Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Will Act For Food."

"We live in a nation of second acts."  I forget who said that.  I've always liked that quote.

Good show last night even though a huge chunk of ticket buyers didn't show we had a smaller house than expected.  My buddy, John Bader, finally got around to seeing the play last night.  I think he liked it very much.  Actually, I don't think he expected to like it quite as much as he did.  John's a picky guy when it comes to theatre, so a compliment from him is not only rare, it's often genuinely deserved.

Tonight we're shooting the piece for archival purposes and posterity.  Only two more performances left, tonight and tomorrow afternoon.  I was chatting a bit with Tara, who plays Susan in the show, last night before curtain and she turned to me and said, "I just can't believe something so good is just, well, stopping."  I know exactly how she feels.  Although I think we succeeded on nearly every level with this piece, the one spot we didn't succeed was finding the right audience.  Had we have found the right audience, this thing could have run for years in the right space.  

Not all is lost, however.  Things may still happen with it.  Not at the current venue, of course, but elsewhere.  Ideally, I'd like it to turn into something financially lucrative for the people involved.  That's simply not possible where we are now.  Again, there is still a chance.  It really is too good to just abandon.  And I'm not talking about the writing, although I'm proud of the writing, but the production itself, the astonishing work from the other actors.  The great work from the producer, Teal Sherer, and the designers.  People like Kyle Puccia, who has written absolutely devastatingly beautiful music for the piece.

I remember years ago I was doing my favorite musical of all time, Sunday in the Park with George, at a theatre on the East Coast.  It had been one of those times when the cast had really bonded.  Plus the show itself was really remarkable.  Outstanding group of artists, both in front of and behind the curtain.  We had lightning in a bottle with that one just like this one.

The day we closed I walked over to the business offices to straighten out my final bit of paperwork before getting on a plane the next morning and flying to my next gig.  For the past sixteen weeks we had been a family, we had been treated like kings, we were in the middle of something really cool.  I walked into the office of the business manager for the theatre and she started nagging me about not bringing my sheets over.  My sheets.  This upset her, apparently.  We had just closed the show an hour earlier and she was treating us all as people she couldn't get out of town fast enough to make way for the next crop of actors for the next show.  It was all terribly disillusioning and a prime example of how ephemeral this business is.  But that's the way it is.  That's how it works in this business.  A family one day, a pest the next.  

I discovered over the past few Fridays that after not doing the show for a few days I would come in rather tentative, sort of fragile in my performance because I was carefully thinking about lines as I was doing the play.  Not really being 'in the moment,' as they say, but rather thinking my way through the piece.  Last night I just said to hell with that before we started, I know these lines backwards and forwards, stop being so deliberate during my Friday night performances.  So I threw it all behind me and charged into the play without a second thought to the lines.  And, of course, they all came back instantly.  I was, as so often happens in my life, fearing fear itself, nothing more, nothing tangible.  Consequently it turned out to be a very exciting show, really fast and fearless.  Since I drive the bus most of the time in this play, well actually ALL the time, the other actors sort of pick up on my energy.  That happened last night and the play just took off right out of the gate.

I have a couple of non-paying, short film auditions today.  Working toward that ever elusive goal of "the reel."  It's very important that I have one soon.  It's absolutely paramount to getting other film and TV gigs.  It's frustrating.  Since coming to Los Angeles I've worked for free more than any time in my life since college.  I don't like working for free.  If other people think they can get us for free it lessens what we do artists.  This is a lesson I learned long ago from my close friend, Jim Barbour. "Well, why should we pay this guy such and such amount of money when he did two and half hours over at NoHo for free?"  I know that's a harsh sentiment, but it's true.  I don't mind doing it now and then for the right project, like this one, but to build a career around free work denigrates the work itself.  And in the end the only one benefitting is the producer, the theatre itself, or perhaps the film company,'s a less than ideal position to be in and I strongly caution actors about doing it too often.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to turn down a chance to do Hamlet if it's for free.  It is why we have unions in this business; SAG, AFTRA and AEA, so as to keep greedy producers from profiting from the artists' work.  I'm not saying that's what's happening now, but I've seen it happen time and again.  Sometimes we have to draw a line in the sand and say, I'm sorry, but I will not work for free.  Without me, this piece of work does not exist, so pay me for it.  Unfortunately, a lot of producers realize that there are thousands upon thousands of actors who WILL work for free because they are so passionate about the work itself.  They take advantage of this.  If one guy won't work for free, no great loss, because the next guy will.

A buddy of mine in Chicago had a professional postcard he often sent to agents, etc., that had a picture of him standing by the highway with a big sign that said, "Will Act For Food."  While amusing, I always thought this sort of depressing.

Sometimes working for free is simply a means to an end.  In that case, it's heartily recommended.  But don't keep doing it.  Do it for the right reason and then stop.  Otherwise a few years go by and you keep wondering how the producer keeps buying a new car every year and you're still taking the bus.  The sad and long history of the theatre is built upon people who know that actors are a vulnerable, passionate lot that will often give their gifts away for nothing.

But I have to do a few of these non-paying films for a short while so I can put together "The Reel."  The damned reel.

A lot of times we see actors who apparently get arrogant or too big for their britches once they've landed a lucrative job, be it in film, TV or on stage.  "What's up with this guy?"  Well, probably he's being so guarded about his work because he has had to suffer the indignity of crawling before producers most of his life.  Now that the producers are dependent on him, he is seen as "demanding."  Never mind that for years and years the poor schmuck was unapologetically taken advantage of by these same people.  Forced to do million dollar work for ten bucks or less.  Now that the shoe is on the other foot he is castigated for it.  "How dare he ask for what he's worth?"  I say, get every penny from them.  Get every cent you're owed.  Drive the new car every year and let them take the bus now and then.  

The exact same thing happens with really talented athletes, too.

Anyway, I digress.

Another scorcher in The San Fernando Valley today.  Fortunately both of my auditions are in Santa Monica again, not too far from one another.  So I can knock them both out this afternoon without driving to hell and back in this inhuman heat.

I really love doing this play every night.  I wake up thinking about it, as I did this morning.  We've reached a point where we're really comfortable out there, all of us.  We enjoy the time on stage and our chance to tell this story.  We are delighted when it effects people so strongly.  We all realize, on some level, that we're not just acting in a little play, we're doing something noble.  As grandiose as that may sound, it's true.  The piece speaks decisively about a subject that needs to be spoken to, a subject that need be addressed at every opportunity.  So the icing on the cake for all of us, every night, those of us involved, is the altruism that inherently comes with doing this piece.  We're not just acting at people, we're speaking to people. 

It's a nice feeling.  And one that I wish I could call upon in less than ideal times in my life.  Doing something for someone else simply because it is the right thing to do is at the very heart of emotional stability, be it on stage or on a street corner.  It is, I sincerely believe, the first and most important step to wisdom.

See you tomorrow.