This is the second part of a 20-year follow-up report on the lives and careers of 15 actors who graduated in 1995 from American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Todd London’s original coverage of the actors, which appeared in the January, February, and March ’97 issues of American Theatre, can be accessed here, as can the first part of this follow-up, from the Sept. ’15 issue.
I don’t know what I expected when I began to re-interview the American Repertory Theatre graduate acting class of 1995. I do know that last spring, when I posted on Facebook that I was doing it, my FB circle expressed both excitement and trepidation. Would the results be depressing? What would the fate of “the 15” say about the trials of other artists? What would it say about actor training? The American theatre?
One thing that did surprise me was that these actors, who were fixed in my mind as young graduate students, would go on to have such rich and compelling family lives. Tom Hughes, Randall Jaynes, James Farmer, and Jessalyn Gilsig are building lives around their children. Many of the graduates’ marriages or relationships have lasted since school or before. My own son was a newborn—six weeks old—when I first met these actors at Harvard; now he’s almost 21. I’m in a second marriage with a playwright who was in graduate school at Yale when these actors were at Harvard; her introduction to me, long before we met, came from reading these articles. She and I now have a beloved eight-year-old son. Why didn’t my imagination allow these actors lives of the same sort? Or, if it did, why did I assume that they’d have to get the hell out of the theatre to live them?
Why am I surprised? Did I believe the centuries-old cliché of the actor as a roving, polyamorous solitary, rootlessly pursing the romance of life onstage wherever it leads? Or did my surprise spring from that other cliché—of the bohemian artist, always putting passion ahead of financial or domestic security? If the professional theatre won’t support a living for individual artists, why wouldn’t they make lives for themselves? Is this profound love—of our children, of our partners—any less of an answer for artists than for the rest of us?
Caroline Hall, Todd Peters, and Sherri Parker Lee (now Chiasson) have all done what Tom, James, Randall, and Jessalyn did: They made choices that put family needs ahead of their own expressive ones. And, like the others, they are making it work, even if not the way they would have predicted.
“I basically do television commercials,” Caroline says with the same chipper self-deprecation I remember from back in the day. “I’ve done 35 national commercials in the last few years since I’ve been in L.A., which is ridiculous and stupid, but I guess I’ve just aged into some comedic housewife part.”
Thirty-five national commercials—the number is staggering, as I think of the actors I knew during my 29 years in New York who thought that landing one or two commercials a year was the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket on the subway floor.
Caroline enjoys the work, not least because, she says, “It’s an easy gig—I make money, and I don’t have to get childcare. I can be with my daughter.”
Caroline always knew she wanted to be a mom, but was much less sure about Los Angeles. She’d returned to ART the season after my first articles came out. She was part of the company for three years, playing Bianca in Andrei Serban’s The Taming of the Shrew and doing two plays, The Imaginary Invalid and Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, with director Andrei Belgrader (whom she started dating after she returned to New York). These were remarkable seasons: Caroline also played Bette in Christopher Durang’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo, worked opposite Will Patton in Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso, and appeared in Phaedra under Liz Diamond’s direction.
Caroline returned to New York with a fistful of glowing Boston Globe reviews, but couldn’t get an agent. She “took whatever scraps” she could, temped and became a personal assistant, and, once she and Andrei got married, tried to get pregnant. She acted in a little company of former Harvard undergrads with a former teacher from ART, Jane Nichols. When the couple moved to L.A., where Andrei would direct his friend and theatre collaborator Tony Shalhoub in “Monk,” Caroline was pregnant with their daughter and worried about money.
In California, she got a commercial agent through Jessalyn and hit a lucky streak. But no non-commercial (i.e. legit) agents would take her on, telling the young-looking, then-35-year-old actress, “You’re too old.”
Andrei now teaches at USC, and Caroline takes over his classes when he directs out of town. They don’t have a babysitter, and Caroline is fine with that: Her daughter, she says, is “the total love of my life.”
She hesitates to draw conclusions from her consistent success in commercials. “It’s a mass business,” she reasons. “If you don’t get one, they keep sending you. Honestly, over the years I just figured out how to audition for them. I go into a clown state.” She credits Jane Nichols, her teacher at ART, for the clowning and improv skills that carry her through auditions for such roles as the woman who bastes her turkey with coffee. “My soul just shrivels and dies,” she confesses, when I ask her to list the products she’s promoted. And so she doesn’t, but emphasizes gratitude instead. “I’m lucky—I look like a certain kind of comedic housewife.”
Todd Peters has been a stay-at-home dad for much of the past 12 years. Before that, he was on a different path. When he first appeared in the pages of American Theatre, he was about to marry his longtime girlfriend, Margo. They lived in New Jersey for about eight years while he worked in Manhattan, and she went to Pratt Institute and began a career in interior design. Todd acted, in and out of town.
After an initial paralysis around auditioning, he acted in some regional productions, including several in Tennessee, but the bulk of his work was “downtown artsy-fartsy theatre, which is sort of within my wheelhouse anyway.” He appeared in approximately 15 productions with Wax Factory founder Ivan Talijancic, including Ödön von Horváth’s Don Juan Comes Back from the War, Woyzeck, The Brothers Karamazov, and Elana Greenfield’s Nine Come at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I. Those productions were “among the things I loved the most, among the things I miss the most—being with that crowd. That was home to me for almost a decade.”
