Until about 25 years ago, actors had to make a simple choice about where to live in order to find work: New York or Los Angeles. The remainder of the United States cropped up for them when a Broadway show conducted its national tour or on that rare occasion when a film was shooting on location outside of California. Times have changed.
Because of the growth of resident theatres nationally, some actors have been opting to establish their careers—and base their lives—at such growing artistic centers as Providence, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Louisville and Washington, D.C. Eschewing the glitter of Hollywood, avoiding the “thank you for coming” slight of New York City casting calls, these actors have chosen a commitment to a resident theatre—or a community of resident theatres—over the itinerant actor’s existence.
What are the consequences of this choice…the rewards? And what are the regrets?
Ed Hall epitomizes the actor who has experienced many lives: He played a major role in a Broadway hit at a young age, was a member of the original repertory company at Trinity Square in Providence, captured the lead in a Hollywood television series. Having experienced the “fame game” in both New York and L.A., could Hall find satisfaction in Rhode Island?
Hall’s acting career was established before he reached the age of 20. As an acting major at Howard University, he was spotted by the late director Alan Schneider, who cast him in John Patrick’s The Hasty Heart at Washington’s Arena Stage in 1951. Still an undergraduate, the naïve Hall ventured to New York in the summer of 1952, bought a trade paper and decided to audition—without résumé or photographs—for the part of a “light-skinned Negro” in Moss Hart’s Climate of Eden. He got the part.
After a Korean War stint, Hall returned to New York, earned parts in No Time for Sergeants on Broadway and on the national tour, and then after serving as understudy to Louis Gossett and Ivan Dixon, assumed the role of Asagai in A Raisin in the Sun. Being in a Broadway hit, he says, was “wonderful. I loved every minute of it.” Broadway roles in Blues for Mr. Charlie and The Zulu and the Zeyda followed.
Then in 1964, in a chance conversation that proved life-changing, Hall’s friend actor William Kain informed him that Adrian Hall was looking for actors for his then-fledgling troupe, Trinity Square Repertory Company. Intrigued by the opportunity to appear in Leroi Jones’ The Dutchman, Hall acted for Adrian Hall during that summer at the University of Rhode Island. “It was supposed to be a summer’s gig, that’s all,” the actor recalls, but that summer job led to nearly two decades of work for Hall at Trinity Square.
Why did he choose to relinquish his New York career, the thrill of Broadway, the lure of national publicity, to settle in Providence and commit to Trinity Square? “Because I found Adrian Hall fascinating to work with, and as long as I stayed in New York, as a black actor, there would be only certain roles for me,” Hall declares. “I wanted to stretch. I grabbed the opportunity so I could play Shakespeare, the classics. In his inimitable way, Adrian told me I was ‘an actor in the company,’ not the black actor of the company.”
The variety of roles offered him—from Oberon to is the rock singer in Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime—would never have been available to him in commercial theatre. And acting with an ensemble, Hall says, “keeps me fresh.” He compares performing at Trinity to being a jazz musician: “You get to know the rhythm of your fellow actors, their movement. Adrian and I have silent communication between us. I don’t have to worry about getting used to a new director.”
During summers, when Trinity is dark and, coincidentally, most television series are filmed, Hall has traveled to Hollywood, where he landed a recurring role in Medical Center and co-starred in a summer replacement series. “That way I have enough money to work at Trinity Square and not have to negotiate.” Living on an historic block and paying low rent in Providence has been satisfying to Hall. Being a member of this company has not been “all flowers and roses,” but Hall considers the 18,000 Trinity subscribers “friends who care about you and come to know you.”
The price Hall has paid for living outside the entertainment centers, he calls “sacrificing the rich and famous.” But he concludes, “When I’m working at my chosen profession, doing the kind of work we’re doing here, it doesn’t matter where I am.”
“I wanted to stretch. I grabbed the opportunity so I could play Shakespeare, the classics.”—Ed Hall
Born and raised in Billings, Mont., trained at the University of Washington, actress Adale O’Brien started her career at the Cleveland Play House in 1959, but after two years made what at the time seemed the inevitable move to New York City.
She was in her 20s but was considered a character actress—so getting cast was extremely difficult. Character roles tend to be played by middle-aged actresses, and looking for work in New York became frustrating and discouraging for O’Brien.
To pay her rent—ironically enough for a character actress—O’Brien worked as a Playboy bunny, a degrading experience in its own right, she says. She did get parts in an Off Broadway mystery and several productions at LaMama E.T.C. Periods of inactivity agonized her.
In 1969, artistic director Jon Jory moved from New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre to Actors Theatre of Louisville and asked O’Brien to act in two plays that season. Those two plays evolved into a 15-year commitment to Jory and ATL. “I can have a real life here instead of a life propelled by career,” O’Brien says about why she seized the opportunity to move to Louisville from New York.
