City

Why One Woefully Underpaid Philly Actress Exposed Her Income on Tax Day

She says she earned just $16,000 in 2017. But here’s why she’s OK with that.


Jess Conda. (Chris K Photography)

Tuesday was Tax Day — well, Wednesday is technically Tax Day thanks to an IRS screwup — so naturally we’ve seen a lot of people spouting off on social media about their taxes. But one post we saw was different.

South Philly actress Jess Conda had this to say on Facebook: 2 W-2s, 6 1099s, $16k taxable income, $200 back, ACA healthcare subsidy, fascinating and fulfilling work w dynamic colleagues. How’m I doing, Capitalism? #Radicaltransparency #Taxday

While people are normally fiercely protective of the details of their income, whether they make a whole lot or very little or in between, Conda, 37, decided to reveal all. We wanted to know why.

It’s pretty uncommon to see people divulge their finances for all the world to see.
I just feel like I’m not afraid of financial transparency, because the longer I’m in this career, I realize the reward of the career is not upward mobility in a monetary sense. There’s a reward of this career that is a currency of non-currency, which is very counter to capitalism.

Has your income changed much since you got into this business?
I’ve made basically the same amount of money for 14 years. Money is not the indicator of a good artist. If there’s any good indicator, is it fulfillment? I am not going to be the CEO of Theatre in ten years. Maybe my reward is that in ten years, I’m still doing it.

And you work a few different jobs, right?
I freelance teach middle school and high school at various schools — this year mostly through the Wilma Theater’s great education programs. I’ve had five freelance teaching contracts over the last year. Sometimes I get paid to perform, which is cool. This year, I performed at the Arden, which was a really big gig for me. I’m doing the Pig Iron show. Shakespeare in Clark Park this summer. I paint faces. Sometimes I bartend. I do freelance administrative stuff — like right now I have a contract to book the entertainment at a fundraiser for the Wilma.

It’s a pie. It’s about how big the pieces are from year to year. Ten years ago, my face-painting piece was gigantic and my acting basically nonexistent. Over the time, the teaching and acting became bigger pieces. There’s no regular bartending piece right now. I just cover at Fergie’s when somebody can’t work.

You’re really living the freelancing life.
Freelancing is like this weird way of working that people are shy of talking about. You don’t work at the same place for 30 years, get some big salary and then get a watch and retire. A lot of people are making their money cobbling together different jobs. I want to work and pay my bills and eat good food.

A lot of people will reading this will feel bad for you when they see the number $16,000.
It’s not bad at all for me. I’m super-privileged to have a career as an artist. I’m as privileged as a person can be. My family helped me go to college. I make art.

How do you plan for your future in a situation like yours?
Well, I have, for the past year, been putting $100 a month in a 401k, because nobody else is going to do it for me. I am my own HR department. $100 a month in a 401k is not a lot, but that’s what I’m doing. That’s a big change for me. It’s an auto-payment that comes out.

Another big change that I made is that I take 10 percent from each check and put it into a bank account that I just forget about. It’s for the future.

That doesn’t leave you with much left over, it would seem.
I function in a really organic and complex root system of non-currency. I shared a car with my neighbor for two years. I share rides all the time. I share food. I make dinner with someone in the theater community once a week and we share the leftovers.

My life is sustainable and rich.

All very positive. What are the hard things?
The hard thing is that I have this Excel spreadsheet, and I have to make sure I log every mile I drive, and you have to be on top of your invoice game. You can’t forget who is paying you.

Do you get to go out at all?
I usually see three plays each week, but I get a comp or I pay a discounted price. I buy artist rush tickets a lot.

I don’t really drink at bars. Let’s say I go to a burlesque show. Well, I have $10 for the ticket, but I can’t really buy a bunch of drinks. That’s just not my lifestyle. So enjoy the burlesque show but sit there drinking a club soda with bitters all night.

So eating out must be infrequent.
If I buy a retail sandwich, my rule is that I have to eat half of it later. I wrap up the other half and make it part of dinner. That’s a rule I live by. It makes me feel like I’m getting more value. And I maybe go out to dinner once a month. Maybe.

I buy a lot of bulk grains and cheap vegetables in the Italian Market and Reading Terminal. If I have beer at my house, it’s probably because somebody brought it for a party.

But life is good?
I’m fine now. Will I be an artist when I’m 60? TBD.