Can actors earn a living from theatre? (And is ‘money’ a dirty word?)

Convener(s): Andrew Piper

Participants: Emily Hodgson, Sian Rees, Adam Milford, Aliki (?), and others who joined later

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

The short answer to this question was: no. An actor on Equity minimum working on a year’s contract in the West End (among the best of the Equity minimum rates) will earn significantly less than the average London wage. Most actors do not work on 12 month contracts, but are contracted on a production-by-production basis for a few weeks or months at a time. This means that doing other work – either related (tv, voiceover, corporate training) or unrelated (temp jobs, bar work, box office/ushering) – was essential. Significantly, this is still true as the actor gets older and more experienced.


When working on a non-creative job our sense of ourselves as artists (or even jobbing actors) fades very quickly. We felt that it was important to have creative projects of our own during these periods – not just developing & maintaining skills - but that when most of our energies were taken up with trying to find temp work to pay the bills, these were hard to maintain. In addition, as actors we have to make ourselves available for paid acting work, and this will almost always compromise the commitment we can make to personal projects.


Unpaid theatre work makes this task even harder. Sometimes this is about feeding the soul, or increasing our exposure to the industry, but committing to these projects is always a gamble as often they turn out to be neither artistically satisfying nor a successful showcase. This is especially frustrating on projects when the actors are the only ones not getting any money. Some of the actors said that they no longer worked for no money, out of principal; they would work for low wages when they recognized the artistic worth and the low budgets, but never for no money at all.


Often we are urged to create our own work, which some do very successfully, but others hated having to turn themselves into entrepreneurs when that was neither their skill nor their interest. Also, while one-person plays are very portable, one of the things we love about acting (and which makes us better actors) is working with other actors.


Acting isn’t a luxury or a hobby for us – it’s what we need to do. Just because we enjoy it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get paid!


Most of the actors in the group said that they hankered for ensemble companies – longer contracts to cover multiple productions - perhaps including some development work for new writing. This would give us:

  • a greater degree of financial security
  • the chance to develop longer-term artistic relationships
  • a chance to develop as artists
  • a more-deeply engrained sense of ourselves as valued collaborators rather than disposable commodities, hired & let go several times a year. (or not hired at all!)


We noted the high drop-out rate of actors from the profession. One statistic mentioned (unverified) was 50% after 5 years, 75% after 10. While this could be seen in some ways as necessary, Darwinian wastage, the reasons for this wastage often have nothing to do with an actor’s talent for doing good work. How can the industry do more to support talented artists who perhaps lack the self-promotion skills that many, less talented artists may have in spades? Do you want an industry where the primary skillset of the artists is self-promotion?


As actors we often accept the low-status position that the industry tends to keep us in: don’t call us, we’ll call you. We contemplated whether it is healthy to be constantly trying to ingratiate ourselves with the gatekeepers to good, paid work. (And the gatekeepers are getting ever more restrictive in who they will even consider for audition). For our own mental and artistic health, some of us felt that we needed to focus more on being the kind of artist we want to be and let that attract others to us. But this is not easy for an actor, who needs to be part of a company in order to practice his/her art.


We discussed recent news articles about the dominance of public school and/or Oxbridge educated actors, and while we acknowledged that there were advantages they had which were not available to us – wealthy parents to subsidise their living arrangements, ready-made networks of influential family and friends – there was something we could aim to emulate, which was their confidence and sense of entitlement. (Note we use the word ‘entitlement’ not to foster resentment that we do not have the career we want, but to express a sense that we absolutely belong, that we approach directors with a confidence that we can be great in that part, but that if he/she does not want to cast us then that does not diminish our ‘star quality’ and we will find another home for it). Bitterness and resentment at inequality will not help us either as artists or as actors wanting work.


“This is me. You may like it. You may not. But this is me.”


Convener’s coda:

The fact that we are all agreed that earning a living from theatre alone is impossible – primarily because the wages are not enough to sustain between short-term contracts – has significant implications for any theatre-makers who use actors in their work. If actors are low-status commodities to pick up when needed and put down as soon as a project ends then they cannot develop as artists, and theatremakers will struggle to find people with the skills to bring their work to life. We need to find ways of developing longer-term relationships (and, where possible, contracts) that means that creative talents can be nurtured and developed, at the same time as earning a living.