Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career


All change efforts have something in common: For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.

                                                                                                                   —Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch

I’d like you to imagine something for me. Imagine that you and a friend decide to perform a 2-person, 10-minute play that a playwright friend of yours wrote for you. The play is set in an apartment, and so you decide to do the show in your own apartment. You rehearse the play evenings for a week, and then you, your friend, and the playwright invite each of your parents to see the show, because there isn’t room for more than six people in your living room at one time. To make it seem official, you charge each of your parents fifty cents for a ticket. Since there were no royalties, and no production costs, the entire box office take—$3.00—is profit, and you divide it between you, $1.00 each.

Congratulations! Each of you made more doing theater than more than half of the members of Actors Equity Association.

That’s the reality of our theater ecosystem.

It’s Not Your Fault

The first thing I need to tell you is this: It’s Not Your Fault.

The Myth of the Theater Career that is internalized by artists through constant repetition first by authority figures and mentors, and then by peers, is that success is predicated on Working Hard and Wanting It Badly Enough. Oh, and a little luck. But mostly Working Hard and Wanting It Badly Enough, because you can’t control luck. If you’re having a hard time getting a foot in the door, well, you’re told, double down, take more classes, lose some weight, get a better set of headshots, audition more—GRIND! Work Harder! Want It More!

And if you’re still struggling, well, I hate to tell you, but you just must not be Good Enough. Sorry. The cream rises to the top, you know! (Other things also rise to the top--like pond scum, for instance.)

This whole story is utter nonsense. Worse, it is victim blame. The fact is that we have created a system that abuses artists and wastes their talents.

Let’s look at a few statistics. Each year, Actors Equity Association, the union for actors and stage managers, publishes a report in which they outline the statistics for the past year concerning employment. If you look at the report for 2018-2019—the last year before the pandemic, a year generally regarded as a very good one for AEA members—you get a portrait of what you’re up against.

In that golden pre-pandemic year, AEA had 51,938 “active members,” which is defined as members who “are continuing to seek work and/or pay basic dues in the union.” You know, the ones who are Working Hard and Wanting It Badly Enough. Of those active members, a total of 19,369 worked at least once during the season, an increase, we are told, of “1,535 over the past four seasons, which is a good trend to observe.” Yay, theater! But if you think about this just a bit longer, basic arithmetic paints a slightly less rosy picture: 62.7% of AEA active members didn’t work a day in the theater during that year. That’s almost two out of every three active members. And this was a good year!

It gets worse, I’m afraid.

Of those in the 36% who were lucky enough to find a job, the average number of total work weeks during the year was seventeen, or about one out of every three weeks. “This year’s work week total is the highest ever,” AEA crows, without acknowledging the painfully low bar, “surpassing the previous high established last season.” You have to be making a whole lot of money per week in order to survive, right? So what do those seventeen weeks represent as far as income is concerned?

Total member income for 2018-19 was about $479 million divided over the approximately 329,000 work weeks. That’s about $1455 a week. If you’re living in the environs of New York City, you’ll pay around 28.5% of that in federal, state, and local income tax, leaving you about $1050. You’ll be paying your agent 10% off the top, so now you’re clearing $900 a week. You also owe AEA dues of 2.5% of gross earnings, so another $36 (we won’t add in the $176 annual dues, which are billed bi-annually). When all is said and done, you’ll bring home around $850 a week or $3400 a month. Oh wait, I forgot: if you reach the 17-week average, you’re eligible for health care (yippee!), which will cost you $75 a month (if you have a dependent, the cost is a whopping $1051 a month). Now we’re getting closer to $3300 a month. (But in reality it is even lower than that because, as noted in an article in Broadway News about AEA’s support for an expansion of the Qualified Performing Artist tax deduction, “Experts estimate that entertainment professionals spend between 20 and 30 percent of their income on work expenses—from agent and manager fees to headshots, equipment and professional development.”) But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll use $3400 a month.

Now log onto and do a search ­to find out how much you can expect to pay to rent a studio apartment in, say, Brooklyn. How much do you have left for all the other expenses of life?

And as an active member of Equity who has been employed, you’re considered one of the winners! Belt out a chorus of “What I Did for Love,” baby!

The purpose of this isn’t to depress you—although it is definitely depressing—but rather to make explicit that the game is rigged against you, and that’s the case no matter how hard you work or how much you want it, or whether you’re one of the lucky ones. It’s simply not sustainable or economically viable for artists.

And yet it is almost impossible to get members of the profession to acknowledge this. “Don’t stomp all over my dreams,” they cry out. “It’ll be different for me! I will Really Work Hard and I Want It So MUCH!”

There’s Gotta Be a Better Way

This is not a book that will help you to more effectively manage your career in the traditional way. There are plenty of those books out there already filling the tables and shelves of the Drama Book Shop. This is a book for trailblazers and bushwhackers.

I’ll be describing some strategies and techniques that will empower you to become an “independent artist.” So what do I mean by “independent”? Think of the Declaration of Independence, in which the Founding Fathers declared themselves free of the control of England. Same thing here: independence means freedom from the control of others.

It is the freedom to control what you do, when you do it, and where you do it without asking permission of an external authority. It is the freedom to be in charge of your artistic development—the projects and experiments you need to do to expand your skills and imagination and fully embody your vision.

You’re in charge. You’re the boss.

I see this as a very specific form of entrepreneurial thinking.

Oh, God—I said it. That word: entrepreneurial. It freaks artists out because it sounds like business instead of art. It sounds like something tedious and dull. It sounds like the office job we do in order to keep a roof over our head while we pound the pavement. And it sounds like selling our souls to capitalism.

It’s not.

It’s freedom.

It’s your opportunity to pick yourself instead of waiting to be picked by some gatekeeper.

But what a term: entrepreneurship. (Although if you say it with a bad French accent, it is much more fun.) Twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to entrepreneurship as a “gale of creative destruction,” a process “that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure [of an industry] from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” That sounds way more fun. I like the idea of being a gale of creative destruction.

The main difference between an entrepreneur and an artist is that the vast majority of entrepreneurs create a business with the intention of selling it as quickly as possible--they always have an exit strategy in mind. Artists, on the other hand, create a theater in order to make more theater. In that respect, a sustainable theater is less like a software startup than a family farm or a local restaurant: you're creating something for the long term.

This book is about change, innovation, rebooting the system for making art more widely available and artists more strongly empowered. Disruption. What business guru Seth Godin called “making a ruckus.”

It isn’t about career management.

It isn’t about how to gain more attention within the current system by having a better headshot or resumé or audition piece or website.

It isn’t about networking or working your way up from the bottom, or asking permission to implement your ideas.

That’s how employees think.

It’s about creating a whole new system that will make the old system irrelevant—at least irrelevant to you. We’re exploring the development of a different approach to your artistic life that is sustainable and fulfilling for you. And if you succeed, you become an inspiration for someone else to try, and then they become a model for someone else, and pretty soon there is an alternative path.

The goal is the development of a new model of artistic production that puts artists at the control board. Not boards of directors. Not government agencies or foundations. Not gatekeepers. Artists (I include people with administrative experience in this category, by the way). And that helps make an artistic life sustainable.

But the first thing I need you to do is Forget Everything.

Go to Chapter 0: Forget Everything

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