NY Acting Markets: Broadway, Off-Broadway & Off-Off-Broadway

The most popular myth about Broadway is the one perpetuated by the musical "42nd Street," in which a chorus girl goes on in place of the leading lady and becomes a star overnight. While few aspiring actors would confess to being naive enough to believe this fantasy, achieving stardom—or even earning a living—on Broadway is increasingly difficult.

This season, three major Broadway shows with good-to-excellent reviews—revivals of "Ragtime," "Finian's Rainbow," and "Brighton Beach Memoirs"—crashed and burned at the box office. Among the reasons cited was lack of a big marquee name. A recognizable actor in the cast is becoming a necessity on Broadway, which means that newer talent gets pushed further down the food chain. "When people like Scarlett Johansson want to do a play, why is anybody going to ask if the girl from Des Moines just off the bus wants to do one?" wonders casting director Stuart Howard. "It's more of a business than ever."

But when Howard was casting the current Broadway revival of "West Side Story," he saw many nonunion actors. "If someone can actually sing Maria and speak Spanish and fit into this production, of course we'll keep their photo," he says. "We've done countless open calls for 'West Side Story' in two years, for Equity and non-Equity. People will show up thinking, 'They'll give me a chance even though I can't speak Spanish, I can't sing "Tonight." ' If you're right for a role and you have the qualifications, we don't care if you're union or nonunion. We'll see you."

While booking a professional acting job in New York theater may be difficult, getting your foot in the door with an audition is much less so. Actors' Equity Association—the union of professional stage actors—requires that before any principal performer (other than a star) is hired for a Broadway, Off-Broadway, or touring production, Equity principal auditions (EPAs) or interviews must be held, for which actors are seen without an appointment. A cast breakdown must be sent to Equity two weeks prior to the first audition or interview. For chorus roles in musicals, auditions must be held before anyone is hired. Casting notices appear in Back Stage's casting pages and on BackStage.com. Equity members must be auditioned first, and then, at the casting director's discretion, nonunion performers may be seen. (For more about the rules of EPAs, go to www.actorsequity.org.)

The current Equity weekly minimum pay for Broadway is $1,605. For Off-Broadway, the minimum ranges from $539 to $957, depending on the size of the house.

So how is New York theater surviving the recession? "I think we're through the worst of it," comments Rick Berg, Equity's Eastern regional director. "We lost some workweeks in the worst of the economic downturn, but it was not a huge amount. I have to say theater in general did better than the rest of the economy." He urges performers to put the situation in perspective: "The unemployment rate for actors is always going to be high, because the jobs always come to an end. Actors are always looking for the next job. On the other hand, there are always opportunities. There are always shows being cast or in development."

Then there's Off-Off-Broadway, where most shows are cast with nonunion actors. Equity members can also participate, however, provided the production abides by the Equity Showcase Code, which limits the show's budget and the number of performances. Equity members receive a stipend to cover their transportation costs and prearranged reimbursements for costumes or props. According to Equity, on average there are 1,000 such showcases per year—and many more if you include the ones with all-nonunion casts.

The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation, an advocacy group for the diverse Off-Off-Broadway community, conducted a survey of Off-Off-Broadway shows produced during the 2006-07 season, both non-Equity productions and Equity showcases—1,700 shows in all. Among the theaters that responded, 62 percent paid their actors, and among the paying companies, the average compensation per performer was $420 for the entire run (not including reimbursements for transportation, materials, and supplies).

But according to Shay Gines, a co-executive director of the foundation, the rewards for actors performing Off-Off-Broadway exceed the modest salaries. "It can offer them connections and networking with other artists in the New York City theater community," she says. "It can offer them an opportunity to challenge themselves and stretch their wings in terms of their talent and skills. I would also say that it offers them an ownership of the work they're doing. Off-Off-Broadway tends to work outside the commercial realm, and that's why the ownership of the work really does belong more to the artists that are creating the work. That's a very important thing for a lot of the people that are working in this sector. A lot of times the actors are a part of the creation of the text and the performance itself and continue on with the troupe of people they meet and with the companies they're working with for quite a long time."

Gines adds, "I would say that the majority of the work that's happening Off-Off-Broadway is being produced by the artists themselves, whether it's the directors, the playwrights, or the actors, not producers coming in and presenting it. When I talk about the ownership, that has a lot to do with it, because not only are you the actor; you're also the stagehand and the marketing person and the PR person. You end up wearing lots of different hats; you end up stretching yourself not only artistically but stretching your capabilities in terms of actually creating and producing a production."