Should You Work in a Theatre as an Actor?
The pros and cons of working in a theatre as your acting side hustle...
By Tom Baker
Whatever stage you’re at in your career, there’s no shame in having a side hustle. Taking a day (or night) job waiting tables, working 9 to 5 in an office or making coffee is a good way of making a little extra scratch as you wait for your big break in Waitress, 9 to 5 or Barista – The Musical! (I might have made one of those up). Plus, the service industry is flexible enough to withstand someone rushing off to auditions at all hours of the day.
However, there is another way. You’re an actor, right? Looking to meet other creative types, make connections, possibly even get spotted by a casting director. Why not just go straight to the source and work in a theatre? There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, many actors who do just that!
These jobs can be not just a vital source of temporary income, but an opportunity to network, meet like-minded people, and get involved in new projects.
I’ve worked in front-of-house and retail roles at a theatre for a couple of years now. During that time, I’ve gotten to know many a budding performer who has spent their quieter periods tearing tickets, working the tills, and corralling audiences in everything from pub theatres to West End institutions. These jobs can be not just a vital source of temporary income, but an opportunity to network, meet like-minded people, and get involved in new projects.
Should you work in a theatre? Well, as with all jobs, it has its benefits and its drawbacks. Here’s what I’ve learned about working in a theatre as an actor.
Good: It’s a networking opportunity
Going to auditions, being sent on calls by agents and being listed on Spotlight are all certified routes to that one big gig. But even if your self-tapes are on point, having an existing relationship with directors, producers and casting directors can help your chances immeasurably. One of the major bonuses to working in a theatre is that you can network without even really trying!
In front-of-house theatre roles you’re likely to make contact with those on the creative side of the company simply through doing your job. Knowing the artistic director’s regular coffee order (it’s an oat milk flat white with an extra shot in most cases), or striking up a conversation with the stage manager, could be enough to set you apart from the competition when you go up for jobs. You might also be included in internal casting calls and other job opportunities.
Bad: It’s a time suck
The work-life balance is a tricky tightrope to walk. Doubly so when you have one job that’s effectively subsidising another. When you’re looking to kickstart your acting career whilst working full time, it can be hard to discern where your work life ends and where your life life begins. Between paying the bills, commissioning new headshots and trying to sustain a social life on top of pursuing your acting work, it can start to feel like you’re leaving very little time to yourself.
Working in a theatre can sometimes mean long or unsociable hours. The time your friends are out painting the town red tend to align with showtime, and on slow days you might be cursing the staged reading you missed out on whilst sweeping the stalls seats for the umpteenth time.
Good: But it is a flexible job
Ducking out of your standard 9-to-5 so you can go to an audition is manageable the first couple of times you do it. Most supervisors aren’t going to bat an eyelid at a dicky tummy, dentist’s appointment, or legitimate request to ‘work from home’ every once in a blue moon. Even if you’re well versed in the art of improv, coming up with a decent excuse after a dozen short-notice callbacks gets to be an issue.
Not so when you work in a theatre. With the exception of those pesky matinees, you’ll mostly be working evenings. A lot of theatres offer varying contracts, where you can adjust your availability to work depending on when you’re free. There’s also usually a tacit understanding that you and your colleagues are all treating the job as a side hustle, with many theatre jobs having provisions for extended breaks for tours and last-minute shift-swapping already in place.
Bad: It can ruin the magic
You know the saying: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It’s one of those clichés that is actually true. Spending all your time devoted to one singular pursuit can lead to disappointment or, at the very least, exhaustion. That’s easier said than done when every day you’re riding the tube to work at a theatre, after a long night reading scripts, attending classes or hanging out with other friends in the industry.
Spending a significant amount of your time in a theatre and, crucially, in a role that doesn’t involve acting has the potential to really take the bloom off the rose. You have to be careful that by associating the occasional drudgery and obligation of going to work with the art form which you have a genuine passion doesn’t negatively affect that very same passion.
Good: It’s a culture of creatives
If you’ve just left drama school, the real world of work can be a rude awakening. After however long you spent training, studying, and generally spending all of your time completely immersed in your craft of choice, surrounded by like-minded individuals, you’re suddenly cast out into a world where not everyone wants to debate the finer points of the Stanislavski method, or willingly join you in a rough-and-ready production of The Dumb Waiter.
That there’s a good chance your colleagues will also be actors is therefore one of the greatest benefits of working in a theatre. Instead of having to try and explain your long-term goals to people who don’t want to hear it, you’re with people who will listen, support, and celebrate your successes when you come. And until then, they’re probably much more likely to run lines and sing along to show tunes with you in the break room.
Tom Baker is a freelance writer and ex-theatre employee based in East London. His work has appeared everywhere from film magazines to product descriptions of shampoo to the course pages of major universities. He's heard most of the Doctor Who jokes about his name, but precious little riffing on Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased).