What It Really Costs To Be An Actor (and to put on a show)

I came across an interesting Business Insider article today on the costs associated with working as an actor; even as someone who is well aware of the small return on a huge investment (of both time and money) I was shocked by some of the numbers.

Consider the cost of training and promotional materials, for one;

School: some go the 4 year BA route, which will cost about $20 000 in total, but even if you are forgoing traditional education for workshops or conservatory programs, expect to spend thousands here.

Headshots: these are essential for any actor and can cost a pretty penny. Expect $500+ to have them shot, plus the cost of printing. It isn’t unusual to spend close to $1000 for good quality headshots, and then of course they need to be updated whenever you change your look.

Personal Website: while free avenues like facebook and wordpress are frequently used, a lot of people choose to have a custom domain name as well; add another $100 or more a year for this.

Then of course there is the cost of any additional training you do along the way, things like haircuts, makeup etc. to keep you looking pretty, expensive dance shoes – you get the idea. It’s not cheap. And there is really no guarantee of a return.

It was the author’s salaries in the article though that really caught me by surprise; even at the high end, performing at Madison Square Garden in a multi-million dollar performance, the author was only making $527/week. $527/week for 52 weeks in a year is a whopping $27 404 annual salary; not exactly a celebrity lifestyle. Plus, consider the fact that not only do most actors not get big gigs like that, but the majority of actor’s contracts are not for a full year. So even if you’re raking in big dough for the duration of your contract, you may need to stretch 2 months of pay over an entire year.

The author was only making $527/week. $527/week for 52 weeks in a year is a whopping $27 404 annual salary; not exactly a celebrity lifestyle

Our upcoming production of Rope is certainly small budget compared to the shows mentioned above, but it’s still a considerable amount of money for those of us who are funding it while working minimum wage jobs. Our overall budget is $4500.00, and that does not include paying the actors. You can see a detailed breakdown of our budget on our FWYC campaign page.  As someone who is certainly used to working for no pay (I put hundreds of volunteer hours over 6 years into theatre work on campus before finally getting a paid, part-time position this year) I went into this knowing I likely couldn’t pay anyone involved, but still feeling really guilty about it. So that’s why we started a Fund What You Can Campaign.

Our goal is to raise the entire cost of our production – $4500.00 – so that any money we make on the show itself can be split among the cast and crew. Of course there is no guarantee of ticket sales, but if we were to sell out all of our shows we could potentially be paying everyone about $380; not a Broadway level salary, but it’s a start. To put that further into perspective, all of actors are putting in about 14 hours of performance time plus 40-60 hours of rehearsal time. So let’s say that they are working a conservative 54 hours and make at the very most $380; that’s still only $7/hour. Considerably below minimum wage.

Our goal is to raise the entire cost of our production – $4500.00 – so that any money we make on the show itself can be split among the cast and crew…that’s still only $7/hour. Considerably below minimum wage.

As a producer it is important to me to put on a successful show and to compensate those involved. As an artist and student myself, I do not have the money to do that on my own. That’s where you come in. By making a donation to Rope you will be helping to further the careers of 8 talented actors, our wonderful stage manager and Bygone Theatre itself. Every little bit counts and gets us one step closer to realizing our dreams while earning a decent wage.

Check out our Fund What You Can Campaign for Rope to make a donation to the production.


The Rehearsal Process – Retro Radio Hour

Every show brings its own challenges, and with the plays collected for our upcoming Retro Radio Hour I encountered some that were new to me.

When working on larger scale shows like Doubt, Hairspray or Arsenic and Old Lace, I often found I didn’t have time to do all I wanted to do. Character exercises were neglected, and warm-ups abandoned in favour of instead focusing on blocking, or a specific moment that was troublesome to an actor. I had hundreds of ideas that had to be narrowed down to dozens, and even then rarely explored fully. The biggest creative challenge was knowing when to not bring up something that might have lead to an interesting discussion, simply because we needed to focus our energy elsewhere.

This wasn’t quite the same for some of the smaller one acts, like Plasterface, Pigeons In Love or Bucket. Here, timing seemed more important than character because everything was just a snippet of a larger picture, tiny vignettes that were sometimes more visually interesting than thought-provoking. Here we spent significant time discussing what we wanted to come across, and then working to find ways to make that read onstage, in simple, clear terms. It may sound less creative, but it was actually a very helpful process, and something I keep in mind now when working on larger projects as well – it’s all well and good to have grand ideas and intention, but the audience needs to understand where that’s all coming from too.

Other short plays like Noble Savages and Children Don’t Cry provided different challenges, like simply understanding what the hell the writer intended. We spent countless rehearsals just talking about possible scenarios, and in the end decided we need to just pick one and stick to it. Thankfully, it worked.

But now, working on 5 very different scripts at once (not to mention rehearsing the songs, worrying about schedules, marketing the show and trying to keep costs down so we can actually PROFIT from this – a rare thing in theatre) I have problems I’ve never faced before. The main one being, how do I get across to my actors the sound and style I’m looking for, without simply making them mimic?

I’ve tried very hard in the last couple years to eliminate “do this” from my directing vocabulary. While it’s sometimes very hard to step back and watch someone do something one way, when you know (or so you think) they’d be better if they’d “just do it more like this”, I’ve found that ultimately, letting my actors find things themselves makes for much happier people and much better results. I’ve tried to keep all my directing to asking questions (even if they are rather pointed, like, “are you thinking of something right now? or just trying to look like you’re thinking of something?”, you know who you are :-P) and suggesting scenarios, often playing devil’s advocate for the sake of conversation. However, in this limited time frame, and with scripts that are little more than soap operas (funny ones, it’s true, but still simplistic), I’ve found I need a new method of directing.

At first, I felt a little useless at rehearsals; as there was no real character work being done (aside from deciding on the kind of voice someone would be doing), I didn’t have much to contribute past, “good job” or “we need to tighten that up”. As someone who likes to really get into the text I found that rather frustrating. However, as time has gone on, I’ve found it’s actually really interesting to watch a group of people collectively form a play. By taking a step back as a director, my actors, more than ever, were left to explore things on their own. While this is something I always encourage, here the tight time frame meant that there wasn’t any real discussion about it, they just each adjusted themselves slightly with each reading. What’s really amazing is, they seem to all sense the same thing, and each one gets better, and moves more towards the same unified piece on their own, without even discussing it! While it may minimize my role, it’s been great to see confirmed the thing I’ve suspected for a few years now; the best thing I can do as a director is to cast amazing actors and let them do their thing. My shows have turned out great because my actors are always great, and I can’t wait to watch them rock these shows again, come May 11.