As you’ve probably learned by now, improv is not an art that really makes people a lot of money. Very few people make a living as an improviser. Most people are lucky if they can get paid a few buck for doing a show.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Many artists (which includes you), CAN and DO make money from their art. But in order to become successful and get paid what you’re worth, you have to learn how to ask for what you want.
The most common “ask” in the arts is for money. Artists don’t like to talk about money, let alone ask for it. We have been so beaten down with years of performing for free and not charging for our work that what we do has lost its value. We are told real artists do their art because they love it and never do it for the money. We are so used to taking crumbs, that when an opportunity comes up where we could actually make money, we still take crumbs, when in some cases we could get the whole pie.
Money is the most common “ask” and certainly the scariest, but there plenty of others: asking to audition for a role in a play or a movie, asking for advice, asking your actor friends to do your play reading, asking someone to give you feedback on your scripts, asking a friend if they will talk to their agent about representing you.
Asking for what we want can be terrifying. Typically, artists avoid asking for what they want because all sorts of messages from childhood will come up like, “Asking is bad,” or “I don’t want to bother them,” or “They won’t like me,” or “That will piss them off so much that I will lose the job.” And what sane artist wants to go through any more rejection than they need to?
But asking for what you want is essential to having a bigger career and checking account.
So how do you get over your fear of asking and start doing it? You have to start believing you are not doing something wrong by asking, actually it’s a good thing.
You have a right to ask for you what you want, just like everyone else has a right to say yes or no to your request. It’s ok to ask for more money, a bigger advance on your book, or green M&Ms in your dressing room. Just like it’s ok to for them to ask you to do the show for free, get a smaller advance, and ask you to provide your own M&M’s in your dressing room. As my friend Darryl likes to say, ” Your just transacting business.”
You have just as much right to say “no” as they do. They can take of themselves and so can you.
But I want to warn you that the more you ask for what you want, the more you will get what what you asked for, and while that may seem like a good thing, when you actually start getting what you want, it may be scarier than you think.
I was once cast in a live industrial show — an acting job for a corporate client — where four of us had to play the guys from the SNL’s Da Bears sketch. I had auditioned for it, and it went extremely well. That afternoon, my agent told me she was going to ask for $1,000 for me. As I hung up the phone, I immediately felt anxiety and fear because I did not ask for what I wanted. I was hoping the agent was magically going to take care of me. I was setting myself up for a resentment.
So I called a friend who suggested I call the agent back and tell her what I would like to be paid. I was scared shitless, but I did it. As my voice trembled, I said, “I would like to be paid $2,500.”
My agent seemed stunned, and balked a little at it. The next day, she called me back. Her voice seemed somewhat flat and professional (I think she was in shock), and she wanted to let me know that the client had agreed to the price.
My agent was also representing another actor who was kind enough to give me a ride to the gig, which was out by the airport. On the ride back to the city, we started to discuss what we were getting paid, and she said when our agent had originally called, she said the job was only paying $1,000, and then the next day she called and said it was $2,500. It never dawned on me that by me asking for more money that I would be helping my other cast members to get paid more as well.
No One Is Going to Take Care Of You Except You
Learning how to ask is important because we have to learn how to advocate for ourselves. No one will take care of us until we start taking care of ourselves first. Once we start doing this people will becoming out of the wood work to work with us.
This is something I need to keep re-learning. Whenever I’ve run into problems with people over money, such as the theaters I have taught for or performed at, it’s always the same thing: I have looked to them to take care of me, thinking they owe me something. But really, I had it backwards. We are adults, and it’s time to stop looking for others to take care of us and instead for us to take care of ourselves by asking for what we want. If we do that, we all win.
Each Gig is Different
If you want to go from starving artist to a thriving one, you have to stop always taking what is offered to you just to be liked. But you also can’t become so demanding that you are always drawing lines in the sand and walking away. Believe me, I have done plenty of that and the only person I was hurting was me and my checking account.
Instead, try to be flexible. Go into every situation with an open mind and try to evaluate what would work best for you. For example, I know if I am doing private coaching for six college kids for in improv group in Omaha, there is only so much they can pay me. And if I am going to do a corporate improv workshop for a pharmaceutical company, I may charge ten times what I would charge the college students.
A good rule of thumb that I use when I set a price for something is to ask myself what amount would be too low that I would have a resentment if I did it for that price. You can also ask yourself what price would be so high that you would feel shame if you charged that. Somewhere between those two numbers is a good price to shoot for.