He toured the country in ART’s production of Serban’s King Stag, ending in London. He was on a side trip to Italy on 9/11. It took him two weeks to get back to Margo, including three days and nights at Heathrow, waiting for a flight to Jersey.
About a year later, Margo got a call from her mother in San Diego saying that her father, who ran the family design business, had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer; he wanted them to come home and for Margo to take over the business. Oh—and he wanted to see a grandchild.
“Within two weeks we were back in San Diego,” Todd remembers, “and Margo was pregnant. Life was about cancer for about a year.” Her father lived to see their first daughter, Lola, born, and for a couple years after that. Todd and Margo had both relocated, unplanned, to the city of their childhood.
Margo ran her late father’s business (she still does), and Todd stayed home with Lola and, beginning six years later, their son Reis, who started kindergarten this year. Todd flew back to New York for an occasional show with Ivan and tried to develop a sketch-comedy TV show by gathering a bunch of people from ART (including Caroline, Mark Boyett, and two actors from another class, Jeremy Rabb and Blair Sams). Todd and Jeremy wrote a 40-page outline from which the group improvised dialogue. Todd directed and acted in their movie, Let Others Suffer, a twisted comedy just aching with love. The film also features Caroline’s husband, Andrei, as an auteur filmmaker making a documentary about an obscure fan (Todd), who’s using the auteur’s book to make his own misguided movie. Caroline’s daughter makes a cameo appearance as herself.
The film traveled the independent circuit and, to my eyes at least, did exactly what Todd set out to do: celebrate the talents of his beloved colleagues. “The thing that was great about ART, and the reason people gave a shit about us in the first place, is not only that we were good, but we had something between us that made us more than the sum of our parts,” he says, using language eerily similar to that I used to describe why I fell in love with his class 20 years ago. He continues: “It felt like being a company. It felt like being the Beatles for a little while. And that has become my life’s focus. I want to make art. I want to make something within the umbrella of the story arts, with these people who I already love and with whom I already share a shorthand.”
Todd is currently working on the script for a second film, to star the same gang. He is also writing a play for himself. “Those are the two things that will make me most happy,” he says. Now that the kids are both in school, “I am going to fully engage as an artistic force. Every important relationship I’ve had, other than my kids, has come from working on plays. It’s part of a larger family.” ART was the homeland for that family.
If you met these 15 actors in ’95, you remember Sherri Parker Lee (whose married name is Sherri Chiasson). Sherri was the intrepid one—driven, hardworking, the one others would call for career advice or a kick in the butt. She auditioned and auditioned and worked and worked and never stopped, going to the Alley Theatre in Houston for Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities and continuing to perform there as a company actor for about eight shows.
It was in Houston, where she was playing Electra in a 10-part, 2-evening production of The Greeks, that artistic director Gregory Boyd introduced her to a visitor from the National Theatre in London, Trevor Nunn. Nunn was there because Vanessa Redgrave, who’d worked at the theatre, had discovered an unproduced Tennessee Williams play in the University of Texas archives. Nunn watched Sherri tough her way through a technical run of The Greeks, and some time later, in June 1997, called her. He was working on that long-lost Williams play and wanted her to read for a part. She received a British FedEx package with “a photocopy of an original typed script, with Tennessee Williams’s handwriting all over it.” She was instructed to look at Eva, the main character—a sort of precursor to Blanche DuBois, in a play called Not About Nightingales.
Her eventual audition with Nunn in New York lasted maybe 45 minutes. It was more like a rehearsal than a tryout. “He asked me about the play; we talked about the script. He was very respectful of the fact that I may have something to bring to the play.” (Coincidentally, the man who would later be her husband was down the street singing in the Boyd-directed workshop of the Jack Murphy/Frank Wildhorn/Gregory Boyd musical The Civil War. The two met only long enough for Sherri to congratulate him on the read-through.)
That fall Sherri got a formal offer to start rehearsals in January at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre, with plans for the show to come back to the Alley and potentially go to Broadway. It was a heady and creatively fulfilling time, working with Corin Redgrave and other collaborators at the top of their game, and Nunn “making everyone feel that they had created everything all by themselves.”
The whole National Theatre, where several plays perform at once, seemed to bond and celebrate the new show and to haunt the theatre’s pub as one. She was “starstruck by all of them,” as well as by others who’d stop by for a pint: Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter. The audience “stood and clapped for minutes. We all stood there and cried onstage. It wasn’t about us. It was about creation coming to life. You felt like you were truly a part of something so much bigger than yourself.”
Not About Nightingales circled back to Houston and eventually came to Broadway. Meantime, Sherri appeared in the world premiere of Eve Ensler’s Lemonade, after Vanessa Redgrave introduced her to the playwright. And that young singer from The Civil War? Sherri re-met Gilles Chiasson back at the Alley. When she was performing the exhausting Nightingales at Circle in the Square on Broadway, ending eight shows a week in sobs, Gilles would walk to her dressing room after his show at the St. James came down, half an hour before hers, and escort her home, a nightly ritual that lasted six months. They married.
After that she continued her work on new plays, including Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, which she performed in New York and went on to “open in every single sit-down theatre in North America” over a period of 18 months. For that show she won the first Best Actress Touring Broadway Award in 2001. Without her realizing it, the word “vagina” peppered her acceptance speech.
