How a Professional Stage Actor Does Money
Chet is a 30-something professional actor from British Columbia.
Lily Nichol: First, can you tell me a little about yourself?
Chet: Well, I’m originally from a town in the interior of BC. I knew rather early on that I wanted to become an actor, so right out of high school I managed to get in to an acting conservatory in New York City. I lived there for three years—two in school and one after graduation, working—and then I made the move back to BC and lived in Vancouver for several years. I have been working as a professional theatre actor for about six years.
Lily: Why did you decide to go to school in New York rather than somewhere in Canada?
Chet: It seemed exotic and like it would be a better place than any for someone who wanted to become an actor, particularly in theatre.
Lily: Did anyone direct you towards this or was it an independent choice to go to New York? What did your parents think?
Chet: A friend of the family had gone to the same school, so I had heard about it, and there was some literature about the program at my high school. I just got the idea in my head and ran with it. I was determined to go there. My family was always very supportive of my pursuits. My Mom was excited and devastated when I got the call that I had been accepted. She was sad to see me go so far away.
Lily: How did you finance your education? American universities are so much more expensive than Canadian ones. Was it even more if you were an international student?
Chet: It was quite a bit. I got a fairly significant scholarship from the school to help out with the costs, but luckily my parents were able to get the money together to pay for tuition. I got a student loan to cover living expenses, etc., and I worked (under the table) at a restaurant the whole time I was in school.
Lily: What was your education worth?
Chet: I think it was around $40,000.
Lily: For two years?
Chet: Oh yeah.
Lily: Jeez! Mine was 10 grand for two years in good ol’ Canada. And then you stuck around in the big city for another year. How did that go? Did you find work?
Chet: I kept working at the restaurant, and I got a paying theatre gig right out of school, a tour that lasted three months and went to schools all down the East coast and into the Midwest of the United States. I ended up getting an agent and started going out on some commercial auditions.
Ultimately, the time came to make a decision. There is a Visa that allows you to stay in the States for a year after studying there, and you can work in your chosen field. As the year drew to a close, I had to decide whether to go through the arduous process of figuring out how to remain in the States legally, continue to work under the table or to move back to Canada. It was a very hard decision. As much as I loved New York, I knew that I was a Canadian boy at heart, and, more than that, a BC boy. I had been in the States in some pretty troubling times. 9/11 had happened, and New York wasn’t the same place I had fallen in love with.
It was amazing, though. When I finally made the decision to re-locate to Vancouver, it was my Mom, the one who cried at seeing me go, that wanted to make sure I was making the right decision for my future. I’m sure that was hard for her to do.
Lily: What kind of money were you making on that tour?
Chet: I can’t really remember. Not enough. Probably around $400/wk.
Lily: Were you ever concerned about being able to survive as an actor?
Chet: Always. But at that age, it definitely wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. I just wanted to do it, and I fully believed that I could make it happen.
Lily: And when you moved back to Canada, how did you make it work?
Chet: I moved home for a month. I think I had saved a little bit of a money, and then as soon as I got a job in Vancouver, I moved down there. It was a hard go, and it took me a long time to break into the industry here because it’s a whole other world.
Lily: What’s the main difference between acting in the States and here?
Chet: Hmm. Well, I think the difference between New York and Vancouver is obviously the size. In BC, there really aren’t that many professional theatre companies, so you have to be able to travel a lot if theatre is your thing. In New York, well, it’s New York City. There are so many companies, and there is so much work right in that city. Of course, there are also a lot more actors.
Expectations are different, as far as what you bring in to an audition. The biggest challenge for me was that, even though I’d gone to school at a pretty good school in New York, I had no network developed in Vancouver. It seems like it can be quite difficult to establish yourself there if you didn’t go to school there and already know some people in the industry.
Film used to be very big in Vancouver, but as many people know, that has decreased significantly in the last few years. It’s also a whole other world from the theatre end of things. It is possible to do both, for sure, but there are many instances when you have to decide which you want to focus on.
