Acting by the Number$: Can Theatre Pay the Bills?

Art is awesome. I love making art. All I’ve ever wanted to do was tell stories, the kind that help us examine the human experience. That’s what I believe acting to be, particularly in the theatre. A stage play is alive, happening right in front of you, existing only for a moment until another moment replaces the previous one, building to a climax. It’s a chance for us as an audience to put ourselves in another situation—it may be farcical or it may be life and death—and then ponder how we would behave. That’s what I love about theatre. Sure, you can take the same emotional journey with a film or a television show, and that art can be equally valid, but the added element of the story unfolding live in front of you, where any number of factors could influence the tale being told, I find to be irreplaceable.

Now from a working actor’s perspective, reality has to come into play. You want to do stage work, it’s your passion, but do you remember all the times someone in your past told you that “there’s no money in theatre”? I hate to break it to you, but that person was right. Yes, it is possible to earn a sizable income in theatre. It is also EXTRAORDINARILY unlikely.

Budget BillsImagine you are a chorus member in a hit show on Broadway like The Book of Mormon or Something Rotten, and you will be part of this show for a year. We can roughly estimate you will make $100,000. (Current union production contract minimum is slightly more than $1,900 per week, so let’s say you have some understudy bumps, media bonuses, perhaps hazard pay, and we’ll call it $2,000 a week for fifty weeks—we’re estimating, remember?)

Sounds like a reasonable amount of money. Who wouldn’t be happy with that salary to sing, dance, and act for a living? But hold on second…you don’t get all of that money. There’s union dues to pay, commission to your agent and/or your manager, taxes, contributions to your retirement (and I know most of you are young and don’t think about that, but believe me, PLAN NOW)—your $100,000 just became about $63,000.

Still sound like a lot? Maybe, it sounds like a lot to me. I grew up poor in the South. My very first performing job paid me more money weekly than my Mother had ever made in a week, and she worked full time for the same company for 26 years. Growing up with little (but enough I admit) colored my perception of what “a lot of money” truly is.

 

Back to our “net income” of $63,000. You live in the New York City area, currently the second most expensive housing market in the USA, behind only San Francisco. The average rent in Manhattan is $3,100 per month—now I know “average” is skewed by some really expensive apartments, but stay with me. It’s unlikely you live alone, that’s just too much money. Assuming you have one roommate, you spend $18,600 on rent, not including utilities. Then you spend money on things like entertainment and, you know, food. Being responsible, your grocery bill is probably around $400 per month (so $4,800 a year), and let’s estimate $2,000 for entertainment. Simple math gets us to $37,600 left over, and we haven’t covered any medical expenses, health club memberships, trips home for the holidays with your family, clothing, audition expenses, or anything else you can imagine.

In short, you can live, but that’s about it. Maybe you’ll save a little. Maybe you’ll have nice things. But odds are, that show will end, and so will your salary. One final ray of sunshine, four out of five Broadway shows fail to recoup their investment. Some shows do manage to run for more than a year without recouping, but it’s rare.

AND ALL OF THIS ASSUMES YOU’RE ON BROADWAY FOR A SOLID YEAR, which I’m sorry to say, most of us aren’t. Most of us are working in regional theatre, stock, showcases, tours, all places where the money is significantly less.

We don’t do it for money. We do it for love. (Cue Marvin Hamlisch…)

Look Ma

Now, before I go cry into my bucket of Ben & Jerry’s, yes, of course, there’s a way to survive. You can act for a living. But to me, the only way to do it, is by using ALL of the mediums that are out there beyond the stage: Television, Film, and Commercial work.

Why do those mediums pay so much better (on average) than theatre? I don’t have the definitive answer, but the best explanation I’ve ever heard is that in these mediums an image and a performance is captured forever. You (the actor) are paid so that someone else can use your work and likeness to promote their product or tell their story. And once it’s done, it’s done, never changing, no matter how rich and alive your work may be. You give over your SELF forever, and usually the compensation is respectable.

These jobs are often very quick—I’m speaking of commercials and “non-star” work right now; I’m not talking about series regulars or leading roles in film, I have no experience with that. Commercials are very short in length, and can be shot in a day, a weekend, or maybe a week at most if it’s very technical or involves a tough location. Small roles in TV and film are often shot in a day or two, as time is money.

So in essence, you can make a reasonable sum of money in a short amount of time. For example, last year I shot a commercial for a Health & Beauty product (don’t laugh), in which I DID NOT SPEAK; I merely snored on camera. My job requirement was to lie in a bed with my pretend wife, and snore loudly. I arrived on set at 7:00 AM, and was released at 10:30 AM. Two of those hours I spent chatting with the other actors and enjoying the free coffee and breakfast.

And for my troubles, I have been paid roughly $2,500.

“Wait, I get paid for this?”
“Wait, I get paid for this?”

Look, I know all of that was a massive humblebrag. And talking specifically about money can be distasteful, but I need you to see what I am talking about. YOU CAN’T IGNORE THESE MEDIUMS. They could save your butt someday.

The most awesome aspect of that commercial experience happened in March of this year. I shot the ad in February 2015. My initial payment came a few weeks after the shoot (that’s standard), then a little more arrived later (also standard), but that was the end of the contract. In January 2016 I returned home from a theatre gig, with no survival job, no unemployment, no income at all. But in March, as I was auditioning for whatever would come next, a check arrived in the mail. My commercial had been “picked up” for another year, so there was this lovely check in my hands, the first money I had made in 2016.

You cannot assume that just because you can act on a stage that you can act in any other medium. There are separate, definable skills that you must hone; there is a language you must learn. So get into a class, pronto.

Yes, art is awesome. You know what else is awesome? CHECKS. Checks are awesome. We often need checks to make art. Very rarely we get lucky, and we can have both.

Advancing art is easy, yes—financing it is not.” Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George.

 

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Rob Richardson

Rob Richardson is an actor, trainer, blogger, husband, and father. Your basic superhero. He spent a good part of 2017 sailing the Caribbean as the Broadway Guest Artist on the Disney Fantasy, appearing in Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular and Disney's Believe. Broadway/Off-Broadway: Jekyll & Hyde, A Tale of Two Cities, Clinton the Musical, and The Fantasticks. Follow Rob on Twitter @traininghumanT, and read his other musings on health and wellness at www.traininghumanity.blogspot.com.


4 thoughts on “Acting by the Number$: Can Theatre Pay the Bills?”

  1. I really enjoyed this! As someone who Is pursuing art on the sidelines , I always struggle with my 9-5 as it is so far fetched from my passion of acting. I always ask myself “how can I be in the arts full time and make a living”, and this brings a bit of clarity and gives me a glimpse of the reality of being a full time actor. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Miguel. It is certainly possible to make a living in the arts, but it can absolutely be a struggle, and it may not ever be the “living” we all hope for. But the passion to act, or paint, or dance, or whatever, can’t be dictated by the amount of money we may or may not make. However you can do what you love, just do it. Maybe that’s what real success is. My best to you.

  2. All I can do is thank you for writing frankly about a subject that everybody wants to know about but nobody has the guts to ask. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    “Life upon the wicked stage ain’t never what a girl supposes.
    Stage door Johnnies aren’t raging over you with gems and roses”. – Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat

    1. Hey thank you Rafael for reading. It is a difficult subject, one I have struggled with my entire career, until I finally learned not to equate success in the arts with making money. But it is great when the two collide. Best to you!

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