Something was changing. Sherri’s agents “had an agenda for me that was very fame-driven.” She and Gilles headed to L.A. in 2004, where he’d been cast in Baz Luhrmann’s staging of La Bohème. Sherri started auditioning for film and TV, growing increasingly overwhelmed with “having to be a product—that wasn’t good for me. I got caught up in how I had to look and what I needed to wear.” After Nightingales she started thinking she was “supposed to be somebody, but I didn’t know who that somebody was supposed to be.” She’d always defined herself as this “girl who worked really, really hard” and lived inside the other people. “Once I had other priorities, like children, I really didn’t care anymore about what I looked like getting to an audition. I was just lucky to get to the audition.”
Sherri and Gilles had two boys, 17 months apart, and then things changed in ways she couldn’t have foreseen. She started moving into postproduction voice work with Robert Moresco, producer and cowriter of Crash, who’d hired Gilles to develop television projects with him. For the TV series “The Black Donnellys,”
Moresco invited Sherri into the “loop group,” which she describes as “essentially a group of voice actors who improv every single textural vocal human sound you hear in the background—all their laughter and their coughing and throwing up and sex noises and shouting across a parking lot.
“I had no idea this was part of the business,” she went on. “You get paid the same amount as the actors on the set for 12 hours of work for an hour and a half in the studio—I was like, ‘Ding!’ I’m a mom. It’s creative. No one cares what I look like. I don’t have to be worried that I don’t have the right shirt on. Oh my God, I’ve found the vocal equivalent of the theatre!”
Soon she got hired to replace actors who’d given flat vocal performances; she was brought in to “match their flaps” (i.e., the actors’ mouths) and “deliver the performance that the producers had in mind.”
Now she’s running a loop group of her own, scouting voice talent, hiring, and arranging contracts. Her first show was “Mixology,” by the guys who wrote The Hangover. She’s running another one now, “From Dusk Till Dawn,” a cult hit overseen by directors Robert Rodríguez and Quentin Tarantino, set in Mexico. “So I’m learning Spanish. There’s a Texas element, too, and I’m from Texas.” She’s also looping and voice-directing Taiwanese animated shows.
In short: Nothing is as she thought it would be. “I found that if I wanted to have a husband and a good marriage and kids, I had to find a way to be a woman and an artist in a multitude of different forms. Having children changed everything. I didn’t want to miss a second of their lives.
“Every time I said I was going to make something happen,” she continues, “it didn’t work for me. When I came out of school, [performer] Randy Danson said to me, ‘Sometimes when you think, “My life is about this, or my life is about this,” you miss the open doors.’” Now Sherri just says yes. “I like to believe I’ll never age out of the business, that I’ll keep getting to explore stories and find a way to always have the feeling of the opening night of Nightingales—that I’m part of a thing so much bigger than myself.”
Life has other plans. It’s impossible to contemplate these mid-stride artists—some ex-artists—without wondering whether these “other plans” were meant to be the plan all along. Sure, things happen, out of our control—horrible and wonderful things, truly random—but more often than not, the trajectory of a life can, with the perspective of time, spool out as the revelation of potential. A seed that had been hidden by more ostensible ambitions grows in the dark and, then, seemingly out of nowhere, blooms.
Suzanne Pirret has crossed literal oceans to make a life that contains all the contradictions within her. It takes me months to track her down in London—not because she lives in obscurity but because short-lived tabloid fame a few years back led her to disconnect from social media and the obvious webs of modern accessibility. There’s still a HarperCollins promo website for her cookbook, The Pleasure Is All Mine: Selfish Food for Modern Life, but no way to contact the author. When, thanks to classmate Vontress Mitchell, I have a possibly working e-mail address, Suzanne is on a three-week Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala in Southern India.
Sometimes a journey really is a journey. Post-ART, Suzanne struggled through an intense period. “I moved back in with my parents, worked seven days a week in catering,” says Pirret when we finally get in touch. When we last met, she was back in NYC, where she’d previously lived a life as a struggling cater-waiter/actor, having a hard time getting cast. Her role in the theatre wasn’t clear—she didn’t fit the casting “prototypes” of the day and was searching for “a persona that’s identifiable enough to market and expansive enough to contain the variety” she felt within.
A shift came when her agent decided to send her out for voiceovers. Suzanne paid a technician $1,000 to make a demo tape, then booked her first audition—a big commercial for Estée Lauder. She signed with the William Morris Agency and did commercial voiceovers for five years: TV, radio, promos, on-camera, online.
The turn of the millennium was a great time for a commercial actress. “I had two to three jobs a week,” she says. She took acting classes with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theatre, who pushed her toward physical comedy, and she worked with three sketch-comedy groups that regularly put her in front of audiences, constantly improvising.
Suzanne moved to L.A. in 2000 but spent a lot of time back in New York. Her father, still in his 50s, died, and her mother fell ill. And though she was working consistently in L.A.—including voicing animation, documentaries, and commercials—and had rented a house in the beautiful Hollywood Hills, the place never felt right to her. “I loved acting, but I hated the business surrounding it,” she says. Or, as she remembers film doyenne Pauline Kael writing, “You can die on hope in L.A.”