At ATL, O’Brien signs an annual contract for a season’s work. In 15 years she has portrayed nearly 100 parts in plays ranging from Oedipus and Much Ado About Nothing to Agnes of God and Whose Life Is It, Anyway? During ATL’s annual New American Play Festival, O’Brien might rehearse for and perform in three different plays simultaneously. “The festival is the most exciting thing possible,” she exudes. “We do it frantically and very well.”
O’Brien feels so satisfied acting in Louisville that she has rejected offers to perform in plays transferred to New York. When Talking With moved to New York, she refused to accompany it because her part of a tattooed woman required three hours of makeup for a nine-minute monologue.
Why reject the possibility of nationwide publicity? “It means nothing,” O’Brien contends. “This is my life. I don’t believe in the whole mystique of New York. Theatre has been decentralized. Most New York productions are so inevitably commercial that the quality has to suffer because there’s so much concern about making the nut (operating costs). It’s not as truthful as what we do here.”
Louisville itself satisfies her as well. “I go to the supermarket and people sneak up behind my cart. ‘You were wonderful in that play,’ they’ll say in a human and quiet way, without asking for autographs.” Jorv’s trust in O’Brien has enabled her to launch a new career in directing—for the company and for Louisville’s Free Shakespeare in the Park.
What are the drawbacks to establishing an acting career in Louisville? “People keep telling me there should be drawbacks. I don’t know that there are,” O’Brien exclaims. “We ride each other if we fall into bad habits. I’m nearly 50 and still growing. Working with playwrights like Marsha Norman and Ken Jenkins, who feel nurtured and loved in Louisville, is exciting for me.” O’Brien envisions continuing to live and to act there, where her roots are firmly planted.
“I go to the supermarket and people sneak up behind my cart. ‘You were wonderful in that play,’ they’ll say.”-Adale O’Brien
In his early 20s, Clayton Corzatte spent a summer performing six or eight plays at the Cleveland Play House, then a non-Equity resident theatre. That experience taught him something that shaped his theatrical career.
“What I wanted out of theatre was to be rehearsing and playing,” he avers. “What is optimal success for a Broadway actor is a part in a long-running plav. I don’t like playing long runs.” Thus, Corzatte dedicated himself to performing in the resident theatre and, for the last 15 years, has based his career in Seattle, performing primarily at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
After various seasons on the summer circuit, Corzatte arrived in New York in 1958 because “that’s where every actor went. There wasn’t much regional theatre at the time.” He considers the New York actor’s life abominable. “Auditions are harrowing and humiliating. I don’t know of an other profession where you spend all your time looking for jobs.” He describes his first New York years as “not terribly successful” although he was cast in the Broadway play The Gang’s All Here starring Melvyn Douglas, an occasional Off Broadway show and an Equity Library Theatre engagement. Essentially, his New York acting days taught him the power of typecasting, or as he says, “You can be terrific but if you’re not the type they have in mind, forget it.”
In 1961 and for eight years after that, Corzatte was a member of Ellis Rabb’s A.P.A. Phoenix Theatre. Joined by such actors as Rosemary Harris, Sidney Walker and Donald Moffat, Corzatte distinguished himself, winning an Obie for The Seagull and a Tony nomination for The School for Scandal. He calls the Phoenix “the ideal life for an actor, playing in wonderful plays, with a company you like, in New York on Broadway.” His only displeasure stemmed from living in the “sterile suburbs” of New Jersey.
When the A.P.A. shuttered in 1969, Corzatte and his wife—actress Susan Ludlow—were raising a family and decided to move to Seattle. Allen Fletcher, the Seattle Rep artistic director (now head of the new conservatory at the Denver Center), invited Corzatte to join his company. The resident company was disbanded the following year, but Corzatte managed to get cast in six plays in 1970.
Since that time, he has appeared in two or three Seattle Rep plays annually. To augment his income, he has taught acting at the University of Washington, coached acting privately, performed an original play with his wife at business meetings and parties, acted in commercials and performed in other resident theatre in and outside of Seattle. (The theatrical life of Seattle offers many opportunities, encompassing such companies as the Empty Space—which is currently expanding—the Intiman, a company geared toward the classics, A Contemporary Theatre and the Tacoma Actors Guild.)
What originally attracted Corzatte to resident theatre still energizes him: working with high quality material. In the 1983-84 Seattle Rep season, he performed in the debut of Michael Weller’s The Ballad of Soapie Smith, Michael Frayn’s Make or Break and Shakespeare’s As You Like It. “I see my friends making a lot of money but they must be bored to tears doing soaps and sitcoms,” he contends.
Corzatte’s original impetus for moving to Seattle was that it would be a better place to raise children than New York or L.A. Having lived for 15 years in a spacious house overlooking Puget Sound, he now 18 thinks the decision was a sound one.
“I see my friends making a lot of money but they must be bored to tears doing soaps and sitcoms.”—Clayton Corzatte
For actress Barbara Dirickson, the repertory company of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre has provided a nurturing environment in which to learn her craft. At age 19, on the recommendation of her acting teacher Charlotte Perry, Dirickson auditioned for and was accepted into ACT’s advanced training program. For the last 13 years (with a year off to freelance in L.A.), she has been a member of ACT’s troupe.
