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Actor Stephanie Street: No shame in a day job – after all, you actually get paid for that

Unpaid labour, also known as 'shadow work', has become part of the working lives of creative practitioners. Photo: Shutterstock
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I have been thinking about productivity of late. Notice I say “thinking” about productivity and not actually “being productive” – because in truth it is sometimes difficult to get stuff done when the weight of the work at hand feels overwhelming.

Before this is misconstrued as a #humblebrag, I am the absolute definition of a resting actor at the moment. Having spent recent months coming (allegedly) very close to, but not actually getting, plenty of nice jobs I am nonetheless busy with the mortgage-servicing day job, the work of recently becoming chair of Act for Change and having two endlessly energetic and sleep-resistant offspring to care for.

So there is stuff to be getting on with. And I feel like one of the meerkats in Battersea Park Children’s Zoo, so loved by said offspring, either staring bullet-eyed into the middle distance or running madly around in circles without any seeming purpose.

My present crisis of functionality was brought about by a fascinating article I read a couple of days ago on the 21st-century reality of ‘shadow work’: unpaid labour that benefits others, which has become assumed into our working lives, for example downloading, or sourcing and printing scripts, the slog of self-taping, etc… Work that we are not paid any more for doing but has become a necessity of our working lives.

And I was reminded of a conversation with a French friend who was amazed that British actors have to have ‘day jobs’. Familiar with her government’s support for freelance creatives, the ‘intermittents du spectacle’ (which essentially pays a significant portion of your last pay until your next job), she felt having to teach or work behind a bar or do telesales must somehow dilute our purpose as creative souls.

But in fact the day job keeps me sane. Because it is doing something with a concrete outcome. And so often what we do in our ‘job’ as creatives, all this shadow work around the actual work, feels so aimless, so unrewarding. Far too frequently, the reality is we don’t get the actual work. Them’s the odds.

Lyn Gardner: Don’t be ashamed of your day job, you can be a waiter and an artist

Whenever I meet people who are starting out on the road to a professional career in the arts, my first piece of advice to them is always: find something you can do on the side that will support you and that doesn’t batter your soul.

At a recent workshop I delivered I got to the heart of what I believe acting is about: being active, encouraging change in others by delivering stories, conflict and character. We are not passive beings, so the sitting and staring at walls, or the drudge of the shadow work, isn’t an easy place to be.

We suit action, it’s about finding our way to the right kind of action, with minimum wasted energy. I just have to remind myself of this whenever I reach peak-meerkat, overwhelmed by it all.

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