Maybe she was just a restless spirit. In 2002 she left it all behind. With residual checks from a thriving career as a voice artist, she set out for the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She’d loved to cook since she was seven and had a quiet dream to attend the culinary institute, where, it seemed, there were hardly any women. Now, with food culture thriving and cooking shows booming, it was a great time to become a chef.
She rented a place in the Marais and simultaneously tore through two courses of study—pastry and cuisine—in just under a year. It was “fantastic,” if completely unglamorous: “You put your head down, don’t have to put on makeup.” The following year, for the “superior” course of training, she moved to London. At the end of culinary training, it’s customary to do a stage (pronounced en Français: stahzh) or apprenticeship. The day after finishing school, she knocked on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s door at Fifteen restaurant, and asked, “Please can I do a stage here?” She was so nervous that she’d left her precious pack of chef’s knives on the underground. (She got them back!) She subbed for a chef who went missing and was soon creating menus of her own. Fifteen sponsored her visa, hiring her for real—at £16,500 a year, for 90 hours of work a week. Six months later, she began working as a stagiaire at several Michelin-starred restaurants.
In 2007 Suzanne conceived a cookbook—dishes for a party of one—and sold it to Harper Collins. The writing just tumbled out: The Pleasure Is All Mine was published in 2009, and garnered critical acclaim in the U.S. and the U.K. The book, she says, combines the “serious” with the “light and breezy.” It’s also “naughty and doesn’t take itself too seriously.” Each chapter begins with a short story based on Suzanne’s experiences living in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and London.
Now Suzanne is writing about food for Women’s Health and has received commissions from Town and Country and Harper’s Bazaar U.K. She likes the privacy that comes with being a writer. This privacy was tested in 2011 when her relationship with a British celebrity chef hit the Daily Mail, casting Suzanne in the role of a vivacious American actor who’d lured the man away from his (also celebrated) marriage. The tabloid coverage blew over in a few weeks, but not before her mother’s house in New Jersey had been staked out, her childhood friends phoned, and the first journalist who’d ever written about her (that would be me) received a call at his office, asking for background on this American-born writer/chef.
Suzanne spent “the best three years of my life” in that relationship, and now, in a new phase, is putting her head down to “concentrate on writing.”
Meanwhile, from London, the voiceovers keep paying the bills. For the past three years, she has been the voice of Dove in America. “Thank you, thank you, Bonnie Raphael,” she declaims, addressing her ART voice teacher. She’s working, as always, to incorporate her many selves, and would love to narrate a cooking show or something media-based on food. “I’m always exploring, because everything’s always changing. I think the sky’s the limit.”
Vontress Mitchell, who led me to Suzanne, also cites her as an example: “She studied the arts, and she’s doing something totally different.” Her life is, for him, proof that “you never know where your journey’s going to take you. So go for it.”
Vontress’s own story also involves finding his voice. After ART, he stayed in New York for about two years, then went on tour with ART founding artistic director Robert Brustein’s adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shlemiel the First, which toured to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and then to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Vontress “liked the weather” in L.A. and ultimately stayed there for some 13 years; though he waded into film and TV and had an agent and manager, he found himself drawn to another source, from before his time in acting school, to “my previous passion, which was singing.”
These two pursuits, singing and acting, had been locked “in a power struggle with me.” He got a singing coach and traveled to Florida to study with an opera teacher, Betti McDonald, living in her house and bartering for lessons (he earned his way by readying rooms for the other international students). McDonald’s training was spiritual as well as vocal, as she and her psychotherapist husband would address “what was blocking us.” Vontress, as he aged, went from tenor to baritone, a natural transition that provoked an identity crisis—he had to learn “a whole different way of singing,” including reading music in bass clef. In Florida, he said, “I sort of broke down.”
McDonald led him through that. “She had me sing a little German art song, very informal. I did it in the way I knew—very controlled, very artistic.” She told him it was the most beautiful thing she ever heard, and “said it in a way that was so honest, so unaffected, that I believed her. No one had ever said that to me before. I must have cried for about 24 hours.” The floodgates opened, and Vontress saw a way back to believing in his own artistic core—the impulse “that I so readily trusted when I was at ART.” It was a core he’d kept covered since leaving school. “I was a dry land. I was in the desert. Then this rainfall came like my tears.”
He returned to L.A., but not to acting, which at the time felt too raw. He found opera—oddly enough, through two directors he’d met at ART. Francesca Zambello, who had directed Demons, Brustein’s adaptation of Doctor Faustus, in Vontress’s final year, remembered him, and hired him to sing in the chorus of her Porgy and Bess at the Los Angeles Opera. Then he joined Robert Woodruff’s opera-directing debut at the San Francisco Opera, Appomattox, about the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Vontress extended his stay in the Bay Area to act in a couple of plays, including Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat at San Jose Stage Company, in which he impersonated African-American performers James Brown and Jackie Wilson.
To make ends meet, Vontress often fell back on temping, particularly as a receptionist at law firms: “They always liked the voice. That always saved me.” He’s found odd jobs and still has “a heart for kids.” He’s lived free with friends in exchange for watching theirs, and he’s kept singing, though he doesn’t have the desire to pursue opera anymore. “You have to be really young,” he conceded. “They like ’em young.”
Three years ago he relocated to Dallas to be closer to his family, including two brothers and his mother. And though he still relies on part-time jobs—including housecleaning, teaching theatre to kids in an afterschool program, and singing at a local Catholic church—he’s also found his way back to the theatre.
