Industry Outlook

Although professional, non-profit theater alone contributes more than $2.7 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the total economic contribution is much higher when Broadway and other for-profit shows are considered. Millions of people attend profit and non-profit performances each year and often produce indirect economic benefit by eating out before a show, purchasing show music afterward, or traveling and staying in hotels to attend a show.

For such a large economic product, the theater field employs a small number of people on a full-time basis. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), theater and performing arts companies employed just more than 133,590 people as of May 2019. Many people are attracted by the glamour and excitement of the industry, so there is fierce competition for most jobs, especially for those with well-known production companies or theaters.

Theater will continue to offer employment opportunities to skilled artists, designers, producers, directors, stage managers, and musical directors. However, it is important to remember that there are very few stars in the theater. There are always three or four failures for every one hit. People who aspire to careers in the performing arts should recognize that although the possibilities of success exist and excite the imagination, the possibilities of disappointment are all too real.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on the theater industry, with many theaters closed during lock-downs to protect people's health. For example, New York City's Broadway theaters closed in March 2020 and remained shuttered as of March 2021. The accelerated rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 will boost the economy, with businesses reopening, employment expected to grow, and consumers' dispensable income increasing. NYC's Broadway theaters were projected to reopen in April 2021, with capacity restrictions. During the pandemic, many theaters and production companies sought relief funds to stay afloat, but some theaters may not have been able to weather the storm. Some production companies have held virtual performances, and in some cases outdoor performances, as a way to attract audiences and increase their finances. According to a Variety article, many theaters have explored a range of avenues to keep audiences interested and attract new ones, from creating digital and audio productions, to releasing archival videos from back catalogs of shows. Many theater companies shared resources and information with the collective aim of rebuilding a stronger theater industry for post-pandemic times.

As of late 2020, the U.S. live performance theaters industry was valued at $6 billion, with 3,003 businesses and total employment of 53,713 people, according to research group IBISWorld. The industry was projected to have a drop in growth of 4.5 percent from 2015 through 2020 due to the pandemic, however, a rebound is anticipated starting later in 2021. As the pandemic becomes contained consumer spending is expected to grow, and as theaters reopen, theater attendance will increase. There will be steady growth in this industry through 2025, however, it may take years for industry revenue to reach pre-pandemic levels. As described in the research report, theater operators "will reallocate funds to marketing and prioritize making performances more accessible to all by introducing new software that translates performances in real time to capture the largest market possible."

Typically, theater professionals make ends meet by branching out. They find a job here, a job there, in television, film, radio, or the industrial arena. During the summer they may hope to connect with a stock company at a resort or with musical or dramatic road companies. Dinner theaters, outdoor dramas, cruise ship productions, and similar venues are additional alternatives for theater performers seeking to find work in nontraditional ways.

Even those that are able to obtain work with a production often don't earn enough income to support themselves. Acting unions report that about 80 percent of registered actors make an insufficient income from acting, and at least 30 percent of registered actors make no money from acting at all in any given year. According to the Actors' Equity Association, nearly 40 percent (19,369) of its members worked at least 17 weeks during the 2018-2019 theater season, which was nearly a 5 percent increase over the previous theater season's employment. Many people well trained in music, drama, or dance find work as teachers in arts schools or as private instructors in order to make a living. For those who do succeed, a career path often includes a variety of jobs.

Overall, growth for the most common jobs in the industry will be average or slow, according to the DOL. The number of producer and director jobs is expected to be slower than the average through 2028 for those working in small- and medium-sized theater companies. The DOL notes that directors and producers will find more opportunities with large production companies or theaters, than with their smaller counterparts. This group of workers may also find opportunities with nonprofit theaters, or by expanding their job search to film and television productions, which is projected to have faster than average employment growth in the coming years. Online and mobile TV programming is also expected to increase during this time, and create more opportunities for these professionals.

The number of set designer positions is expected to increase by 5 percent through 2028. However, the opportunities will depend on the type of employer. Large theaters and production companies are expected to hire fewer full-time designers, and instead hire them on a project-by-project or contract basis. Freelance set designers may find better opportunities in this environment. Specialized design firms that offer set design services on a contract basis will also be a source of opportunities for set designers in the theater industry.

The group of professionals that attracts the most potential employees, actors, will experience 1 percent employment growth overall, and slower employment growth in theaters, through 2028. Small and midsize theaters will continue to have trouble funding productions, which leads to fewer performances and a corresponding reduction in the need for actors. Actors will find more opportunities, but also increased competition, for jobs at larger production companies. They may also find more jobs at other performance venues, or decide to open their own acting studios for children or adults.

The expansion of cable and satellite television, the growth of online and mobile programming, the growth of the market for direct-to-DVD or video movies, and the demand for syndicated television shows, should create employment opportunities outside the theater for actors, directors, producers, costume and set designers, and other support positions. In theater itself, the outlook is mixed, as cultural budgets may be slashed and many theaters, particularly in the nonprofit sector, are unable to survive. Government funding has declined slightly the past few years but support from contributors, including trustees, foundations, and individuals, has grown. Contributions may continue to grow once the economy strengthens and people have more income to help support theaters.

Touring productions of Broadway plays and other large shows usually offer new opportunities for actors and directors, and there is a rising foreign demand for American productions, so the outlook is mixed and varied. Small and mid-sized theaters and production groups may continue to struggle for funding and support.