Low Pay Forcing Local Actors to Exit the Stage

Once a haven for theater artists, Philadelphia has become a place where it’s hard for them to survive.

In 2012, this magazine named Charlotte Ford the best theater talent in Philadelphia. One year later, she picked up the top prize at the theater community’s annual Barrymore Awards. And this year? Well, this year Ford revealed that she’s now studying to become a speech pathologist, explaining in a recent interview that at her peak, the most she ever earned was $23,000 in one year. That was before taxes, and she frequently worked 60-hour weeks.

And then there’s Pig Iron Theatre Company regular James Sugg, the darling of the independent theater scene whom the New York Times has called “amazing.” Sugg, 45, is an actor as well as a much-sought-after sound designer. But he’s decided to embark upon a career as a real estate agent. “I have near-zero in my bank account,” he laments. “I haven’t been able to save a penny.” He passed his exams in June.

Sugg and Ford aren’t anomalies. More and more local actors and others in the arts are reporting that it’s become harder for them to do what they love here. And some are just giving up. Not a good sign for a city that prides itself so much on a thriving arts scene, a city where so many artists came when they realized New York wasn’t going to make their dreams come true.

The reasons for the changing landscape are numerous. Some of the biggest sources of money for many of these artists have changed the way they support the arts in recent years, such as Pew, which seems to be favoring “world-class art” over small local types. Even FringeArts—once a bastion for the independent Philadelphia artist—has begun to look more outward than inward for its talent.
“Pew gave $250,000 to FringeArts to bring Romeo Castellucci to Philadelphia last year,” observes Ford. “That money could have given four or five indie artists project money, and they in turn would have hired Philadelphia actors and crews and designers. ‘World-class art’ is another way of saying ‘famous people from other places.’”

Add climbing rents and plateaued wages to the lack of foundational support, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the future isn’t so bright for our most daring creative types, the people we need most to keep things vibrant and interesting. In June, a group of theater leaders announced that they were banding together to see how this problem might be solved, how the scene can be saved. In the meantime, do them, the city and yourself a favor: Buy a ticket to a play.

Originally published as “Stage Fright” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.