Interview with Charlotte Ford: The untenable career of a successful Philadelphia theater artist

Published on the FringeArts blog. Reprinted with kind permission.

“The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with 60-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.”

Philadelphia’s theater scene is better than ever—haven’t you heard? With so many shows, exciting performers, original work, and new theater arts grads flooding the city each year you might mistake it for being healthy. But when so few of its practitioners, on the artistic side of things especially, can eke out a living wage from it, and when even its most successful artists live in a tenuous economic existence, it is time to take a serious look at how poor the health of the theater industry is in this city.

Photo © Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net.

Charlotte Ford. Photo © Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net.

Theater artist Charlotte Ford is well known in Philadelphia thanks to her creations like BANG (Live Arts Festival, 2012), a huge audience and critical success, which she also produced and performed in. She has also been a widely seen performer with Pig Iron, the Arden, and Theater Exile, among many others, including some of the areas most innovative “art-maker” types. Over the past five or six years, she has made her living as a theater artist—meaning she stitched together income from grants that support the work she creates herself (also including Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl and Chicken), acting gigs, and teaching. Recently, however, she took a look into the future and did not like the view. She has decided to put her theater career on hold, go back to school to get a masters degree in a field that would allow her to earn a decent wage, and pursue a different future.

Recently, Josh McIlvain of the FringeArts blog caught up with Charlotte, who shared with us both how she came to make this decision, and how the economics of being a theater artist in Philadelphia just don’t hold up.

FringeArts: Recently you made a big career decision—can you explain what that was and how it came about?

Charlotte Ford: I decided to return to school to get a second masters degree in speech language pathology. The catalyst was the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative [PTI, which now exists under the more general banner of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage] changing its funding guidelines. I didn’t receive funding for my new project. It seemed likely, given the other artists who had also relied on PTI funding for years and were denied funding, that I may never receive funding from them again. PTI has been the main funding source behind each play I’ve made. I lost the majority of my income for the year, and was scrambling to make enough money to pay rent and eat, and needed a new long term plan. I’ve been able to make a living as an artist without a “day job” for the past five years. Suddenly, I needed a day job. I love teaching, and have an MFA [in theater], which allows me to teach at the college level, but tenure track teaching gigs are about as scarce as foundation funding these days.

FringeArts: What got you interested in speech language therapy?

Charlotte Ford: I started by researching jobs that were in demand. I didn’t want to accrue more student loan debt and then graduate without any job prospects. Most speech language pathology [SLP] programs boast a one-hundred percent hire rate. Every pathologist that I spoke with loved their job. I’m excited to research how theater exercises, which can foster huge personal growth, could help clients who stutter, have selective mutism, or autism. SLP work also seems like a lucrative freelance gig where I could still make theater. If I had to get a day job, I wanted it to be meaningful work.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

FringeArts: Looking over the few years, can you roughly breakdown where your income came from?

Charlotte Ford: It really depends on the year, but usually, about a third of my work is made of one or two “straight” acting gigs a year at a local regional theater. Half of my year is devoted to creating my own work, and the remainder is filled by teaching gigs—I teach for Pig Iron, at the Arden Theatre, as well as lots of workshops at local high schools and colleges. I had a great experience directing and teaching at Bryn Mawr College.

It can be a tricky juggling act of taking on too may jobs because nothing pays super well, and you need to make up for the weeks of the year when you may have no employment at all, which is difficult financially and emotionally. The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with sixty-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

FringeArts: How did you go about organizing your life so as to put this all together?

Charlotte Ford: The busy year—the year I made that miraculous $23,000—all my projects overlapped. So first I was in a show at Theatre Exile while teaching, and then I was creating BANG while teaching and creating a show at Bryn Mawr College, and then rehearsing at the Arden while also creating the show at Bryn Mawr, then simultaneously teaching for Pig Iron and the Arden while performing at the Arden and prepping for BANG, then creating BANG again. So those are mostly sixty-plus-hour weeks. But then I didn’t get any acting gigs for the fall, so I needed to live off of the money I’d made in the winter and spring. That’s part of the problem: weeks of unemployment, while a necessary break after no days off for months, eat into your meager reserve. There’s no paid vacation.

FringeArts: What made you finally see this path as unsustainable?

Charlotte Ford: I was initially excited when I had enough theater work to fill out a year and quit my day job, and I naively believed that if I kept improving and having more success, that I would make more money. I was up for the Pew [grant] in 2013, and made it through four rounds of feedback before not getting it. They read you some of the feedback. One person on the panel said, “She actually thinks she can make a living doing this?” When I didn’t get the funding, after having years of increasingly successful work and still scraping by, I was like, yeah, maybe she’s right. I can’t afford to do this anymore. Maybe I could have worked smarter, and not harder—maybe I could have done a better job of diversifying my funding, or teamed up with universities, or if I was willing to relocate . . .

