THE BLOG
03/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Real Life Extra: $100 to Look Employed

In these desperate times, all the world's a stage, and your co-workers merely players.

Last week, Shakespeare's famous words were illustrated more vividly than I could ever imagine when I took the easiest -- and most bizarre -- freelance gig of my life.

As many of us 20-something liberal arts grads know all too well, these desperate financial times call for creative measures when it comes to making ends meet. As a freelance assistant for TV and film production, I found myself eager to jump back into the job market after a hectic holiday vacation, only to find that times were a bit slow. Despite some effort, I remain unemployed (although I have decided to refer to my present situation as "in between projects" to my general acquaintance, thank you). My little unemployed heart beat wildly with glee last week when I received a call from a friend who works at a boutique architecture firm in TriBeCa. The lack of new projects her firm was taking on had forced its owner to lay off most of his employees, and apparently the office all but had tumbleweed blowing through. A meeting with an important client was scheduled for the next day and, in an attempt to flesh out the office and save face, he was offering $100 cash to employees' friends who could come in during the meeting, sit at desks, and look busy. Would I be able to help them out? Hold the phone... pretend to be an architect for an hour and get paid $100?! Yes, please! Pass the foam core!

I showed up bright and early the following morning dressed in a button-down tuxedo blouse and houndstooth trousers, an ensemble specifically chosen for its "artsy but practical" vibe. I settled in next to my friend at the shared workspace, and was given some random paperwork to "peruse." From across the room, the owner nodded his approval and jokingly assured me that I looked "like a real architect." At that moment I realized the truth -- I was a real-life extra. As an unemployed person, I was being paid to pretend to be that which I inherently was not -- employed.

I used the time at the office to catch up on email and start teaching myself the computer program Rhino (hey, if real architects use it, why couldn't I?). When the client arrived, he spent most of his time absorbed in paperwork, and hardly looked up to notice the rest of the office. When he left, my fellow "co-workers" and I (there were four of us total) each received our cash stipend and went our merry ways. The whole experience lasted about an hour and a half.

With more people being laid off these days, office spaces are no doubt looking more and more barren. While this fact is indeed depressing, and I feel for the poor employer who is forced to resort to such desperate tactics, I wonder if there isn't a new niche market opening up here... At low overhead, these extras may give clients just the right amount of bolstered confidence to jump-start a drained business. I wouldn't be surprised to see more of this kind of gig opening up. As for those of us hired extras, we would end up being employed to look employed. Maybe this is the answer to my current joblessness! Why work on a set when the office has become its own playing space?

The whole thing smacks deliciously of subversive guerrilla theater, except that we are reinforcing our old-fashioned capitalist values in the spirit of a newfound patriotism rather than undermining these establishments. Fair enough, but I wonder how beneficial it was for this architect to put up a cheap veneer that denied major structural weakness. What are his long-term plans, and how much will he ultimately be willing to spend on keeping up appearances? On a broader scale, how much of our vulnerability are we willing to deny in the spirit of adopting a sunny outlook through this recession? Whatever the answer, at least we can count on Shakespeare to hold up the mirror, yet again.