“When I first got to Dallas, I hadn’t done theatre in a while. For my birthday I thought I’d audition.” There was a new-play festival at SMU organized by Dallas Theater Center’s resident playwright, Will Power, whom Vontress sees as a catalyst for a theatre renaissance in Dallas, as well as for his own resurgence. Vontress got cast in three of the new plays and worked on them simultaneously, and now works regularly with both DTC and TeCo Theatrical Productions.
Despite the twists and turns, Vontress’s path to this place feels, to him, continuous. Moreover, his interior landscape has shifted. “I feel like I’m at the pinnacle, because I’m at peace with myself. Theatre with actors is ego-driven, and I’ve realized it doesn’t have to be.” The kids have taught him that. As an artist, the job is “to be of service. That’s ultimate. That’s something Brustein taught us. When you look at his span of work, he’s always been of service. I guess I was paying attention.”
There is the living and there is the life, whether you have family or travel alone. As an actor in a country without subsidy or the steady employment that subsidized theatres can afford, jobs are often the things you need to do to make possible the work you want to do. Sometimes, as is the case with Vontress, you keep piecing things together on both sides of the equation. Occasionally, there’s some balance of need and want on both ends, as with Sherri’s loop group or Suzanne’s cooking and writing and voice work.
Every once in a while, the murky waters of making a living versus making a life get a little calmer and clearer, simply due to a great idea. This idea—we all dream of it—is called an “income stream.”
Mark Boyett found one. But first his backstory: After a few years of working regularly in resident theatres across the country—Denver Center Theatre Company, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Pittsburgh Public Theater, the Guthrie, Syracuse Stage, Dallas Theater Center, Indiana Rep—he was “hungry,” and tired of the subsistence work he took between gigs: “I was waiting tables with people who’d been born the year I started waiting tables.”
Ironically, restaurants held the key to his escape. Mark’s friend Jeff, a filmmaker, also between jobs, recounted a date where he’d “wanted to think of a clever way to pick a restaurant. He took these index cards and wrote the names of restaurants on them.” At the same time, Mark had been given a $30 gift certificate to a restaurant named Duke’s in NYC. Over dinner there, Mark and Jeff hatched their plan to create City Shuffle, a restaurant guide in the form of a deck of cards, in which every card is a $10 gift certificate valid at the one-of-a-kind, chef-owned-and-operated restaurant it features.
“I busted my butt to create the deck,” Mark says. He even told his agent not to submit him for theatre for a year. He worked double weekend shifts as a waiter, spending the rest of his time preparing their product. City Shuffle was launched within a year and featured on the “Today” show, in the Times, and in People magazine. While it took a few years to find its feet—and spread to other cities—over the past five or six years, Mark’s luck at cards has allowed him to return to acting more full-time.
Like Sherri and Suzanne, he’s also put his vocal training to good use as a reader of an impressive list of audiobooks—a lot of science fiction, but also books by Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Nicholson Baker, and James Salter, as well as a string of works by urban theorist Richard Florida. He color-codes the parts, so he knows who’s talking, and draws from “a stable of go-to dialects—I just did a book with a Scottish accent,” he says. “Oy.”
Despite cracking the revenue nut and finding love with his partner of six years, Mark struggles with disappointment. “It’s nothing like how I thought my life would be. I still want what I always wanted.” And what’s that? “I want to be in the fucking movies! Isn’t that what every actor wants?” It’s something he wouldn’t admit to himself when he was younger. Plus, he loved—still loves—the theatre.
And he loved ART. When he runs into friends from school, “It’s like seeing buddies from ’Nam.” He uses the voice and speech work every day. His teachers’ words stick with him, especially something Ron Daniels told them: “It is thrilling to see the actor’s generous gift of self.” Mark wishes, though, that he’d learned to do on-camera auditioning; instead, to get the screen roles he’s landed, he had to “unlearn unlearn unlearn unlearn.” He’d gotten locked up, including by jealousy: “In order to generously give yourself, you can’t be crippled with jealousy and fear.”
An auditioning workshop he recently took with an actor named Jack Plotnick was, for him, an epiphany. Among other things, he learned a mantra: “I release and destroy my need to book this job.” It’s a trick he now uses to let go of both fear and desire. “You can’t be obsessed by need and be fully present, and presence is what an actor has.”
Suddenly Mark’s card trick seems even smarter: He created an income stream that would take away the need to book jobs. It has the potential to free him from desperation. “I want to do it because it’s fun. And that’s a good place to be.”
Sometimes, though, you have to step away. And sometimes, walking away means circling back to something else.
Kevin Waldron is currently living in Orange County, Calif., where he grew up. His house is a little box, he says, like the ones they show at the top of “Weeds,” while Malvina Reynolds twangs about places made of “ticky-tacky,” all looking just the same. I used to see Kevin around Hell’s Kitchen in NYC, where he lived when in town, and at the West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street, where he sometimes waited tables.
He left the city in 2002, planning to move to L.A. “I knew that if my intention was to make a living as an actor, I would have to do TV and film.” He’d already lived in L.A. for eight or nine years before ART, so it wouldn’t be new. He was a little over 40 when he moved into his family home with his mom. “If you’re going to write that, can you soften it a little?” he jokes. “So it sounds more manly, with more bravado in it?” I promise to write the following: “At age 40 Kevin left his life to take care of his widowed mother.” Plus, her house has a pool.
