July 24, 2008

On Career Minor-Leaguers, at the Plate and Onstage.

I read my new Facebook buddy King Kaufman's sports column daily on Salon.com, and in recent columns he praises a blog he'd come across written by minor-league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst. Unless that big call comes, Hayhurst is never rising above Triple-A ball. He's largely at peace with this, so rather than waste blogspace whining, he gives us the perspective we never get watching ESPN: the leaky motel rooms, endless bus rides, tarantulas in the bullpen, etc. There are a lot more of these players in the farm system than the 400 or so that are at any given summer evening are suited up for the Big Show, and aspiring athletes should take note, since the odds are that their lives will be more likely to be like his than, say, Derek Jeter. Similarly, drama programs churn out thousands of graduates every year, and somehow not all of them become Robert DeNiro.

His attitude made me reflect on my life, which isn't entirely dissimilar from his (except comparatively I'm chuggin' along in Single-A ball), maintaining my illusions of making it to the big dance, or at least a dance big enough to pay my rent.

I've got some similar life-of-a-struggling actor stories of my own, and that's definitely what I should be blogging about, rather than Youtube clips and LOLcats. To that end I can only say that I've been too busy living that life to write about it, juggling the full-time day job and struggling to turn my evening hobby into a career. My life, with not much exaggeration, is a perpetual cycle of work, rehearsal, and sleep. In the bits in between: feeding the cat, an occasional load of laundry, doing a dish or two, watching Doctor Who, and a lot of Chipotle burritos.

I spent many years in my artsy New England hometown, working in a tiny theatre with a rotating cast of fellow thespians. Although, yeah, technically I guess it was, I never thought of it as community theatre. Along with the requisite handful of incompetents and social maladjusts, many of my colleagues came from reputable arts schools, Tisch (NYU), North Carolina School of the Arts, or spent years working in NYC theatre off-off-Broadway; many were just as talented as any professional 'name' actors working today, or moreso. Yet they chose to come, or return, or remain, here.

This was my peer group. I learned far more by working with and observing them than I did at my undergraduate program (That's not a knock on my particular undergrad program, just a reflection on most B.A. drama programs in general). At the end of the run, we'd get a percentage of the gross, usually under $100. And this theatre was never dark. Each production had a two or three week run, and after one show closed on a Sunday, the next show would tech through the week, preview Thursday, and open Friday. This was my life for nearly eight years. I left seven years ago, and many of those same colleagues are still living that life (though some have passed away, moved to big cities, or are burned out).

A few that I knew tangentially, who usually worked at the nearly-Equity theatre across town, did go on to bigger things; some even to Broadway. Yet most of my peers chose to stay at the level that they are at. It's a question of priorities, I guess. Christopher, the NCSA grad, confided in me one night on a lakeside ten years ago that he wanted to be a Dad more than a professional actor (now he is a Dad, married to one of my undergrad classmates, and is from all I can tell entirely content. He still acts, just less). Kristan, whom I consider the finest actor I've ever worked with, couldn't conceive giving up her house and spacious yard to go somewhere like NYC. Her husband Chris, another fine actor, keeps claiming to be giving up theatre to focus on his painting, but never quite manages to. Eddie the eccentric visionary director (and former costumier at the NY Metropolitan Opera) emerges from his sculpture studio once every blue moon to throw some amazing theatre together on a budget of less than nothing. Tim, the aging Brit ex-pat, is slowly killing himself with overwork, exacerbating his failing health, but who would dare ask him to stop?

Although I could have been relatively content to stay home, eventually I realized there was nothing keeping me there, and I wanted to challenge myself to see just what I could do outside of this self-contained microuniverse. I dipped my foot into the water and got an internship, worked in summer stock, applied and was accepted into the Actors Studio MFA Program at the New School University (though I didn't attend), and finally packed and moved to New York City in the summer of 2001.

The people I met in NYC were a mixed bunch. For every career-focused tunnel-visioned hyper-talented person like my roommate Becki (now seen on prime time TV), there were dozens of talented unemployed (usually in my acting classes; they'd typically turn Equity and drop off the map), and hundreds of unfocused wanderers. The talented unemployed were usually the ones acting circles around me in Austin Pendleton's classes at HB, paying the rent as personal assistants to Oscar-winning actors. The wanderers tended to be grown up child actors, on the rare occasion doing the sort of store-front theatre in the boroughs that my CUA classmate Molly lovingly lampooned in "Ten For Hamlet." One of them told me how much I inspired him, apparently because even though I wasn't knocking on agents' doors, I regularly read Backstage, sent out headshots, and went to auditions. If, like them, I wasn't working, at least I was making the effort. Yet somehow I could never warm to the idea that showing up was particulary worthy of adulation.

My career in NYC was going nowhere so when the opportunity to pursue my oft-delayed MFA came around I jumped ship and came to DC. A two-year grad program later, I was out making the rounds, and almost instantly I was a steadily working non-Equity actor, basically having the life I had back home, just in larger theatres, for a (slightly) bigger paycheck, and getting my name spelled right in the Washington Post rather than misspelled in the Portsmouth Herald.

I'm still comparatively in the Minor Leagues, as befitting my status as a minor-league actor. I work in theatres where rats lurk, where the AC doesn't work in summer, I've had tech rehearsals interrupted by fires, homeless guys leave us roses and beer, and rehearsed in rooms in which we have to stay alert for parts of the floor that are too rotted out to support our weight.

I don't know if I'm a Major League caliber actor. I don't have leading man looks, I'm a decent singer but a terrible dancer, I have some issues with physicality, insecurity, socialization, etc. That said, I'm an intelligent, flexible character actor, can work in a wide variety of genres, have a strong voice and sharp instincts. I'm a well-rounded utilityman, a solid journeyman, not a spectacular power hitter or speedy base stealer. So at best I'll probably be like Dirk Hayhurst, toiling my career away in Triple-A. If I go Equity, I may work, I may not. I can see myself doing low-level Equity Regional theatre around the country. And unlike Dirk, who at my age would be considered at the twilight of his career, barring physical or mental infirmity I can act until I drop dead. So I still am on an upward career trajectory, albeit a gentle slope. I've got time. Knock wood.

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