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The Untenable Career of a Successful Philadelphia Theater Artist: Interview with Charlotte Ford

Posted May 20th, 2014

“The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with 60-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.”

Charlotte Ford. Photo by JJ Tiziou.

Charlotte Ford. Photo by JJ Tiziou.

Philadelphia’s theater scene is better than ever—haven’t you heard? With so many shows, exciting performers, original work, and new theater arts grads flooding the city each year you might mistake it for being healthy. But when so few of its practitioners, on the artistic side of things especially, can eke out a living wage from it, and when even its most successful artists live a tenuous economic existence, it is time to take a serious look at how poor the health of the theater industry is in this city.

Theater artist Charlotte Ford is well known in Philadelphia thanks to her creations like BANG (Live Arts Festival, 2012), a huge audience and critical success, which she also produced and performed in. She has also been a widely seen performer with Pig Iron, the Arden, and Theater Exile, among many others, including some of the areas most innovative “art-maker” types. Over the past five or six years, she has made her living as a theater artist—meaning she stitched together income from grants that support the work she creates herself (also including Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl and Chicken), acting gigs, and teaching. Recently, however, she took a look into the future and did not like the view. She has decided to put her theater career on hold, go back to school to get a masters degree in a field that would allow her to earn a decent wage, and pursue a different future.

Recently, we caught up with Charlotte, who shared with us both how she came to make this decision, and how the economics of being a theater artist in Philadelphia just don’t hold up.

FringeArts: Recently you made a big career decision—can you explain what that was and how it came about?

Charlotte Ford: I decided to return to school to get a second masters degree in speech language pathology. The catalyst was the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative [PTI, which now exists under the more general banner of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage] changing its funding guidelines. I didn’t receive funding for my new project. It seemed likely, given the other artists who had also relied on PTI funding for years and were denied funding, that I may never receive funding from them again. PTI has been the main funding source behind each play I’ve made. I lost the majority of my income for the year, and was scrambling to make enough money to pay rent and eat, and needed a new long term plan. I’ve been able to make a living as an artist without a “day job” for the past five years. Suddenly, I needed a day job. I love teaching, and have an MFA [in theater], which allows me to teach at the college level, but tenure track teaching gigs are about as scarce as foundation funding these days.

FringeArts: What got you interested in speech language therapy?

Charlotte Ford: I started by researching jobs that were in demand. I didn’t want to accrue more student loan debt and then graduate without any job prospects. Most speech language pathology [SLP] programs boast a one-hundred percent hire rate. Every pathologist that I spoke with loved their job. I’m excited to research how theater exercises, which can foster huge personal growth, could help clients who stutter, have selective mutism, or autism. SLP work also seems like a lucrative freelance gig where I could still make theater. If I had to get a day job, I wanted it to be meaningful work.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

FringeArts: Looking over the few years, can you roughly breakdown where your income came from?

Charlotte Ford: It really depends on the year, but usually, about a third of my work is made of one or two “straight” acting gigs a year at a local regional theater. Half of my year is devoted to creating my own work, and the remainder is filled by teaching gigs—I teach for Pig Iron, at the Arden Theatre, as well as lots of workshops at local high schools and colleges. I had a great experience directing and teaching at Bryn Mawr College.

It can be a tricky juggling act of taking on too may jobs because nothing pays super well, and you need to make up for the weeks of the year when you may have no employment at all, which is difficult financially and emotionally. The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with sixty-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

FringeArts: How did you go about organizing your life so as to put this all together?

Charlotte Ford: The busy year—the year I made that miraculous $23,000—all my projects overlapped. So first I was in a show at Theatre Exile while teaching, and then I was creating BANG while teaching and creating a show at Bryn Mawr College, and then rehearsing at the Arden while also creating the show at Bryn Mawr, then simultaneously teaching for Pig Iron and the Arden while performing at the Arden and prepping for BANG, then creating BANG again. So those are mostly sixty-plus-hour weeks. But then I didn’t get any acting gigs for the fall, so I needed to live off of the money I’d made in the winter and spring. That’s part of the problem: weeks of unemployment, while a necessary break after no days off for months, eat into your meager reserve. There’s no paid vacation.

FringeArts: What made you finally see this path as unsustainable?

