Actors endure long periods of unemployment, intense competition for roles, and frequent rejections in auditions. Formal training through a university or acting conservatory is typical; however, many actors, producers, and directors find work on the basis of their experience and talent alone. Because earnings may be erratic, many supplement their incomes by holding jobs in other fields; however, the most successful actors, producers, and directors may have extraordinarily high earnings.
Nature of the Work
Actors, producers, and directors express ideas and create images in theater, film, radio, television, and other performing arts media. They interpret a writer’s script to entertain, inform, or instruct an audience. Although many actors, producers, and directors work in New York or Los Angeles, far more work in other places. They perform, direct, and produce in local or regional television studios, theaters, or film production companies, often creating advertising or training films or small-scale independent movies.
Actors perform in stage, radio, television, video, or motion picture productions. They also work in cabarets, nightclubs, and theme parks. Actors portray characters, and, for more complex roles, they research their character’s traits and circumstances so that they can better understand a script.
Most actors struggle to find steady work and only a few achieve recognition as stars. Some well-known, experienced performers may be cast in supporting roles or make brief, cameo appearances, speaking only one or two lines. Others work as “extras,” with no lines to deliver. Some actors do voiceover and narration work for advertisements, animated features, books on tape, and other electronic media. They also teach in high school or university drama departments, acting conservatories, or public programs.
Producers are entrepreneurs who make the business and financial decisions involving a motion picture, made-for-television feature, or stage production. They select scripts, approve the development of ideas, arrange financing, and determine the size and cost of the endeavor. Producers hire or approve directors, principal cast members, and key production staff members. They also negotiate contracts with artistic and design personnel in accordance with collective bargaining agreements. They guarantee payment of salaries, rent, and other expenses.
Television and radio producers determine which programs, episodes, or news segments get aired. They may research material, write scripts, and oversee the production of individual pieces. Producers in any medium coordinate the activities of writers, directors, managers, and agents to ensure that each project stays on schedule and within budget.
Directors are responsible for the creative decisions of a production. They interpret scripts, audition and select cast members, conduct rehearsals, and direct the work of cast and crew. They approve the design elements of a production, including the sets, costumes, choreography, and music. Assistant directors cue the performers and technicians, telling them when to make entrances or light, sound, or set changes.
Work environment. Actors, producers, and directors work under constant pressure. Many face stress from the continual need to find their next job. To succeed, actors, producers, and directors need patience and commitment to their craft. Actors strive to deliver flawless performances, often while working under undesirable and unpleasant conditions. Producers and directors organize rehearsals and meet with writers, designers, financial backers, and production technicians. They experience stress not only from these activities, but also from the need to adhere to budgets, union work rules, and production schedules.
Acting assignments typically are short term—ranging from 1 day to a few months—which means that actors frequently experience long periods of unemployment between jobs. The uncertain nature of the work results in unpredictable earnings and intense competition for jobs. Often, actors, producers, and directors must hold other jobs in order to sustain a living.
When performing, actors typically work long, irregular hours. For example, stage actors may perform one show at night while rehearsing another during the day. They also might travel with a show when it tours the country. Movie actors may work on location, sometimes under adverse weather conditions, and may spend considerable time waiting to perform their scenes. Actors who perform in a television series often appear on camera with little preparation time, because scripts tend to be revised frequently or even written moments before taping. Those who appear live or before a studio audience must be able to handle impromptu situations and calmly ad lib, or substitute, lines when necessary.
Evening and weekend work is a regular part of a stage actor’s life. On weekends, more than one performance may be held per day. Actors and directors working on movies or television programs, especially those who shoot on location, may work in the early morning or late evening hours to film night scenes or tape scenes inside public facilities outside of normal business hours.
Actors should be in good physical condition and have the necessary stamina and coordination to move about theater stages and large movie and television studio lots. They also need to maneuver about complex technical sets while staying in character and projecting their voices audibly. Actors must be fit to endure heat from stage or studio lights and the weight of heavy costumes. Producers and directors ensure the safety of actors by conducting extra rehearsals on the set so that the actors can learn the layout of set pieces and props, by allowing time for warmups and stretching exercises to guard against physical and vocal injuries, and by providing an adequate number of breaks to prevent heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
People who become actors, producers, and directors follow many paths to employment. The most important qualities employers look for are creative instincts, innate talent, and the intellectual capacity to perform. The best way to prepare for a career as an actor, especially in the theater, is through formal dramatic training, preferably obtained as part of a bachelor’s degree program. Producers and especially directors need experience in the field, either as actors or in other related jobs.
Education and training. Formal dramatic training, either through an acting conservatory or a university program, generally is necessary for these jobs, but some people successfully enter the field without it. Most people studying for a bachelor’s degree take courses in radio and television broadcasting, communications, film, theater, drama, or dramatic literature. Many stage actors continue their academic training and receive a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Advanced curricula may include courses in stage speech and movement, directing, playwriting, and design, as well as intensive acting workshops. The National Association of Schools of Theatre accredits 150 programs in theater arts.
