To Play or Not to Play - Theatre Bay Area, July 2015
Given the competition inherent in the world of theatre-making, more often than not, actors are grateful just to be working. But is simply working enough to further an actor’s career goals, or are there times when turning down a production might be the best choice? In cases where abuse or value conflicts are present, the answer is easy.
But what about more ambiguous situations, such as concern that a production may be of poor quality? If performers must perform to further their craft, when is not performing warranted? Can an actor hinder his or her growth by working on a questionable production? “It’s different when you’re 20 versus when you’re 40,” says Christopher Herold, director of the Summer Training Congress at American Conservatory Theater. “There’s a time in an actor’s life when they should work as much as they can, but that goes away as time passes. I think it becomes increasingly untenable to do that—and increasingly depressing.”
Lisa Mallette, executive artistic director of City Lights Theater Company, concurs that anyone pursuing a career in the performing arts has to work on his or her craft—and that means being in shows. She warns, however, that “[a]rtists can be so driven by all of that that they take show after show without taking time to assess and meditate on the experience. There are no gaps to let it all settle and leave room for new doors to open.” Mallette also says that actors should continually challenge themselves to find higher-quality projects. “There needs to be something about a job that is a step forward,” she adds, “not just keeping busy.”
Concerning the quality of a project, San Francisco-based actor, acting coach, director and dialect coach Lynne Soffer counsels actors to evaluate and make realistic choices. “I would not blindly walk into a lame, underfunded company that I’ve heard terrible things about. We shouldn’t grab everything. I think we should have a skeptical eye.”
However, Soffer also feels that actors are more likely to hurt their careers by doing lame work in a lame production than by doing stellar work in a lame production. “I’ve seen actors who are unhappy take a job, and then ride on their unhappiness,” she says. “If you take that job and [later] you decide it is less than you hoped it would be, it is your job to step up with artistic integrity. At least then your corner of the tapestry will be of the highest quality.”
Rebecca Ennals, artistic director of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, had a formative experience during her time as an actor in Chicago that influenced her decision to become a director. She was sitting backstage in what she remembers as “an awful production”; the director was terrible, the actors were self-directing, and she and her four castmates were doing the show unpaid in an effort to “résumé-build and just keep working,” she says. Ennals realized in that moment that there were many good actors in the world but fewer good directors—and also that sometimes actors are better off saying “no” to opportunities.
Herold adds, “The essential truth is that bad work feels miserable. It feels miserable in process and it feels miserable in performance. I’m not sure how much good can come from something that’s inherently bad. You get stage time and get to work with different individuals, but there’s every chance that something wrong and incorrect and unhelpful comes from it if it’s bad, as much as any potential for something positive,” he says.
Actor and director Velina Brown (author of “The Business of Show Biz” column for TBA and career coach at businessofshowbiz.com) advises actors to consider three criteria when choosing whether or not to take on a project:
1. Is it fun?
2. Will there be cool people involved?
3. Will it pay some bills?
“At least two of the three should be there,” Brown says. “Theatre is labor intensive. The hours are long. If it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be fun or pay some bills, why would you bother?” Brown adds that [even] if [the project] doesn’t turn out to be stellar, it probably won’t be detrimental over the long run. “You’d have to be consistently doing crappy things over a period of time for that to happen,” she says.
Soffer would concur. “I believe that one bad review or one less-than-successful project is not going to damage anyone’s career. You can come back from anything. In the theatre, we don’t have the impact of failing that film has. You can fail with a company and it may impact your being hired again by that company. But really, it’s only going to hurt you if you don’t bring your best.”
Brown adds that another question to ask is, “why do this play, now?” As an African American woman, she says there aren’t as many roles available to her—and when there are, she has to ask what the roles convey. She believes that actors need to determine if they agree with what the character is saying and whether they want to be a conduit for that message.
Director Bill Peters, professor in San Francisco State University's School of Theatre and Dance, says that when he’s preparing students for acting careers, he tells them, “[T]here are certain things that pop out on a résumé, like major theatre companies and directors, both of which carry an enormous amount of weight. Next,” he says, “is the range of material that someone has exposed themselves to.”
So can résumé content have an adverse effect on hireability? Ennals remarks that if an actor is far along in his or her career but has 100 credits from only staged readings, class work, or companies she hasn’t heard of, she might question what that actor is doing to get to the next level. “I don’t have an anti-community theatre sentiment. I have seen excellent work in those theatres,” she says. “But not all community theatres are created equal.” Still, she says, “I trust my eyes when I’ve seen someone good, even if the résumé doesn’t support it. We’ve all made choices we don’t love. If you did a show that you know was awful, take it off your résumé and let it die quietly.”
Knowing when one's hesitation about taking on a project is due to fear, however, is important. While Peters notes that actors can expose themselves to adverse criticism if the work is too ambitious, he also cautions against avoiding situations solely because of fear. Mallette adds that going out for projects that are scary in some way indicate that one is being challenged. “The [productions] that aren’t hard in some way are usually unfulfilling. If you want to grow, you have to take some risks.” She adds that the key is for artists to know what they want, where they are and what steps to take to achieve their goals.
Similarly, Julie James, artistic director of the Jewel Theatre Company in Santa Cruz, agrees that actors should know both what kinds of projects they want to work on and what makes a project worth their time. “You want to work on a project that is going to be legitimate in at least one way for you to learn something,” she says. “And it may lead to other opportunities completely separate from that project. There are many more reasons to take on a production than not.”
What if worst comes to worst, and the show you’ve taken ends up being a bomb? “Oh well,” says James. “Your job is to fail better next time.” Adds Soffer, “If I’m in a production that crashes and burns, if the Chronicle says I stunk up the room, my job is still to bring the best I can. The theatre gods expect that of me.”
And perhaps there is one upside to a bad experience: you’ll have the juiciest tales to tell your fellow actors in the green room the next time you’re in a fabulous production.