Guest contributor: Vasilios Asimakos

Can You Pay Me?

categories: Cocktail Hour


Scooby-Doo Live rolled into town recently, and a friend I’d acted with in college was part of the cast.  We got hot chocolate after the show at my favorite downtown cafe, and it was there, while grabbing some napkins, that a harmless little poster for a local community theatre production made my stomach clench up and my breath stop short.  We sat down and I explained:

A few months earlier I’d heard from a friend that a show was being put on in my hometown.  I jumped at the chance to audition, every other thought drowned out by my inner voice comically yelling “THEATRE IS AWESOME!  STAGE ACTING IS PURE!” like some unbalanced naked hobo with a sign hanging from his shoulders.  I dusted off my Long Day’s Journey Edmund monologue, unfolded an understated blue shirt that hugged my pecs and bis, and headed in to rock their world.

The director had me at “Come on in.”  Professional, articulate, with gorgeous sharp blue eyes and a love for the material that showed.  She worked me.  For two hours she had me there, cold-reading monologues, scenes.  When scene partners didn’t show right away she just had me keep playing.  She encouraged.  I ad-libbed.  She asked for more.  I made stronger physical choices.  I braved an accent and did a halfway decent job.  I got a callback.  I went in again.  It was snowing heavily, the roads were dangerous, and I was forced to take my mom’s car which was leaking power steering fluid.  But I made it, blew on my hands, and got to work.  I read a lot more with others this time, but always the same role.  When scenes or monologues would end, I felt like I’d really created; a far cry from expatiating about marketing software solutions or extolling the virtues of a bank I’d never heard of into the cold black eye of a camera.  This was storytelling.  This was acting.

After two hours, the director thanked me for braving the elements and told me she’d be in touch by the end of the night.  I couldn’t stop my eyebrows from shooting up.  Subtle, Vasilios.  I played it off as being impressed with how put-together they were.  Or tried to.     I had to confront the reality of making a choice now.  As in NOW.

I drove home.  My red, wet hands burned as they clutched the steering wheel; I’d used them to clean the snow off the car.  The heat blowing through the vents made me sweat uncomfortably but refused to defog my windows.  I squinted, struggled to see the lane markers through the fog and snowfall.  The wheels of my mother’s little sedan spun out repeatedly.  A puny, hazy, mobile hell.  And all the while, a nauseating realization… I estimated the role would be an unpaid, twenty-five hour a week commitment (memorization, dialect work, rehearsal, and performances).  What would have to get squeezed out of my schedule?  Writing?  Auditioning?  Working out?  Sleeping?  Eating?  My job?  Once home, I stumbled out of my car a literal hot mess.

I remember pacing around around my kitchen table and drinking a lot of water.  Finally, fearing the sound of my phone ringing would actually stop my heart, I called the director myself.  My voice shook as I took myself out of the running.
“I’m sorry to hear that.  I was going to offer you the lead,” she said after a long, heartbreaking pause.  You worm, she probably should have said.  You wasted five hours of my time and a callback audition I designed around you and convinced me you were a great fit for this company only to bail?  What kind of sick pleasure do you get out of that?

“I’m really sorry.  You don’t know how bad I feel….”

“Is there anything I can say to change your mind?”

“…can you pay me?”  Interesting how I felt like a horrible person asking that.  Exchange of goods for services?  What are you thinking, Tweedle-Dumber!  We are artists!

“Unfortunately no-one is taking money for this production.”

I apologized again, we wished each other luck, and I hung up hating myself.  The rehearsals and performances would be ten minutes’ drive from my house.  The role would have stretched my range.  I would have gotten to learn one of my favorite accents.  The call for partial nudity would have pushed me to get into even better shape.  It would have kept me sharp in-between other auditions and gigs.  And I’d said no.

I’d love to tell you that the regret from the decision forced me to put in my notice at my job, label myself a full-time artist, kiss the sky and hope it kissed back.  Didn’t happen.  What followed the tough decision to turn down the role was the just-as-tough decision to keep my job.  Turns out I’d made the right call.  At the time of the audition, I had gone nearly a month without booking anything, and when I finally did book something, it took six weeks to get paid.  Too many bills to not have guaranteed income.

