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The Working Actor

Cash on the Dresser, Quitting Time

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Cash on the Dresser, Quitting Time
Dear Michael::
My child is in a show on Broadway, being paid scale for a principal role. There are seven guardians because there are so many children in the show. These guardians are all terrific, so well-suited to their positions, some of them with backgrounds in stage management or other theater jobs, others who are former actors or dancers. Then the tutors, four of them. Plus all the many other support roles—there seems to be an endless list: the child wranglers, the dresser, the hairstylist, the theater doorman…and I'm probably missing a lot of people in this inventory.

What sort of gift or gratuity is customary, and whom would I be expected to include? I polled a few other moms who have had children in previous shows. They used gift cards, typically $25 (I'm guessing this amount may be because this is the IRS limit for a gift deduction). So I did the same. I gave the dresser more.

Now I recently found out that the adults typically tip their dressers on a weekly or monthly basis. These dressers said they did not want to take money from kids so were not expecting routine tips. But how much should you tip your dresser? Is it based on your salary or the size of your role? Is it different for child performers than for adult performers?

—Parent of Child Performer
New York


Dear POCP:
Figuring out what to tip one's dresser involves several things. First of all, salary. If you're in the ensemble, making minimum, less is expected than if you're playing a lead and making considerably more. The second consideration is how many costume changes you have. If your dresser has to track, wash, press, and re-hang 32 costumes a night, she or he is working a lot harder than if you wear just one dress for the whole show. Next, how many of your changes require help? Are they fast changes or do you have enough time to change yourself?

As for what kids should tip, I'm not sure that dressers expect anything much, since often neither kids nor their parents are aware of the tipping tradition. However, for an expert opinion, I went to my good friend Kendall Louis, dresser extraordinaire. Kendall is a career dresser who's worked in that capacity all over the country and knows from whence she speaks. Here's her response:

"If I'm understanding the question correctly, the mom was tipping both a dresser and a backstage guardian. I think a gift card would be okay for the guardian, but it also depends on the length of the run. Did the guardian escort the child to dinner between shows? Also, if the guardian was visibly disappointed when the card was offered (bad taste, but it happens), cash is always 'the right size.' I'd think twice about taking money from a child actor, unless it was one of the Billy Elliotts.

"You can't go wrong in giving a dresser cash. If they are working on Broadway, yes, their weekly paycheck is good, but it's just the little courtesy that can help pay for a MetroCard or whatever. My most recent experience was as one of two dressers in the women's ensemble at a tour stop of 'Mamma Mia!' We each had assigned actors but also did whatever for whoever needed help. At the end of the run, each actor chipped in an equal amount and it was split between us. A very fair system and we did nicely.

"I don't know if it's the economy or people just don't know to do it any longer, but I've had situations where nothing was offered. Adult actors should know better than to stiff people. I've only had it happen once, and I could tell that the guy had major issues with me the moment he saw me. Don't know why, but I could smell it.

"If the child actor is getting the same amount of attention from a dresser as an adult actor would, the rate should be the same. Twenty a week is righteous—again, if you're working in New York, you're getting paid real money. If the dressing track is especially hard, $30. If it's just kids in the ensemble and the parents want to give money, $10 would be okay. The one thing that I would stress is that if the kid is smart or talented enough to be working in the theater, please have them handwrite a thank-you note. Or draw a picture. If parents can instill the fact that the social graces have not gone out of style (even if they seem to be in hiding!) and will be of huge benefit throughout the little buggers' lives, their little darlings will be ahead of the game whatever they do."

I hope Kendall's informative response will reach not only kids and parents but grownup actors as well.


Dear Michael:
It feels like it's really time for me to submit my two-week notice at my survival job. The No. 1 reason is that it leaves me out of energy when I'm done at 5:30. It's a lot of running around and putting up with an angry, stuck-up boss.

I've been going to auditions and getting some smalltime but very important (for me) gigs. However, my ability to submit and prepare is quite limited, because lately my job has been making me feel depressed to the point of constant headaches and sometimes nausea. It's ironic that I'm using my health benefits for issues that arose because it makes me sick to be in an office from 9 to 5.

I feel I have what it takes and that I'm wasting precious time. But I'm scared to submit my notice, because of the economy. Should I try to stick it out until I get a steady paying performing gig, or is it time to quit?

—Exhausted
via the Internet


Dear Exhausted::
There's a third option you're overlooking: Find a day job that doesn't make you sick, depressed, and wiped out. A lousy day job can make you a wreck, and life is too short for the kind of misery you've described. But struggling sucks too, and you'd likely find that the anxiety of being without a reliable income can make you just as depressed. You're not ready to pay your bills with acting until you're paying your bills with acting. Focus on getting a support job you can live with, then go out and conquer the world.


Any questions or comments for The Working Actor?  Please email Jackie and Michael at theworkingactor@gmail.com.  

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