I’m tired of constantly hustling, and working against the way that our economy functions. All the clichés: the definition of insanity, the law of diminishing returns; it just couldn’t get that much harder at this point in my career. I want to have children and I didn’t know how I could afford it. I would have to pay a babysitter more than I make an hour.

FringeArts: When did applying for and receiving grants for your work become central to your career as an artist? And how did this relationship evolve?

Charlotte Ford: I never wanted to be an actor. I love acting, but to try and make a living as an actor, you have to want it and love it and need it more than anything else, and I never felt that way about acting per se. Nor do I think I’m Meryl Streep. What I love more than anything—and what I think I’m good at—is creating and performing original work. I am thrilled by the creation-process of writing, improvising, structuring, editing, and then performing it. When I got back from LISPA [London International School of Performing Arts], I started applying for grants. I was really lucky. I was turned down for my first grant, but then received every other project grant I applied for until PTI [Pew] in 2013.

Chicken promo. Photo by Jay Dunn.

Chicken promo. Photo by Jay Dunn.

I had the idealistic idea that if the shows went well, if they kept getting better, that I would eventually make more money. Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl got picked up by a producer and we toured to Edinburgh and London and Paris and got awards and great reviews. BANG sold out and was extended. BANG got standing ovations for most of its shows. I’m not saying BANG was the best show ever—I’m sure there were plenty of people who didn’t like it—I’d love the chance to work on it again and improve it. But I thought that those escalating successes would continue, and that hard work and well-received shows would create more opportunity.

My feedback from PTI [Pew] for my rejected project was that my creation process was “not the right way to make a play.” I felt, if my shows can be that successful, and then I can lose half my income because someone on a grant panel believes my creative process is incorrect, then my life is not configured properly. I’m too dependent on one grant, but as an independent artist, there aren’t many others that I qualify for. And with the changes in William Penn Foundation funding, it doesn’t seem like a great time to start a non-profit.

FringeArts: What was it about this one rejection that had such impact on you? Someone might say, but it was only one rejection.

Charlotte Ford: I’m used to rejection—as an actor, you get rejected constantly. It’s not losing one grant—it’s that the one thing that I thought was financially stable—because I work my ass off and won awards and sold out shows and poured my heart into it—none of that matters or adds up to any kind of financial stability. And the poverty that in my early twenties felt authentic and romantic and also, mistake on my part, a temporary stage in my income—now feels depressing, exhausting, and without end. I realized: I may never make more than $23,000 doing this. In the two consecutive years, I made less.

Since there aren’t many grants for independent artists, if Pew’s funding pattern continues, they may cut off an ecosystem. What used to be great about Philly is that it had cheap rent and foundation support, so you could make a modest living creating devised work. A whole creative class of devisors grew here because of those resources. Those were the trade offs for Philly not being New York City. If that funding disappears, the artists may move elsewhere.

FringeArts: As a very successful theater artist/actor in Philadelphia, and like other Philadelphia theater artists with similar success, you have struggled to stay above the poverty line the whole time. How weird has this been?

Charlotte Ford: In my early twenties, poverty seemed an authentic part of the artistic, bohemian glamour—sacrificing material goods for art—now it feels like too much to ask. I can’t afford to do things I need to do to be a good artist. I need to be able to go up to New York City to see shows; I need to take classes; I can’t afford to do that, nor do I have time to do that, since I work most “days off.” I’m sacrificing everything to be able to do my art, and I’m burned out. I want to be paid to work, not pay to work. I know many local artists who have won the big awards in town who, a few years later, struggle to pay rent. There was a golden era in Philly when real estate was cheap and foundation support was generous. It seems like that era is over. Younger artists may need to find new, hopefully more sustainable ways of funding their work.

FringeArts: What are some of your thoughts as to what might improve the situation, which I don’t even think is acknowledged, for artists entering what should be the prime creative years (meaning post-20s), to have potentially sustainable careers?

Charlotte Ford: Yeah, I have no idea. Find a new crop of younger donors? Give more money to the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts]? Find a new, younger audience that creates a demand for theater so that you can actually run it for profit, as opposed to having to rely on grants? Live performance is expensive to create and perform, because everyone needs to be there for each rehearsal and performance.

FringeArts: What will you be doing between now and the fall?

Charlotte Ford: I’m taking prerequisite classes for my masters in speech language pathology while working at the Arden Theatre. I’m getting married in July. This year has been a crazy mix of classes and working full time, which has meant waking up at five to do school work before rehearsal, and coming home to continue studying. Speech language pathology is very competitive, so I’m working hard to get all As. I start the masters program in late August.

This has been a really hard decision, because I’ve defined myself by my work. I am letting go of my dream, or trying to define my dream differently. I’ve started turning down theatre work, which is very difficult. But I have to find a new way of making a living if I ever want to qualify for a mortgage, or feed a family. You need mad devotion or a trust fund to subsidize American theater for your whole life. You need to know you’re going to inherit some way to retire. I don’t have that—I wish I did! I need to make my own money, so I can afford to make art again.

Thank you, Charlotte.

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.