October 22, 2011

On Jumping Ship, or the Brack Scale

My friend Christopher Henley, artistic director of DC's WSC Avant Bard theatre company, started a discussion on Facebook yesterday bemoaning the tendency of some actors to 'jump ship,' leaving one production for another, and when (or if) it's ever OK for this to happen.  He openly acknowledged that in times past he was also guilty of 'poaching' actors from other shows, and decried that some directors also offer roles to actors and then retract them when a 'better' actor becomes available.

I've been in shows where actors dropped out during the rehearsal process; usually there was a conflict of styles between the director and actor making a professional working relationship nearly impossible.  In one particular case, the lead dropped out a week into the rehearsal process and I took over the role.  I almost followed in his footsteps - the director (also co-producer, adapter, and actor) was one of the most odious assholes I've ever worked with, and wound up burning so many bridges with the theatre community that he later left town.  Though to be fair, he got a far better performance out of me than most directors could.

And I'm not immune to jumping ship myself.  I did it once and things got very messy indeed.  Some of the mess, however, had nothing to do with my dropping out, but nonetheless there are lessons to be learned from the story.

In November 2007, I accepted the role of Boo in a production of Durang's The Marriage of Bette and Boo that would go up the following July.  It was a fairly new company: though non-Equity, it paid (as most DC-area companies do), but a few colleagues had reported negative experiences working for them.  It was a bit unusual for a non-Eq theatre to cast a show so far in advance, but it should be noted that no contracts were signed.  Typically signing contracts happens at the first rehearsal, still some six months distant

I was not 100% confident about the production; I wasn't a big Durang fan, and I had reservations about the cast and director.  But it was a lead role, and the producer had wanted to work with me for quite some time.  The year before both he and another company had offered me roles in overlapping productions and I took the other offer, so I felt I kinda owed it to him.  Also, at the time my calendar was distressingly empty so I thought, well, better than nothing.  I acknowledge that these by no means are the best reasons to accept a role in a play, and the onus was on me for accepting.

Barely a week later, another theatre (a bit higher on the DC Theatre food chain) announced its season (very late in the process, as in during the first production of said season).  I was overjoyed to see that their season closer was Howard Brenton's The Romans In Britain.  I was first introduced to this controversial epic a few years earlier in grad school, and I was happy to participate in a staged reading with this company over the past summer.  This was going to be a killer production, and I couldn't wait to audition... until I saw the production dates, which overlapped the dates of Bette and Boo.

I faced an ethical dilemma.  The show that I really really wanted to do, that I would knock down grannies to act in, conflicted with the show I'd already accepted, albeit half-assedly.  I made the decision that I would audition, and if they cast me I'd jump.  When would another opportunity to do this show come up?

A couple months later, auditions for Romans were announced, and, well, I went.  They were a bit unusual; we essentially redid our staged reading for the director (one of the area's leading directors, another reason I really wanted to do this show).  We then had callbacks where we had the choice of what scenes to do.

In the meantime, a colleague had dropped out of Bette and Boo.  He'd been offered a summer tour with American Shakespeare Festival in Staunton, a plum gig with an Equity card awaiting him at the end, so they let him go with no hard feelings.  Soon after they lost their Bette, under circumstances I was unaware of.

Eventually I was offered a role in Romans, joining a list of friends and colleagues I greatly admired.  I began drafting as tactful and apologetic an email that I could to the Bette and Boo people.  I felt very guilty about dropping out, but the devil on my shoulder pointed out that there were still two months before the first rehearsal, and I had signed nothing.  The producer, understandably, was very upset about what he felt was a lateral move, and that in all likelihood he would never cast me in another show.

My guilty conscience was sufficiently stricken that I made overtures to the Romans people that perhaps I ought to decline the role and return to Bette and Boo.  I got a very terse email from one of the production staff that indicated I would be pretty much blackballed from this company as well.  Perhaps this played into my insecurity, and ultimately I threw my lot in with Romans.  A plum ensemble part in a great play with a great director.  Even with the bitter taste in my mouth from that email, this was good, right?

Then the wheels came off.  Two weeks before the first rehearsal, word quickly spread thru my colleagues - Romans was scrapped!  The producers had neglected to secure the rights to the play in advance - not the first time they'd had this problem - and when they finally got around to it, they were denied.  Worldwide performance rights had been frozen for reasons that were unclear (perhaps a film, or a West End revival?), and not even a frantic phone call to the author's agent could change it.

We were understandably upset.  It was a huge cast, nearly two dozen people, and many had turned down other work... I'd burned bridges with another theatre company for this... and there was no show.

A frantic search for a replacement production ensued and long story short, within a week I wound up directing another epic theatre piece in its place, Peter Barnes' Red Noses, with enough roles for as many of the cast that didn't find work in other productions.  We had to scramble to fill several roles since most DC actors were already committed to the Capital Fringe Festival, Source Fest, and a couple other large-cast productions.

One of the actors we pulled in was the replacement for the original Bette.  A couple weeks into their rehearsal process, Bette #2 was having personality conflicts with the director and having a miserable time.  When a mutual friend informed her that we were looking to fill roles, she jumped ship into our show.  It would be a great move for her, since she went on to work with this company for years, but still, at the time, the other company was really pissed.

I'd like to say that Red Noses became a smash hit and was a dream fulfilled, but not exactly.  It was a show that I'm proud of given the circumstances in which it came into production, but we had so many strikes against us - lack of time, lack of money, working in an AC-challenged sweatbox in July - that the show was a disappointment.  Low audiences and horrid reviews led to a production that finished several thousand dollars in the red, and was an arguable nadir for this company.  My own confidence dashed, I wouldn't direct another play for three years.

Likewise, Bette and Boo wound up going through their own nightmares.  Not only did they have to replace nearly a half-dozen actors, through an apparent administrative oversight they also had neglected to secure the performance rights for Bette and Boo.  The publisher pointed out that there was a major Broadway revival running, and under no circumstances could they greenlight them.  By this time they were in tech rehearsals and had invested thousands.  Ultimately after much begging and pleading they were allowed to perform, but they couldn't publicize nor could they be reviewed.  The company went into hiatus afterwards, and only recently have they resumed regular productions - apparently they're now doing very well.  The Red Noses people are doing well now too; they finally escaped their rusty warehouse purgatory into fancy new digs across town, and they are ascending to new heights of success.

Ultimately, I ought to have practiced better judgement in choosing what projects to audition for, and which offers to accept.  And that brings me to cite a very helpful comment to Henley's posting.  My friend and colleague Joe Brack listed the five criteria he uses when contemplating job offers: Money, Travel, Director, Role, and Cast.  If three out of five criteria are favorable, he will take a role.  I hereby resolve to adhere to the Brack Scale.

The Brack Scale presupposes that you've already established yourself as a working actor.  It sometimes is worth it to take a role that fails the Brack Scale test if you have no resumé, but really it's up to the actor to make the judgement call.

I recently had to apply the Brack Scale when I turned down an audition invite.  Great role and minimal travel, but no money, and I didn't know the director or the cast.  I also had resolved to take a few months off until my next gig in the spring.

And I think ultimately the key is having the self-possession and confidence to decline work.  It's nice to be offered work, but accepting work because of insecurity can lead to trainwrecks.  It's good for the ego when somebody is interested in working with you, but it's OK to say no.  If you're good enough, another offer will come, and it's better to decline a role that you have reservations about than to accept it and back out later.