Public Theater
Lin-Manuel Miranda, right, in his original production of "Hamilton." Actors can spend a lifetime on Broadway hoping for the fame and fortune of Miranda.

The first most important piece of advice for anyone aspiring to be a Broadway actor seems to be, if there is anything else you'd rather do, you should do it instead. 

Being an actor on Broadway can be rewarding, personally, though not necessarily financially. And everyone usually has to start at the bottom and work their way up. 

What is the bottom for a Broadway actor? Actually, it is to be an audience member - to see as much theater as possible, to audition and be cast in everything from school plays to community theater productions, and to invest in the career before trying to make it your career. The job of an actor, whether on Broadway or a high school stage, or even in someone's basement or garage, is to express ideas and portray characters, most often from someone else's script, to entertain and inform an audience.

Job Description: The Reality of Being a Broadway Actor

You aren't likely to be cast as the "lead" in a Broadway show right away. If ever. And you aren't likely to even be cast from the first audition you give - trying to convince a casting director your interpretation of the script, any part of it, is the best, and expresses the writer's vision of the character accurately and engagingly.

If you do get a "call-back" from your audition (the producer, casting director, director and scriptwriter want to see you essentially audition again), and succeed in getting cast, your roles can range between the lead, which requires hours of stage time and the memorization of lots of lines, to parts that require only a line or two or no speaking at all - as a "background" actor. Broadway musicals have chorus roles that are non-speaking roles but require dancing and singing.

As a cast member, you often will spend hours rehearsing - not only before the production opens but also often during a show's "run," to polish and adjust the performance. Unlike in television or film, in which the audience never sees or hears a full production exactly as it was written, and the writing is often being changed up until or even after a scene is shot, on stage, when someone thinks they know the material, they want to hear it "exactly the way it was written," and know when it has been changed because it is no longer familiar to them, actor and consultant David Patrick Green notes.

Another major difference between acting on a stage and acting for television or movies is the audience location. On stage, according to Green, the audience is 100 feet or more on average from the performers. Stage actors are therefore always taught to "act for the back row." In television or film acting, as the camera can always see you and the microphone makes it possible for you to speak more naturally, you only need to move and speak so that the person or people in the scene with you can see and hear you. In other words, as Green notes in an article in Backstage.com, for television or film acting, "if someone is 3 feet away, speak as though they are 3 feet away. If they are 50 yards away, speak to them in that manner."

A third major difference between stage and television or film acting is the "iconic nature" of characters and celebrated performances of those characters, Green notes. For example, there's the case of William Gillette, a stage actor, who began playing Sherlock Holmes in 1899, in a production co-written with the character's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gillette, a Connecticut actor, is credited with first introducing as a prop a curved Calabash pipe - originally written and envisioned by Doyle as a straight pipe made out of briar - and the expression "Elementary, my dear fellow!" According to University of California at Berkeley Film Professor Russell Merritt, "As far as Holmes is concerned, there's not an actor dead or alive who hasn't consciously or intuitively played off Gillette."

That includes in television and film. However, unlike on the stage, in most cases in television or film acting, you will likely be the only person to ever play any character, according to Green. So what producers of a film or television project want is some version of you, not your version of a character that first wowed an audience decades ago. 

As a general rule, actors often work long and irregular hours, including evenings and weekends. Or, as explained by Broadway producer Ken Davenport, "we don't punch clocks." In his blog, "The Producer's Perspective," he explains: "Office hours may be 10 a.m.- 6 p.m., but everyone does the work for the love of it. If you love what you do, then you won't be watching the clock. And I only want to work with people who truly love what they do."

The work is usually indoors, in theaters, or outdoors on location or in an "open air" production. Also, actors may travel if they are part of a touring production. A Broadway cast member may work up to eight shows in a single week, covering a maximum of six of seven days. Shows also routinely can call on actors to perform five shows in a single 3-day period, and may set six shows in a 3-day period "no more than 12 times over the course of a year of shows." 

Such frequent performances mean actors have daily schedules that revolve around being prepared to perform whenever the curtain goes up. For musicals, cast members may also need to rest their voices when not onstage.

