During the 1994–95 theatre season, writer Todd London was in residence as guest literary director and lecturer at American Repertory Theatre and its Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University. At the end of that year, he began researching the following article, which ran as a three-part series in American Theatre's Jan. '97 issue: a comprehensive look at a year in the lives of the graduating acting class of 1995, and at the no-man's-land in which they found themselves as they moved from the relative comfort and safety of their training program to the uncertainty of professional careers. This first part of the series is an extended dramatic personae: 15 actors, 15 lives, 15 stories. In the second part (originally printed in AT's Feb. '97 issue), the cast of characters begin work, setting out for theatres across the country and abroad, braving the exhilaration and the challenges their work affords. In part three, the young actors offer a candid assessment of the spiritual rewards and material costs of their first year as actors in America. —The Editors
“We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!”
—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Spring 1995. Cambridge, Mass. I witness a rare convergence. In the studios of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, at the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, I behold the formation of a true ensemble of actors. It’s not something you see every day, not something you expect to find in school, but there it is: the second-year class—a company-in-the-making—about to graduate. I’ve been in and out of training programs as a student, then as a teacher since the mid-’70s, including at the ART. (I’m guest literary director and lecturer when I stumble on this class.) I’m not prone to romanticizing student talent. Suddenly, though, I’m romanticizing full blast. I’m at the birth of something extraordinary, I think, a new constellation in the theatre. Here are 15 actors—disciplined, talented, singular—who combust onstage together, who, each in possession of a steady, unique flame, set each other on fire. Several times I catch them in the act in a whacked-out Titus Andronicus, staged in an abandoned (dry) swimming pool, and in a showcase of scenes, that many-headed monster known among graduating classes as “industry night.” When I watch them perform, no, seize upon Charles L. Mee Jr.’s beautiful, horrific riff on The Trojan Women and Dido & Aeneas, my fantasy crystallizes: Something must be done to keep them together.
Someone should coin a word for the love of talent, this racing of the heart and mind I feel. It’s a tender infatuation, nearly erotic, partly worshipful, and always—when you’re in the audience—unrequited. Imagine my surprise, then—my lover’s betrayal—when I discover that they (with only one or two exceptions) don’t want to stay together. They know they’re good together; people have been telling them so for two years; they feel it themselves. They’ve been sharing this intensity for long enough, though. Besides, they have other plans. They want to make their own ways.
And imagine my surprise, too, when, four decades into the alternative/regional theatre movement in America, I learn that for all 15 of them, the way begins in New York. Fifteen actors from the reaches of this continent, ranging in age from 23 to 33, finish graduate training and independently decide to assay Mount Manhattan, to make it there and to make it on their own. Some fantasies persist. New York is one. Mine persists, too. If this young corps can’t be persuaded to keep company—by starting a theatre, maybe, or through the championship of one of the directors graduating with them—at least I can keep them together in words. So I ask their permission to follow them around New York for a year, to write the story of this year, which is, for many, the start of their professional lives. They agree. (Actors must cultivate vulnerability and bravery, and a print documentary promises to be an exercise in both.) Their group portrait won’t be a sampling, a representative cross-section of all the actors venturing into Gotham; as a whole, they enjoy material privileges and academic advantages way beyond the norm. My interest alone—which they sparked—chose them.
June 1995 comes and with it graduation. I speak at the ceremony, a parting wave from the dock. They have converged; now, one by one they will disperse, careering their ways to New York City and, over the course of the next 12 to 15 months, out into the rest of the country. Converge and disperse: two operative verbs for a life in the theatre. The next time they come together (all but one) in the same room is Nov. 4, 1996, when the photos are taken for this series. In the months, days, and minutes between, life happens.
“Every exit [is] an entrance somewhere else.” —Stoppard
Summer 1995. New York City. Sherri Parker Lee and her roommate stand second in a line of approximately 50 people. This isn’t an audition; it’s an open house for a two-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment that has been advertised in the Village Voice. They’ve arrived 45 minutes early, armed with completed forms, letters of reference, and a checkbook, a strategy outlined in a no-nonsense guide called The Intrepid New Yorker. They have also brought with them Sherri’s vision, inherited in part from a mother who designs furniture and interiors, of what a trashy, cramped, monochromatic hole-in-the-wall can become. They’re prepared to write a check—a big one—here and now. They are prepared for anything.
For the next year Sherri will be second in line more than a dozen times, not for housing but for parts—in plays, movies, television series. As of Labor Day, she’s been runner-up for two Shakespearean ingénues, one production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and a national Cheerios commercial. Her fourth callback for the Acting Company, which she’s told is mere formality, gets canceled when a woman who’d refused a contract in June changes her mind. Until the end of a year of auditioning almost every day, sometimes several times a day, getting called back, according to her own calculations, two out of three times, “Miss Second Choice” will land only one short-lived paying job: an appearance on “As the World Turns” as a spoiled rich girl biker, clad in skintight leather. But she gets the apartment.
So, for two unbearably hot weeks in July 1995, during the worst New York summer anyone remembers, Sherri scrubs, hand-sands hardwood floors, tears out a built-in closet, mounts shelves, and sponge-paints the walls with an Italian villa-like dappling of three colors. Friends come by to help, but mostly it’s her fanatical will to make a home that transforms this West Village apartment into a jewel box. This mix of fanaticism and foresight applies to everything Sherri does. She’s seen by her classmates as the one with the plan, the one to phone when you need career motivation or a kick in the pants. She’s called “a force” and “a business animal.” “I’m a hustler,” she says of herself—the intrepid actress.
By contrast, Jessalyn Gilsig‘s Upper West Side sublet reveals almost nothing of her taste. The place, hardly bigger than a half-dozen diner booths wedged together, doesn’t hold much. The furniture, like the lease, belongs to a woman on tour with West Side Story. Most of Jessalyn’s belongings are in storage, anyway. Jessalyn trained as a painter before shifting her intense focus toward acting, and a few of her small, experimental paintings hang on the wall, evidence of the same arresting intelligence that informs her work with dramatic texts. There’s a watercolor nude—an attempt to work without outline—and a black-and-white Durer-like drawing, both on sketch pad paper, both dense with movement, the pen-and-ink almost scrawly. Beyond these, you’d hardly know she lives here. This lack of the personal masks an irony: The tiny 87th Street one-bedroom is the first home she and her boyfriend have shared since they started seeing each other at McGill University in Montreal four years ago.
Jessalyn moved in after graduation in June, but by late summer she’s already packing to go. With little more than a suitcase, she’s heading back to Cambridge for six months in the professional company at ART, where, until June, she was a student. She’s contracted to play Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Marianne in a new adaptation of Moliére’s Tartuffe. The theatre has a pol icy not to hire its Institute alums for a year after graduation. This policy has just been broken for Jessalyn.
Sherri is also up for a role at ART, but she knows it’s a long shot. The part she wants—Shelly in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child —is slated to be filled by a current Institute student. Salary, travel, and housing for an Equity actress haven’t been figured in the production’s budget. (Jessalyn’s roles, on the other hand, were planned to be jobbed-in, on union contracts.) Sherri and her classmates gained membership in the actor’s union, if they weren’t already members, during their stint at ART. Now, in the sort of wry quirk of fate reserved for struggling actors, her newfound professional status is working against her. For this reason or some other—does any actor ever know the whole story?—she doesn’t get the part.
An actor’s personal life is, usually, elsewhere. Sherri’s boyfriend stayed back in Cambridge with his 10-year-old son when she moved here. Jessalyn’s, currently working as assistant director on the Broadway revival of The King and I, will remain firmly planted in his Manhattan hometown when she heads back to Cambridge. It goes on that way, art and life mucking each other up. At year’s end, Sherri will be considering 60 weeks of work in Houston only 20 days after her significant other relocates, son in tow, to New York to be near her. Jessalyn, a Canadian who begins the year with a 12-month visa, will, as the clock runs down, reluctantly contemplate marrying her boyfriend as a last ditch effort to stay—and act—in the U.S. (When the group photo for this magazine is taken, Jessalyn is back in Montreal, awaiting clearance to reenter the States. But that’s a story for later.)
Still a magnetic center of opportunity, New York is rarely the center of the work itself. As a result, no actor here can avoid goodbyes for long. The ability to endure them and keep keeping on may be the most necessary skill of their trade. It’s easy to think of these comings and goings romantically, youthful dramas stirred up by Juliet’s decision to seek fame on the boards while Romeo pines at home, all part of the myth of a life in art. But the sacrifices are actual, profound and ongoing. Sherri, Jessalyn, and their classmates—and probably many thousands like them with fewer advantages and prospects and less support—make daily, often irrevocable decisions affecting home, family, livelihood, friendship, security, and even health on the off-chance that life can be meaningful and self-expressive. They don’t live Mimi-on-the-couch-will-she-live-or-die; they aren’t characters out of La Bohéme or its East Village equivalent, Rent. The personal cost is large but seldom operatic. It’s exacted minute-by-minute, as they inch toward the lives they imagine.
When James Farmer sets out for the city, he has to say goodbye to his new wife. Standing 6’1“ and weighing in at 200 pounds, James rates adjectives like burly and strapping; he appears to (and literally does) come from Steinbeck country. It’s there, at a theatre called the Western Stage, in a park between Salinas, Calif., and Monterrey, against a backdrop of mountains, that he kicks off the summer by getting married to Tracy Bryce. Their honeymoon—weeks of scuttling across America in an un-airconditioned Subaru, from the Sierras down to the Gulf of Mexico, up to Savannah, Ga. and back to California—follows two school-years of separation and precede one final one. While James stakes out Brooklyn, Tracy completes her master’s degree in acting at the University of Washington, Seattle. This third year apart won’t kill them or send either of them spiraling into madness; it will, however, for at least as long as it lasts, define the terms of their relationship. James estimates that 80 to 90 percent of their conversation centers around how lonely and miserable they are.