Before his return, Kevin had an early career not that different from some of his classmates—like Mark, Sherri, and James, he worked at resident theatres such as Denver Center and the Alley. When he came home to Southern California, he planned to contact the nearby South Coast Rep and San Diego’s Old Globe. But he didn’t. After a time, he began work instead as an eminent domain appraiser.
What started as time off from acting ended up as his life. “I don’t know why I stopped,” he muses. “I think I got really disappointed and discouraged, because it didn’t really matter how well you did in an audition or in the run of a show. I never felt myself progressing.” And he admits to a desire to spend time on relationships with people who weren’t casting directors.
In 2004 Kevin visited a friend from ART in L.A., an actor-turned-photographer. The host’s childhood friend was a teacher named Todd. He and Kevin hit it off, moved in together not long afterward, and have been together since. Todd teaches fifth grade at a public school in nearby Saddleback. “If I really get to talking about him and his career, I’ll cry, because he’s really good at what he does—the kids are blessed to have him,” Kevin avows. Todd has never seen Kevin act—except “at home, overly dramatic and over the top”—something Kevin occasionally regrets.
His current job is “pretty dry and staid—I work for an appraisal company. We work on matters of litigation that rely almost entirely on eminent domain—a public agency seizing someone’s property for a matter of public good,” including such things as widening a highway or settling a ground-waste dispute. Except for sitting in a desk chair all day (which drove him “nuts” at first), the job is not as odd for Kevin as it may seem: His father was an attorney who dealt with eminent domain, and his brother has a company that works in the same field. Does it suit his personality? “I can be really detail-oriented—I’m really anal.” And he’s told he’s good at what he does.
Kevin has a life “with someone I care very much for,” he says, showing me a picture of a house he and Todd plan to buy. They travel when they want; they might go skiing in Chile this year. He is godfather to Sherri Chiasson’s first son. This is his family, including his two dogs and the family of origin that lives close by.
“I felt I couldn’t do both,” Kevin says, referring to this life and the bohemian struggle of the actor. “Being at ART and working as an actor was a real dream come true for me. In some ways I feel like I did succeed at that—those were the happiest times of my life.” On the other hand, with time came the feeling that he was “out of control. I couldn’t control my job. I couldn’t propel myself up the ladder. I was working a job I was tired of doing. Then came 9/11. I missed family. I moved back home. I just became a happier person. In the sunshine.”
Was it a decision or a segue? “I did make a choice: retiring into life.”
After a hard day’s forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful for life.
Though, after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;
He performs to hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
The other bear thought for
A few seconds
This poem is appended to an e-mail from Granville Hatcher, who for a time was the white whale of this piece—I’d reached out via every conceivable channel to no avail. Everyone in his graduate class had lost touch with him. Granville was the only married student at ART, then the only divorced one. When I last saw him, he was trying with difficulty to juggle a burgeoning film career in L.A. and being a good dad to his young daughter back in Boston. She’d be grown now. I found her name and, as a last-ditch effort, reached out to her on Facebook and heard nothing. Many weeks later, after she’d forwarded my e-mail, Granville wrote to ask how he could help me.
When we finally connected via Skype, he was in Northern California, outside of Chico, on the five-acre farm where he and his third wife raise chickens, grow their own vegetables, and home-school their eight-year-old daughter, Uma. It’s their “little homestead.” They don’t see many people there, but “I talk to the chickens all the time.”
It was a long road there, “more of a story than anything,” Granville says. He’s open and completely willing to talk, contrary to the fiction I’d created in my mind. (Chandler Vinton had even suggested that he might be part of a cult.) Of course, the Skype stops working. Although he’s talking from the workshop room where he edits video, he’s living off the land, if not entirely off the grid.
The story begins at the red carpet for the premiere of Executive Decision, the A-list action thriller he was signed for in June of 1995, “before the ink had dried on his diploma,” in which he was featured as Ahmed, a Lebanese terrorist. In view of the red carpet, “My sister and I got out of the cab across the street and nobody knew who I was. After the premiere everyone knew who I was. Women were leaning into me in the bar afterward.”
Things were moving quickly. He was called back for the main role in Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line. His agent called, saying that Sharon Stone wanted to meet him. He began to feel out of control: “I was desperate. My life was desperate.” He made another movie for HBO, Path to Paradise, about the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. This time, he and his girlfriend walked out of the premiere.
“I had the clearest thought: I’m not going to do this. I’m going to walk away from this.” His departure came only two years after his entrance into the profession out of ART.
“I could see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Granville says. “I could see it. Nobody knew my name, but I could see I was going to crack it. I just realized that it was the biggest mistake in my life.” What Granville saw was that, in his desperation for validation, he was about to lose himself. “That’s how the exit happened—really quick and right in the middle of things.” Nearly two decades later, he says he “can barely remember that life.” He does remember the threat it posed for him, though. “It was a grand pretense. That pretense would have owned me. I jumped off the train. I wasn’t destined for glory.”
