Why Actors Struggle to Make It

Let me begin with a true story.

My first play, Fast Girls, was produced in 1990 at the American Stage Company in Teaneck, New Jersey.  At the first table read, I stood nearby, swooning with love for the five talented actors who would create my characters onstage.  Standing with me was one of the producers.

“Don’t they just remind you of cattle?” he asked.  I looked around.  Who? There were no stockyards nearby; only us.   With a shock, I realized…this guy is referring to them.  To my actors.

Thus was I introduced to the view that many power-people in the business–the theater world, and to a lesser degree the TV and film world–bear toward actors.  Actors are disposable, replaceable, interchangeable; they are numerous, annoying, and subordinate; they are expected to be endlessly polite, free of complaints, untainted by despair, and grateful for any job or even crumb of attention; they are trained, indeed immersed, in a culture that often disrespects their gifts and value.  From the famous casting director who was tweeting ridicule about the actors auditioning for her, to the outrage on Broadway when an actor dares to voice discontent or cave to illness–to the ritual of auditions that feed the ego of maniacs who were not very popular in high school–the milieu for actors is a ladder on which they are always the bottom rung.   Smiling.

To those reading this who are not familiar with the reality of the acting profession, there are 97 struggling actors for every 3 who make it.  When actors do rise to the top, they earn big paydays and stellar attention–and they often transform into spoiled brats.  Stars.  What do we expect?  I say: Give their poodles a creme blanche grooming, and be prepared to do the sucking up to the actor for a change.

Since 1990, my path has crossed that of many actors, and among those many hopeful individuals, there are several who stand out for me–loaded, bursting, cursed, blessed with the most extraordinary talent, who take my two-dimensional words and turn them into a person–who find gems in my writing that I never knew were there–who, to their undying credit, are able to reach down deep to find the truth of any character, despite all the disappointment and even abuse they have encountered in this business.

My desire is to help them.   To this end, I invite casting directors and managers to come see them–and trust me, it is no easy task to get these folk to show up.  Those with power are deluged with requests from actors and their reps to see this one, see that one.  They are accosted on the bus.  They are constantly assailed by that infinite, hopeful mass.

So, when I wrote a powerful talent manager–who made her name at William Morris and now runs one of the most influential boutiques in the industry, a manager who can give actors a real career in TV and film–and asked her to see a particular favorite of mine in a showcase production, I didn’t expect a yes.   I was surprised when she wrote, “My assistant is going to see it.”   Woh.

I thought about Max and his extraordinary, spot-on gift.  I’d seen him create a character of mine breathtakingly, although he doesn’t look the part–and I’d seen him play Stanley in Streetcar–although again, he is hardly the type.  His ability to muster the illusion of a character is or should be legendary–and indeed, isn’t this why we call it “acting”?  I held my breath, hoping that this encounter, that I didn’t tell him about, would lift him out of the morass of auditions and puny paychecks, up into his big break.

The day after the show, I wrote this Manager and asked what her assistant thought of Max.  Here is her reply:

“My associate saw him last night and felt he was very talented.  However, what we take on is very specific and he felt that although he was very gifted at this time he would not require what it is that we actually do in my offices… I’m glad to know about him but I can only represent people that I think would need our services.”

I’m sure the Manager knows her business and what she wants.   I also wish….that there could be more openness to the unexpected, more faith in the talent of actors to be able to create the type, and more willingness to look outside the box.   We saw Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman create characters very different from their expected “type.”  They are movie stars, and our faith in them is automatic.  There are actors just as talented walking into auditions and tossing their acting chops before us in tiny out-of-the-way theaters and transient productions.

When we view actors as “cattle”–a large undifferentiated herd–we lose the ability to spot talent even if it shines brightly.  We will not find Norma Jeane Mortenson.  Talent will go to waste–and it’s a terrible thing to waste.  In the meanwhile, if you are one of those struggling actors, I hope you make it.  And if you’re a kid thinking of a career in acting, I say: Think long and hard before you enter the stockyard.

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