Granville Hatcher has to say good-bye to his seven-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, who will stay in Boston with his ex-wife. Fatherhood had always made Granville an oddity in his class, as well as adding strain to his time at ART. He began as the only married student and the only one with a child. By the end of his second year, he’d become the only divorced one. The intensity of training, coupled with the demands of student productions and the ART mainstage roles that are part of the program, meant that he had to choose between work and Gabrielle. “I would see her most of the time in bed, asleep,” he explains. On school snow days, not uncommon in New England, he would have to miss classes to stay home with her. He is still tom by choosing. When he leaves Boston mid-summer, his daughter’s words ring in his ears: “I wish Dad would give up theatre for me.”
The prospect of separation from Gabrielle is made more palatable by Granville’s idea of creating a stable, second home for her in New York. He wants to expose her to his actor’s life “to help her understand why things are the way they are.”
In June, though, before the ink has dried on his diploma, Granville signs for a featured role in a major Hollywood movie, an A-movie, action style, starring Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal and, a dozen credits down, in the role of Ahmed, a Lebanese terrorist, Granville Hatcher. The gods of theatre, when they deign to give, usually take with the other hand, so that even a first success as hysterically swift as Granville’s comes with a price: He won’t land in New York or see his daughter for two more months. By August he’s on the road between San Francisco and Los Angeles, or, as he puts in on my answering machine, “lost in America.”
From the West Coast the best he can do is call his daughter daily. That’s when the reality of their distance hits him, and with it the awareness that he’s working toward a stability—for her—that she’ll never see. “She just knows I’m not there.” The severance reinforces his “fear that she won’t know me, won’t know that there’s someone who loves her unconditionally.” Acting relies on freedom, emotional/imaginative freedom, as well as freedom to follow work wherever it crops up. For Granville, guilt about what he isn’t doing makes it harder to feel free.
Meanwhile, him temporary lifestyle in Hollywood offers enough absurdity on its own. While his role earns him $2,500 a week and her personal trailer on the lot, his real-life world offers little luxury. He checks into a cheap motel and every morning drives his 1986 Buick Century—“the brown bomber”—up to the studio gates; from there a limousine takes him to his private quarters. Inside his trailer, he orders a full breakfast. “At the end of the day the limo takes me back to my beater car, I leave the gates of Oz and go back to Motel 6.”
Lifestyle aside, Granville has instantaneously attained what a number of the other 14 desire—a well-paying, validating piece of work. But Granville exudes ambivalence about it. He’s eager to point out that he’s not angling for stardom or for Hollywood; in fact, he really wants to do theatre, maybe ”country doctor“-like, community-based theatre. Shooting this mid-air thriller has, unfortunately, precluded theatre auditions. His part is, well, “stereotypical,” but “not crap,” though anything he brings to it has to be worked out alone, since the scenes are rehearsed just once before they’re shot. He prefers independent films from across the Atlantic, with “more gut, less formula,” but the presence of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s David Suchet, who plays the master terrorist and whose appearances in the “Playing Shakespeare” videos Granville studied and admired in school, “is part of my little justification.”
Gaining entry to Oz is, moreover, no guarantee of gaining membership. Granville’s break, his sense of hitting “the greasy shoot,” promises nothing for the future. “I try to stay within reality: This is a job I have for a few months. This is the time that I’m working and when it’s done, I’m not.” When it is done, he’s no closer to providing a home for Gabrielle than the short-term sublet he’s lined up in Manhattan. He’s no closer to making a consistent living—still needs to defer payment on his student loan—or to the life he desires as a stage actor. The movie job doesn’t even help him line up auditions. In fact, between early summer, when he signs on Executive Decision, and early October, when he comes to a semi-full stop in New York, he hasn’t gone to a single one. The momentum that people told him would result from his initial break out of the blocks hasn’t yet taken hold. His big movie debut, meanwhile, becomes a difficult fact of his daughter’s life.