I can’t reap the artistic benefits of being in that show.  But what I’ve realized, swimming in the murky waters of the gray area, is that looking at something from all the angles (or manipulating your perspective to force a positive outlook, whatever) is absolutely necessary.  I retreated today so I could continue to fight down the road.  Sometimes, there’s only one acceptable response for “Can you pay me?”, and it comes not from the arts.  You have to forgive yourself for being an adult, and promise that naked sign-bearing hobo that you’ll be back to drink his Kool-Aid in a bit.

  1. Vasilios,

    I love this well-written, spirited piece for so many reasons. I used to act a lot in community theater as a hobby. I never had illusions of being a professional actor, so for me, it was just something I did on evenings after my full-time job. To me, it was never about making money. I wasn’t a professional, so didn’t expect it.

    But, I relate to your piece because as a writer, I often have to weigh whether I’m willing to write something for free for a blog – like this one, in fact – or only write for pay. About five years ago, I never would have considered writing anything for nothing because I had worked full-time for 20-plus years as a journalist. I was always paid for my writing.

    Should artists get paid for their work? Of course. Are there occasions where it’s okay to do something for nothing? Yes, and it’s an intensely personal and difficult decision.

    I loved writing a piece for this blog just a little while ago. I saw it as giving back to this wonderful writing community of ours. Could I have sold a similar piece to a writing magazine? Probably. Do I regret that I wrote something for free? No. Do I love it when I get a paycheck for my writing? Of course.

    Good luck in your writing and acting endeavors!

    • Vasilios writes:

      Oh wow, thanks for commenting! And thank you for your kind words and encouragement. It’s frustrating because choosing whether to do something for free or not should go something like, “Can I do it? Yes. Should I do it? Yes/No.” Not “Can I do it? No. Well, I guess that’s that.”

      Hopefully I’ll get to the point sooner rather than later where the decisions get easier. Or just get to the point where I’m the one making them, rather than my circumstances.

      Big love!

  2. matt writes:

    From the heart Brother… you are truly a braver man than I…

  3. Megan Norris writes:

    Oh, Vasilios. You write so well, I could feel the cold. It does make it worse when you have to brave the elements and deal with other factors IN ADDITION TO the heart vs. head battle, doesn’t it?!

    Really, though, that inner conflict of what you’d like to do versus what makes financial sense is really what I now consider real life to be. It is my sincere hope that as we grow up and after we make a couple decisions that land on the “responsibility” side of things, we will be able to make more of the decisions that we want to make. And then, if we’re really lucky, they start to overlap and the things we want to do become the thing we get paid to do. It sounds a little like a fairy tale at this point, doesn’t it? It’s a good daydream.

    Either way, it doesn’t sound like the experience with the gorgeous blue eyes left you unhappy or unfulfilled. Every audition, every interview, every time you put yourself out there and try to learn a bit, it’s worth it. It’s worth the leaked fluid and the cold hands and the hot mess.

    Next time, maybe you can say “yes”. My fingers are crossed.

    • Vasilios writes:

      Oh Megan, you are too kind.

      I have the sincere hope that you’re right, that as time passes I’ll be able to make more and more of the artistic decisions I want to make until the job I have very little interest in is phased out. It is a lovely daydream. I wish I had some sort of evidence that it’s likely to come true. I wish I knew for sure that if you worked hard and were persistent, everything would work out. That’s my daydream.

      And this experience sucked, but you’re right, it was definitely educational and character building (to Debora’s point). My question is after how many years of these kinds of experiences does your soul get so worn down you let the dream (of making a living off art) go? When does the naked hobo stop yelling?

      You better cross your toes, too.

  4. Kristin Schulz writes:

    Oh, Vasilios. Although painful to admit, we are no longer college seniors sitting slightly buzzed (remember St. Patrick’s day?) in Bill’s writing class; we are no longer blissfully unaware of the agonizing struggle that comes with being some sort of an artist. I use the ‘some sort of an artist’ phrase loosely since, unlike you, my art is contained for the time being in my outdated Mac-book. But you, my friend, cannot just be an actor to be an actor. You memorize, you study, you cry, you sweat, you work out to be half naked in front of complete strangers, and you fall so deeply into your character that it consumes you. You deserve some money for that. Of course you want to pursue what you love no matter the circumstances, but if one more person tells us to “find a job that we love, and we’ll never work a day in our life” I might just fucking scream. It doesn’t always work that way, and good for you for standing up for your stomach, your bills, your beer/gin/vodka/scotch money, and especially your craft. And it sounds like you need a new car, so there’s that, too.

