In the last few weeks, I’ve encountered several arguments for the return of repertory acting companies in the regional theater system (namely, Howlround’s Repertory is the Answer by Brian Bell and On Artists Making a Living and Artistic Directors who could Make a Difference but Don’t by Diane Ragsdale in Arts Journal) .
These articles caught my eye because I’ve been reflecting on my last decade of hobbling together a day-job and an acting career. The repertory model has always seemed like a mirage of the ‘good ole days,’ a shangri-la of yesteryear. The idea seems idyllic not because of the financial stability or job security, that is actually the least reason for me personally. Rather, a company seems like it would be wonderful because I covet artistic homes, places where I can work and play with other performers and artists and build vocabularies, debate ideas, participate in a conversation. Become a better artist.
We work in the medium of humanity, us actors. We do not grow in a vacuum.
Both these articles cite Mike Daisey’s excellent piece of performance/interrogation, How Theatre Failed America, where he deconstructs, blow by blow, the events and mechanisms that made the regional theater actor’s job among the loneliest on the planet. I specifically remember the section where he spoke about the demands of a ‘successful’ regional acting career, moving from show to show, from city to city, with little sense of home, no bandwidth to grow or maintain meaningful relationships, not even with a pet. These sacrifices rang out to me; Daisey articulates these facts like swift blows, knocking down any romanticized ideas one might have about the glamorous life of a stage actor. It resonated for me because that is not the life I’ve chosen or pursued; rather, I’ve carefully maintained a sweet day-job teaching 20 hours a week at an arts college and have turned down more acting work than I’ve accepted in the last five years. I choose carefully, cautious not to take acting “jobs” that will lack camaraderie, challenge or heart. Something inside of me has gone a little numb every time I’ve shown up for some filler, flip rehearsal process, where everyone runs home or to the gym after the day is done and the deeper self is not called upon. I’d rather teach, honest, open and with passion, than take an acting job for the money.
Before I was working as a freelance actor/part-time professor, I founded and ran an ensemble theater company with ten of my closest friends for five years. That is where I learned how good it can get, when everyone is 100% committed and bringing more than talent and experience, bringing love and relentless imagination to a project. Ultimately, running this company was unsustainable for any of us, and though the company still exists and thrives (washingtonensemble.org), there is a regular turn-over of artists/staff every few years. It doesn’t pay. And you can’t pay rent with love, no matter how rich it feels.
Recently I have been feeling an impulse to return to artistic leadership. The time I’ve clocked as a professional actor inhabiting great scripts, complex characters, visceral worlds has filled me up and demanded enormous courage and stamina. In the end, though, I want to make a bigger contribution to the conversation. Actors are expert, specialized, amazing hired-hands. But they’re jobbed-in and though there are exceptions, actors generally don’t get to choose, curate or discern the plays we produce and the conversations we develop in the American Theatre. We contribute in other ways, breathing life into the ideas, holding down the frontline of the fight. Perhaps, if we had a network of acting companies directly associated with the regional theaters in their cities, actors could take a more active role in what gets made. This possibility alone makes the Repertory Company Argument pertinent. How can we make the artists who inhabit these scripts bigger players in selecting and developing them?
I think sometimes folks are scared that actors are self-serving. Looking for a role for themselves rather than taking in and debating the bigger picture of a play. In my experience, that is true of a lot of actors. But not the great ones. Most actors who are fiercely intelligent and sharply skilled possess a well of passion for the power of this form. They are experts at playing action and showcasing their skills, but they’re actually more voracious for a great play with a big idea.
At any rate, I’m coming to a place in my career where I want to be a bigger part of the conversation. I am lucky enough to be working on beautiful and seemingly blessed productions of Angels in America: Parts I & II right now and in Millennium Approaches, I wait backstage and listen to Roy Cohn try to convince Joe to go to Washington. At least find out what you’re capable of, he tells him.
As despicable as that character is, he has some salient moments in these plays. That’s one of them. I want to find out what I’m truly capable of – as an artist and as a citizen. And it feels like that sort of big, visionary work is happening in leadership and administration. So I am turning my sights in that direction in hopes of conversation, challenge and, if I’m really lucky, an artistic home nestled into a strong community, where we find out, collectively, what we are capable of.