Charlotte Ford: I was initially excited when I had enough theater work to fill out a year and quit my day job, and I naively believed that if I kept improving and having more success, that I would make more money. I was up for the Pew [grant] in 2013, and made it through four rounds of feedback before not getting it. They read you some of the feedback. One person on the panel said, “She actually thinks she can make a living doing this?” When I didn’t get the funding, after having years of increasingly successful work and still scraping by, I was like, yeah, maybe she’s right. I can’t afford to do this anymore. Maybe I could have worked smarter, and not harder—maybe I could have done a better job of diversifying my funding, or teamed up with universities, or if I was willing to relocate . . .

I’m tired of constantly hustling, and working against the way that our economy functions. All the clichés: the definition of insanity, the law of diminishing returns; it just couldn’t get that much harder at this point in my career. I want to have children and I didn’t know how I could afford it. I would have to pay a babysitter more than I make an hour.

FringeArts: When did applying for and receiving grants for your work become central to your career as an artist?And how did this relationship evolve?

Charlotte Ford: I never wanted to be an actor. I love acting, but to try and make a living as an actor, you have to want it and love it and need it more than anything else, and I never felt that way about acting per se. Nor do I think I’m Meryl Streep. What I love more than anything—and what I think I’m good at—is creating and performing original work. I am thrilled by the creation-process of writing, improvising, structuring, editing, and then performing it. When I got back from LISPA [London International School of Performing Arts], I started applying for grants. I was really lucky. I was turned down for my first grant, but then received every other project grant I applied for until PTI [Pew] in 2013.

Chicken promo. Photo by Jay Dunn.

Chicken promo. Photo by Jay Dunn.

I had the idealistic idea that if the shows went well, if they kept getting better, that I would eventually make more money. Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl got picked up by a producer and we toured to Edinburgh and London and Paris and got awards and great reviews. BANG sold out and was extended. Bang got standing ovations for most of its shows. I’m not saying BANG was the best show ever—I’m sure there were plenty of people who didn’t like it—I’d love the chance to work on it again and improve it. But I thought that those escalating successes would continue, and that hard work and well-received shows would create more opportunity.

My feedback from PTI [Pew] for my rejected project was that my creation process was “not the right way to make a play.” I felt, if my shows can be that successful, and then I can lose half my income because someone on a grant panel believes my creative process is incorrect, then my life is not configured properly. I’m too dependent on one grant, but as an independent artist, there aren’t many others that I qualify for. And with the changes in William Penn Foundation funding, it doesn’t seem like a great time to start a non-profit.

FringeArts: What was it about this one rejection that had such impact on you? Someone might say, but it was only one rejection.

Charlotte Ford: I’m used to rejection—as an actor, you get rejected constantly. It’s not losing one grant—it’s that the one thing that I thought was financially stable—because I work my ass off and won awards and sold out shows and poured my heart into it—none of that matters or adds up to any kind of financial stability. And the poverty that in my early twenties felt authentic and romantic and also, mistake on my part, a temporary stage in my income—now feels depressing, exhausting, and without end. I realized: I may never make more than $23,000 doing this. In the two consecutive years, I made less.

Since there aren’t many grants for independent artists, if Pew’s funding pattern continues, they may cut off an ecosystem. What used to be great about Philly is that it had cheap rent and foundation support, so you could make a modest living creating devised work. A whole creative class of devisors grew here because of those resources. Those were the trade offs for Philly not being New York City. If that funding disappears, the artists may move elsewhere.

FringeArts: As a very successful theater artist/actor in Philadelphia, and like other Philadelphia theater artists with similar success, you have struggled to stay above the poverty line the whole time. How weird has this been?

Charlotte Ford: In my early twenties, poverty seemed an authentic part of the artistic, bohemian glamour—sacrificing material goods for art—now it feels like too much to ask. I can’t afford to do things I need to do to be a good artist. I need to be able to go up to New York City to see shows; I need to take classes; I can’t afford to do that, nor do I have time to do that, since I work most “days off.” I’m sacrificing everything to be able to do my art, and I’m burned out. I want to be paid to work, not pay to work. I know many local artists who have won the big awards in town who, a few years later, struggle to pay rent. There was a golden era in Philly when real estate was cheap and foundation support was generous. It seems like that era is over. Younger artists may need to find new, hopefully more sustainable ways of funding their work.

FringeArts: What are some of your thoughts as to what might improve the situation, which I don’t even think is acknowledged, for artists entering what should be the prime creative years (meaning post-20s), to have potentially sustainable careers?

Charlotte Ford: Yeah, I have no idea. Find a new crop of younger donors? Give more money to the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts]? Find a new, younger audience that creates a demand for theater so that you can actually run it for profit, as opposed to having to rely on grants? Live performance is expensive to create and perform, because everyone needs to be there for each rehearsal and performance.