    • Vasilios writes:

      Oh Kristin!

      Not to worry, I’m typing away at an outdated MacBook myself. And I was NEVER slightly buzzed in class. That was you and Soriano. You were just smart enough to not say anything and give it away. 🙂

      It’s so nice to hear from you, and thank you for your support.

      And of course I can be an actor to be an actor. I just recognize the reality. I produced a short last year, and we brought lots of talented people on. And I put myself in the position of a door-to-door salesman day after day in order to raise money to pay them. Not much, but something. Now who knows what the financial situation of the above-mentioned theatre company was; I’m not blaming them. But I appreciate you getting what I’m saying.

      And as I recall, you’re a talented writer of dark, dirty, deliciously twisted material. You’re not just “some sort of an artist.” Am I right, Bill?

  5. Kenrick Vezina writes:

    There’s no shame in needing to be paid, the damned shame is that creative professionals are so often given vague offers of “exposure” or “publication” or whatever your particular endeavor’s equivalents are. Whatever is offered, it is not edible and it not accepted as tender at most restaurants.

    It is, frankly, bullshit. And it’s something creative professionals have internalized, I fear, as this voice that says you should do real art for free because you simply must do it. Bullshit. I think that’s just a lie we creative types tell ourselves to help us put up with the fact that we are expected to do our job out of some sense of higher good, whereas no janitor is expected to clean for the love of sanitation.

    Frankly, it’s irrelevant whether you love it or not. Maybe you WILL create even if nobody will pay you, maybe you should, but the bigger SHOULD is that you should be compensated — in real, practical, useful, terms (read: dollars) — for your professional time.

    • Vasilios writes:

      My creative endeavor’s equivalents: copy and credit. In other words, you will get a copy of the production (which you usually have to beg for) and you’ll have your name in the credits (which as you know, is SUPER RARE these days).

      And your zeal speaks of similar kinds of experiences you’ve had. It’s appreciated and welcomed.

      The question now is, how do we bring about change? Actors, I can tell you, are a dime a dozen. If a director or casting director can’t cast me because he’ll need to pay me, he’s just going to go with the guy that’s slightly less talented than I, and “fix” his performance in the editing room. So what do you do? You go union. Great, there go all your opportunities in this market. The production company will just cast nonunion people.

      Of course the problem really might be that there isn’t enough government funding for the arts, or big-money sponsors won’t take enough chances on independent projects, but that’s a discussion for another day.

      I guess it’s up to expectations. Should you be willing to create for no money? If you expect to pay your bills another way, yes. If not, no. Bam.

      Thanks for commenting. I’m glad this young, bright, published naturalist finally found his way to Bill and Dave’s. He’ll hopefully have much more to contribute in the future aside from awesome cartoon versions of me. And Kenrick, they offer exposure and publication!

  6. Debora writes:

    Vasilios! Hey Tommy, it’s Vasilios!

    Okay Vasilios, here is my attempt at a grand thought…

    First of all, well done! There are oceans of reward that come from standing on your own two feet in life.

    Second, I like that you brought something up in the end graph of your essay–which is this idea that we have to apologize for choosing responsibility over art, as if we are not “real” artists if we can pay our bills or we drive a nice car. But in fact, responsibility and art go hand-in-hand–and in many important ways. Independence is no trivial matter–honor, integrity, and personal strength are some inevitable outcomes. And all of this, of course, will become a part of our artistic performance. Already, by choosing one direction, Vasilios, you are circling back to your artistic self and making that part of you better!

    You remind me that there is so much life out there waiting for us all. It’s so great.

    • Vasilios writes:

      Debora! Speaking of looking at something from all the angles! It’s a terrific point. I was just thinking of it as, “You’ve gotta handle your business and do what you gotta do. Man up, keep your head up, and carry on.” Now I can add “Plus it’ll just contribute to your art a different way.” I mean, just one way is that it made me write this essay.

      Thank you so much for your encouragement.