So you’re young and want to be an actor- or maybe you’re kicking yourself for never having pursued “the dream”. Let’s talk about how to start a career in acting. For real.
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 Required for an Acting Career
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.
However, 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, and
- $1,000 for headshots, etc.
All those costs wouldn’t be too horrible if there was a sweet return on investment.
However, the arts – horribly underfunded – leave more than a little to be desired on the compensation end.
What You Earn During a Career in Acting
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!
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.
Your Chances of a Career in Acting
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:
- 1 became crazy famous (Lady Gaga),
- 2-3 have been on Broadway, and
- another 2-3 of us are still working in the business, and
- 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 Against the Odds
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 income should be able to 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:
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.