Can you make a living as a theater performer?
‘At the end of the day, if we can warm those seats every night with people, then [performing in] theater may become a living’
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It is a question many young theater hopefuls are asking these days, as the Philippine theater industry apparently has been enjoying a boom in recent years.
The old reliables—established theater companies with a well-earned pedigree such as Repertory Philippines, Tanghalang Pilipino, the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) and Atlantis Productions, to name a few—have been consistent in producing regular seasons. New theater companies, with many of their founders graduating from the established ones, have been sprouting as well as they target their own niche audiences.
Finally, another arguable evidence that the ticket-buying audience is growing are the well-attended performances by expensive foreign touring productions such as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” And if the latest buzz is to be believed, the mammoth musical theater hit “Wicked” is coming in to replace the recently cancelled “Dirty Dancing.”
While the local theater community is not yet on the same level, industry-wise, as its more renowned counterparts on Broadway and the West End, the expansion is significant and visible. An enthusiastic young generation of new artists is stepping into the leading-performer shoes of their mentors who have gone on into stage production and direction.
Doing the math
Not too long ago, these theater pillars were the ingénues and rising stars who stayed loyal to one company, supporting their theater avocation with day jobs; some of them were financially independent and could indulge their passion.
Has the situation changed since, given the current boom? Can theater performers now devote their lives totally to their art without having to worry about mundane things like bills to pay?
First, let’s do the math. While there does seem to be many avenues to display one’s thespian prowess now, the economics remains pretty much similar to what it was 10 years ago.
Generally, unless they are full-time in-house actors like the few in Tanghalang Pilipino, actors are paid per performance. The figures range from P1,500 to P3,500 per show; musical theater pays more than straight plays, and obviously lead roles enjoy a higher rate than supporting parts and the chorus. Rehearsal fees range from P200 to P500, barely enough to cover transportation and representation expenses. Meanwhile, TP’s acting scholars get less than P10,000 a month.
One way for a theater performer to work around this is to take advantage of the many productions going on: Take note of the schedule of all the auditions, plan your schedule accordingly and dazzle the directors enough so that you can land roles to survive on for the next year.
Another positive change in recent years that helps the actor is the lowering of theater boundaries that once declared exclusivity. Performers once identified with Repertory Philippines, for example, can now cross over to Tanghalang Pilipino or Peta, and vice versa.
Still, to take advantage of this situation, Rem Zamora, a board member of the soon-to-be-launched Red Turnip Theater, points out that a theater performer has “to be in three to four plays at least a year. Rehearsals take a month and the actual production another month.”
Zamora, who made a name in musical theater with Rep, has done stints both onstage and behind-the scenes, appearing in productions and also marketing them. Currently, he also manages and produces events for private individuals and corporations.
Zamora has been donning that dual hat since he decided to join theater full-time in 1999. Back then, outside the stage, he followed in a family business tradition and ran restaurants and bars.
As a young actor, he had to make sure that “I had a [financial] back-up. There were seasons where you did not fit into the productions. I kept myself secure by having other businesses outside theater.”
For him and most of his Rep batchmates, “there were always other sources of income.”
That financial back-up is vital now as it was then, given the nature of the beast. As industry pillar Audie Gemora puts it, “[It’s] the nature of an artist’s life. For example, how can you apply for insurance when you don’t have a steady job? You are always good as your last performance.”
Gemora, once known as the “Prince of Philippine Musical Theater,” is now a stage father of sorts, nurturing the next batch of performers and other artists in his productions, workshops and a new school he is putting up.
Yet this award-winning actor also admits, “I may be at the top of my game, but I’m not hired all the time.”
Sometimes, landing a role does not depend on skill or dramatic versatility but the age factor. Gemora continues, “I used to play the romantic leads. Now, I can get away with playing Von Trapp [in ‘The Sound of Music’], but [age] limits my roles. What do we do with actors who are aging?”
The realities of life can also bite hard on young thespians in a different way. Gemora opines that single, unattached performers can run on passion and adrenaline, but “the moment you have a family, you have to supply your income from other means.”
Older thespians with bigger responsibilities do capitalize on their craft by performing in other media outside theater. Nanding Josef, artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino, is a senior actor who has seen his fair share of supporting family members.
One way he has survived this long is by appearing in film and television; a recurring role in a teleserye like “Guns and Roses” where he played Robin Padilla’s senile father, went a long way toward helping make ends meet.
A supporting role in a teleserye pays a talent fee that ranges from P25,000 to P30,000 per shooting day. Do two tapings a week and you can earn and save enough money. However, those two days are in fact 24-hour shoots that will end up consuming the rest of your week.
There are other sources of income that are associated with the dramatic arts. Appearing as a lead role in a TV commercial pays from P20,000 to six figures for one shooting day, but these stints come few and far between. Voice-over commercials can pay P8,000 to P15,000 per gig.
The more recognized theater performers can leverage on their name and experience and charge a higher rate in doing events and other shows produced by commercial enterprises. Early in their careers while still doing leading-man roles, Gemora and Zamora laid the foundation for their now thriving events management groups.
Zamora acknowledges, “We try to find other sources of income around a relatively small sphere of entertainment. If we do a corporate gig, we are doing a show that the company wants to put up. We will do anything for that extra buck.”
Josef is looking for other sources of income such as more corporate sponsors and workshops that can provide an acting teacher an income stream, at least for some weeks. One reason is to prevent talented but starving actors from leaving their craft.
“We want our actors to be successful. They enjoy the work and the whole process—it’s fulfilling and enriching, but what if their stomachs are empty? We want to make a [healthy] industry from what we are doing,” he adds.
Zamora couldn’t agree more. He believes that actors can survive and blossom if the theater industry thrives. Like Josef, he is thinking of how to bring in new audiences, and that may be a great determining factor.
“Right now, unless you are independently wealthy, I don’t think theater can be a full-time job. It takes a lot to put up a production,” he says.
“At the end of the day,” he muses, “if we can warm those seats every night with people, then [performing in] theater may become a living.”
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