Most aspiring actors participate in high school and college plays, work in college radio or television stations, or perform with local community theater groups. Local and regional theater experience and work in summer stock, on cruise lines, or in theme parks helps many young actors hone their skills. Membership in one of the actors’ unions and work experience in smaller communities may lead to work in larger cities, notably New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. In television and film, actors and directors typically start in smaller television markets or with independent movie production companies and then work their way up to larger media markets and major studio productions. A few people go into acting after successful careers in other fields, such as broadcasting or announcing.
Actors, regardless of experience level, may pursue workshop training through acting conservatories or mentoring by a drama coach. Sometimes actors learn a foreign language or train with a dialect coach to develop an accent to make their characters more realistic.
There are no specific training requirements for producers. They come from many different backgrounds. Actors, writers, film editors, and business managers commonly enter the field. Producers often start in a theatrical management office, working for a press agent, managing director, or business manager. Some start in a performing arts union or service organization. Others work behind the scenes with successful directors, serve on the boards of art companies, or promote their own projects. Although there are no formal training programs for producers, a number of colleges and universities offer degree programs in arts management and in managing nonprofit organizations.
Directors often start out as actors. Many also have formal training in directing. The Directors Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers jointly sponsor the Assistant Directors Training Program. To be accepted to this highly competitive program, an individual must have either a bachelor’s or associate degree or 2 years of experience and must complete a written exam and other assessments. Program graduates are eligible to become a member of the Directors Guild and typically find employment as a second assistant director.
Other qualifications. Actors need talent and creativity that will enable them to portray different characters. Because competition for parts is fierce, versatility and a wide range of related performance skills, such as singing, dancing, skating, juggling, acrobatics, or miming are especially useful. Experience in horseback riding, fencing, linguistics, or stage combat also can lift some actors above the average and get them noticed by producers and directors. Actors must have poise, stage presence, the ability to affect an audience, and the ability to follow direction. Modeling experience also may be helpful. Physical appearance, such as having certain features and being the specified size and weight, often is a deciding factor in who gets a particular role.
Many professional actors rely on agents or managers to find work, negotiate contracts, and plan their careers. Agents generally earn a percentage of the pay specified in an actor’s contract. Other actors rely solely on attending open auditions for parts. Trade publications list the times, dates, and locations of these auditions.
Some actors begin as movie extras. To become an extra, one usually must be listed by casting agencies that supply extras to the major movie studios in Hollywood. Applicants are accepted only when the numbers of people of a particular type on the list, for example, athletic young women, old men, or small children, falls below what is needed. In recent years, only a very small proportion of applicants have succeeded in being listed.
Like actors, directors and producers need talent and creativity. They also need business acumen.
Advancement. As the reputations and box-office draw of actors, producers, and directors grow, they might work on bigger budget productions, on network or syndicated broadcasts, or in more prestigious theaters. Actors may advance to lead roles and receive star billing. A few actors move into acting-related jobs, such as drama coaches or directors of stage, television, radio, or motion picture productions. Some teach drama privately or in colleges and universities.
In May 2006, actors, producers, and directors held about 163,000 jobs, primarily in motion picture and video, performing arts, and broadcast industries. Because many others were between jobs, the total number of actors, producers, and directors available for work was higher. Employment in the theater, and other performing arts companies, is cyclical—higher in the fall and spring seasons—and concentrated in New York and other major cities with large commercial houses for musicals and touring productions. Also, many cities support established professional regional theaters that operate on a seasonal or year-round basis. About 28 percent of actors, producers, and directors were self-employed.
Actors, producers, and directors may find work in summer festivals, on cruise lines, and in theme parks. Many smaller, nonprofit professional companies, such as repertory companies, dinner theaters, and theaters affiliated with drama schools, acting conservatories, and universities, provide employment opportunities for local amateur talent and professional entertainers. Auditions typically are held in New York for many productions across the country and for shows that go on the road.
Employment in motion pictures and in films for television is centered in New York and Los Angeles. However, small studios exist throughout the country. Many films are shot on location and may employ local professional and nonprofessional actors. In television, opportunities are concentrated in the network centers of New York and Los Angeles, but cable television services and local television stations around the country also employ many actors, producers, and directors.
Employment of actors, producers, and directors is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs will be keen. Although a growing number of people aspire to enter these professions, many will leave the field early because the work—when it is available—is hard, the hours are long, and the pay may be low.
Employment change. Employment in these occupations is expected to grow 11 percent during the 2006-16 decade, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Expanding cable and satellite television operations, increasing production and distribution of major studio and independent films, and rising demand for films in other countries should create more employment opportunities for actors, producers, and directors. Also fueling job growth is the continued development of interactive media, direct-for-Web movies, and mobile content, produced for cell phones or other portable electronic devices. However, greater emphasis on national, rather than local, entertainment productions may restrict employment opportunities in the broadcasting industry.
