paid. Unfortunately, in this business, this is the modus operandi of a good percentage of the smaller organizations that produce “plays.” The real bummer about that is that is drags down the entire system of Entertainment that we all are trained to support and design, and when you’re first starting out in this business, not getting a check for your work for months, or not at all, is a major financial killer to the young bank account.  There’s a company called Diamond Mine Productions that still owes me $2500 from 2004.  Thanks for screwing a just-graduated grad student out of four months rent, a-holes.

There are some things to watch out for that you typically learn after you’ve been promised that a company is reputable, and you usually learn them because they’re f***king you over a barrel and you learn it the hard way. But also, sometimes everything looks like it checks out, and them BAM — you get sideswiped by a Douchebag theatre company. Here’s a few things to watch out for and evaluate on the fly once you are offered a design gig somewhere, I hope these end up saving you grief.  The real bitch about this is that sometimes you just don’t have the option to pick and choose your companies as a freelance designer. However, stick with it, you will have that option in your career at some point.


Some things to consider:

* Make sure that you have a signed contract in hand that is clear in its requirements of you. Steer clear of working without a contract. Always. Most contracts you will see will have a variety of preparedness, ranging from having it stated that you have some programming days built in to the schedule, or it could be as simply written that you’re expected to have a finished design by opening night. Are there production meetings? Are you compensated for that time? Are you expected to send renderings of anything beforehand to someone, perhaps the director? Is the opening and closing dates of the gig on the contract? What if they extend the run, are you getting more money? I’ve seen and not signed contracts that tried to make me provide the rig, operator, and console — and I’ve had a few Union contracts, which are pretty freaking sweet because they’re written in your favor, the designer. You’re going to see that your mileage may vary, but please keep your head about you before you sign that paper.

* Make sure that if you have any “internal objections” that you solve them before you sign anything.  Nothing is worse than trying to unscrew yourself once you’ve obliged, and nothing hurts worse than having to do something because you were too big a wuss to voice your needs.

* ASK PEOPLE about that company and its practices.  This is the best way to find out information about a gig before saying you’re along for the ride.  You will be surprised at the amount of information you can gather by asking “a friend of a friend.”

* Do a little research on the company offering you a gig — how many shows in their season? How many seasons have they done? Do you know any other designers from past shows you might be able to query about the company’s preparedness for production? Have there been any legal judgments against that company, either in the city they’re in or in other cities? Do they have a reputation for cagey decisions or payment?

* Research the company’s infrastructure and if there is a managing board in place. Are these people community people, industry people, or people who want to be involved in “making plays” but are out of their league? Do some name searching on board members and managers before you take a gig — the Shelby, NC stage collapse from a few years ago for example, that promoter had been convicted of wire fraud and extortion. Know the people you’re doing business with, as a designer you are your own business.

* Ask for half your design fee up front. There is nothing wrong with this practice, and frankly I believe it shows not only the company’s dedication to the production, but to you as the designer as well. Having half your fee up front is a guaranteed way for a company to show you that they want to be serious about the production they just hired you to design. You’re going to hear “no” to this sometimes, which is what it is, but you need to make the call on whether or not you sign that contract.

* Find out about things like budget, reimbursements, and the like — never buy anything on your own dime for a show that you don’t already have written permission to get, so that you actually get reimbursed.  You would be blown away by the amount of times I have heard a story about someone buying something for a show, being told it is not reimbursable, and then seeing that something used in the show.  Screw that!  If the company wants it, make them buy it!  If that thing they want you to purchase and be reimbursed for is so urgent for the show, make them pony up for it.  What you’ll find is that often times getting reimbursed is harder than getting paid!

* Don’t be afraid to send somebody’s ass to collections, or get an attorney and sue in small claims court.  Make sure to include your time lost, your fees, and anything else you can get reimbursed for, having to had spent your time chasing down payment you were promised.  But make sure that you also have proof that you did the show and that you were the designer of record, preferably on contract.  Yes, there are people out there who will literally ask you to “confirm your services” before they pay you.  I have first hand knowledge of this kind of bulls**t.

Folks, it comes down to this very simple thing:
You’re a resource — and if you allow it, a company will exploit you as hard and for as long as they can, that’s the nature of capitalism.
You have to decide just how much you are willing to take.
Believe me, if you don’t spell it out in a contract, you’re either not getting something you want, or you’ll be taken to task to do things that aren’t spelled out in your contract.
Please believe me, this will happen.  It’s your responsibility to take care of you.


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