Granville stopped auditioning in ’97 but stayed in New York for another four years. He took a trip to Europe, and when he came back virtually started over. He waited tables and busked as a musician. “It was a completely free life—like a detox.” He was reading books about consciousness at the time and came across a group of people studying Russian mystics—specifically G.I. Gurdjieff. They had a vineyard in Northern California, and he came out to live there for a year. He admits that it “probably would have been called a cult by some people,” but he doesn’t think of it that way. He stopped looking at himself the way an actor would and started thinking about discovery. His first realization? “People are acting all the time. So the process of living as an actor was heightening something I was trying to get rid of—trying to be something for somebody.”
Over the next several years, Granville found himself in a “much bigger ocean of creativity,” seeking a way “to be truly free and creative.” All this study was “a different kind of self-centeredness. I was trying to find, simply, myself.” According to Gurdjieff, we are basically asleep, “and it takes a great deal of effort to wake up and shake off that sleep. I was trying to wake from sleep. I was trying to live my own life and not the life that was whispered in my ear from the time I was a little kid.” He was, in other words, “trying to be real in an unreal world.” He fled pretense, and then he tried to shed pretense. “It was kind of beautifully perfect that acting was so opposed to where I was going.”
Granville came to the end of group study and ultimately found he “couldn’t read another spiritual book.” He traveled, moving around the middle of the country, starting in Boulder, Colo. In 2005 he moved to California, working as a carpenter, and met his current wife while waiting tables at a restaurant in Petaluma, where he worked while building his sister’s house. It took time and work to heal the effects of his “youth and selfishness” on his relationship with his elder daughter, 7, when he left school, now 27. But they’ve gotten to know each other as adults and have a “very nice” relationship now: “She never ceased to be a huge part of my life.” He was proud when last year she auditioned for an acting program at the Atlantic Theater Company and got in.
Now he and his wife are thinking about moving to a bigger city, where Uma can be “closer to the world.” His work shooting and editing other people’s documentaries and websites is pulling him to be more creative. “I feel a return of ambition—not for self, but a desire to put some floats on the water and see if they stay up.” He adds, “It’s funny to be at this age, because I feel if I don’t get on the horse soon, I may not be able to get on the horse at all.” Despite having left the acting life and business so dramatically behind, he still feels a pull to creativity, to “do something beautiful. Creativity is everything.”
I don’t have a good reason for concluding this reunion tour with Ajay Naidu—except maybe that he started it. It was on Facebook, naturally, in a message he sent many months ago, reminding me that 20 years had almost passed. I was happy to hear from Ajay but I hated the idea of a sequel. Why? My life has marched on, too. I don’t even write arts journalism anymore. I blew him off. Months passed. I would say I started thinking, but I didn’t. I buried the thought, until one day I knew I had to do this—or rather, we had to.
Ajay started this, so he can end it. He’s still in there, plugging away, trying to make it all work—theatre, film, and music, at home and abroad, personal initiative and industry opportunity. He’s still with his then-girlfriend/now-wife, Heather Burns.
Ajay was one of the youngest in his Harvard class, and maybe the cockiest—confidence itself. Now that he is 43, with a long and distinguished string of work behind him, and plenty of the kind of experiences young artists dream of, his confidence—at least on the day I catch him at his manager’s office—seems muted, as though the “major dips and major rises” of his career have tempered the youthful certainty and bravado. He still looks young, which “could be a problem—I need to be able to play my age.”
Just out of school, Ajay had dips and rises, too, especially his father’s illness and death, even as he got cast in key roles regionally and in a coveted part in the film of Eric Bogosian’s subUrbia. He started working extensively in film and TV, including a series with Al Franken called “LateLine.” In 1998 he made an independent movie that, without support from movie executives, almost got shut down and pulled from theatres. But it became a major cult hit and, possibly, a defining moment for his résumé: Office Space.
Around the same time, he began writing a film that would consume nearly a decade of his life and a great deal of his money. But first came the music. Fresh out of ART, Ajay got swept up in a new music movement with roots that go back 2,000 years—at the time he referred to it as “Jungle,” but now he calls it Classical Hindustani Electronica. This sound, “a drum with a break beat,” was the foundation for an Indian rave scene at the center of his world from 1996 to ’99. It also created a “dreamscape through which [my film’s] story could live for me.” Based on classical Indian composition, with development, a climax, and a denouement—just like narrative structures—the music functions as a story, though it’s largely improvised.
Ajay danced, DJ-ed, and wrote lyrics for several musical collectives, many of whom came together in London in 1999 for a month-long worldwide party. He stopped acting during that time. He came to “a big lesson in my life: I have to be doing something else in order to be acting.” He was still doing high-end projects in film and TV, picking and choosing, being “a cool guy and going to parties.” But he revered the music.
In 2002 he first met Simon McBurney, artistic director of London’s Théâtre de Complicité, when cast as the barker in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui opposite Al Pacino, Tony Randall, Paul Giamatti, and Billy Crudup. It was a coup for Ajay, who opened the show with a five-page monologue. The next year he joined McBurney’s production of Measure for Measure and toured with it for two years.
These were the rises. How would you classify an appearance on a special episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” the week after 9/11, for which Sorkin wrote him an excuse letter to get on the plane for L.A.? He played the wrongly accused terrorist. After that, for this “100-percent South Indian,” he says “the world of acting changed, because all of a sudden the enemy was needed. I’d never ever been cast as a terrorist—at the time I was one of the few Indian actors working.” His career after that has had “a lot of amazing things in it and a lot of weird things in it.” At a meeting with Sidney Lumet, the renowned film director told him, “Ajay, you’re a great actor, but no matter what you do, you’ll always be guilty.”
