Minnesota Playlist received an email from a reader with a simple question:
"Has an article already been written about the range of pay that stage actors receive for their work?"
The short answer to that question was, "No". To date, there has been no article on Minnesota Playlist that delved deeply into how much stage actors in the Twin Cities can expect to get paid for a show.
The longer answer to that question was, "No, but we should try to find out".
Few actors in any town can expect to make their living solely from their craft, especially if they are confined to the stage. The Twin Cities play host to large cadre of theater companies of various sizes, ranging from the multitude of itinerant groups that form once a year to make 50-minute shows at the Fringe Festival, all the way up to a certain huge organization in a blue fortress on the river. Most of those companies do not have the means to pay an actor a living wage, while a select few manage multi-million dollar budgets and Equity contracts. Given that, the simple question of "What does an actor get paid?" becomes pretty complicated to answer.
A survey was given out to the companies in town. In order to dig down into the particulars of who pays what and sort out the Fringe companies from the Guthries, it asked a few questions other than, "What do you pay?", including:
-Age of company
-Shows produced per season
-Company's physical facilities (rehearsal space, performance venue, etc)
-Whether or not company pays bonuses based on profit sharing
Out of the literally hundreds of theater companies in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, the survey received 31 responses. While this number of responses in a pool this large cannot give us a definitive answer to the question, it is a number sizable enough to start drawing some very rough conclusions. If you would like to view the raw data received, it is available online.
(Please note that many of the companies that responded wished to remain anonymous. Their names were never recorded and cannot be made public.)
Of the 31 responses received, one was from a community theatre (Theatre in the Round Players, the most well-known community theatre in the Twin Cities). As a rule, any companies billed as a community theatre will not provide pay; however, they will not always have the words "community theatre" in their names. If you're curious as to whether a given company might be one, you can check the Minnesota Association of Community Theatres website.
Small Theatre Companies
Of the remaining 30 respondents, the vast majority of these (25), paid actors via a single stipend for a full run of a show. Many of the companies reported both a lowest and highest possible stipend, so in order to calculate a number for the overall group, the average between this high and low was used, resulting in an average stipend of $488. However, two of the companies reported stipends that were extreme outliers from the rest of the group: an anonymous company that reported no pay (and which is not a community theater); and physical theater company Off-Leash Area, who reported a high end stipend of $2500. Excluding these two, the average lowers to $435.
However, we can parse these stipends further. The majority of companies that pay stipends (18) operate with a budget of less than $50,000 a year. Excluding the outlier that reported no pay, they come out slightly lower, at $398. Six companies reported in at the next budget level ($50,000-$100,000). Excluding Off-Leash Area again, they averaged $460. Only one company at the $200,000+ budget level reported stipend pay ($1,200-$1,500), so it cannot be considered statistically significant. No responses were received from companies reporting budgets in the $100,00-$200,000 range.
Only two companies reported paying actors per performance: Old Gem Theatre (in Wisconsin, but part of the Twin Cities orbit), which pays performers a $300 rehearsal stipend and $30 per performance; and a touring company that pays $150 per show. Old Gem was also the only company that reported paying a rehearsal stipend separate from pay for performance.
Large Theatre Companies
Only three companies reported paying actors by the week: Ten Thousand Things and two other companies that chose to remain anonymous. Once again, this is not a statistically significant number of responses, but they reported pay between $500 and $800 a week, with a $669 per week average. These three all reported budgets over $200,000; and the two anonymous companies reported having their own performance venues that were not shared with other companies (Ten Thousand Things does not perform in traditional theatre spaces, per their mission).
There were not enough respondents to the survey to draw any good conclusions for the large, established theatre companies in town (companies such as the Guthrie, the Jungle, Mixed Blood, Park Square, etc.) However, all of these companies have one thing in common that we can explore: Actors Equity Association (AEA) contracts.
Only one company in town, the Guthrie, is a a League Of Resident Theatres (LORT) member. LORT members have a fairly strict set of standards for paying actors, based on agreements with AEA. The Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage is considered a class A stage, while the McGuire Proscenium is a class B and the Dowling Studio is a class D (LORT classifies stages primarily by size). Under the most recent LORT Equity agreement actors on class A stages are guaranteed a minimum of $935 per week. Class B stages are guaranteed at least $812 and class D are guaranteed $600.