FringeArts: What will you be doing between now and the fall?

Charlotte Ford: I’m taking prerequisite classes for my masters in speech language pathology while working at the Arden Theatre. I’m getting married in July. This year has been a crazy mix of classes and working full time, which has meant waking up at five to do school work before rehearsal, and coming home to continue studying. Speech language pathology is very competitive, so I’m working hard to get all As. I start the masters program in late August.

This has been a really hard decision, because I’ve defined myself by my work. I am letting go of my dream, or trying to define my dream differently. I’ve started turning down theatre work, which is very difficult. But I have to find a new way of making a living if I ever want to qualify for a mortgage, or feed a family. You need mad devotion or a trust fund to subsidize American theater for your whole life. You need to know you’re going to inherit some way to retire. I don’t have that—I wish I did! I need to make my own money, so I can afford to make art again.

Thank you, Charlotte.

 

–Josh McIlvain

21 Responses

  1. Nicholas says:

    This is an alarming and frustrating thing to read. I am the target demographic (30 years old, educated, working professional in Philly) for the kind of theater Charlotte makes . Philly’s theater scene, especially the theater put on by Philly companies without permanent spaces, is one of my favorite parts of living here. It certainly matters to me, and I do what I can by buying tickets and donating to Kickstarters. But it’s extremely disheartening to think that 2,000 of people like me, or even 20,000, aren’t enough to support this artistic community. If anyone has alternative funding models, as an audience member I’d like to hear about them.

  2. […] on the FringeArts blog. Reprinted with kind permission. FringeArts: What are some of your thoughts as to what might […]

  3. Ed says:

    Great piece. I really feel for Charlotte. It’s very much the same in the UK at the moment. Even the most successful artists are finding theatre-making unsustainable and incompatible with the other things they should be allowed to want from life. I don’t know if you’ve seen Bryony Kimmings’ excellent post on the issue:

    http://thebryonykimmings.tumblr.com/post/67660917680/you-show-me-yours

    What strikes me in her assessment of the situation is how the artists are lowest of all in the pecking order in terms of who actually gets paid. There are whole ranks of people in organisations that supposedly facilitate, promote and create opportunities for the arts, who wouldn’t dream of working for anything other than a regular salary. And yet the people creating the work this is supposedly all about are expected to make do with a pittance. Or compete for grants to fill the gaps.

    I don’t begrudge anyone else their job or security but it infuriates me that artists themselves are treated so casually by people who profess to be passionate about the work.

  4. drjimcooper says:

    “But I have to find a new way of making a living if I ever want to qualify for a mortgage, or feed a family. You need mad devotion or a trust fund to subsidize American theater for your whole life. You need to know you’re going to inherit some way to retire. I don’t have that—I wish I did! I need to make my own money, so I can afford to make art again.”

    There is more than adequate money to support the creative arts, the problem is that our distributional systems (i.e. Capitalism) have determined that the arts aren’t “valuable.” This is an entirely arbitrary and artificial determination. Those of use who value true human flourishing (which I’d define as artistic expression, intimate human connection, leisure, introspection, etc.) need to fight against the systemic and structural limitations of modern Capitalism. Working within our currently dysfunctional system is only applying a band-aid to a gaping wound, and will result in more and more artists dropping out of their chosen fields to pursue “real,” “legitimate,” “grown up” jobs, and humanity will be worse off as a result.

  5. Tigran says:

    I wonder if his should be a discussion around minimum wage generally. It really is about the minimum or base earnings. If we started at $50,000 it would be a different world. I hear the Randians barking about the cost of living going up but not if we capped wealth at the same time. I suspect the cost of real estate and expensive necessities like cars would plummet if the rich were less rich. Not to make this a political rant but there is a lot of money out there. And perhaps the extended industry could help itself more. I spoke one word in GI Joe 2, for $20 thousand, before residuals. An Arts fund from Hollywood.