Siobhan Brown lands in the city in June, but she doesn’t stop moving until February. In eight months she stays in roughly 14 places, some of them more than once, most within a few Manhattan miles of each other. My files on Siobhan’s year are littered with scraps of paper, addresses and numbers hastily noted during phone calls: East 9th Street, temporary sublet…Gramercy Park Hotel, suite with park view…Washington Square Park, illegal sublets, landlord “flexes his muscles,” boots her out…Calls all classmates looking for a place, rooms with Ajay Naidu’s girlfriend and a homeless NYU student for five days while Ajay’s out of town (“It was like the refugee house”}…Gives Chandler Vinton two cats (Chandler already has two)…House-sits for friends while he’s in London…Returns to Aunt’s beautiful 94th Street apartment, by Central Park reservoir…Back in Boston…Crashes on Ajay’s couch again, one night only. Manhattan may be sheer rock, but the earth under Siobhan’s feet won’t stop shifting. During her stay at the Macklowe Hotel in Times Square, it changes its name to the Millennium. “We got T-shirts,” she explains. “’Same Great Service. New Name.’” When the newly named midtown hotel needed room for a convention, she and her boyfriend got relocated to a penthouse suite in the Southgate Tower near Penn Station. Siobhan lives with her British boyfriend, Carl, an original cast member/dance captain/keeper of the flame for the percussive dance-theatre-music troupe called Stomp. When he’s in town, the couple has access, via Stomp’s producers, to fine hotels and decent sublets; through many of his long stretches touring or fine-tuning Stomp’s road companies, Siobhan fends for herself. With Carl she travels as far as the Acropolis in Greece and, later, to the green room backstage at the Academy Awards. When she returns, it’s to a life of not much happening, few auditions, no permanent address. This continual dislocation, the lack of work to call her own, and her awareness that “my personal life is a lot louder than my professional life” often leaves Siobhan depressed. She spends whole days in bed in front of the TV—“lots of room service, lots of Spectravision“—as if the only way to cease the movement is to give over to inertia. I call her one October day to schedule an interview; it’s after noon and I waken her from a sound sleep. I ask her how her days look the following week. “My days,” she replies with a twist, ”look pretty empty.” She tries not to worry about the depression, tries to see it as a natural response to her sudden lack of framework, discipline, home. Counter to the noise and dance of her Stomp-driven social life, she’s struggling to regain a center, a motivating spirit from inside.
Spirituality and home are prime concern for Siobhan. The youngest of four children, she comes from a tight-knit African-American family still living in and around Dorchester, Mass. Her father, in addition to his career as an offset pressman, works with his two brothers in the neighborhood gas station they own. Her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, was equally active and hardworking until she suffered heart and other physical problems near the end of Siobhan’s training at ART, a medical crisis that precipitated a religious one. She ultimately accepted medication, which meant, among other things, forsaking her calling as a C.S. practitioner. Siobhan is, and wants to be, an important emotional support for her mother. At the same time, Siobhan, who before Harvard did her undergraduate work at Boston’s Emerson College, is eager to leave the nest. “I’m trying to jump out into the world, finally, on my own two feet, to pick my own way spiritually.“ Her spiritual path no longer includes practicing Christian Science, another hard pill for her mother to swallow. Ironically, Siobhan’s three professional acting jobs this year come from colleagues in Boston. That means going home again.
Vontress Mitchell will also return home, something he’s been avoiding since his baby brother’s murder two years ago. Before he faces Wichita, Kan., again, though, he’ll have to extricate himself from a mini-drama that will leave him homeless and earn him his first “New York Story.”
Vontress, finishing a run of The Threepenny Opera at ART, can’t leave for New York until late in the summer. As soon as he does, the drama begins. He plans to room
with an acquaintance, a Chilean woman he met in Boston, Melinda [her name has been changed]. Because of his student debt and lack of a job, Vontress discovers, after failing a credit check, that no one will give him a lease. So Melinda takes charge. She lines up one apartment, but on lease-signing day, they discover the apartment has been rented to someone else. Next, she and her boyfriend pose as a married couple from the Dominican Republic in order to help her rent an apartment in the mostly Dominican section of Washington Heights, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood. The realtor coaches them to lie and create false employment documents. Vontress’s roommate-to-be, fearing that he’ll back out if he knows, keeps him in the dark about this. On the truck ride to NYC, “it unfolds.” It also unfolds that Melinda’s boyfriend has another woman and two children somewhere in Vermont. The truth dawns on him: “Trouble follows this girl.”
It’s hard to imagine Vontress getting dragged down by all this. He’s a lively spirit, changeable and spontaneous. A singing teacher once told him that who he is is in his laugh. It’s a fun laugh, wild, erupting from the goofy edge of anarchy. It’s the laugh of someone being tickled, someone with too much sugar in his blood. Not surprisingly, Vontress is drawn to children, and they’re drawn to him. Before New York he made his living as an au pair and babysitter, forming deep attachments to the families he worked for. Some deeply responsible impulse to give care clicks in with his compelling roommate. Melinda’s Sturm und Drang makes it impossible for him to be selfish in the way an actor must, to carve the space he needs to prepare for auditions or concentrate on his career. On the night before a second New York Undercover audition, for example, Vontress plans to watch the show and learn his lines. Melinda, though, in a panic of boyfriend-trauma, cries on his shoulder until 1 a.m. He misses the show and has to study his part during the morning subway ride. When, in anticipation of another audition, he leaves town to prepare, she calls him insistently. It will take him nearly six months to get disentangled from her melodrama. Another six months after that, he’ll still be housesitting for touring friends and sleeping on sofas.
