I am a very early career writer / theatre maker and because of this I know a lot of other very early career artists that are making their way into the theatre industry. I really don't know what the history of theatre is like for emerging artists but it feels like right now we, as young artists, are going through a crisis.
It's undeniable that the arts industry right now is going through a funding crisis and this is leading to a lot of creatives working without being paid for their creative work. For us early career artists this often means setting up our own theatre companies, as a collective a group of young creatives we will work for free and use profit shares in order to get something from the experience. However the creatives are getting more from this than money. They are learning to work collaboratively, taking a risk as an equal group of people trying to make their way in an industry that is being desperately starved.
However a lot of my friends are now looking at other routes into the industry and they are doing voluntary work for mid-career (somewhat) stable creatives with their own theatre companies, or spaces or shows. They are being enlisted with the shiney beacon of a "professional" credit and the chance to prove themselves to someone already higher up in the industry, the magic word "exposure" is thrown around a lot. I have no problem with volunteering essentially, however there must be some kind of exchange here. A lot of early career artists taking opportunities like these are now being driven to extreme lengths, their education and work life is being affected by the role, the company is treating them as if they were a paid employee, there to do as they are told. Here, there is no real exchange. The only experience the young creative is gaining is a bad and draining one, they are gaining a perspective on the industry which suggests that instead of rallying together to survive people are simply allowing the industry to eat itself from the inside out.
If someone is volunteering for you, as a creative with a stable(ish) income you have such a responsibility. You may be the person introducing that young creative into the industry, you may be their first contact. If you're so willing to abuse a young creative, who will work for free but who does not have as much experience as you, then you have to accept the responsibility for the project. When things go wrong, you made that choice not to secure funding and still make the work using free labour. You decided that you would show this young creative an overworked, funding starved side to the industry that has no concept of reason, you have to accept the responsibility when that young creative makes mistakes and can't perform to the best of their ability.
I am not trying to make excuses for early career creatives, but when the risk they are taking involves their friends and small commitments they are likely to learn. When they are getting nothing from a role but stress and a severs deterioration in their personal life, how can they be expected to believe in the work they are doing let alone achieve their potential.
I understand that a lot of creatives will be reading this and thinking: the industry is tough, get used to it. Yes, this is a tough industry because people outside of it continuously put unnecessarty pressures on it, but we don't need any more pressure from inside the industry. As early career creatives become mid-career become established they take with them what they learnt when they started out. If you want them to take a view of the industry where future young creatives have to work for nothing, be put under immense pressure when they are not gaining anything from a situation then please continue. But you have a chance to introduce people to a collaborative industry, one that knows it is facing tough times but one which also knows it can find a way to survive and thrive.
Young creatives need experience but they also need to work to pay their rent, they need to finish their training / studies. They need contracts, even if you are not paying them draw up a contract so that they have some protection and some record of what is expected of them. Be clear with your intentions, with working hours, with what they will need to give up. But most importantly be clear about what they are getting from the situation, throwing around words like "exposure" and "experience" is vague. What skills exactly are they going to gain, how are you going to ensure that they have a chance to develeop them? How is their experience going to help them change and improve this industry in the future? This makes it all the more difficult for those people employing us of course, but also, we're giving you so much time, you can at least give us a bit of yours.
My friends and colleagues one-by-one are being taken advantage of, making mistakes and then being made to pay for these mistakes when they haven't gained anything in the first place. If they haven't gained anything how are they expected to pay for them?
We want to work. We want to learn and we will do that for free. But if we're not getting money then we at least deserve something more than a dismal view of an industry starved of money, an industry that sometimes seems to have forgotten how important it is sometimes just to be nice to people.
If you want experience, if you wanted some kind of guarantee of results, then pay for it.