Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
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This week's question comes from Adam Schwab of Morris Plains, NJ.
Question: I was curious what the typical salary is for a typical Broadway actor/dancer in NYC…(not your mega-bucks Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Hugh Jackman sort). Can you become financially successful enough to afford a Manhattan apartment? Answer: Each performer who is in a Broadway show — or a Broadway show that's on an Equity (union) tour — must be paid at least $1,509 a week, according to the contract between Actors' Equity and the Broadway producers (except for a small number of tours that are deemed "experimental tours" — but that's a whole other complex issue). Some chorus members make exactly that much. Others — especially if they're more seasoned, have a good agent or manager, and/or are in a show with more lenient producers — might make more.
The minimum can rise, depending on the performer's role in the show. For instance, if you're a performer who's also a dance captain, your minimum salary goes up $300 to $1,809. If you're an assistant dance captain, it goes up $150.
For every principal role that you're understudying, your minimum goes up $33. For every performance in which you, as an understudy, actually end up playing that principal role, you get an extra one-eighth of your weekly salary. So, if you're understudying one principal role, the minimum amount you'll be paid is $1,509 plus $33, which is $1,542 per week. If you're making that minimum, and there's one week in which you end up playing that principal role for two performances, you'll get an extra two-eighths of $1,542, which is $385.50, for a total of $1,927.50 that week.
During the weeks in which you're performing, the producers of your show contribute to your pension and 401k account, on top of your salary. You're also eligible for health insurance while you're working, and for a certain period of time while you're not working, depending on how often you've been working in the recent past.
So, can a Broadway chorus member afford a Manhattan apartment? If a chorus member makes the minimum for all 52 weeks a year, that's $78,468 a year before taxes. "If you're making $1,500 a week, you could afford a $1,700, $1,800-a-month apartment, and those can be found in various places in Manhattan," says Lucy Seligson, a social worker in the Entertainment Assistance Program of The Actors Fund, a non-profit support organization for people in the entertainment industry.
But most performers are not making that much. According to Actors' Equity, there are around 17,000 Equity members living in New York City (out of around 46,000 nationwide). Even if every Broadway theatre were packed with 20 actors each, that's only around 800 performers who would be guaranteed that $1,509 a week. According to a spokesperson for Actors' Equity, only 2,070 of the Equity members who live in New York City were in an Equity show of any sort — Broadway, Off-Broadway or otherwise — during the week of Aug. 20-26 (granted, that number will increase as fall arrives and more Broadway and Off-Broadway shows open).
Because of the instability of the acting profession, Seligson advises actors not to let a good Broadway gig tempt them into signing expensive leases. "I see that a lot — 'Oh, I'm in this show, I'll go from show to show,' or 'This show will run forever,' and for some reason that doesn't happen, and we try to help people plan for those times," she says.
Seligson advises actors who want to save money to look outside Manhattan for housing, find an outside source of income and apply for the many subsidized housing programs available to actors. Overall, she says, "Good budgeting and planning, a realistic assessment of the industry, and a realistic assessment of the real estate market — those three things, if you pay attention to all three of those areas, you're going to be more comfortable wherever you are."