For Vontress, whom classmates describe as “the ideal houseguest” and “so loving,” finding home has never come easy. As a black man in the still-white world of Harvard, he was visibly out of place. In Washington Heights, he’s sometimes mistaken for Hispanic. Nor is his the conforming image of Kansas. “That’s why I left,” he says. Interestingly, despite strongly mixed emotions about New York, including a persistent desire to pack and run, there are moments of fit. Walking to meet me at a Starbucks Coffee on the Upper West Side, Vontress, moving gracefully through the integrated, international crowds, notices something new; he feels like an American for the first time. Then the moment passes.
A few numbers:
12 start the summer on exclusive contracts with legitimate (theatrical) agents who saw their ART group audition.
1 of the three unsigned—Kevin Waldron—gets signed as soon as he returns from his first regional theatre job.
6 find work in the food and beverage industry.
4 temp in offices (one also waitresses).
1 cleans offices at night (also caters).
1 writes Mormon history books and CD-ROMs for young people.
4 make it through this year by acting work alone, some with a little help from their families.
5 (approx.) end school debt free.
10 (approx.) face school loan and credit card debts of $30,000–100,000 each.
Survival jobs, then, are required. Kevin Waldron, a trig parochial school graduate who comes from one of America’s most affluent corners, Orange County, Calif., and who has nothing of the bohemian about him, works a regular graveyard shift as an office cleaner with a company of performers called “Feather Busters.“ He takes catering assignments, too, when he can. The formality of cater-waitering means suiting up butler-style and, on occasion, serving the very country club crowd he grew up as part of. The role-reversal feels like “comic retribution,” but it beats the alternative: asking his family for handouts. “I have to do this now as an adult, 33-year-old man on my own,” he asserts in his kind, solid way. On his own sometimes means (openly) pilfering his roommate’s laundry money for carfare or food (and, of course, replenishing it later), or cleaning out a friend’s fridge while housesitting. It means macaroni and cheese, rice and beans. Kevin just might be the most universally respected—loved—member of his now-graduated class. Love, however, can’t buy him money.
Caroline Hall’s mother wouldn’t let her take typing classes. “It was a feminist statement,” she shrugs. “Thanks a lot. Now I can’t type.” As a consequence, she relies on temp jobs that don’t require this particular skill. Temping gives her a much needed sense of control during this “out of control time.” “It’s a good feeling to get up, shower, and go to work.” Because she’s broke, she won’t turn down a temp job for a commercial audition. Meanwhile, her wealthy friends from Groton keep inviting her to parties at restaurants “where you spend $40 for dinner.” She claims to worry about money all the time. You’d never know it, though. She’s always so upbeat, so delightful, so damn chipper and friendly funny—the humor of the helpful. She forks out $550 to illegally sublet a railroad flat with “tons of bugs, water that doesn’t work until the afternoon,” and a landlord she can’t call to complain, since she’s not supposed to be there. The guy she rents from is in Vienna, conducting Porgy and Bess, but he won’t let her put her voice on the answering machine. “It’s okay, though, it’s okay,“ she assures me, with a bright bob of the head.
The most un-actorly survival jobs probably belong to Tom Hughes. Tom is a devout Mormon whose commitment to God, his new wife, Kristen, and the church takes absolute precedence over theatrical concerns. He considers potential conflicts between the two, but for now his religious/home life coexists peacefully with the theatre, not unlike the slice of upper Broadway that balances, on one side of the street, the Mormon congregation Tom and Kristen belong to and, on the other, Lincoln Center. Tom embarks on the year—after a week’s delayed honeymoon in Maui—anxious about money. He spent the better part of 12 months in New York between his undergraduate years (also at Harvard) and the Institute; he knows what things cost. Education and living expenses have left the Hugheses almost $50,000 in debt. They want to start a family, though. Tom doesn’t yet know how they’ll support it. Kristen isn’t looking forward to the retail job she’s lined up. The bulk of their money comes from royalties on We’ll Bring the World His Truth, a collection for young readers of great missionary stories from Mormon history. Tom wrote the book after hours at ART. He pitches a couple more book ideas—a children’s novel and a book about knights—before he sells a CD-ROM concept, a role-playing game also based on Mormon history. He begins to develop the script.
To supplement his advances and royalties, Tom locates, through friends at his church (a network that was also the source for their first Washington Heights apartment), what surely qualifies as the most interesting boring job of the year. He’s hired to transcribe medical records from the Civil War for a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor. Stationed in the rare books room of the public library, he feeds information from tables and 19th-century governmental forms into a laptop computer. He stocks a database with the measurements of soldiers’ bodies, their eye and hair color, and more, sometimes the vital stats of an all-black regiment or a cadre of young people, information originally collected to determine the type of person or region best designed to produce an effective soldier. (I know of no such study on effective actors.) While he’s working, he’s projecting himself into another role, a dream part, and one that will, in the near future, become his: stay-at-home dad.