Ajay’s own movie, Ashes, which he cowrote, directed, and starred in, “broke me.” He worked on it for nine years; after one funder after another backed out, he wound up investing his own money, including debt drawn on five credit cards. A sad, intimate portrait of mental illness and suicide—“it’s hard to watch”—based on Ajay’s own experiences with his sister, Ashes became the basis for an instruction manual he may one day write: “How to never make your first feature film and how to fuck it up when you do.”
By the time he went into production in 2006, nine years after starting to write it, he was stressed and losing weight. He finished it in 2009 and brought it out in 2010 in the “super indie film circuit.” It did “really well” in the South Asian underground and won a couple awards, but it was “raked over the coals by my hometown newspapers.” Faran Tahir, who graduated ART ahead of Ajay, played the movie’s other lead. Vontress Mitchell is in the movie, too, playing “a homeless guy who happens to sing incredible opera. He is wonderful in it. It’s really breathtaking what he does with it.”
Ajay has since paid the debt back, thanks mainly to a two-year European tour of Complicité’s The Master and Margarita. While it was great going back to work with McBurney—“the most satisfying, most wonderful, most all-encompassing cherry on the top of the development of my work”—he admits that “wonderful, fantastic, incredibly well-received international theatre does nothing for your film or TV career.” He has to rev it up again every time: “I’m on the pavement every day.”
This has been harder since he was let go by the powerful Paradigm agency about five years ago. They cut “three-quarters of their clientele—I went with that cut.” This happened at the same time as the recession and the making of Ashes.
“I’m not saying it hasn’t been rocky as hell, but it’s also been really wonderful sometimes,” Ajay says. Last year he acted in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink at New York’s Roundabout and at A.C.T. in San Francisco. “We are servants of the story,” Ajay muses. He looks back fondly on ART, a fact made clear by both the long list of thanks—including to many of his teachers—at the end of his film, as well as a follow-up e-mail he sends me, expressing gratitude for all of them. “Without that training, I would never be able to do what I do. My training has seen me through. It’s there for your worst day.”
Now, dear reader, I must confide some things about myself. I have aged along with these artists. I was 38 when I met them, and my work life has changed twice in that time in ways that have bearing on the tale. As the original series of articles, titled “Open Call,” was going to press, I was beginning what turned out to be an 18-year run as artistic director of New Dramatists, the nation’s oldest playwrights’ lab. Last year, just before I reconnected with “the 15,” I moved to Seattle to become executive director of the School of Drama at the University of Washington.
The reason I tell you this is simple: Like most arts professionals in the academy, I’m desperately trying to understand just what we’re training our students for. What will the theatre field be in another 20 years? A hundred years ago, this country knew nothing of Stanislavsky; today his writing is foundational. What will be foundational tomorrow? In the 1970s, we were training actors for the theatre of the 1950s. In the ’90s we were training actors for the theatre of the ’70s. (It was gone by the time they hit the street!) I’m afraid that we’re now training actors for the ’90s instead of for the next 30 years.
Some students in my program are MFA actors, as were “the 15.” That’s why, months after saying “No, thank you very much” to Ajay’s suggestion that I revisit the stories of his class, I knew I had to do it. I had to find out what we’d sent these talented, well-trained young artists into, and how they’d fared. And if we’re still grooming future artists with obsolete gear for a bygone world, I have to know.
Like my friend and mentor Robert Brustein, who founded and ran ART and its Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, I believe in what he called “the repertory ideal.” This ideal was the underpinning of these actors’ training; it was the title of a regular class they had with Brustein, a class that nearly each of them has referenced in our interviews. It infuses the book he wrote after leaving ART, Letters to a Young Actor. Brustein stressed company, a nearly dead concept in our theatre, and held to what Vontress Mitchell calls a “purist” concept of theatre as art and service, free of the marketplace.
Brustein’s belief in this—my belief in this—can seem laughably naïve in a world of enhancement deals, premiere-itis, and nonprofits that base their self-esteem on their record of Broadway transfers. All this is changing, of course, because young artists are piling in behind us, transforming practice, holding up new values, cracking open old structures to reveal new life. And all this is changing because everything always changes. Life makes its own plans.
One last thought: As much as I hesitated revisiting the ART class of 1995, they hesitated more. It was hard for most, maybe all of them, to stop their lives to evaluate them. It was as hard for the ones still doing the work as for those who’ve moved on. Every artist carries a personal scale: ambitions on one side, accomplishments on the other. Achievement and regret can easily blur. Time is nobody’s friend.
As they had 20 years ago, these now-grown women and men laid themselves open to interpretation and judgment, just as actors do night after night. But this time no one had a role to hide behind; no one was naïve enough to think that an article in American Theatre would launch a new phase of their careers. They all ultimately agreed, I believe, out of a sense that by telling their stories, they were making an offering, a gift to those who are coming after them. Their stories are that gift, just as their work has been their service.
If you are a young actor reading this—if you are an artist at all—keep what they’ve told you close. May it guide you on the trail.
Todd London is executive director of the School of Drama at the University of Washington in Seattle.