Should Storytellers Work for Free?

In several past articles, I have sung the virtues of volunteering and giving. But, as many storytellers have learned – some the hard way – working and performing for free has many drawbacks. We are often excited to have the opportunity to share our passion for storytelling. So, where do we draw the line? This article shares some of the ideas that were sent to the StoryTell List when this discussion thread was started.

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From Mary Hamilton

I think storytellers should be paid – with very few exceptions.
Do I do anything free? Yes, I will go on radio shows to promote events I am part of and will not charge for the additional time involved to drive to the station and participate in the show (even though I cannot book anything else at that time once I’ve agreed to do the promotion). I help organize our local swap group. We currently meet monthly in members’ homes and we will be adding a second public venue swap starting in May. I also currently working with others to help create a statewide storytelling organization here in Kentucky. So, my organizational time is free. I tell free as a gift to my own nieces and nephews in their individual classrooms. When I am working on new work, I may call a teacher I know to see if I can visit his/her class and tell a new work. They as usually very happy to schedule me. I see this as a service to the development of my work and would not even think of charging for it. At the same time, some school children are receiving free storytelling.

I do not expect payment for anything I do related to Tellabration. After many years of not being involved in any Tellabration, our local Frankfort group wanted to participate this year. I co-organized it with another member. I donated the cost of renting sound equipment (our local organization has no formal structure and no money, and within the group there is a strong bias against the creation of a formal structure, dues payments and such), emceed the event and, as it turned out, I did not tell a story because we ran out of time. Because several of our tellers were telling in public for the very first time, they just did not have as much experience as is sometimes needed to be sure not to go over time — yes, they did time their stories in advance, but they got longer with a larger audience hearing them for the first time! I was determined not to burn bridges with the venue (free for our use) by running the program any longer than we promised, so I just did not tell. We are welcome back anytime we want.

So, I think we all must make decisions on what to do free. That said, some guilds view their mission as “donating storytelling to the community.” I think if that is the mission of the local guild, then perhaps the mission needs to be revisited, or perhaps to be a member in good standing each member needs to donate x times telling free each year, and after that, you are finished and still a well-respected member. I do hope a guild with a “we tell free anytime, anywhere in our community” mission will work to develop strong standards for how members are to be treated and strong guidelines for what constitutes a community venue in need as opposed to a community venue that should be paying for entertainment/education/or whatever their goal for presenting storytelling would be. Or storytelling can be taken for granted and storytellers will not be treated professionally.

I think sometimes it is easy for a storytellers to be excited by the opportunity to tell anywhere and it’s hard for a group to step back, evaluate, and really examine the why of telling out in the community and the how that will help the group achieve the why. For example, will people be asked to pay to attend the festival your guild is sponsoring? If so, how will giving them free storytelling shows increase their desire to pay for storytelling?
Now, if those freebies are very, very short – almost teasers, then perhaps they will serve to build desire for the paid event. But if I’m getting what feels like a complete show free, then why wouldn’t I just wait for the next free event since clearly many are going to be provided?
Mary Hamilton

From Mary Garrett
The key is certainly to limit the number of “gifts.” Jackie Torrence said at her ETSU workshop that when she hired an agent, they agreed on a set number of free engagements for the year, and she chose the worthy few. Everyone else was told that her free dates were already allocated, and the rates were . . . whatever the rates were.
Mary Garrett

From Tom Farley
Our Tellabration is our main fundraiser with three guest tellers and three of our own group. All volunteer their time, but we do cover travel costs. Our usual pattern for donated or pro bono tellings is to send three or four tellers, each doing one or two stories. We have done this at Earth Day festivals, school arts fairs, service clubs [who usually feed the tellers well] and youth programs. We now do midsummer and Halloween weekend tellings at Big Basin State Park where they comp our tellers and families two campsites in exchange for several programs. This will be our fourth year there. These activities are valuable to us both for referrals to paying programs and announcements of our monthly swap as well as giving us times to work together and hear each other tell to an audience that is not mostly other tellers.
Tom & Sandy Farley

From Billie Noakes
I used to run a coffeehouse/art center, where musicians and poets gathered to practice their new work, encourage each other, and just jam or talk. In time, I became a ‘clearinghouse’ for the whole community, helping connect worthy causes with talented people who would perform for free.

You know what? All those people who were so eager to call me and beg for free talent treated my people as though they were worth every penny they paid. It was disgraceful. And I realized that these same organizations had no problem paying their printers, sound technicians and insurance carriers.

All any of us was getting for being “useful members of our community” was being used, and I made a decision: I would not organize any more freebies. When people suggested that they were “supporting” the arts by giving us wider exposure as we entertained THEIR audiences, I suggested to them that “the best way to support the arts is to BUY some,” whether that meant buying a chapbook, a CD or painting, or hiring the artist for gigs.

It took a little while. I wrote a couple of letters to local papers, pointing out that it would be a shame to have wildly talented burger flippers and checkout clerks who couldn’t afford, any more, to support our entertainment with their volunteer efforts, and suggested that the community quit asking for handouts and start looking for sponsors to cover the cost of fostering these talents.

It worked. Soon, however, I was feeling beleaguered because I was arranging all these gigs, and not even getting a commission! Of course, we’ll always want to volunteer to support our favorite causes, but it’s just as easy to give our fees BACK as a donation, as it is o waive the fee in the first place. And it establishes that we know our own worth.

Constant freebies also give the public no basis for evaluation. A free show can’t be criticized for not being worth the money, and if an adequate show is available for free, then it’s too easy to “settle,” and keep the really good stuff (available for a price) from ever being seen.

I don’t envision or embrace a world where nobody ever volunteers for anything, but those who always give it away not only devalue their work; they make it harder for everyone else trying to make a living at it.
Billie Noakes

by Mary Hamilton, Mary Garrett, Tom Farley and Billie Noakes

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