Since immigrating to New York in 1985, I’ve met dozens and dozens of people who came here to act, write, dance, paint or direct, and got derailed, rerouted into a different life altogether. It can happen gradually or all at once. Usually it starts with the survival job. The bosses find out you’re presentable, efficient, ambitious, creative. They throw added responsibilities your way. You rise to the occasion. Then you simply rise, from temp to permanent, from hourly to annual, from self-employed to covered, insured, pensioned. How do you leave? How do you go back? Frank Sinatra can sing it: “If I can’t make it here, I’ll find something else…”
Sometimes the decision to break with of a paycheck or the thrill of a pocketful of cash tips can jumpstart a fearful artist. That’s the way it worked for Mark Boyett, to hear him tell it.
He had lived in New York for a couple years in the early ’90s, taking classes and waiting tables at the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park. When he moves back after Harvard, into the suffocating heat of an un-airconditioned sublet in Queens, for “the worst summer of my life,” he returns to the Boathouse for a job. He trains and begins working, but hates it. It’s a giant step backward, sapping not only his time but his energy. The manager rides him for little things, like wearing white socks. The thought of being the kind of New York actor who is always and only a New York waiter “just screwed me up. I needed to know mentally that I was an actor now—very hard to do because of my relationship to money.” When he finds himself relieved at having missed an audition, “I realized how scared I was of the business. I realized I had to totally commit to this thing of being an actor.”
Two weeks later, he rides the subway down to Circle Repertory Company for an open call. He arrives at 6:30 a.m., receives an audition number, and heads home to nap. Mark climbs the stairs to the expansive 72nd Street studio he sublets from a friend. On his way up, he passes the door to “Bells Are Ringing,” the prototypical answering service for actors, with long wooden counters and walls of pigeon holes waiting for messages and, presumably, out-of-work actors in white plastic chairs manning the phones. It is a constant reminder of the life he’s in. He hops back on the train in plenty of time. The train stalls underground for an hour-and-a-half before spitting him out in Chinatown. “My gut had told me to quit my job; now my gut told me to go by Circle Rep and leave a note. Now I know I have to do as much as I can. The main thing is making it my top commitment, regardless of the money worries.” Circle calls him in for another audition. It doesn’t lead to a job, but it goes well. Leaving the note—going that extra step becomes a second turning point. Mark Boyett has embraced his ambition.
Like Mark, Suzanne Pirret has been here before. She has already tackled New York City in what now seems like another life. For six years prior to her entry into the Institute, she took classes here, tended bar and waited tables, pounded pavements, slept in sleeping bags, and lived hand-to-mouth, often on a diet of cheap hotdogs. It was the classic struggling artist existence, right down to the tumultuous relationship at its heart, made desperate by the lack of family support. Suzanne’s father had wanted her, the “smart” daughter, to study something business-related at Smith College; she enrolled at Syracuse, instead, determined to act. When she moved to Manhattan, he cut her off. The typicality of this scenario didn’t make it any less painful, especially when, three months before she began applying to graduate schools, her boyfriend killed himself.
His suicide and her acceptance to Harvard changed everything. Now she not only lives here with her family’s blessing, she lives with her family. In this way, too, she’s been here before: New York or, rather, neighboring New Jersey, is home. Her parent’s two-story, French Colonial-style house occupies several acres of land surrounded by deer country and horses. Suzanne’s room measures about as big as apartments she sees in Manhattan. It’s cozy, this second time around, maybe too cozy. “You get very comfortable,” she worries, “which is a danger.”
This comfort doesn’t make drumming up acting work any easier. I imagine it’s even harder for Suzanne than for some of her classmates, because her suitability—her type (a word I use reluctantly)—is unclear. As a person, she offers her own succinct description: “persistent and oversensitive.” In conversation, she displays an active confidence in her talent and intelligence. She flips quickly from fragile to tough and direct, and works hard to stay positive. How to describe her appearance, though? Olive-skinned, dark-eyed, and thin—suburban maybe, advantaged probably, high-strung, almost brittle. Here’s where I grope for known comparisons: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but different pretty, or Gilda Radner, but different cute.
”That’s my problem,“ she admits. “One agent said that I was an agent’s nightmare because there’s no one else working who’s like me. They can never figure out who my prototype is.” (I’m not even sure what her age is; she’s the only person in her class who plays coy on the subject.) She gropes too, casting about for a persona that’s identifiable enough to market and expansive enough to contain the variety she feels within: “The problem is I have a pretty wide range. I know every actor thinks this. I don’t see myself doing Sam Shepard, midwestern. I’d get cast as a funny, quirky New Yorker or else a sophisticate, upper-class, dancer-looking.” At one point she attempted to capitalize on traits inherited from her mother’s heritage, Puerto Rican and Spanish-Majorcan (her father brings French and Scottish to the mix). “I tried to do the Hispanic thing.”
The ridiculous, painful division between who we feel ourselves to be and how we’re perceived, summed up, by others is exaggerated for actors, who live and die by their images, their persona, their packages. The best training opens actors to the range of possible selves within; the “industry” regularly subjects actors to a boiling doom, a game of pick-one-now.
