When you tell people you have a theater degree, nine times out of 10, they automatically think you’re an actor.
In reality, there are a lot of jobs that make a theatrical production possible and a lot of them are well-paid. Did you know that union stagehands in New York City are easily clearing a minimum of $20 an hour, with heads of departments bringing in over $50 an hour?
You do now.
There are lots of jobs for people with highly specific skill sets. Painted backdrops for shows cost a small fortune because scenic painting is highly skilled and incredibly time-consuming—but has a payday that makes it worth it.
People often picture anyone who works in the arts as a starving artist. The reality is that if you really enjoy working in the theater and don’t have your heart set on being an actor, you can find well-paid work pretty easily.
Most behind-the-scenes jobs are unionized
IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stagehand Employees) is the union that represents the majority of behind the scenes workers. If you enjoy building sets, fixing lights, or creating props, you can actually make a good wage working with them. IATSE also oversees the wardrobe and make-up artist unions.
In very big cities like New York or Los Angeles, getting into the union can be a daunting task. You either have to apprentice for several years and then pass tests, work in a union house, and make a certain amount of money every year for a few consecutive years, or work in a non-union place that decides to unionize.
In the vast majority of states, however, it’s actually pretty easy to join the union and, once you’re in it, you can work in any state as part of the union.
Concerts, comedians, and touring shows all need tech help
But let’s say you’ve just graduated from college, are looking for work and have no interest in working in a big union house. The fact is that carpentry and electrics are very sought-after skills and it’s not that difficult to find work in either field out on touring shows, whether traditional musicals or big rock concerts—all live performances need stagehands. Even little one-act comedians have a technician touring with them who has some basic A/V skills.
Put those sought-after sewing skills to work
Let’s also not forget the work available for any decent seamstresses. As homemaking has gone more and more out of fashion, finding someone who is confident around a sewing machine has become rarer and rarer. Despite that, large shows still need a small fleet of wardrobe personnel to create or alter costume pieces for their performances.
Backstage, there’s also room to grow
If you find you really enjoy the backstage area, you might wind up a technical director—the person in charge of overseeing all the behind-the-scenes technical elements of a production. This job, especially in larger companies, can pay quite well.
Additionally, if you have a solid grasp on the technical needs of a production and don’t mind learning a little budgeting and contract negotiation, you may wind up a production manager, which not only provides a decent, steady paycheck but can also allow you to stay in one place consistently and work hours that are more family-friendly than other behind-the-scenes jobs.
So don’t automatically assume that because someone tells you they work in theater, they’re actually a starving artist. It takes a lot of different skills to get a production up and running and some of them are highly sought after.