The Answers Issue: Can an actor make a middle-class living in D.C.?

Can an actor make a middle-class living in D.C.?

Yes! With one caveat: Not as an actor. Or, specifically, not only as an actor. “I know of actors who only do things in the arts,” says Holly Twyford, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner widely recognized as one of D.C.’s best stage actors. “But they aren’t just actors.” Over the years, Twyford has been a bartender, made training videos for federal agencies, and delivered City Paper. She’s also done work as an “under five”—an extra with fewer than five lines—on bigger-budget flicks. “I get checks that are, I’m not exaggerating, like $1.63,” she says of the residual payments.

Likewise, Marcus Kyd—now rehearsing The Gaming Table at Folger Theatre—teaches summers at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre and has done background work on TV shows, including The Wire. (To D.C. area actors, David Simon’s crime show, like Homicide before it, was a cash cow.) Still, Kyd says he lives on Capitol Hill “solely by the generosity of my housemate.” Middle class, it seems, is a tricky descriptor. “I guess it depends on what standard of living you’re used to,” Kyd says.

Which is why a lot of actors try to move into management. JoAnn Williams, executive director of African Continuum Theatre, decided she had to go white-collar to stay afloat. “It was my choice to move into administration to have a stable income,” she emails. “From my experience as an African-American actress in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, it is almost impossible to maintain a middle-class life performing in theater because there are just not enough jobs in the area for my type.”

Our Readers Say

Most people with jobs have some continuity of employment. In contrast, actors have to go from show to show. There may be about a dozen in Washington who seem to be in almost constant demand. The others may have long dry stretches.

Musicians are in a somewhat similar position. There are various orchestras in the metropolitan area which employ them "in season." Most of them really depend on teaching. Actors don't usually have that option with a few exceptions who have faculty appointments at local universities or acting schools.

You won't get rich acting in Washington. However, you don't have to be a TV or movie star to headline a show such as often is a requirement in New York. We have plenty of theaters to provide opportunities for artistic expression and for beefing up your experience. The theater community here really feels supportive -- including the patrons. Besides, this is a great place to live a sane life.
When I grew up the first bit of advice I was given was to learn to type. "If you can type, you can eat." It was the smartest advice I was given. God bless the performers who do the blue plate ballet and data entry between gigs. They keep the economy running. Short term they may be, but long may they wave!

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