For actors like Suzanne, uncategorizable looks can be a drawback; for others, like Granville, they can be an asset. His swarthy, handsome features, neither exceptional nor particularly idiosyncratic, suggest a vague ethnicity that impresses casting directors as appropriate for a range of nationalities, including his first role as a Lebanese terrorist. His father’s Filipino/Irish traits and his mother’s Portuguese/French ones will make his face a cultural Rorschach. This lack of specificity, he believes, makes him unthreatening to Middle America—just what the media doctors ordered. Almost every audition he’s granted requires a different dialect.
Sometimes a single physical fact defines an actor. Sherri is a blonde. She gets called on auditions because she’s blonde. She loses parts to brunettes (or so she’s come to believe) because she’s blonde. “I don’t want to be what they see,” she declares. ”I want to be taken as serious. Intelligent and competent and serious. Not because I’m blonde.” Siobhan, contrarily, comes to understand that she won’t be seen as an ingénue, but as “a medium height, woolly-headed, culturally mixed woman.” She struggles to accept this cultural limitation and, still, “hold a good thought about the world. “
Caroline Hall gets consistently pegged as garden-variety ingénue—Moscow’s Irina or Illyria’s Viola. Petite and blonde, she looks younger than she is, especially with her short, sporty haircut. The bad news is there’s a character actress fighting to get out. Last spring she told a potential agent, at her third meeting with his prestigious agency, that she wants to do comedy, that “’I’m more like a character actress, to be honest.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not. You’re a leading lady.’” But she is, and her timing works, even over coffee.
As she rattles off anecdotes from the roughly 60 commercial auditions (5 for Tampax) she’s booked by October, she can’t stop the mockery. “Isn’t that great,” she seems to say, never caustic or histrionic, but buoyant and (to use a word that comes up a lot with her) “perky.” Like the one where she was a waitress in a bowling alley reacting to a strike. They told her, “Be natural.” “I looked,” she says, “and went ‘Damn.’ Like they’d have somebody on a Quaker Oats commercial say ‘Damn.’” At a commercial for a mall, she met a director who “thought he was Artaud.” “Don’t be perky,” he coached her, going through a lengthy rap about subtext, in which he urged her to think of the mall as addiction. When, in her reading, she pursued this path to the dark side of suburbia, he disapproved, demanding to know why she was treating the mall as if it were death. So, the next try, “I was perky,” she concludes, “and he said it was much better, we’ve really gotten somewhere.”
Chandler Vinton, the youngest of the six women, could pass as the oldest. At school she played Irina, the brothel Madame in Genet’s The Balcony and Hecuba, the last standing matriarch in the rubble of Troy, in The Trojan Women: A Love Story. Robert Woodruff, who directed the workshop production, warned her that she might go years without working in this country, 15 or 20 until she ripens into the roles she’s meant for. The context has shifted more severely for her than for the others: At school she played mostly big, strong women, but now she’s up for 20-something parts in a pool of other 24-year-olds. She can’t help but compare herself with her close friends, like Sherri and Caroline, who audition constantly. “Petite and blonde is in.” When her agent sends her for “fragile people,“ she knows it’s futile, wrong.
She tries to alter her appearance. Between June and October, she cuts her hair four times. “Image change. Image change. I don’t know who I am.” Is a woman her age, right out of school, supposed to know? Chandler’s dilemma isn’t about beauty. She resembles Glenn Close, as she’s been told ad nauseum, but warmer, less crispy. When I walk past Kraft’s Restaurant on 42nd and 10th, I’m startled by the face in the window. I don’t recognize Chandler at first, but I recognize the face. It’s that face, the one from the archetypal ’40s diner, from the New York myth—gazing out the window, waiting to be discovered. How long can she be expected to wait?
Todd Thomas Peters won’t come out of hiding. He works through the nights, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., in the computer center of a midtown bank. He’s part of a squad of three, “locked in a room where people have to call to get in.” Within this room, next door to the Chrysler Building, he helps bank computers talk to each other. He tells his bosses he’s a writer, a playwright. “You can’t tell business people you’re an actor,” he explains. “Actors have messed people around too much.” After a month of temping, he parlays his operations experience into a $40,000 annual salary. The money matters, since he’s planning to get married and buy a co-op in West New York, on the New Jersey banks of the Hudson River. Sleep is the problem. “I essentially have jet lag all the time, since I try to spend the weekends with [his fiancée] Margo.” He discovers melatonin, and that helps adjusts his body clock. What he can’t find a cure for, though, is his deep-seated desire—the acting career-killing desire—to hide out.
