Note: 'The Hustle' is a KQED Arts series exploring how artists make ends meet in the Bay Area. After an exodus of artists priced out of the region, every Thursday in March we talk with a different artist about how they're able to stay in the Bay Area through cost-cutting measures, side gigs, and sacrifices.
For most actors, joining the Actors Equity Association is a game-changer — a path to more exposure and higher wages. Union actors in the Bay Area can often make hundreds of dollars more per week onstage than their non-Equity counterparts, not to mention additional income from lucrative advertising, TV and movie work.
But Beth Wilmurt has never joined the union, despite having several opportunities to do so over a nearly three-decade career. One of the most multifaceted and respected theater artists in the Bay Area, she says she’s simply not willing to compromise creativity for compensation.
“I didn’t want to limit my opportunities by raising my price,” Wilmurt says. “My interests have always been much wider than the type of work typically offered to union actors in this area.”
As a result, on average she makes just $6,000 a year acting. With teaching and other gigs, Wilmurt makes, on average, a whopping $30,000 a year. Money is clearly not a motivating factor.
'A personal mission'
Wilmurt has appeared in around 60 productions over nearly three decades. She's a company member of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, where she’s appeared in many shows; her latest, Iron Shoes, is opening this week. Her work spans everything from traditional stage plays by both dead and living playwrights, to underground cabaret shows in which she sings and plays ukulele, to experimental theater pieces involving acts of extreme physical daring.
Wilmurt isn't a trust-fund baby or trophy wife to a startup millionaire. And so appearing on stage is just one of many ways she manages to stay in the Bay Area, which she’s called home her entire life.
When she’s not rehearsing by day and/or performing by night, Wilmurt spends much of her time teaching music. She directs the San Francisco Community Music Center’s children’s and senior choruses. She teaches at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School in the Mission, and returns each summer to lead workshops at Sugarloaf Fine Arts Camp near Tahoe. Wilmurt's also done quite a bit of babysitting to make ends meet. And she's received several grants for her work from organizations like the Belle Foundation, Theatre Bay Area and the Aurora Theatre.
“All these years, I have been very fulfilled by my teaching and my predominately local non-union acting jobs,” Wilmurt says. “My hustle had been around a personal mission, not a strategic plan for my financial future.”
Rent control, the 'golden handcuff'
Most people would agree that the odds against living in one of the world’s most expensive cities on Wilmurt’s annual income of $30,000 are considerable. There are people who spend that much money on a single month’s rent in San Francisco.
What makes it possible in large part is the rent-controlled, one-bedroom apartment Wilmurt and her partner, theater director Mark Jackson, have occupied since 1996 in the Haight. She says the place is dilapidated and needs updating. But it runs her $500 a month. “Rent control is the golden handcuff,” Wilmurt says. “If I lost that, I’d have to leave for sure.”
The performer also keeps a low overhead in other ways. “No car, no internet at home, no Netflix, no cable,” she says. “I’m on a family phone plan — I share 2GB of data with four people. I get massages at the Ashby Flea Market for $10. I look for services that offer sliding scale or trade.”
Wilmurt has also gone most of her life without health care, though she currently does have a plan that costs her $100 a month.
Wilmurt says keeping a roof over her head has become increasingly difficult over the years. “I was getting by financially and felt fine about it, but now for the first time I am feeling insecure about my financial future as I am feeling the effects of aging,” she says. “The word ‘hustle,’ which I guess is what I’ve been doing all these years, is now feeling like hustling, and needs to be a more financially-driven hustle than art-driven.”
Yet despite the challenges, Wilmurt has no plans to leave acting, teaching or, for that matter, San Francisco. She says she's thinking of taking on private students to boost her bottom line.
Wilmurt loves the work she does. And she feels a powerful sense of community in the Bay Area. “I stay here for my artist friends who have hustled and continue to find a way to make thoughtful work despite the increasingly bad economic conditions for artists,” Wilmurt says. “There are a lot of people here who refuse to be stopped.”