On Stage or Screen: Here’s How to Earn a Living as an Actor

Do you want to make it big as an actor? Read this actor's story of how she pursues her dream of acting in NYC. She breaks down all the numbers and gives hints and tips on how to make it.

Editor’s note: Today’s article comes from Stefanie O’Connell, a New York City based actress and freelance writer. Stefanie is also a frequent reader and commenter here on PT Money. I’m really honored to share her story.

So you want to be an actor- or you’re kicking yourself for never having pursued “the dream”.

As a professional actor myself, let me offer my advice… “DON’T DO IT”. Just kidding! In all reality though, I would encourage anyone to think long and hard before deciding to pursue any artistic endeavor full-time. And if you do, understand that the financial implications are life altering.

The Investment

If you want to be considered seriously as a professional performer you need to make a significant investment in your career and training. I know you hear these chance stories of people being “discovered” on the street or at the airport, but the reality is, most of the competition out there (and there is A LOT of it) is both highly trained and well educated. You can probably forego the standard (and crazy expensive) four year Bachelor of Fine Arts programs, but at least two years of training from a respectable conservatory is a standard if you want to get in the door.

Even once you’ve begun working, the career investment is ongoing. Consider these numbers, $150 per voice lesson (typically weekly for professionals), $250 for dance shoes, $800 for a 6-week acting class, $1,000 for headshots, etc.

Stephanie OConnell Actor

Actor and Writer, Stephanie O’Connell


Return on Investment

All those costs wouldn’t be too horrible if there was a sweet return on investment, but the arts being what they are, horribly underfunded and the epitome of what many consider discretionary, leave more than a little to be desired on the compensation end.

According to NPR, of the 49,000 members of Actors’ Equity Association, the professional theatre actors union, around 17,000 are estimated to work in any one year. Of the members who do work, the median income from work in theatre is approximately $7,500 a year!

The Numbers

In case you’re trying to break it down, $7,500 works out to about $144 per week. Most theatre contracts, however, are 4-8 weeks long, and you’re lucky if you score more than one or two of those contracts per year. While you may only associate professional acting with the silver screen and the bright lights of Broadway, the majority of professional work comes from small regional theaters and touring shows- none of which pay the big bucks.

My first big job was on a multi-million dollar tour of Cinderella the musical starring Broadway legend and the singing voice of Disney’s Jasmine and Mulan, Lea Salonga. Even with a massive big-budget production and major star power, my salary was $450 per week.

Oddly enough, the low budget children’s show I toured throughout the US a few years later paid more, a whopping salary of $480. When I hit it big time with another multi million-dollar production, this time in the 5,000 seat theatre of Madison Square Garden in New York City, I made a “massive” $527 weekly salary. That’s the “glamorous” reality.

The Life

Most actors leave the business within a few years of starting out. Of the 60 people in my freshman class of ’04 at the Tisch School of the Arts– one became crazy famous (Lady Gaga), two or three have been on Broadway, and another two or three of us are still working in the business- the rest are out, and for good reason.

The financial and employment realities of professional acting make any semblance of a normal lifestyle difficult to sustain. The nature of the career and compensation mean putting other dreams on hold- especially ones that require a large financial investment, like home ownership or starting a family-unless of course you marry rich 😉

Making it Work – How to Earn a Living as an Actor

Despite all of that though, I have no regrets- but I do have some advice for those looking to make a career in acting work long-term. Get your money right!

The only thing that will afford you the freedom to continue pursuing a career in “the biz” is living a financially viable lifestyle. That means keeping expenses low and having diverse sources of income that consistently keep you above what I like to call “the make or break number”- the minimum amount of money you need to survive each month plus a small buffer, emergency fund savings, and retirement contributions.

I include those additional savings in “the make or break number” because it’s the only way to ensure long-term viability. 

“One of the reasons many fall out of the business is because they’re constantly hustling to attain short-term solvency without a long-term financial strategy, burning themselves out in that cycle.”

People go into acting and the arts to do what they love, but the financial strain can often turn that love into resentment and depression. Avoid that painful place by keeping your finances well above the “make or break” point and always maintaining your passion at the center of your purpose. 

Your dreams will undoubtedly evolve as you do- for some, that will mean staying in the business in all its financially inconsistent and messy glory. For others, it will mean pursuing new joys through new means. The only failure would be to follow the path that doesn’t speak to you.

Stefanie O’Connell is a New York City based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to “live the dream” on a starving artists’ budget at thebrokeandbeautifullife.com.

Last Edited: July 7, 2015 @ 11:40 amThe content of ptmoney.com is for general information purposes only and does not constitute professional advice. Visitors to ptmoney.com should not act upon the content or information without first seeking appropriate professional advice. In accordance with the latest FTC guidelines, we declare that we have a financial relationship with every company mentioned on this site.

Comments

  1. Being an actor, or in the arts in general is a huge investment. As my theater teacher used to say, if you don’t love it, then leave it. If your heart isn’t 100% into it, then go try just about anything else to make more money. I didn’t get into professional acting, but enjoy teaching and using my creativity in other ways. I admire people like you who put themselves out there all the time.

  2. I have a friend who is an actress since we were in high school. She told me that being an actress was pretty hard especially when you are still studying. She needs to undergo two different workshops, but in return she also made a good money from it.

  3. I had no idea voice lessons were so dang expensive. How on earth can you be expected to “keep up” with prices like that when stipends for so many shows average $100-500 for a month of work?!?!

  4. Thanks for sharing the actual numbers because so many people who are not in the arts don’t have a clue as to how little performers get paid. You made the choice to pursue your career as an actor but I still believe union/large productions vastly underpay the performers. As a unionized musician and performer, I know your pain and the joys as well.

  5. Great post Stefanie! I’ve always been curious what stage actors make because all you here in the media is how much big movie stars make.

  6. It sounds like quite the struggle to follow your dream and do it in NYC nonetheless, but you have a good perspective on how to make it work without letting the struggles get the best of you. I was planning to study art/design when l was looking at schools ( I really wanted to go to Parsons!) but my father had such influence over my ultimate decision. Of course, as a typical Ukrainian dad he tried pushing me to become a doctor or a lawyer. I still wonder where I would be if I pursued my dream and I think it’s awesome that you are doing what you love!

  7. Right out of high school I found a steady job working 8-5 m-f. I eventually left and fell into performance tech. While not the exact same as performing, it is still typically feast or famine. I’ve left a couple of times for various reasons but always find myself coming back. It’s what I love beyond anything else and I just can’t let it go.

    Cheers to our passions!

  8. Is this number correct? $800 for a 6-week acting class. The rate in my city, Houston, is $300. May be that’s the rate in NY?

    But, congrats on making it in life as an actor. I am starting out, getting trained in theater, and do have a full-time day job in Engineering, that pays my bills.

    Perhaps, you could share some of your experiences or give advice on how should one plan on making over the “make-or-break” mark, as an actor. It might be helpful for many.

    Cheers!

    • Hi Karan,

      The numbers for class vary quite a bit, but yes, classes in New York City are significantly higher.

      I think it’s fantastic that you have such a such a specialized skill set that allows you to have a sustainable day job (a lot of actor/waiters/babysitters experience burn out).

      If you’d like to read more about being an actor and make or break numbers and NYC living, feel free to check out my personal site http://thebrokeandbeautifullife.com