HOW MUCH DO ACTORS GET PAID?
A glimpse behind the curtain....
Earning a decent wage onstage in Chicago is no easy task. They don't call it being a struggling artist for nothing, and musicians and actors alike are the first toBy Nina MetzSpecial to the TribunePublished January 28, 2007
No one works in theater to get rich.
Every performer understands this going in. But for the audience members who attend local theater each year, we often have little idea of the financial realities faced by the people we see onstage. Personal finances are a sensitive issue, and it comes as no surprise that the many actors we approached preferred to keep it that way. They cited privacy concerns.
Also, it might not be considered politic to reveal what a given theater has paid for a run. (This isn't about calling theater companies miserly, by the way. Some might be less sensitive than others to the plight of an actor's wallet. But bottom line, budgets are finite. And so often in live theater, they also are inescapably very limited.)
The professional union of stage actors is Actors Equity, which negotiates minimum pay rates for its members. Some theaters operate under Equity contracts and rules (example: a big theater such as the Goodman), and some do not (example: a small storefront theater such as Curious Theatre Branch).
Even within the Equity system, the pay minimums fluctuate depending on a theater's specific designation -- a complicated system of tiers and levels and contracts.By and large, Equity actors support themselves through their work as performers.
But according to actress Linda Gillum: "No one really makes their living just doing theater, so we all do something else." This generally means teaching jobs, voice-over and commercial work; and TV and film when they come through town. --For a blink-and-you'll-miss-me role on a television show, an actor might get $500 for the day. That's a nice chunk for a single day's work, but those opportunities are few and far between. Health insurance is also a big motivating factor for actors. Equity members must work 20 weeks a year to qualify for the union's health plan. Most shows run from nine to 18 weeks (including rehearsals). The pressure to work enough weeks looms large.
At the other end of the spectrum are non-Equity actors appearing in fringe and storefront productions. They can make from $0 -- you read that right -- to $200 a week. And it's not because the companies are stingy. The money simply isn't there.
Under these circumstances, any pay is gravy. Some companies offer a one-time stipend for the entire run, ranging from $25 to $500.
And forget the old cliche about actors waiting tables or tending bar. The majority I spoke to work day jobs in an office, where the health benefits help compensate for the tedium and fluorescent lighting.
A quick explanation of Equity's labyrinth of contract designations: Contracts offered by the Goodman, Northlight or Court Theatres, fall under the rules of the League of Resident Theaters.
The minimum weekly salary can range from $536 to $769. (After Feb. 25, the LORT minimum salary range goes up to $544-$792.)Most Equity theaters in Chicago -- which are allowed to employ some actors that are Equity, and some that are not -- fall under the Chicago Area Theatre contract rules and tier rankings; the minimums range from $162.50 to $686.25 per week.
By the way, Equity companies can (and frequently do) offer more than the minimum -- up to several hundred dollars more -- which is based on seniority or an actor's perceived value in the marketplace.
Most touring Broadway shows and designated Chicago productions of major Broadway musicals -- such as "Wicked" and "The Color Purple" -- operate under production contracts. Minimum is $1,465 a week, and lead roles can pay much, much more.
- - -Weekly minimums at some Chicago-area Equity theaters
Goodman Theatre$769(Albert Theatre) $536(Owen Theatre)
Steppenwolf Theatre686.25(Downstairs) $572(Upstairs, in most cases) $162.50 (Garage)Second City$647.04 (Mainstage) $485.28 (e.t.c. stage)
Chicago Shakespeare$572-$686.25 (mainstage)$572 (Upstairs)
Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire$611
Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace $593
- - -Chicago faces
Marital Status: single
Non-Equity actor and co-artistic director of Pine Box Theatre, plans to join the union after her run in "Othello" at Writers' Theatre in May.In 2006, Francis made about $4,000 (from fourshows), and $3,000 from television commercial work. But she earns the bulk of her money at Motel Bar, averaging $200/night. "I have a wonderful boss who lets me start at 11 p.m., so every night I get done with a show, I run straight to the bar and bartend until 4 in the morning. It's brutal, but if I didn't have that, I don't think I would be able to do theater."
Marital Status: single
Equity actor and Remy Bumppo Theatre Company member, appeared in the ensemble's fall production of "The Real Thing."In 2006, most of Gillum's income came from acting (from four shows, averaging $500/week); a quarter from acting classes she taught at the Acting Studio, Victory Gardens Training Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Remy Bumppo also pays its ensemble members a yearly stipend for administrative work that can range from $500 to $2,000. In the spring, Gillum directs "An Immigrant Class" for Remy Bumppo, but is still working to score acting jobs. "I'm nervous because last year I had four shows, and this year I don't have any."
