The Actor’s Life for Me: How to Make a Living (and a Life!) as an Actor


What do you need to succeed in the arts? Is it possible to make a living with an actor/actress salary? Learn the ins and outs of the on-screen or on-stage life in this guest post by Saint Paul, MN acting teacher Emily B...


While you may not have chosen a traditional career path, pursuing the life of an actor does not mean you must be flung out into the abyss without a safety net, prepared only to fly or fall. There are many ways to build a life worth living as an actor. In my experience, these are a few of them.

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Know what you want.

This may seem like an obvious first step when choosing a career path, but its importance cannot be underestimated. Be realistic about your desires without losing the passion and enthusiasm you have for your craft. Consider the city you live in. Would you be happy staying there, working locally? If your desire is to act in television, film, or larger theatres, your geographical options may be confined to areas better suited to those goals. Labor unions like the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and Actors Equity Association (AEA) are more active in certain parts of the country. They provide benefits and establish a standard actor and actress salary based on the type of project. No matter where you end up, remember everyone is different and despite the many opinions you may hear, there is no “right way” to start a career as an actor.

Create your own work.

Not only is creating your own work essential to your artistic development, with potential to grow your visibility and connections in the field, it can be incredibly fulfilling! As an actor, if you wait for opportunities to present themselves without putting forth any effort, you will be waiting for a very long time. Find out how to enter local fringe festivals or write a play and cast actors you want to work with for a workshop production.

I can personally attest to the value of creating your own work. I spent the summer after I left drama school adapting Richard Boleslavsky’s 1933 novel Acting: The First Six Lessons with my father. We developed it into a two-person play that we performed for free in workshop-form at a library, a community center, and finally as a full production at Theatre West in Los Angeles. Representatives from Samuel French saw the play and it was published in 2011. An effort that began as a purely creative endeavor became something I now continue to benefit from (personally, creatively, and financially) years later.

Make a financial plan.

If one thing is certain about an actress salary, it is that it’s never certain. While not exactly glamorous, a financial plan is necessary to navigate the feast and famine of an actor’s life and to avoid burning out when work is slow. This will not look the same for everyone. Some people work full-time jobs to save up money and then take six months to a year off to focus on auditions, while others may find temporary work that they are able to leave easily when they are cast.

In my own experience, a balance between these two is ideal. I currently work part-time for a nonprofit arts organization and teach private acting classes. This allows me to remain financially stable and still have time to audition and work as an actor in film, theatre, commercials, and television.

Important: Remember that a “financial plan” is not the same as a “backup plan.” In my opinion, the phrase “backup plan” was created to undermine the professionalism and dedication of those who work in the arts. While a small percentage of actors are able to work without the support of a second income, it is common (and encouraged!) to make your finances work with your chosen career path. Find what works best for you.

Use the resources available to you.

Did you know you can write off travel for auditions, acting classes, headshots, and mailing supplies on your taxes? Many cities have nonprofit organizations that offer financial and legal advice to artists at little to no cost. If you belong to SAG-AFTRA or AEA, there are programs that can help you with everything from housing to retirement planning and access to health clinics.

Be kind to yourself.

If being an actor were easy, more people would do it. You have chosen this path, so own that choice. Remember not to get down on yourself if you go a while without booking something good. Create your own opportunities to fill the spaces between new projects. Find a theatre company or group of actor friends to develop your ideas and practice your skills. Keep training. Cultivate a supportive network of friends, family, and fellow actors to navigate the ups and downs.

While your chosen path is often competitive and unpredictable, it can also be deeply rewarding. Remember that your options are not limited to anyone else’s idea of what an acting career should look like. Give yourself time, space, practice, and patience. The best goal is not to simply make a living, but to make a life!

EmilyBEmily B. teaches acting in Saint Paul, MN. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Performance from Fordham University, and her Masters in Arts and Cultural Leadership from the University of Minnesota. Learn more about Emily here!



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