Dallas — In the Fall of 2016, TheaterJones editor Mark Lowry asked me to research compensation and finances for theatres in the North Texas region, to track where the money is actually going. The results of this research will comprise a series of six essays that will be released over the summer, covering a range of issues. One of the points of interest concerned compensation for performers, opening a Pandora’s box of questions:
Who is actually making a living as a performer?
What percentage of a theatre’s overall budget is dedicated to artists?
What is the average pay for an actor in DFW?
Is theatre in DFW a career or a glorified hobby?
I know that term “glorified hobby” is harsh, but that’s how it was described to me by one of the first actors I worked with upon moving here in 2013. I believe what he meant was that artists in DFW tend to work a “day job” and then dedicate their evening hours and weekends to rehearsals or other needs for a professional theatre production. Their civilian lives range from the stereotypical waitresses and baristas to career receptionists, non-profit administrative staff, teachers, or even working for the government. There's also a respectable amount of voice-over work here.
By day they are ordinary muggles.
By night: theatre wizards.
I’m assuming that many readers are well aware of the time commitment along with the physical and emotional demands of theatre. So how long can this community sustain a professional theatre scene when many artists essentially have two full-time jobs? How long can we keep this up?
For today, I’d like to discuss a controversial issue: actor compensation.
I’m calling this controversial because few people are willing to talk about money out in the open. Perhaps it doesn’t come up in conversation due to improper etiquette or a raging fear that the entire theatre world may combust if a theatre talks about their balance sheet, but regardless, many people I have come across tend to sweep the issue under the rug. A very large, dusty, lumpy rug locked in props storage. For as long as possible.
At first, I reached out to a few leading companies in our region to ask if they would be open to discuss how much they pay performers in a production. No one was willing to talk. One administrator gave concern that if such information was released, it may pit some artists against or for some theatres in a competitive manner. I could understand this if there turned out to be a significantly wide gap in wages. From my work as a freelancer, I predicted that the range of compensation would differ only in some hundreds of dollars. (Also, the acting community knows how much the theaters pay, as word spreads around.)
While I understand that concern, maybe we need to start recognizing theatres not just for the quality of work or their facilities, but how they treat their artists financially. And maybe we need to have an open conversation about that.
When patrons come to professional productions, do they actually see the artists as members of the workforce? Is our labor on or off stage perceived as some kind of privilege? (“Those kids should feel lucky that they get to act in a show at all!”) How much should a patron reasonably be charged for local theatre, taking into account the work executed by the local artists and the highly accessible nature of modern, internet-based entertainment? Who is willing to talk about that?
So, with that dead-end going through the leaders of theatre companies, I decided to go straight to the artists themselves through an anonymous survey. For today, I’d like to simply share some of the results, and later essays will talk more in depth about artists and their work, challenges of arts administrators, and where exactly the money is flowing in our performing arts scene.
For this survey, I asked a range of questions specifically targeting actors and their compensation in 2016. While some respondents included specific theatre companies, I will leave out the names of those organizations to draw more attention to the realities of the artist. (There are some exceptions below, as when discussing Actor's Equity rates at the larger theaters.)
The survey received 77 complete responses. Admittedly, a small sample size. But it provides some context.
For the first question, I asked how many weeks out of the year each actor was employed in a professional production (rehearsals or performances) in 2016. For the sake of the survey, “professional” refers to the conceit that some kind of compensation was provided for services as an actor.
Results for the first question:
- 1-10 weeks of employment: 28 percent
- 11-20 weeks of employment: 35 percent
- 21-30 weeks of employment: 19 percent
- 31-40 weeks of employment: 11percent
- 41-52 weeks of employment: 5 percent
I believe these results tell an important story concerning the regularity of employment as over half of the respondents are not actively in a production for more than half of the year. Does it speak to limited opportunities in the area? Does it reflect the limited amount of time adult artists are able to dedicate to theatre with full time jobs elsewhere?
For the second question, I wanted to ascertain the specific numbers flowing into a performer’s pocket book—specifically the best-case scenario. “What was your highest paying performance job in North Texas? How much time did you dedicate to the project?”
With all 77 results, the highest paying actor job average sits at $1,236.13 for the entire show (rehearsals and performance).
The median number shows a different story, suggesting that a handful of highly paid gigs slant the average upwards. The median is $800 (the number at the midpoint of the 77 results).
Keep in mind that the minimum an Actor’s Equity member would make at our theaters with the largest audience capacities (Dallas Theater Center, Casa Mañana, Lyric Stage and Uptown Players) would be $972 per week based on the current AEA pay scale. Therefore, with rehearsals and performances at Dallas Theater Center (which has longer rehearsals and runs than Casa and Lyric), at least $7,000 a show in the Kalita Humphreys Theater or the Potter Rose Performance Hall (main stage) at the Wyly Theatre. At the smaller theaters, an Equity actor makes a minimum of $492 per week. Health insurance comes with a certain amount of weeks worked.
For non-Equity actors, the story is much different, with many theaters offering small stipends—or nothing. (Directors, designers and musicians are frequently paid something before actors are.)
Also keep in mind that the theaters using Equity talent represents a small percentage of DFW's theater community. And there are Small Professional Theatres (SPT is an AEA designation) and theaters using guest artist contracts that still pay non-Equity actors a respectable wage.
That said, you could probably count on one hand the number of local actors who make a living wage strictly from stage work.
Here are some of the highlights from survey respondents about their compensation:
- Five weeks of rehearsals/performances for $300 total.
- $80 for five rehearsals and four performances.
- $300 a week for six weeks ($1,800 total).
- $318 a week for 30 hours a week.
- $800 total for approximately 7.5 weeks of work.
- $1,200 total for eight weeks.
- $800 stipend for a 10-week contract.
- $1,500 for an eight-week contract.
- $150 stipend for four weeks of rehearsal and 13 shows.
- $300 for five weeks.
- I earned a gross total of $3,327.75 from a nine-week contract.
- $1,000 for approximately 150 hours of rehearsal and performance.
- $800 a week for a nine-week contract (Equity).
- $500 stipend for seven weeks of rehearsals and performances.
- $250 stipend for nine weeks of rehearsals and performances.
- $700 only due to profit share. $200 without it. Two-and-a-half month commitment of rehearsals and performances.
With this data, I’m unfurling a more complete picture of not simply an actor’s relationship towards their work and finances, but the overall image of North Texas theatre. Economics matter.
In the next installment, I’ll move away from these simple matters of math to examine further the emotional consequences on DFW artists. Does compensation really matter to you personally if everyone is struggling to produce something, anything? Is it demoralizing if you put in so many hours of work for a meager financial return? How do you respond as an artist to these numbers?
Also, if these numbers are sobering now...you may need to read these essays with some liquid comfort.