Career Overview: Performing Arts

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

J-Lo. Heath Ledger. Bono. 50 Cent. Alicia Keys. Jerry Seinfeld. Clint Black. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Jennifer Aniston. It may seem like a diverse list, but all these folks have at least one thing in common: They're performing artists.

Performing artists do just what they advertise: they perform. Whether it's live or on film or video, they act, sing, play music, dance, tell jokes, or otherwise entertain us. While other artists, such as writers, sculptors, or painters, are focused on creating or producing things like short stories or paintings, performing artists channel their talents into performances that entertain, amuse, provoke, and delight.

Because of the fame and fortune accorded those who succeed in Hollywood, on TV, in theater, and in concert halls, untold millions are drawn toward careers in the performing arts. Very few succeed financially (the notion of the "starving artist" is well founded). Only those with determination, talent, discipline, and luck manage to find careers in the performing arts in which they can support themselves.

What You'll Do
You've probably seen shows like Behind the Music and biographies of film and TV stars on cable TV, and you may think you have a pretty good idea of what being a musician, actor, or other type of performer involves. What you may not realize, though, is that much of what you see on those programs is not necessarily part of the story for most performing artists. The spiral into drug and alcohol abuse, the knock-down, drag-out arguments on the set or in the recording studio, the tragic loss of the original bass player in the tour-bus explosion-none of these things is part of the formal job description for performing artists.

Rather, performers who succeed on the world stage spend years laboring to learn the nuances of their medium of expression. For actors, for instance, the work involves mastering the ability to seem to be people other than themselves, via skills such as vocal dexterity and control over their physical actions.

Of course, many others practice the performing arts in local or regional settings-at high school talent shows, community centers, clubs, and libraries. Some manage to make a living at it; others perform as a hobby.

As a result, the majority of performing artists supplement their incomes with one or more additional jobs. Many wind up teaching (often in their field of artistic expertise), waiting tables, or working in areas peripheral to their primary field of interest. For example, a musician might support herself by writing advertising jingles, or working on sound effects for a movie. An aspiring Broadway actor or dancer might find himself dancing in a Snoop Dogg music video or on the stage of an amusement park, working as a film extra, or performing with a local theater company or at a neighborhood cafe. Others work in arts administration, fundraising, or managing arts organizations, auditioning if and when time permits.

Auditioning is a big part of most performing artists' careers. Actors, for instance, audition with directors and casting agents, hoping to show that they can play the role for which they're auditioning. Musicians hand out tapes and CDs of their music to convince nightclub and theater owners to book them for gigs. Typically, performing artists without established careers have to spend a significant part of their time auditioning (or making and handing out samples of their work), if they want to advance in their careers.

The Art of Performing
All performers face the challenge of conveying certain emotions and moods. They make countless small decisions at conscious and unconscious levels. These are generally physical decisions: which piano keys to press, when, and with what force, and in what sequence, or what to do with the hands, legs, eyes, and mouth when giving a soliloquy.

While individual interpretation and expression are important in the arts, actors, dancers, and musicians are at the mercy of their audiences, in addition to their managers, directors, conductors, or choreographers. They may find themselves in roles that do not excite them, or playing music they don't particularly love, and they may spend countless hours rehearsing and performing on nights and weekends, or traveling with their band or troupe.

Who Does Well
Those who do well in the performing arts are creative, expressive individuals who are passionate about their craft. Patience, perseverance, and stamina-in addition to talent, practice, and a thick skin-are crucial to success; performing artists must get accustomed to rejection. Actors and professional dancers may perform the same roles for months, sometimes years. Film and television actors must sometimes shoot the same scene over and over again. And regardless of how a performer is feeling-whether he or she is exhausted or in a bad mood-the show must go on.


To break into the performing arts, you're going to need to be able to perform. Training in music (reading playing music), acting (many actors start with high school productions), and/or dance is essential. Courses taken outside of school can help you refine your talents and pick up essential skills for auditioning, rehearsing, and performing.

A degree from a specialized arts college can often launch you toward a performing arts career; the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Berklee College of Music in Boston are three well-regarded institutions. Would-be performers can also take courses in drama, performing arts, music, and dance at most universities; some universities have renowned programs in specific fields (e.g., drama at Yale). (You can learn more about places to study acting by contacting the National Association of Schools of Theater.) However, while a formal education is recommended, it is not essential in many of the performing arts.

Beyond mastering your art-a function of practice and performance-you'll need to have determination. Successful performers have a drive to succeed. They practice every nuance until they have it right, again and again.

Memory, charisma, talent, creativity, experience, and inspiration are all necessary to a performer, but above all else you have a passion for performing. Performing artists find genuine satisfaction in pleasing their audiences. And they are willing to sacrifice to do it. They sacrifice money (because they won't make much, particularly when starting out), and they sacrifice time (for rehearsals, auditions, practicing, and performance).

Having contacts can help. The more experience you can get and the more people you can get to know, the more opportunities will open up for you down the road-networking skills will serve you just as well in the performing arts as they do in other careers.

Finally, at the higher levels of these professions, you'll probably need to become a member of the appropriate artists' union. Stage actors often need to join the Actors' Equity Association; film actors usually are members of the Screen Actors' Guild; and TV and radio performers are usually members of AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Job Outlook

Opportunities for performing artists are expected to be plentiful in coming years. Indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for performing artists is going to grow by more than job growth overall between 2004 and 2014. In part, opportunities in the arts are expanding due to a growing video and music-video industry, expanding cable networks, and increasing independent-film production. Film, television, and new media are also creating new opportunities.