    • Laura says:

      A discussion of minimum wage won’t help because most theater artists on this scene are working for a stipend by contract… which doesn’t fall into any of the minimum wage rules or regulations and that is unlikely to ever change even if minimum wage rules do. I used to work as a theater artist in Philly a number of years back. I was on the tech end so I made more than the actors, but there were very few gigs where I was paid hourly and very few of the non-hourly gigs even came close to paying minimum wage. On top of that, all of these stipends are as “independent contractors” which means that these struggling artists are paying double the taxes of a person with a normal job, after being paid less than minimum wage. Perhaps my husband’s income made this situation worse for me by putting us in a different tax bracket, but I will never forget getting through my first year after grad school and going to do taxes and realizing that not only was I not getting a refund but I owed the city of Philadelphia over $1000 in city taxes because, while I’d paid the fed and state taxes I hadn’t remembered to pay those quarterly. I did work in Philly a few more years, but eventually for me the answer was to move away from the area to where there was a teaching gig at a college. It’s steady work, with benefits. It allows me to still practice my craft a bit, but no longer live in an area with a real theater scene and my opportunities to do the kind of new, exciting theater I loved are much more rare. I do really love my job now, and I love the way I use teaching Intro to Theater to recruit the next generation of theater audience members, BUT if I’d been able to make a viable living doing just the art of theater I would still be there now.

  6. Louisa says:

    Oh, wow. This was a damning interview to read. I am a young woman who would love to do performance art or work in the fringe theater scene (either as a dramaturg or an actor) but I simply don’t have the money to fund myself or to even live in Philadelphia consistently while pursuing my dream job.

    I see many young people getting involved in unpaid internships in the arts, which frankly concerns me. I can’t afford to work for free, you know? I want to get paid for doing something, even if it’s something I love, and apparently that’s not an okay thing to want. I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t have a large inheritance to fall back on. I can’t live a quirky bohemian lifestyle because life in the city is expensive.

    I’m planning on going to grad school, but like Charlotte Ford, I’m not pursuing theater or acting. I wish I could, but unfortunately, socioeconomic circumstances (and I mean that in the broad societal sense, not just a personal sense) make it so that I must find another career.

  7. Jackie says:

    Thank you for this. I was too spineless to even try for my dream after graduating with a theatre degree – I now work in business and often feel like a “sell out” (but not really because surprise, I’m actually pretty happy) – good to know it’s not just me. Sad to know that brilliant artists are being shut down by the system.

  8. Thanks for this interesting and honest article.
    It is depressing and inspiring all at the same time.
    I wish Ms. Ford all the luck in the world !

  9. Michael Streeter says:

    This story is replicated In city after city across the country.

  10. Raye Varney says:

    I was a theatre administrator in Atlanta, and it is my understanding that there is an IRS ruling that actors have to be paid salary since the theatre determines the hours they must be on site. Our actors were all on a weekly salary and we took taxes out. They could then draw unemployment when the show ended. That won’t solve the issues raised in this interview, but it is something to keep in mind for the commentor who mentioned having to pay self-employment tax.

  11. […] piercing the very soul of the local arts community. But earlier this week, when FringeArts posted this interview with theater artist Charlotte Ford by Josh McIlvain, that’s exactly what happened. On paper, Ford is a successful artist: Her original piece BANG […]

  12. Frank says:

    Yes, I have just discovered that though I made a whopping $11,000 last year, the IRS will be hitting me with a $1500 self employment tax …
    So let me get my head around this: I made $11,000 and am being taxed at 13.6 % – and this tax is “special” as the only way to reduce it is to show expenses for the entire $11,000 … which means I made nothing. And really…I kinda DID make nothing as I had to transport myself to the underpaying jobs and, most often due to insane scheduling, would be forced to eat out or starve. If I didn’t have $5 for a Subway sandwich, I starved.
    Like the interviewee, I thought after a major award nomination and major exposure would lead to other things of pay, but it only invites others to say, “gee, if you did all THAT with no income and no resources, will you come do that for ME?”

  13. Joe says:

    Sadly, I think the comment about this happening all over the country is pretty true. What I hope the teens thinking about theatre as a career realize is that NO ONE owes them a living. I know that seems obvious, but the belief that folks are owed a nice living just for pursuing the arts is naive at best. There are many tangential problems, not the least of which is many actors willingness to work for virtually nothing. Perhaps, those creating new careers will remember their former artistic fellows, and reform the grants from inside.

    One other problem. Too many colleges and universities are CHURNING out theatre grads, with no regard to the marketplace. I’m sorry to raise that dirty word, but it is necessary. People will pay for what they believe is valuable to them.

    Dev Kennedy

  14. NFChase says:

    Ms. Ford’s dilemma is repeated in all the arts, and me and many of my friends have dealt with these issues for the durations of our careers. I’m a composer and work in theater and dance as well as concert music – the funding issues are same.