According to Minnesota Monthly's 2014 annual salary survey, a union actor at the Guthrie makes "$882/week (weekly minimum wage)". (The article did not cite a source for this information). According to AEA's 2012-2013 annual report, the average actor on a LORT stage in the Central region (which includes Minnesota) earned $901 a week while performing.
As for the rest of the large companies in town, it's a bit more difficult to pin down numbers. The Equity contracts for non-LORT houses are much more wide-ranging with many more exceptions to standard pay; and even then not many of the large companies in the Twin Cities hire exclusively under Equity contracts. Going back to the most recent AEA report for the Central region, Equity actors working under Small Professional contracts averaged $441 per week; actors working under Letters of Agreement averaged $581 per week; and actors working under Special Agreements averaged $680 per week. Actors working in Stock companies did better, at $828 average per week; while actors in Dinner Theatre did the best of all, at $1,189 per week average (as a side note, the Central region pays much more for dinner theatre actors than the other regions).
All three of the $200,000+ companies paying weekly salaries fell in this general area of pay scales. As for what will determine the actual size an actor's paycheck, the anonymous companies responded with "union vs. non and experience" and "Some may get more than minimum depending on role and length of tenure with the company." Ten Thousand Things went into more detail: "Our starting pay for a new actor is at about 150% of Equity minimum. From that starting point, we try to reward longevity and we increase returning actor pay by between 8-12.5% for each returning show."
Conclusions (Small Theatre Companies)
That was a lot of numbers. What can you really expect to get paid?
In the small theatre world, you have to know the company that you're auditioning for, which calls for some research of your own. If that company is one of the many small groups in town with a budget under $100,000 (which is almost all of them), you will probably receive a stipend somewhere in the neighborhood of $300-$400. If the company has been around for a while and has been consistently producing work (especially if that company also focuses on producing 1-2 shows a season), the stipend may push up into the $500-$1000 range.
Also, be aware of the cast size. Several respondents reported that an individual actor's pay was partially determined by the total number of actors in the show. Fewer actors in a show can translate into larger stipends, while a cast of thousands might turn into a paycheck of pennies.
Some small companies (such as Dangerous Productions, Theatre Pro Rata, Front Porch Musical Theatre, and Theatre Unbound) may also offer you a profit-sharing bonus if the show goes well. But don't rely on that. As Green T Productions put it in their survey response: "what is this 'profit' you speak of?"
In the small theatre world, if you're lucky, you'll catch someone like Off-Leash Area when they're paying $2,500 (but keep in mind that they also reported a low end of $100). Or you may work for a company like one of our anonymous respondents that reported a stipend range of $0-$75 and said, "We pay actors when we can afford to". This is not to say that you shouldn't take one of those tiny-to-nonexistent stipends if you really want to do the show. Even at the high end of the small theatre pay scale, it's doubtful that you could make ends meet on your acting profits alone. If you are an actor in this pool of theatre companies, you will almost definitely need another source of income.
Conclusions (Large Theatre Companies)
If you are a member of Actor's Equity, you can probably expect between $500 and $600 per week when you work at one of the large, professional houses. If you can convince AEA to allow a special arrangement for you to work with a small company, you will most likely take a pay cut. (AEA has allowed quite a number of special arrangements with small theatre companies in the Twin Cities for Equity members to work for stipend pay.) If you can make the jump up the Guthrie, you'll get at least $600 a week will most likely earn well more than $800.
If you are not an Equity actor, there's nothing we can tell you. The information from the survey is inconclusive in that respect, and it was impossible to gather any meaningful information on the subject. However, it is unlikely that most large houses are going to pay non-union actors at the same level as union members.
If you can get work at one of the larger professional theaters in the Twin Cities, you will make a decent wage as long as the show is running. However, be warned: according to AEA's own report, only 41.8% of its members were employed in theatre at all last season.
In general, being exclusively a stage actor is not a great way to make a lot of money. There are a lot of opportunities in the small theatre world, but the pay is low; there is more pay to be had in the large theater world, but it's much harder to keep up. As with anything concerning money, it pays to do your research. While the results from this survey can help give you a rough idea of what you might get paid where, actual conditions on the ground will vary.