What Every Musical Theatre Grad needs to Know

And it has nothing to do with how to sing, dance, and act…

This video is from my 2018 Seminar at Actors Pro Expo Acting Successfully in Life and Career (because yes, they should be separate.)

((The background crowd noise goes away around the 5:00 minute mark. Actors Pro Expo was checking people in to get into the seminar.))

**Disclaimer: I (Michelle Dyer) am not a financial advisor, please contact one. The views in this video are strictly my own and do not reflect my employer.**

“Normal” People Work 9-5 job to pay for food, clothing, shelter & retirement.

As actors, not only do we have to pay for food, clothing, shelter & retirement – we have to have a completely flexible schedule for auditions – AND we have to put money into our business before we even start earning (classes, headshots, etc).

You DO NOT have to have 100% of your income to come from acting to call yourself an actor.

Think about pop stars:

J. Lo

  • She makes money as an actress
  • She makes money as a recording artist
  • She makes money from perfume sales
  • (I’m sure she has other investments we don’t know about)

J. Lo has multiple streams of income – and so should you.

I started this business to tell you everything I wish I would have known when I was 21.

I moved to the city in 2002 – sat on the floor of my sublet, ate chips, read Backstage and blew through all of my savings, because I didn’t even know Survival Jobs existed.

Then, I got the call for the National Tour of Kiss Me Kate. I was in heaven!

Guess how much that non-union tour of Kiss Me Kate paid?   $245. a week.

I had heard about actors going on tour with production contracts and saving enough money to buy an apparent when they were done. So, that was my goal. Book a production contract and bank as much as I could.

But, my production contract never came.

Flash forward a few years – I was sitting on the floor of the AEA building (before it was renovated – think old gum matted in the carpet) – I had just returned from a gig, but I didn’t want to go out of town again. So, I’m scooting from friend to friend looking for temp agency recommendations. One friend gets out a business card from her temp agent and passes it to another friend who scribbles their temp agent info on it…

There has got to be a better way” I thought.

That night I went home and googled “Survival Jobs for Actors” – nothing. So, I created a resource.

Survival Jobs started out as an informational website, I then tried a job board, but now realize the conversation is about so much more than just Survival Jobs. But, it’s a great place to start.

There are two income streams I would like to talk about:

  • Survival Job
  • and Side Hustle

Survival Jobs

Examples of Survival Jobs:

(Get my Quick Start Survival Job Guide for my top 3 companies to apply for in each category).

As an actor you may not think that you have enough relevant experience for a Survival Job.


As actors, you have superpowers that you don’t even know about!

  • Are you able to think on your feet when something goes wrong? Improv!
  • Can you present in front of a crowd? (It’s most people’s biggest fear).
  • Friendly and personable with people you just met? (Hey – we’re thrown into a house with people we might not even know for months during a contract).

Don’t have any catering experience? That’s ok! I worked coat check for a catering company.

Once they get to know you, and how fabulous you are, they’ll put you on the choice gigs.

To interview with Promo, Temp and Catering companies you do need a Business Resume (here’s the link to get a Word copy of a resume template    to get started) and I would wear black pants and a button-up to the interview.

It’s ok if you don’t think you have any traditional work experience.

  • Camp Counselor – Plays well with other, responsible for keeping other human beings alive, arrives on time

Your temp agent will work with what you have for a business resume. Be completely honest with your temp agent of your abilities and goals and they will filter for the client.

Make sure you arrive to the job more than 15 minutes before the job starts (trains could be late, security line could be long).

Register with at least 5 Promo Companies, Temp Agencies and Catering Companies.

  • (It’s totally fine for you to register with more than one company – they know you’re going to – so no need to feel guilty or keep that hidden).

During your Survival Job Interview – please use the Magic Words –

** How would you like me to keep in touch with you? **

Because if you meet with them, and never hear back – they just might not know you’re alive or still interested and available. Usually, if they like you, they will tell you to keep them updated on your availability. A simple email on Wednesday or Thursday of each week, letting them know your availability for the next week is great. Email them when you’re going out of town for a long period of time (like, on a gig) and email then when you get back and are available again. Do not call them. It’s like your acting agent – if they’re on the phone with you – they can’t be on the phone with someone else trying to get you a job!