Job prospects. Competition for jobs will be stiff. The large number of highly trained and talented actors auditioning for roles generally exceeds the number of parts that become available. Only performers with the most stamina and talent will find regular employment.
Venues for live entertainment, such as Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters, touring productions, and repertory theaters in many major metropolitan areas, as well as theme parks and resorts, are expected to offer many job opportunities. However, prospects in these venues are variable because they fluctuate with economic conditions.
The most successful actors, producers, and directors may have extraordinarily high earnings but for others, because earnings may be erratic, many supplement their income by holding jobs in other fields.
Median hourly earnings of actors were $11.61 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $8.47 and $22.51. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.31, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $51.02. Median hourly earnings were $16.82 in performing arts companies and $10.69 in the motion picture and video industry. Annual earnings data for actors were not available because of the wide variation in the number of hours worked by actors and the short-term nature of many jobs, which may last for 1 day or 1 week; it is extremely rare for actors to have guaranteed employment that exceeded 3 to 6 months.
Median annual earnings of salaried producers and directors were $56,310 in 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,980 and $88,700. Median annual earnings were $70,750 in the motion picture and video industry and $47,530 in radio and television broadcasting.
Minimum salaries, hours of work, and other conditions of employment are often covered in collective bargaining agreements between the producers and the unions representing workers. The Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) represents stage actors; the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) covers actors in motion pictures, including television, commercials, and film; and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) represents television and radio studio performers. Some actors who regularly work in several media find it advantageous to join multiple unions, while SAG and AFTRA may share jurisdiction for work in additional areas, such as the production of training or educational films not slated for broadcast, television commercial work, and interactive media. While these unions generally determine minimum salaries, any actor or director may negotiate for a salary higher than the minimum.
Under terms of a joint SAG and AFTRA contract covering all unionized workers, motion picture and television actors with speaking parts earned a minimum daily rate of $759 or $2,634 for a 5-day week as of July 1, 2007. Actors also receive contributions to their health and pension plans and additional compensation for reruns and foreign telecasts of the productions in which they appear.
According to AEA, the minimum weekly salary for actors in Broadway productions as of June 2007 was $1,509. Actors in Off-Broadway theaters received minimums ranging from $516 to $976 a week as of October 29, 2007, depending on the seating capacity of the theater. Regional theaters that operate under an Equity agreement pay actors $544 to $840 per week. For touring productions, actors receive an additional $113 per day for living expenses ($119 per day in higher cost cities). New terms were negotiated under an “experimental touring program” provision for lower budget musicals that tour to smaller cities or that perform for fewer performances at each stop. In an effort to increase the number of paid workweeks while on tour, actors may be paid less than the full production rate for touring shows in exchange for higher per diems and profit participation.
Some well-known actors—stars—earn well above the minimum; their salaries are many times the figures cited, creating the false impression that all actors are highly paid. For example, of the nearly 100,000 SAG members, only about 50 might be considered stars. The average income that SAG members earn from acting, less than $5,000 a year, is low because employment is sporadic. Therefore, most actors must supplement their incomes by holding jobs in other occupations.
Many actors who work more than a qualifying number of days, or weeks per year or earn over a set minimum pay, are covered by a union health, welfare, and pension fund, which includes hospitalization insurance to which employers contribute. Under some employment conditions, Equity and AFTRA members receive paid vacations and sick leave.
Many stage directors belong to the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC), and film and television directors belong to the Directors Guild of America. Earnings of stage directors vary greatly. The SSDC usually negotiates salary contracts which include royalties (additional income based on the number of performances) with smaller theaters. Directing a production at a dinner theater generally will pay less than directing one at a summer theater, but has more potential for generating income from royalties. Regional theaters may hire directors for longer periods, increasing compensation accordingly. The highest-paid directors work on Broadway and commonly earn over $50,000 per show. However, they also receive payment in the form of royalties—a negotiated percentage of gross box office receipts—that can exceed their contract fee for long-running box office successes.
Stage producers seldom get a set fee; instead, they get a percentage of a show’s earnings or ticket sales.
People who work in performing arts occupations that may require acting skills include announcers; dancers and choreographers; and musicians, singers, and related workers. Others working in occupations related to film and theater include makeup artists, theatrical and performance; fashion designers; and set and exhibit designers. Producers share many responsibilities with those who work as top executives.
Sources of Additional Information
Disclaimer:Links to non-JA Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.
For general information about theater arts and a list of accredited college-level programs, contact:
National Association of Schools of Theater, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 20190. Internet: http://nast.arts-accredit.org
For general information on actors, producers, and directors, contact any of the following organizations:
Actors' Equity Association, 165 West 46th St., New York, NY 10036. Internet: http://www.actorsequity.org
Screen Actors Guild, 5757 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036-3600. Internet: http://www.sag.org
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, 4340 East-West Hwy., Suite 204, Bethesda, MD 20814-4411. Internet: http://www.aftra.org
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Actors, Producers, and Directors, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos093.htm (visited September 17, 2009).