Now he’s pacing floors, riddled with doubt. He doesn’t have an agent for theatre, hasn’t signed yet with the commercial agent who’s shown interest. Exactly half of him wants “to be onstage all the time” and the other half ducks. “Why would I subject anyone to having to see me?” he asks, almost robotic in his earnestness. Then he grins, and these TV characters swarm around the image of his boyish face: Dobie Gillis, Eddie Haskell, everybody on “Happy Days.” He offers a detail, a concise scene: “Before making a phone call I have to sit for a minute and breathe and write down what I’m gonna say.” I can picture him by the phone, upright on a kitchen chair in almost military stiffness. I recognize the posture, the full-body effort it takes to expose your insufficiencies to the world, to force yourself to sell a product that no one wants to buy: you.
He hatches a brilliant idea, a way to turn the tables on his auditors. “I’m going to audition 100 times. By June 1996 I want to have been rejected by 100 people and 20 agents.” If he aims at rejection and gets it, he succeeds. If he doesn’t get rejected, he succeeds. It’s win-win.
By the time his classmates begin lining up work, Randall Jaynes has been fully employed for weeks. He never really stopped working; he never does. From school he, Todd, Caroline, and Suzanne flew to a festival in Venezuela, where they performed a scaled-down version of Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The production, staged by a director who graduated with them, was, by most of their accounts, troubled; Randall and Todd’s two-man experimental The Birdcatchers, on the other hand, made a wee-hours sensation at the international event. Back in New York, Randall lived out of one suitcase, contemplating a slew of future self-generated projects and observing the art/music/performance trio Blue Man Group, while waiting to hear about a job in their long-running hit Tubes. Instead of savoring this transitional downtime, he continued planning work, prowling the city for props and ideas for his unique blend of puppetry, psycho-physical mime, and storytelling. (ART artistic director Robert Brustein once described him to me as a contemporary Buster Keaton.) Work defines Randall’s life, even to his personal detriment. “The work is me and I am the work,“ he explains in a conversational tone that alternates between captivating insight and slow-motion identity crisis. This workaholism doesn’t always make him happy; more, it sometimes isolates him, even from his closest friends. For much of the year, he’ll obsess over a retelling of Pinocchio, whose wooden hero seems a metaphor for Randall himself, wildly imaginative and full of longing to be real. A transplant from “hick, cow, nothingville” in Sonoma Valley, Calif, he is down to his last $70, living with a former Institute student, when Blue Man calls him. Beginning in the group’s training workshop, earning $400 a week, he graduates to the company, at well over double that salary. The troupe even owns the apartments he’ll share with Kevin Waldron. Randall trades the bubble of his own art-is-life existence for the bubble of Blue Man Group’s.
Elsewhere in Manhattan, phones start ringing. Randall and five other actors are summoned back to Cambridge to recreate Winter Project, a dance-theatre piece they developed in class the year before. (Blue Man Group’s flexibility allows him to return for the short stint in ART’s fall festival.) Then Denver calls. Ajay Naidu, one of the original Winter Project troupe, is wanted by Denver Center Theatre for Romeo and Juliet. He auditions with a Tybalt scene, the same one he did at age seven when he acted for the first time. Ajay, visiting his parents in Georgia, has to miss the callback, but he gets cast anyway, as Paris. Ajay’s family moved to America from India in the early ’60s, but his Paris will be a Spanish immigrant, a matador come to mission-period California in the mid-19th century. Instead of remounting his solo Winter Project dance, this agile, polished performer spends several weeks learning flamenco moves. Louisville calls James. Then Denver beckons Mark. Other cities follow suit. Suddenly, Mark, James, Jessalyn, Siobhan, Ajay, and Kevin are all working out of town. Several others get cast in smaller-cast projects here. At one point 13 or 14 of them are rehearsing or performing simultaneously, only a few without pay. New York is motion after all, not waiting by the phone. Converge, disperse.
In Denver, Ajay’s phone rings again. It’s Frank Galati calling from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Galati, a renowned director/writer, wants Ajay for a new production of Everyman, in which he will alternate with other ensemble members in the title role. As a teenager, Ajay played leads in several feature films, but Galati gave him his earliest theatre jobs, at the Goodman Theatre shortly before ART. The only hitch with this current offer: Ajay will have to break his contract with Denver to go; he’ll have to leave in the middle of Romeo‘s run. The Steppenwolf job represents a cut in pay, but it makes up for that in prestige and in the happy prospect of working with Galati again. Denver is one of the poshest theatres in the country, and Ajay is revved up about the project. Steppenwolf, though, is an ensemble and launching pad of mythical proportion. Moreover, Ajay grew up in Chicago; it’s his stomping ground. An embarrassment of riches becomes an ethical dilemma; to honor a satisfying commitment or break it to pursue a potentially bigger career boost and greater artistic thrill.
Another call comes, from Ajay’s parents. His father’s ill health is deteriorating. They’re planning to leave Georgia and move back to the Chicago area. Coming one after another, the calls from Steppenwolf and his family seem to Ajay to represent the best and worst a year can bring, but they are not. By the following summer, he’ll receive offers ever more exciting and news ever more dire.
Next, in Part 2: The plot thickens as personal and professional decisions clash and intertwine.