Marital status: single
Non-Equity actor (sketch and improv) seen at ComedySportz and i.O. Theater, and is a member of the group Sketchcore. In 2006, Hale earned about $6,000 from stage work. Works a day job at a financial company. "The thing is, especially with improv, it's very hard to make a living doing it full time. The only way to make money doing comedy is to get in on the corporate gigs" lined up by the business arms of Second City, i.O., etc. "The big break [moneywise] doesn't happen in Chicago," she says. "Most of my friends that give up their day jobs usually have a spouse who works a safe job."
Marital status: married to fellow theater artist Jen Ellison
Non-Equity actor and director, recently performed at SketchFest.Hall earned a $75 stipend for his role in LiveWire's production of "No Exit" in the fall. "That didn't even pay for the amount I spent on transportation, which was about $140 on the CTA. I didn't begrudge that, because they told me [the fee] upfront and they paid me closing night. The seventy-five bucks, to me it was like a handshake thank-you." Also does PR for small theater companies. Earns the bulk of his income as a substitute teacher for Chicago Public Schools.As for actor salaries: "Nobody wants to talk about it because everybody wants to place a shiny face on it, partly because they don't want anybody to think they're failing. And I understand that. ... Chicago is a working actor's town, and I know lots of non-Equity actors who do it because it's an opportunity to perform and really get some juicy roles and get the experience."
Marital status: married to fellow actor Carol Kuykendall, two children
Residence: Downers Grove
Equity actor frequently cast in musicals and plays, currently starring as Mr. Zero in "The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical" at Next Theatre.On average, Hatch earns $40,000 to $50,000 annually from his work on Chicago stages. Says he has to appear in four to five shows a year to feel comfortable financially. "There are very few cities anywhere ... where I could do musical theater, Shakespeare, straight theater, comedy, dramas, all those things, and be booked throughout the year in the same city and live in my own house. That is a rare thing."
Marital status: single
Non-Equity actor and Hypocrites company member, appearing in the Hypocrites' production of "Mud" beginning Feb. 18.An estimated $5,000 income from stage work in 2006 (from two shows), and another $5,000 from on-camera work. McLean took on temp jobs during the year. "I have some savings that I've made a big dent in, so I've got applications out at eight different Starbucks."
Marital status: single
Primarily a musical theater actor working toward Equity membership, currently in Porchlight Music Theatre's "The Teapot Scandals."In 2006, Pera made about $10,000 (from two shows). Will earn a $300 stipend for the current Porchlight show. Pera makes the bulk of his living waiting tables at Bistro Zinc, which allows flexibility between day and night shifts: "You can make good money waiting tables."
Marital status: Married to fellow actor Jon Sevigny
Non-Equity actor and co-founder of Open Eye Productions, currently in Porchlight Music Theatre's "Assassins."In 2006, Sevigny made about $500 as an actor (from four shows), and earns her living working a day job at a real estate company. "Because we run a theater company, we always talk about money when it comes to actors. ... They're always the last ones to get paid, after stage managers, designers, musicians -- everybody gets paid before you pay actors."
Marital status: engaged
Actor (improv), currently appears in four shows a week at i.O. Theater, including "The Armando Diaz Experience."In 2006, made $300 from stage work, and about $13,000 in residuals and holding fees on television commercials from '05. Sornberger makes the rest of his money picking up the occasional corporate gig (which pays about $100 a show) and managing the bar at i.O. A night of bartending can come to $125-$150. "I'm getting married in June, and my fiance and I are leaving for L.A. shortly thereafter. I'm not getting any younger."
Jay WhittakerAge: 34
Marital status: single
Equity actor with numerous credits at Chicago Shakespeare and Court Theatre. Currently in "Frank's Home" at Playwrights Horizons in New York (which ran at the Goodman in November and December).In 2006, Whittaker made about $20,000 from acting (his salary ranged between $250/week at Next for "A Number" to $850/week at the Goodman for "Frank's Home"). Last year, took on a short-term catering job. "It just gets depressing after a while. As of now, I live in a one-room apartment with no furniture."
And some background: Last June in the Tribune, arts critic Sid Smith profiled Whittaker as one of "Chicago theater's unsung heroes."
In the piece, Whittaker offered the nitty-gritty on cash flow. For his performance in the "Henry IV" cycle at Chicago Shakespeare Theater back in May, "I got $600 a week, which, after taxes is $500. My rent's $600, my car payment's $250, and after insurance and utility bills, there's not a lot left for food. I could get rid of my car, but that's an agonizing choice for a working actor. Do I keep it to drive to auditions in the suburbs? Or do I put food in my belly?"
It was the quotation heard around the world -- around the local theater world, anyway.
Some actors said Whittaker was crazy to lay it on the line -- and, by extension, criticize his employers. Others were glad someone spoke up -- salaries are what they are, and there is no shame in telling the truth.Whittaker says that after speaking out, he did not work at Chicago Shakespeare again, and that he plans to move to New York permanently.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater did not respond to requests for a comment.-- Nina Metz
My love of acting is real, but it makes my stomach hurt?
A brotha got to eat...