“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.
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.
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.
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 . . .