She preferred starting her career with ACT because “I didn’t know enough about myself or have enough training to tackle the New York or L.A. scene.” At ACT, Dirickson has been able to develop her skills in what she calls a “non-competitive atmosphere” conducive to learning.
At the beginning, Dirickson was cast in roles that matched her own personality; “tough little girls,” she says, “like Jackie in The Hot I Baltimore.” Then, ACT directors suggested she stretch her talents by portraying other characters. “I was terrified,” she relates. She took on parts in Street Scene, Man and Superman, Angels Fall and John Gabriel Borkman and felt challenged and satisfied by these diverse roles.
“If I had gone to L.A., I’d probably still be playing tough broads,” Dirickson believes. “I’m not afraid to play any role now.”
The security of ACT has enabled her to concentrate on acting: “You can be in the now of rehearsing a play,” she says, “and not have to worry about your next job or next paycheck, since ACT actors are paid by the season.”
Working with one company has allowed her to own a house, and unlike the roving actor, “not have to worry about the unpacked boxes in the garage.” Her recent marriage to ACT managing director Benjamin Moore strengthened her ties to the company.
In 1982, desiring a challenge, Dirickson took a leave from ACT and tried life as a freelancing actress in Los Angeles. Although she won major roles in a TV series and made-for-TV movies, she describes that year as a very difficult one. “I’m a workaholic,” she declares, explaining why the long periods without work troubled her. “I was lonely, solitary, frightened. You have to believe in yourself an awful lot to make it in Hollywood.”
So she returned to ACT where she could spend her time concentrating on art and not on “making it. Experiencing life as an L.A. actress taught her new things about what she calls “the competitive side of acting—how to get out there and sell yourself.” Never one to avoid a challenge, Dirickson expects that sometime in the future she will take the L.A. plunge again.
“You can be in the now of rehearsing a play, and not have to worry about your next job or next paycheck.”—Barbara Dirickson
Joan Allen, an actress with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, demonstrates that you can act in resident theatre and make a name for yourself as well. When the Steppenwolf production of And a Nightingale Sang… moved from Chicago to New York, she won the critics’ plaudits as its central character. Following her rave reviews, she was screentested by Hollywood directors and her career seems to be skyrocketing.
Allen grew up in Rochelle, Ill., a town of 8,000, and attended nearby Illinois State College. Majoring in acting she met Terry Kinney (director of Nightingale), John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. When these artists decided to inaugurate their own company in the basement of a Highland Park Catholic church, Allen accompanied them. Why? Growing up in a small town, she was frightened of moving to the big city—Chicago—on her own. Steppenwolf offered her a “secure base” from which to launch her career and her life.
During Steppenwolf’s first four years, no actors were paid, so Allen worked as a secretary. At the beginning she played minor roles, but gradually moved on to larger ones. In 1979, the Steppenwolf production of 5th of July received so many positive reviews that it placed the company on the city’s cultural map.
Playing ingenues and character roles in plays as diverse as Arms and the Man and Philadelphia, Here I Come helped Allen master her craft. Acting, she says, “is being as real as you can be onstage and trusting your fellow actors.” Steppenwolf has taught her that “the play is everything. You want only to do the best job that you can, trusting the director, realizing your character and bringing out the play.”
Her entire career has been spent acting with Steppenwolf. The 27-year-old Allen has auditioned four or five times at other Chicago theatres, but prefers acting at Steppenwolf where parts are assigned and evenly spread among the company.
Nonetheless, she has enjoyed the excitement, exhilaration, pomp and circumstance of New York’s theatre scene. When she sauntered into Sardi’s for Nightingale‘s opening night party, 200 people applauded. Allen admits it felt strange, saying “I don’t know why they were doing it.”
Like Dirickson, Allen feels the company helped her learn her craft and gain confidence. She compares herself to an acting friend from college, who seven years ago came directly to New York and started auditioning. He still does not have an agent, keeps a day job and has become embittered and frustrated. “In New York, you’re only as good as the play you’re involved with,” Allen says, which is why she plans on staying with Steppenwolf despite her New York success.
“The play is everything. You want only to do the best job that you can.”—Joan Allen
Resident actors have chosen their lifestyles for a variety of practical reasons: security, the opportunity of being part of a community rather than waiting tables or standing on unemployment lines between engagements, the chance to learn their craft in a supportive environment, the simple need for a more agreeable place to live than New York or L.A.
Much more important, they’ve discovered in the resident theatres a collegiality among their peers; an understanding that the finest art grows from a company of artists working together over time; that the kind of work they find most challenging and exciting—from the classics to new plays—simply doesn’t exist on Broadway or Sunset Boulevard.
Gary Stern is a free-lance writer who has contributed to Horizon, Playbill, The Chicago Sun-Times and 16 other publications.
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