#25: Poundin’ the Pavement

Dear Friends,

I wasn’t called to rehearsal again today– the bulk of my scenes are coming up soon, though.  Considering I’ve spent the day working on other projects, I thought I’d write a post about the financial reality of being a stage actor, and talk a bit about how actors stay afloat.

In addition to performing onstage as often as possible, I’m also an adjunct professor of theatre at Carthage College, a motivational speaker for Monster.com (I deliver presentations to high school juniors and seniors about college and career choices), and a freelance teaching artist (currently text/dialect coach for UW-Parkside’s upcoming production of Playboy of the Western World).  I’m able to make a living by cobbling together all of these part-time jobs; it keeps me busy, but I love doing all all of them. 

When I was living in New York, I was able to supplement my stage acting work with TV commercial work.  Living in a smaller market means that opportunities for film/TV work are pretty scarce– the flip side, though, is that out here, the cost of living is much lower and we can actually afford to own a house, which I absolutely love.  So the tradeoff is worth it for me, especially because I’m very interested in teaching, and opportunties to do that have been plentiful so far.  But this modest-income, job-to-job lifestyle can be very stressful, so it’s not for everyone.

 I make a big point of being as strightforward about this as possible with my college students.  Being a professional actor isn’t just about talent: it requires high levels of entrepreneurship, organization, frugality, and luck.  Martin McClendon, an Associate Profesor at Carthage, recently sent a very informative email on this subject to his students, and he gave me permission to reprint portions of it below:

Folks:In the latest issue of its newspaper, Actors Equity
Association published its annual breakdown of employment,
earnings, and membership.
For those who don’t know, AEA is the union of professional
actors and stage managers. This guild negotiates with
producers to ensure good wages, safe working conditions,
and reasonable hours. Membership can be earned through
work in the field. Initiation is expensive but the
protections Equity offers are great, as well as health and
pension plans.
Anyway, I have distilled some of the more interesting facts
from the report and thought you all may want to see this
snapshot of the state of professional theatre in the last
Equity membership stands at over 41,000. Of those, 25,000
are in the eastern region, 12,000 in the western region,
and 3,500 here in the central region. 

During 2006-07, almost 18,000 members nationwide had some
kind of work in theatre. That’s 44% of the total
membership. Equity charts this work in terms of work
weeks. Last year members worked a combined total of
305,000 weeks. Around 18% of those weeks (52,000) were in
the central region.

Equity recorded member earnings of over $300 million last
season. This is a new record. The central region was
responsible for 12% of this total, or $40 million. Weekly earnings for members range from $100 to $2,000 depending on the type of contract.
Now here’s where the rubber meets the road. Nationwide,
Equity members worked an average of 17 weeks last year, and
earned a median amount of $7,239 during the year. What
does this mean? That is the statistical middle between the
highest earning and the lowest earning. So if you are an
average Equity member, you could expect to be employed
about 4 months out of the year, and make under 8 grand.
Many members made more, many made less. 40% made between
$1 and $5,000. 40% made between $5,000 and $25,000. Only
the top 20% of membership made $25,000 or more.
I think you can tell from the figures above just how
important it can be to become a well-rounded theatre
person, capable of doing more than just acting to make your
living. They should also indicate how hard you have to
keep at it to succeed financially, and how many people
there are out there who are doing the same thing you want
to do. 
There are a lot more ins and outs but I hope this
overview of last year’s numbers will get you guys thinking.

I also asked some of my castmates about what they do (or have done) to supplement their careers as actors.  Their responses follow:

Tami Workentin (Maria):

Supplementing my acting has luckily been with other things that I love:  I have taught Pilates/Aerobics at the Shape Up Shoppe Bay View Fitness Club for Women for 6 years. Having spent my time in food industry I was trained as a Chef in Seattle.  I have worked for Gracious Events in Milwaukee for 5 years handling anything from a 12-person house party to sit-down dinners of 800 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.  Working in a mobile kitchen is always like having to think like McGyver if something goes wrong or you’ve forgotten something.  Hmm, what I can I do with a pencil and some string.  I also teach a Saturday acting class at First Stage Children’s Theatre that focuses on emotional work.  Believe it or not I used to also own my own graphics design firm (tk design) where I designed materials for the print market.  With the addition of a second child I had too many irons in too many fires.  My problem is that it’s really hard for me to turn down work because you never know when that next paycheck is a comin’.  For the sake of my family and me not running through the house with my hair on fire . . . I’ve gotten better at that. 

Robert Spencer (Feste):

In 1957, at the age of nineteen, I moved to New York to pursue my dream of a life in the theatre.  My first job there was at the New York Stock Exchange as a floor runner.  After a year of taking too many days off to attend auditions, I was fired.  I then became a waiter at a  series of Greenwich Village restaurants until I was cast in my first Broadway show as one of the teenagers in the original production of Bye Bye Birdie in 1960.  From that time on I pretty much made my living by working in the theatre, TV commercials, and soap operas.  However, when I was working Off-Broadway I would augment my meager salary by working a few hours a day at Cue Magazine, an arts and entertainment periodical.  A friend of mine ran the subscription department and took pity on out of work actors, or those, who like myself,  just needed more money to survive in The Big Apple.
Jefferson Slinkard (Sir Toby):
The Day Job; friend or foe.  I have tended bar at a theater, sold souvenir programs and Mamma Mia CD’s in the lobby on the National tour as I traveled with my wife, I worked coat check in NYC (really good cash money) and catered.  The trick of course is to get a job that pays well, is totally flexible around your needs to do a show or make auditions, and one that does not sap too much of your soul, leaving you worn out and uninspired.
Years ago as I was preparing to leave Minnesota for L.A. , an old hand at the movie biz gave me this advice:  “Get on unemployment and ride it for all it is worth”  Pretty good advice actually.  If you can use most of your energy and time towards the betterment of your craft and the pursuit of acting jobs, your chances of success in your endeavors is greater.  Besides, you have worked for that money.
It’s certainly not always easy.  But it’s an absolute privilege to be an actor: if I can make a living telling stories, even if it is relatively modest, by some standards, then life can’t be THAT hard.  Character-building, yes, but also very fulfilling.  Life is good.

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