Any actor will tell you that no one goes into the theatre in the hopes of becoming a multi-millionaire. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but on the whole the rewards of acting for a living come in more than just monetary form. But does the stereotype of the starving artist really still exist when it comes to treading the boards? And just how much can an actor on the UK stage expect to be paid?
Knowing the Basics
One of the most important steps to take when pursuing a career in theatre is securing union membership because, just as in any other profession, doing so offers a certain level of protection and security during both the good times and the bad times. Actors in the UK are well represented by Equity. The union provides a range of services for its members and is also involved in negotiating minimum payment requirements for theatre actors across the country. In fact, savvy undergraduates can even sign up during their theatre studies degree as Equity offers a student membership package.
Although these basic pay rates are set, there is still the scope for variation depending on the location and performance type of the job being undertaken. Under Equity’s current guidelines, theatre actors performing in six to eight shows a week must be paid at least £420.50 for their work, although there are exceptions where more money can be made. For example, subsidised organisations such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company can afford to pay their performers above the Equity minimum, meaning auditions for roles are understandably incredibly competitive.
Bright Lights, Big City
As with many professions, working in the capital can prove fruitful in terms of wages, with regional theatre often paying less than its London counterparts. This, of course, is somewhat counter-balanced by the cost of living in the city, with many theatre performers undertaking part-time work in order to boost their salaries. But landing a role in an established big-budget West-End show such as Les Miserables or Wicked can bring both job security and a comfortable living.
Although theatres outside of London cannot always match the wages on offer in the city, there is still much to be enjoyed about working elsewhere in the UK. Regional theatre is the lifeblood of the industry, with much of the most exciting writing and innovative developments happening away from the intense glare and glamour of the West End. As such, the rewards of working in smaller venues in smaller productions often outweigh the less than stellar wages on offer. It is true that the lifestyle of living out of a suitcase that being part of a touring production demands may not be for everyone, but with most companies subsidising food, lodging and other living costs it can make financial sense.
An Ever-Changing Profession
Anyone considering a career as a theatre actor must be prepared for not just the potentially peripatetic nature of the job, but also the essentially freelance structure working as a performer follows. This is one reason the further study of theatre post-schooling is vital, as qualifications such as a #BA Degree in Performance & Theatre Arts will challenge students to complete a variety of tasks with a range of different people. Once graduation arrives, work can quickly come and go. New projects are being planned all the time, meaning that actors must be ready to readjust to new colleagues at the drop of a hat.
Theatre actors just starting out may find that there will be a period of low pay or voluntary work required before they can begin earning. Experienced theatre actors believe that jobs such as these are an essential part of an actor’s professional development. Indeed, a survey carried out by the UK’s leading casting company found that 71% of performers questioned felt there was a definite place for voluntary work in the industry. Voluntary jobs can produce material for the all-important show reel, provide valuable experience and procure a range of contacts in the industry — indispensable resources at the start of what can be an exciting, challenging and rewarding career.
Isaac works on behalf of the Theatre Department at Richmond University in London. Richmond offer a range of arts degrees including a BA in Performance & Theatre Arts.