Why I like Promotional, Temp, and Catering work – you won’t get stuck in the Hospitality world trap!

I knew a girl who would cocktail waitress until 4am, go home, and then get ready to go to her audition. Half the time she would fall asleep once she got home!

Don’t do that!

Why did you move to the city? Why do you want to become an actor?

Don’t give up your dreams, because you need to work jobs with ridiculous hours to sustain a life here.

The restaurant trap – a friend and I were at an audition and called back to dance later that day 4:30pm. That’s the exact time when she had to be at her restaurant job.

She had to make the decision between staying for a callback, possibly getting an acting job and losing her restaurant job… or leaving the audition, which means she forfeit the acting job, but got to keep her restaurant job.

Don’t do that to yourself.

Side Hustles

A Survival Job is a job where you get paid an hour wage for each hour the employer wants you to work (and you usually have to be in NYC for them).

Survival Jobs are great, but you also need to know about Side Hustles.

A Side Hustle is a job that you can work at anytime from anywhere.

Whether you’re putting jewelry together backstage that you then sell on Etsy, or designing a website for someone on UpWork at 11:30pm when you get home from a show – that’s what I mean by a side hustle can be done at anytime from anywhere.

Some Side Hustles:

What interests do you have outside of the theatre that you could use to help other people achieve what they want?

With a Side Hustle – usually it takes time to build up your side hustle (time to create that online course, or book) and you’re not going to make a living wage right away – but you do need multiple streams of income in addition to a survival job (or two). 

Sounds like a lot, right?  Survival Jobs, Side Hustle, Acting Classes, and Auditions? Yeah, nobody said this career is going to be easy.

But, to actually allow yourself to make choices in your life and career, you need to be financially fit.

I also want to talk about The Wealthy Investor – Tyrone Jackson.

I highly recommend checking out his Wealthy Investor Trade School. He has a podcast that – for free – will get you into a money making mindset, but when you get that big job with a big paycheck, he can show you how to invest that money in retirement and savings and then live off of the profits. I’m not an affiliate, but I recommend you check it out to see if it’s right for you.

Some of my favorite financial podcasts:


Let’s talk about retirement

Before you stop reading, I get it. But there’s something very important you need to know – right now!

If you would have talked about retirement to the 20-year-old me I would have laughed in your face. It was as if you said you wanted to talk to me about flying to the moon.

But, now that I know the value of time and compound interest, I want to shout from the rooftops and make sure every actor (especially those in their 20’s) understand this concept.

From  https://www.businessinsider.com/compound-interest-chart-march-2016-2016-3  “Every 25-year-old in America needs to see this chart right now – the JP Morgan Retirement Chart – please check out the chart in the linked article.

If every year from the age of 20-30 you put $2,000. In a retirement account – at the age of 65 you will have x. *

Now, if you wait until you’re 30 and contribute $2,000. In a retirement account every year from 30-65 – you will still have less than x. *

(* This is assuming the same % of returns for each scenario.)

Yes, it’s true – even though you contribute for 10 years in the first scenario and 35 years in the next scenario – you still will not have as much money as if you had started early.

What does this mean? With the beauty of compound interest, time is the magic key.

Now this doesn’t mean that if you’re in your late 30’s (like me) and you haven’t started investing there’s no hope. No!

I’m saying this to encourage you to start now, because sitting there – sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “la, la, la” is not a retirement strategy.

Even just $50. a month in a retirement account is something. Just start.

Types of Retirement Accounts:

  • 401(k) vs Traditional IRA
    • a 401(k) is a type of retirement account where your employer takes out money PRE-tax (before you pay taxes on it) and you cannot take it out of that account (without penalty) until you’re 59 ½. You have to choose how to invest it, from all the list of mutual funds your employer has chosen as options. Once you’re ready to take the money out – THEN you have to pay taxes on it (even if you’re over 59 ½), because you put in the money pre-tax. You pay taxes on all of it (your contributions, plus the money you made on all of your investments).
    • A Traditional IRA is also a pre-tax retirement account. But, usually you open it on your own – at a brokerage – like TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, etc. Usually you have more options to invest in, because with a 401k, you can only invest in mutual funds.
  • Traditional vs. Roth IRA
    • Ok, so as we learned above, the Traditional IRA (or sometimes known as just an “IRA”) is for PRE-tax contributions. A Roth IRA is for POST-tax contributions. So, you take what money you get in your direct deposit/checking account (that already has had taxes taken out) and then contribute that money to a Roth IRA – which you can set-up through a brokerage like TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, etc. AND… since you’ve already paid taxes on the money – when you take it out at 59 ½ you don’t owe any taxes on it. Pretty cool, huh? 