But competition for these careers will continue to be very intense; the demand for performing arts careers will always outpace the supply of paying jobs. Many aspiring performing artists will never reach the point where they're making their living entirely from their art.

A life as a performer is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a good bet for anyone unwilling to live in a major metropolitan area such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, or other large cities that feature professional dance companies, theater and opera groups, nightclubs, and symphonies. For theater, film, and television in particular, you'll probably need to be in New York or Hollywood to be part of the action. (The same holds true for folks like commercial and voiceover actors.) Furthermore, particularly in dance, careers can be short-lived and contingent on physical strength or appearances. Many actors, dancers, and musicians also have to travel a great deal.

Career Tracks

The career track for any of the arts is pretty simple. Either you make a living at your art, or you don't. If you do, then you do in a small way or a big way. Your ability to practice, the luck you have, and the talent you demonstrate all play a role in whether or not you succeed. Perseverance also plays a role in your success. As Marlon Brando put it, "The key to succeeding in Hollywood is to stick around." Your audiences play a role, too: They are, in the end, the people you're working to please.

Many performing artists have multiple skills. They train in dance as well as acting and music. Shows on Broadway highlight the diverse skills of performers.

Whether your dream is screen acting (for films or television) or stage acting, in Hollywood or on Broadway, there's a variety of paths actors can take. Some end up in regional theater troupes, some find lucrative careers in radio doing voiceovers, and others appear on daytime soaps or television commercials. (By some accounts, television commercials account for 60 percent of all acting jobs.) Sometimes, working actors (such as Mel Gibson or Jodie Foster) end up directing or producing their own films.

Regardless of the venue, actors memorize lines, rehearse with fellow actors and directors, and perform in productions. Their job is to interpret their roles, get inside a character's thoughts, and convey the character's feelings as convincingly as possible. Roles may involve speaking parts or singing and dancing.

Actors must audition as if auditioning itself is a full-time job, sometimes going for years without a role. They must be prepared to accept rejection and criticism. A talented actor may not be cast in a given role because of his or her physical attributes: too short, too tall, too young, too old, or just plain not right.

Most actors start performing in school, or begin work as part of a technical crew and go on to get training in summer-stock theater companies or local stage productions. Initially, relatively inexperienced actors may work as extras in film roles, with few or no lines to memorize, or as understudies for off-Broadway shows. From there, with some luck, once they have developed experience, confidence, and credits, they move up to more challenging and larger roles. Many hire professional agents to help them secure roles.

Whether it's ballet or break dancing-on television, in a music video, for a supper show, for a classical ballet company, or off-Broadway-dancers strive to interpret and convey a narrative or abstract idea or emotion through movement. More often than not, dancers start out performing in groups and occasionally work their way up to solo pieces. They dance in a variety of venues, from dance and opera companies to music companies.

Regardless of their preferred style, dancers need grace, rhythm, strength, and stamina-and years of practice to perfect their art. Many supplement their dancing careers by working as choreographers or teachers.

Most professional dancers start young, often around-or even before-the age of eight. The more performing experience dancers accrue, in college, in shows such as "The Nutcracker," or on tour with musical acts, the better.

While not necessary to most dance careers, it can be helpful to have a college degree (to teach at the high-school and college levels, an undergraduate and often a graduate degree is necessary). Much more importantly, dancers are well advised to keep up with what other dancers and choreographers are doing. Reading trade magazines such as Backstage or Variety can be helpful.

Professional musicians perform in front of live audiences or in recordings, using their voices or their instruments or both. In addition to singing or performing in a band or with an orchestra or symphony, musicians may also compose, conduct, and teach.

Musicians might play many different styles of music in a variety of environments. The level of talent and training necessary to succeed as a musician depends on the style of music performed. To be a first violinist for a major metropolitan symphony, for example, musicians must be able to read and interpret music-and have considerable talent. To play blues at the local bar or to sing with the local church choir may require less training (though not necessarily less practice); musicians who perform in such venues are often self-taught.

Instrumentalists and vocalists express emotion through their music, and strive to achieve precision, harmony, and a beautiful or otherwise interesting tone. They should be knowledgeable and passionate about music and possess rhythm and melody. And, ideally, they should love practicing and refining their craft.

Regardless of their musical aspirations, to be a recording or performing artist, musicians should make a quality tape of their music and accept as many performing opportunities as possible. Many musicians start performing at a young age and go on to attend schools of music or to get undergraduate and advanced degrees in such specialized fields as songwriting or conducting.

Other Performing Arts
Mimes, stand-up comics, clowns and circus performers, disc jockeys, and street performers are a few other performing artists. Like actors, dancers, and musicians, they toil for years at their work and often perform purely for the joy of entertaining audiences. In some rare cases, they make fabulous sums of money; typically, they don't. Their success depends on their talent, determination and luck. Some find financially stable work performing at, for instance, children's birthday parties or circuses.


Salaries for performing artists vary tremendously. Those few who make it to the pinnacle of their profession can command immense paychecks. Jim Carrey, for instance, was paid $25 million for his work in Bruce Almighty. Julia Roberts was paid $20 million for her role in The Mexican. Britney Spears and Madonna both make some $40 million per year.

Sadly, most performing artists never even come close to those kinds of compensation packages. Following are average salary ranges for some performing arts fields:

  • Actor/Performer: $15,000 to $65,000
  • Musician: $20,000 to $110,000
  • Music Director/Composer: $15,000 to 70,000 or more
  • Dancer: $18,000 to $45,000

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