    What alarms me most about this interview is the Pew feedback regarding Ms. Ford’s process and the comment “she expects to make a living…” – I’ve seen and heard more and more comments like these from grant panelists in my state (Oregon), and heard more stories from friends who have been on panels around the country. Apparently panelists aren’t being educated or shepherded by grant administrators. When I sat on panels in LA ten years ago, no one would dream of criticizing someone’s process – particularly if they had the strong portfolio Ms. Ford has that proves her process is viable – and no one would assume that a single grant is anything remotely close to “making a living.” Grants were funded based on specific business criteria and a proven track record for creating work that has integrity. Both of those are quantifiable elements – whereas the aesthetics of a work or the process by which it’s created are qualifiable and should be considered, but ultimately left aside.

    As artists we seek funding for projects, and every project has a business element. What I’m seeing in grant panels now are dilettantes who give grants according to their personal taste – in other words, what they (think) they like aesthetically. Alternately I’m seeing the “academically ambitious” receive funding. The glut of PhDs in music and now in visual arts have become a standard for “credibility” – as opposed to ticket sales, reviews, commissions, awards, etc. Practical experience in the field working with other established artists is also overlooked in favor of a degree.

    A last point to add is that, because of the poor education of panelists I’ve outlined, *everyone* is being funded – which makes repeat funding scarce. Artists are being denied funding because they’ve received those funds in the past – this has also happened to me. In other words, “you’ve had your piece of the pie, now move on…”

    It’s true, if you’re going to pursue the life of an artist, it’s a lifestyle choice as much as it is a career choice. It’s disappointing to see this scenario, however. I’ve had to make my living (ironically) as an arts administrator, but that has given me an insight into a dark and ignorant world where the efforts of the artist simply are not understood or appreciated.

  15. Karlospluck says:

    Oh darling, I feel your pain. I moved back to philly after a really successful run as a performer in Europe. I worked with a couple straight forward dance companies and with a very successful ‘devised theatre’ company. When I moved back to philly I had quite a few funders and quickly realized that I wasn’t cut out to jump through the hoops that was required here in the states. It saddens me to hear that you will be leaving. I’ve seen your work and really enjoyed the risks that you took. I jumped out of the scene and am back in the hospitality business. I make great money but miss, terribly, my artistic life. Good luck.

  16. Thank you for sharing candidly, Charlotte, about the complex reality of “success” in 21st century theater. I´m sure to many people on the outside, who would look at your career, would think, “Wow. She is so successful, doing project after project, working internationally, teaching, has a terminal degree, etc.” And yet, the economic reality is that–before taxes–your Most Successful Year Financially was barely about a PA´s minimum wage.

    I hope that your decision to shift into Speech Pathology will yield personal rewards for you, including economically, so you can return to creating and performing on new terms.

    I also hope that more people in our theater industry can look at this issue in-depth, and begin to find some concrete solutions ASAP. I mean, I have yet to meet someone in the United States, Europe, or Australia who makes their living solely through their craft of the performing arts–despite having demonstrated aplomb and success by all of the measurements afforded to other professions / disciplines. Surely the skills and contributions of someone like Charlotte are worth AT LEAST the same as someone serving coffee at Starbuck´s (who probably has a better health-care plan than anyone in the arts, or the majority of faculty at university theater departments)?

  17. Cris Welti says:

    -How I recently introduced myself at a community reading of ‘Streetcar…’ “I’m Cris Welti. I live in Philadelphia. I’m an actor and a musician which means I’m a banquet server.”
    Though seriously it does suck when you can’t do what you love full time. But theater will never die, only bloom and wither as the story never changes, only the players.
    Thank you for this personal insight into your experiences.
    Do what you gotta do Ms. Ford and a happy marriage to you!

  18. […] In her interview, “The Untenable Career of a Successful Philadelphia Theater Artist”, she candidly laid out the economic pitfalls of being a working artist: relying on grants or sponsors for funding, putting in 60+ hour weeks for scant pay, working tirelessly on increasingly successful projects only to struggle, still, with filling the calendar with work to pay rent. She felt that between the funders rejecting her grant requests for “doing it wrong” and an increasingly expensive environment, there was just no benefit to remaining a full-time artist. […]

  19. Seth Lepore says:

    This really got me where it hurts. I wrote a post in response. Charlotte, I hope to see your work at some point in the future and wish you well.

    http://www.sethums.com/success-doesnt-even-make-it-into-the-equation/

  20. […] to pay its mortgage for over a year.  The other is Charlotte Ford’s revelation that she is quitting her acting career. And then there was the response to being at a play I acted in at Bristol Riverside Theater […]