How Much Do Broadway Actors Make?

And now the answer to the question that brought you here.

According to CareerTrend.com, actors who are members of the Actor's Equity Association receive a minimum salary of $1,653 per week for either musicals or plays, as of August 2019. Those working a split week, which is less than a full week's worth of work, receive $952 per week. Weekly increments are also added for special duties or performances - those playing a specialty part receive an additional $20 per week, as do those in roles with "extraordinary risk," as determined by the union, and, in musicals, those who are dance captains receive an extra $300.60 per week. Lastly, if an actor is asked to move set pieces, that performer can receive $8 more per week.

However, according to Playbill.com, pay for Broadway cast members depend on their fame, experience, and the demands of the role they're playing. A famous actor or actress in a lead could receive $100,000 or more a week, especially if their contract calls for a percentage of ticket sales. And, as of 2017, with slight increases expected by 2019, the current minimum salary for an Equity performer on Broadway was $2,034 a week.

Understudy roles - the actor who steps in when there's an emergency and an actor can't play a part assigned them  - also come with additional pay. "Swing" actors, who understudy multiple ensemble tracks, earn $101.70 over the performer weekly minimum, Playbill says, or $15 if a performer is only a partial swing. Understudy principal roles can add $54.50 to a weekly salary, while understudy chorus roles can add $15.

Musicals designate some performers as "dance captains," who have to know all the show's choreography and are tasked with ensuring it continues to be performed as it was originally set. Serving as a dance captain results in a $406.80 addition to an actor's weekly salary, while assistant dance captains receive $203.40. If a production calls for a "fight captain," to maintain fight choreography, that performer receives $75 more a week.

Another way to increase your base salary as an actor is to agree to a one-year "rider," which essentially says a performer will remain with a production for an entire year. For the first six months of such a rider, the performer earns an extra $80 a week, with the addition reduced to $40 per week for the second six months. At the end of the year, assuming the performer did, in fact, remain with the production, the performer receives a $2,600 bonus.

Now for more perspective: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a Broadway actor in all of 2018 was $17.54 per hour - that was about $10.29 above the current federal minimum wage (set in 2009) of $7.25, and $7.14 above New York state's minimum wage for 2018, which has been raised to $11 for 2019.

Education Requirements

Unlike the majority of professions, a college degree isn't a requirement to become an actor or actress on Broadway. However, a bachelor's degree is often seen as helpful to learning the craft and, for musical theater, some even pursue a master's degree at places like Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Carnegie Mellon University, or any number of other places that have performance degree programs.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistic's job outlook for actors notes that, because of the heavy competition for even the most minor roles, "actors with a bachelor's degree in theater may have a better chance of landing a part than those without one."

A good actor has to have knowledge of how people behave and speak, so their characters can appear believable; they must know how to project their voice to fill a performance space, and have a wide range of knowledge of books, plays and even poetry; it helps to have knowledge of different cultures, and skill in interpreting or analyzing roles.

Whether you have a degree or not, one way to begin is to learn your craft. This means take acting classes, somewhere, according to Backstage.com. You will be performing in front of an audience, and be exposed to other performers, who could wind up a valuable resource or industry contact. And, if you're hoping to get cast in a musical, which has become quite popular not only on Broadway but also in film, vocal training would be a good thing to pursue.

In addition, dance training would help, starting with a ballet class to give you a solid foundation, as would scene study, to help you develop an ability to interpret a script.

Regardless, according to Davenport, "do what's required with a smile on your face, and you'll rise to the top quicker than you can say "I went to graduate school for this?"

Job Outlook

According to the BLS, employment of actors is projected to grow 12% through 2026, or by a total of 7,400 new jobs from 63,800 in 2016 - which is faster than the average for all occupations.

However, actors who work in performing arts companies are expected to see slower job growth than those in film, as small and medium-sized theaters have difficulty getting funding. As a result, the number of performances is expected to decline, according to the BLS.

As for Broadway, large theaters, with their more stable sources of funding and more well-known plays and musicals, should provide more opportunities.

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