Why does Suze Orman love Roth IRA’s? Well, we should have an emergency fund with 6-8 months of living expenses for true emergencies (and no – I cut my hair so I need new headshots – is not an emergency). Not only does the Roth IRA help us plan for retirement, your contributions can be used as a back-up emergency fund (five years later). Check out this great article -> http://money.com/money/5639021/suze-orman-retirement-roth-ira-strategy/

*Also – if you have a 401(k) Match on your contract – just remember Match = Free money. (Match means the producer agrees to Match a % ofwhat you contribute to your 401(k) – yay)!

There are a bunch of rules for IRA’s and 401k’s that I won’t get into, and let me remind you I’m not a financial advisor – please contact one. But, this stuff is pretty powerful and super important to your future, so I encourage you to read up on this stuff and at least if you don’t geek out on it, like I do, get a familiar with it, because literally – your future is at stake here.


Have your eyes glazed over yet?

The Actors Fund has wonderful financial workshops that you should check out.

Credit Unions are a great resource for your banking needs, because they are non-profit and owned by their members (instead of banks, which are driven by delivering profits to their shareholders).

Where I get most of my info from/Favorite Books

The last thing I do want to touch on before I go is the dreaded B word.


I was an actress for 6 years in NYC and had been told countless times over the years to lose weight. So, I associate the word budget with deprivation and I have a sort of a visceral reaction to the whole thing.

But –

The truth of the matter is, we do need to know what money is flowing in and out.

How do you do that?

  1. Export the last 12 months of financial account info onto an Excel spreadsheet
    1. Find the “Export” to Excel button on all of your bank and credit card accounts
  2. Line up the info into 2 categories
    1. Deposits (Money you made)
    1. Withdraws (Money you spent)
  3. Add up each column and divide by 12
    1. This gives you an average of your monthly income and expenses

As an actor I found it hard to budget. I love David Bach’s book The Automatic Millionaire, but I found it so challenging to set reoccurring deposits when I didn’t know what my income was going to be each month. (But it is very important to set up automatic withdraws to your retirement accounts when you’re on a contract. Your agent gets 10% off the top – and so should your future).

Now the main goal is to make more than you spend.

* And invest the difference* 

(You know how Johnny Depp made a lot of money in movies, but still went broke? Yeah, it’s not about how much you make – it’s about how much you keep & invest).

Now, going back to looking at all of your expenses for the year it’s eye-opening! I even like to “sort” the column that has the name of each company, so I can really see how much I spent with each company for the year. (My Dunkin’ section – Yikes!) So, even though I don’t like the word budget, I do need to pick out frivolous things I’m spending money on that I could cut back on (I see you DoorDash subscription).

If you’re spending more than you make – there are two solutions.

  • Spend Less
  • or Make More

You know what works for you. Are you good at budgeting? Me? Not so much – so I need to make more income… everyone needs multiple streams on income –

Which brings me back to Survival Jobs and Side Hustles.

So, I’ll stop there for today.

Just know I’m so passionate about all of this because I don’t want you to make the same financial mistakes that I did. Time is on your side right now. Start Now. Today! Only if it’s just a little step. Taking that first step will build momentum for a lifetime of good habits.

Having money doesn’t make you happy, but it sure does give you options.

I want you to have the option of getting out of that bad relationship that you think you have to stay in, because you need to be supported financially to stay in this career.

I want you to be able to shape the career you want.

I want you to be able to train with the best teachers and become the performer you have always dreamed you would be.

That’s what I want for you.

That’s why I do what I do.

Thank you for taking the time to learn and help your future self.  

I’d love to hear from you. Survival Jobs (at) gmail.com

All my best, Michelle

Want more info? Check out these great resources:

*Yes, I totally used my Amazon Affiliate and Shopify links in the above article.