Actor, Director, or Playwright: Which is the worst financial idea?
In a recent New York Times article, Charles Isherwood scooped me (did I ever expect to say that) by writing about the economic difficulties of being a stage actor. He wrote that stage actors need to supplement their incomes from other sources—namely, shows like Law and Order or other small television and commercial acting gigs. Because the money made from acting on the stage is so small.
He was being too sunny in his outlook.
What his article overlooked is the great majority of stage actors, who are not working on a salary and who are not receiving significant outside acting income. They are supplementing their acting habit with their day jobs or by running through their savings.
Using my copy of Theater World, season 2004-2005 (which I have only because it is the year I had my Off-Broadway show, Fairy Tales of the Absurd, but I think it can be at least somewhat representative), I found these statistics: 32 new Broadway productions. 78 new Off-Broadway productions. Based on those stats, I am going to say that there are about 600 – 1000 working stage actors in the city in a given season.
For Rudolf II, the last show for which I had an open casting call (for two parts, one a young man, one a young woman), I received 600 resumes.
It is conceivable that I could have cast every paying role in the city with those actors alone. OK, every show would have had nothing but young actors. And OK, many of them would not be very good.
But some were very good. I had only time to see 50 – 100 of those actors. I’m sure there were talented actors I never saw.
If even I eliminated 80% of those applying from even attending my Equity Showcase auditions, what chance does a stage actor have to get paying work?
Of course, the Isherwood’s article does present an upside to being an actor. There is some supplemental work available. Even I have done some acting work, and acting is not my main focus. Most recently, I pretended to have OCD for the sake of some rabbis in training at Yeshiva University. And yesterday I went for a callback on a non-union commercial gig.
In other words, one can pick up a few bucks here and there.
And I do know some actors who pick up more than a few bucks, who actually make a living at their work. Maybe from voiceovers, maybe from commercials, maybe from regional theater, but they have managed to make it, in some cases, a well paying career. Maybe not from the stage work, but from supplemental acting work.
Even if that isn't achieved, one can, conceivably, work at a job full time and also have time to act. It’s hard, but it’s doable. I have jokingly referred to my time acting onstage as being on vacation. One’s main responsibility is oneself.
Which brings me to directing.
Alex Timbers, I have heard, once said that to be a director in New York, one has to have a trust fund.
That is partly because being a director in New York, almost always, is not just being a director. It is being a director/producer.
I do not have a trust fund. But I am fortunate in some ways. My father passed away relatively young, which was not fortunate. But since he was a lawyer, I inherited some money. Not by any means a huge amount, but enough that I have been able to use it, over the last ten years, to supplement my sometimes meager income so that I have been able to continue to work. I would trade it in an instant to have him back. But it has helped me get through some rocky financial times. Furthermore, for many years I lived in a family apartment, which meant a relatively modest rent, at least by New York standards.
My money has dwindled, over the years. Many in my position might have put the money towards retirement. I have no pension, and since I have mostly worked freelance, I’m not even sure if I will be eligible for Social Security one day. But instead of the more conservative approach, I have chosen to use the inheritance to help me continue my career. What will that mean for me one day? I’m not sure. What will that mean for me when, sooner rather than later, I run though my savings? I’m not sure about that either. Part of what inspired this series is the impulse to stave off that reckoning.
But that inheritance has allowed me to work as a director. I’m not sure if my father, who was much more conservative in his approach towards money, would be happy about the implicit risk in that decision. But then again, I think he would have been pleased to see what I’ve accomplished.
The problem with being a director is, of course, there are many fewer jobs in that field than the field of acting. Using those same Theater World stats I referenced above, there are probably slightly over 100 directing jobs a season. And many of those directing jobs are taken by the same people over and over again.
The reason why is clear. One can’t exactly audition to be a director. Directing jobs happen because one is associated with an institution. Usually, the institution finds people whose work they know, in some ways. Whose they’ve worked with at that same institution or, in a rare case, that they’ve seen outside the institution and want to bring in.
With the busy schedule of all theaters, there is not a lot of scouting going on. But then again, there doesn’t need to be. There aren’t many open positions, anyway. Certainly, if a show gets attention, it’s possible that some institutional theater may arrive,. And by attention I don’t mean a rave review in the New York Times, I mean a rave review on the front page of the New York Times, hopefully by at least the 2nd string reviewer.
And the current 2nd string reviewer, the above mentioned Charles Isherwood, is not doing much scouting himself these days.
An alternative is to form a theater company, as I have, and make that big enough to either sustain oneself. A difficult feat. Possible, but I hope, but very difficult.
I am not just a director, of course, I am also a playwright.
This may be the worst idea of all.
The one advantage of being a playwright, is there is a correlation to the audition process. One can submit a script.
When I was just out of college, I took a few jobs as a reader. I worked for New Dramatists, on a prize they handed out at the time. I worked for the Williamstown Theater Festival.
What I learned was, it is very easy to say no to a script. And very difficult to say yes.
At the age of 22, my job was to read as many plays as I could and either say no or pass it on. I couldn’t say yes, of course. No one would trust a 22 year old to say yes, it had to be passed through many levels to get to that stage. But I could say no to almost anyone. I said no the Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Disch and a number of other playwrights whose names I recognized.
No one second guessed me, when I said no. There was too much to read. They second guessed my yeses, though. Why did you say yes to this, I was asked a few times.
Because I’ve read 30 scripts and I want to say yes to something, I said.
Only say yes if it is definitely, definitely a yes, I was told.
There are a lot of bad plays. But after a while, my eyes began to blur, and I couldn’t tell what was good or bad anymore. I couldn’t write anymore, either, my head was filled with other people’s words. I couldn’t even keep reading.
Rather than submitting to slush piles, one can, like me, form one’s own company and use it as a forum for one’s own work. In publishing, that would be called a vanity press. But in theater, it is more accepted, because frankly, it’s the only way a lot of new work can be seen at all. It’s the same in the film world. If you raise the money and actually are able to mount a show or film your film, there is something of an assumption that maybe it deserves to be seen.
Or one can try the slush pile. Despite the quantity of slush, theoretically, an unknown writer can have his work win the lottery, get through all the hoops, and get his or her work onstage.
But if there were 110 productions in that Theater World season, and many of them were revivals, and many of them were old playwrights having their newest work mounted, how much room is there for new playwrights?
Ironically, of course, I was officially an Off-Broadway playwright and director that year. By my analysis, I was one of the few, the elite.
The production lost so much money I wasn’t able to pay myself that year for either job.
There is one upside to being a playwright. Royalties. I have gotten royalties a surprising amount of times, most frequently from my translation of Lysistrata, which seems to have gained a cult following of some sort. It’s not made me rich. But $500 arriving unexpectedly every, upon occasion, is always a welcome sight.
And sometimes I’ve thought, if I decided to just be a playwright, I could get a day job and still write. Or…theoretically…I could sell out to tv, which a lot of the more successful playwright seem to do (because, as I may not have mentioned, even the successful ones have a hard time living on a playwright’s wages).
So then, it’s not so bad, right?
And there’s always teaching work, whichever of the three you are (or better, if you are all three at once.)
So then, which is the worst idea? I know less about the design and stagehand economics, anyone want to chime in on why one those is a terrible idea as well…