Lily: Why didn’t you go after film?
Chet: I did, for a while. But just when I started to enter that industry, there was a major dip in the film industry in Vancouver, and I was too new in a town full of people who had been doing film for years for me to really get established. I still did a few commercials, and I was probably doing at least one a year before I left Vancouver.
Through my work, I also realized that theatre was the avenue that I was most passionate about and that I really wanted to focus on. I realized that if I really wanted to get serious about film I would have to invest a lot of time, and money, in that choice, and I would most likely have to turn down theatre work in order to be available for film auditions. To me, it just wasn’t worth it. I’d still love to experiment with film, and if opportunities present themselves in the future I would gladly pursue them.
Lily: But you’re doing theatre. And you’re surviving solely as an actor?
Chet: Pretty close. The past couple of years in particular have been quite fruitful and busy. I still need to support my career by picking up restaurant work and some freelance design work in between contracts.
Lily: Okay. It’s time to talk cold hard cash. How are your savings doing?
Chet: They are almost nonexistent. I have about $25,000 in debt. Half of that is on credit cards, so my life has been pretty much a game of catch-up. I do have about $2,500 in an RRSP [Canadian equivalent of the 401(k)] that I contribute to whenever I’m working.
Lily: And this is debt you’ve accumulated separately from your education?
Chet: Yes. My education debt was fairly small, but that definitely got things started in this direction.
Lily: How much are you making a year, approximately?
Chet: It depends on the year. Between $18,000 and $30,000.
Lily: And how many shows are you doing a year-ish?
Chet: Hmm. It really changes each year, but I’d say 5/6 contracts a year.
Lily: And how does an acting contract work? Do they automatically take out for RRSP?
Chet: They do. It’s through Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA). It’s the association for professional actors in Canada. They deduct insurance, dues and RRSP contributions my paychecks.
Lily: As you’ve gotten more experience do you get paid more? Or is it just better jobs at bigger companies that pay better?
Chet: Unfortunately, particularly in this province, a lot of theatres can’t afford to pay more than the base rates set out by CAEA. These rates are based on venue size, ticket price, etc. And rate companies from A-F, with A being the highest base pay rate. Each grade goes up about a hundred dollars a week.
It used to be that once you’d worked at a company, or perhaps because you were highly in demand, you could negotiate a higher fee, but that hardly happens any more. Now, the benefit of being in the business longer and being more established is more that you are able to stay employed more often and consistently.
Lily: Are you comfortable with your debt and your steady-ish low-income? Are you going to do this forever?
Chet: It’s terrifying at times. The reality is that being an artist is hard. It’s a lot of work, and you may never have the sort of lifestyle that a lot of people aspire to. I don’t know when or if I will own a home. It’s certainly not impossible.
On the other hand, I get to do something that I love and believe in for a living. I get to meet new amazing and talented people all the time. I have great conversations, and I get to explore the country in ways that other people never get to, no matter how much expendable income they have. At the end of lots of my work days, hundreds of people clap for me, just for doing my job.
It’s hard, but it’s worth it, and my challenge is to make it sustainable. I was never taught how to manage my finances or to be realistic about my money and my circumstances, and at thirty-something I’m learning a lot, and I get better each year. It won’t be easy, but I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do what I’m doing for a long time and manage to get out of debt.
Lily: I think that’s incredibly admirable. And I will always fight for people doing what they love for a living. Feeding your soul is more important than anything. What would you say to someone who wanted to be an actor? How can they pursue their dreams effectively?
Chet: I would never tell someone not to pursue it, but I would stress that it is not to be taken lightly, and there are a lot of sacrifices. Each day you re-evaluate what’s important to you and what you’re willing to let go of to have something else. If it continues to be important to you and the sacrifices don’t feel like sacrifices, then why stop?
Oh, and live within your means. It’s easy to pretend that we can have everything when credit cards exist, but that comes back to bite you in the ass. My debt continues to be the biggest source of stress in my life, easily.