In the three years I attended California State University Northridge's Theatre Department, where I received my bachelor's degree, and the two years I spent at Pasadena City College, there weren't any courses offered called “Watch Your Ass 101” or “Screwing The Producer Before He Screws You.” Nobody told me ahead of time to be aware of the misleading and false-promising producer types, or the mom-and-pop companies that want to take advantage of you for being young and new to the business, or the ones that want the world from you but have nothing to offer in exchange. So after being burnt, deceived, swindled, hosed, stiffed, cheated screwed, conned — whatever you want to call it — I decided I would share, with both up-and-comers like myself and those new to the industry, some advice to avoid falling into the same traps I have.

First, a little background. I started working in professional theatre in Los Angeles right out of high school. While I went to college, I freelanced at small theatres doing all kinds of tech jobs and eventually worked my way up to larger theatres to the point where I was designing the lighting. I also worked the nightclub circuit for a while, which launched me into designing lights for corporate events and live musical acts. I've designed lights internationally and off-Broadway, and I've been very lucky to have been connected with the right people and been given these opportunities.

Now at age 24, I'm still freelancing and trying to find my niche. I love the variety that freelancing brings. One week, I'm working on a TV show; the next, I'm in tech for an opera. Never a dull moment, but I will say there are times when I hate doing freelance jobs simply because of the politics involved. As everyone knows, every job is different. Each has its own set of rules, and it's up to you to determine whether or not you are going to play by these rules. Most of the time, you can see the rules right in front of you and can tell whether they're in your favor or not. However, sometimes the rules aren't always evident, and you end up falling into the trap of a misleading and false gig that has underlying rules that can change at the employer's discretion. Or you come across a job that looks too good to be true, and usually it is, and you accept it without thinking twice. I've fallen into many, and I'm trying very hard not to get into them again. Here's the most important thing I've learned:

Make A Contract!

Make one up for your own personal use as an independent contractor that defines what you will be doing on the job and also what you won't be doing on the job. Have a lawyer look it over, and make sure that it is legally binding. Get what you, the independent contractor, are being hired to do, in writing. The worst thing in the world is flying somewhere, very far away from home, only to find out that you have lots of not-especially-pleasant surprises in store for you, like:

Surprise!

You've just been working ten hours on lighting crew, and since your job is completed, we're going to throw you on set crew for another five hours and not pay you overtime. Help us tear down these flats!

Or:

Surprise!

We were under the impression the lighting designer would be hanging all of his 100 instruments, figure out our problematic house patch system, circuit everything, focus everything, and then program the lights all by yourself in a 24-hour load in.

Needless to say, the only surprises you want to be dealing with are the ones that pertain to the job you signed up for. Your job description or definition should never come into question once you are onsite. You do not want to be worrying about contractual matters once you are working. All that business should have been signed and done with before you left home. You should not even be there if you did not sign a contract, because you are simply asking for a misunderstanding, and that will be your demise. The producer will make it look as if it's your fault, because you agreed to his terms, and you did not play by his rules. Don't let that happen! If you give a producer a chance to cut corners, he will. If he can save a buck by convincing you to do someone else's job, he will! If you let him get away with it, chances are he'll do it to others. So technically you might be screwing over everyone else by letting the producer screw you.

Don't get me wrong. If we're onsite working on a show, I have no problem filling in for someone, if we're down a person, and the job needs to get done for the good of the production. But I want to be compensated for the shoes I'm filling. Isn't that fair? In my humble opinion, being a team player doesn't mean taking one for the team. I have no problem lending a hand to other departments, but I'm not about to do their jobs for them.

What I'm talking about is this producer mentality — which many seem to think is okay — of taking advantage of employees, expecting them to bend over backwards and do what they're told. Sure, I'll switch to set crew after working ten hours on lighting, but you're going to pay me overtime for it until the job is done. It's my pet peeve in this industry. It's shady, it's dishonest, and it's not fair to any of us.

Bottom line: Don't leave home without a signed mutual agreement of what your title is and what your duties are.

Nick McCord (http://nickmccord.20m.com) is a freelance lighting designer, lighting director, programmer, and electrician for the stage. His projects range from theatre and opera to live musical acts and corporate events.

GET IT IN WRITING: DOS AND DON'Ts

  • Define, With The Employer, What Is In Your Job Description

    Make sure that you and the employer have the same understanding of your job title and responsibilities. Every person has a different definition and understanding of what a lighting designer, master electrician, board-op, etc. does. You don't want to go to a job thinking you're the LD and find yourself up on a ladder, unless you like being on ladders.

  • Define What Is Not In Your Job Description

    Now that you have established what you will be doing on the job, you can put down what you won't be doing on the job. Should they need you to perform extra duties, list what additional charges will be added to your original fee.

  • Establish A Per Diem If Travel Is Involved

    If you are expected to travel to the job and be away from your home for more then 24 hours, you need a per diem. Find out if the producer is paying for travel, room and board, food allowance, transportation costs to and from the venue, as well as single bedroom accommodations, high-speed Internet in the room, etc. You'll want to limit your out-of-pocket expenses. See if you can get the per diem before you leave, so you have it with you the entire time. Hold on to receipts in case you do have to use your own money.

  • International Travel

    If you are traveling internationally, find out if you need a visa, and, if you do, if the producer will pay for it.

  • Get Credit Where Credit Is Due

    If you are designing a show, and it's the first of its kind, you want credit for that! You want first refusal rights if it's produced again. You want residuals if you can get them. Even if it's not a debut, you still want credit on billings, programs, recordings, etc.

  • Establish An Abandonment Clause

    You also want to include some kind of clause in case the show closes before opening — an abandonment clause. Have something that establishes “that you won't be left uncompensated should the producer take a hike.”

  • Establish A Termination Clause

    Should you be terminated before your tasks are completed, you should be compensated for the time you have already put in.

  • Get It Signed

    Finally, before you show up at the job make sure that contract has been signed by both you and the employer — especially the employer's copy.