Tuesday, March 27, 2018

On Being an Actor. The Long Haul.

Some of the best actors I know have never made a movie. They have never been in a Broadway show. They have never starred in a TV series. They work hard, they take class, they audition, they have day jobs, they commute to small theatres to do good roles in order to keep their chops up and, perhaps, have someone see their work. Sometimes, they move to smaller regional markets and work in Portland or Phoenix or Dallas or Chicago. They pay off their student loans, shell out hundreds of dollars a year for new head-shots, and hope their new agent might get them more paid work this year than their last agent did last year. It's not the glamorous Hollywood red carpet stuff you see on Entertainment Tonight. It is the work-a-day slog of countless journey(wo)men actors across the country. Well-trained, talented, dedicated.

David Fox-Brenton and Benjamin Stewart in "Sherlock's Last Case" at the Mayfair Theatre, Santa Monica, CA
Most of you reading this have probably never heard of an actor by the name of Benjamin Stewart. Benjamin was one such actor. I had the pleasure of working with him on several occasions throughout my career. The first time was at the Grove Shakespeare Festival in Garden Grove, CA. While we didn't act in any shows together, we were in a couple seasons simultaneously. I was a young actor with drama school and 10 or 15 shows under my belt and Ben was the mainstay character actor in the company. Later, I would be instrumental is his casting as Dr. Watson (pictured above) at another theatre I happened to being working at as a producer (and box office manager!). Many years later I would call on Ben again, once at a professional regional theatre company I had founded as well as a Shakespeare festival I was fortunate enough to briefly lead in Arizona. The last decade or so of his career he spent constantly on stage at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix. Benjamin was  fabulous actor. Did he have a career? Absolutely. A fine one. Did he make a lot of money? Hardly. Never made a major motion picture. Never had his name above the title. Never walked a red carpet at the Oscars or the Tonys. He was an actor, though, and audiences who were fortunate enough to see him perform were moved to laughter and often tears.

Also in the picture is David Fox-Brenton, another one of those excellent career actors you've never heard of. Interestingly, both David and Benjamin passed away in June of 2013 just 17 days apart. Both were 70 years old. It doesn't really mean anything, since to my knowledge this was the only play they were in together. But, I just just think it's interesting.

Nationwide, there are about 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA and about 50,000 members of Actors' Equity. Granted, not all of these people are actors, per se. Some SAG-AFTRA members are journalists, radio personalities, hosts, musicians, etc. Also, many AEA actors are also members of SAG-AFTRA, so there is going to be some crossover. Remember though, these are just the union actors. There are easily (I'm guessing here, but I'll stand by it) at least as many non-union actors as there are union actors. Maybe more. These would include young actors just starting out, actors in smaller markets (i.e., NOT Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago), actors who have dropped out of the union in order to pursue their craft in ways not allowed by unions restrictions. These kinds of actors are no less professional, no less talented, no less dedicated than their union counterparts. Should you join one of these unions? Maybe. That union card is a badge of honor for most of us. But if you are just starting out, think hard about it. Sure, you'll feel good about the fact that you have the card, but once you take this step, you will cut yourself out of lots of acting opportunities - student films, indie productions, intimate theatre shows. It's a tough call. One of a thousand you'll make over the years.

For our friends and family, it may be a little difficult to accept that there is no magic key to unlock the door to financial success as an actor. No secret handshake. No one guru with all the answers. No special workshop that will suddenly alert studio executives you have arrived. There is no ONE way, no one person, no one role that will automatically launch an actor into Emma-Stonedom or Ryan-Goslingville.

  Left to Right: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon.
It is also frustrating to understand that the timetable is different for everyone. How many parents and spouses have insisted that their  talented young thespians have a "five-year plan," a "Plan B."  Pure and simply, no one can do that. It is different for each and every actor. Some of you will hit quickly, others will start later, still others will become Benjamin Stewart. Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad fame), for example was 44 when he finally made a name for himself in Malcolm in the Middle. Stage actor Sidney Greenstreet made his film debut when he was 61 playing Kasper Gutman opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. There are no rules and you can't make any.The universe will not listen.

Being an actor is hard work. The work isn't just on stage or in front of the camera. It's involves all the other stuff that gets layered on our creative life. Taking classes, reading scripts, watching films and TV (yes, that's actually part of the job), researching and preparing for auditions, the auditions themselves, commuting to all these things, sitting for photographers, networking, volunteering at the small theatre where we are a company member, the list is long. Oh, yeah, plus we have to make a living at the same time.

As silly as it sounds, being an actor is a calling more than a career. Those of us who have been doing this a while will tell you that we don't chose acting, it chooses us. People become actors because they  have to. They have little choice in the matter. I've seen talented, passionate actors return to it after being away for 30 years, simply because it is who they are. Acting is how they express themselves, how they relate to the world, how they process emotions and meaning in life. The first time you were bitten by the acting bug, a career as an actor didn't matter, did it? You just wanted to be one! It was the joy of the work, the intensity of the process, the passion for the words, the pleasure of the community. It was the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd. 

While all this may seem grim and hopeless, it isn't. Quite the opposite. The life of an actor is a full one. Hope, ambition, variety, emotion, knowledge, close friends, and lasting relationships. Scene study class is therapy. A long run in a good play is safe haven. Your time on set is educational and inspiring. Thousands of talented, young actors stream to LA and New York year after year to start building their resumes and begin their journey through characters and stories and emotions. Thousands more, older and wiser, with loads of experience ranging from Simon to Shaw to Shakespeare still persist and persevere in regional theatres, stock companies, tours, and tiny converted store fronts. Each looking for the play, the role, the opportunity, the coach, the mentor, the director, the tribe that will connect with them, nurture them, create with them. 

In short, you are not alone. You never will be. You will become part of a tribe of creative people, encouraging each other step-by-step. You will help each other make new projects and find new voices within yourself. You will have support when you feel like you'll never work again and you will have applause when you take your bows or land your first big series. It will not be what you thought it would be, but it will be a uniquely personal experience the whole time. Enjoy the ride, even the bumpy parts. It doesn't matter if you are a Benjamin Stewart or a Meryl Streep. You are an actor, do the work of one...wherever it leads. That is part of the fun.

Places, everyone, places.


Santa Moncia Beach Comber said...

Love this blog so much! thanks for sharing. The musical theater singer buried inside of me is logging onto actor's access and backstage.com now....

Sachin Gupta said...

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