Friday, June 20, 2008


As I think I’ve mentioned in this space (and I know I said it at the Barksdale “Coffee and Conversations” roundtable on critics), it can be easy to overlook directors in the recognition of a show. Actors’ performances are in the forefront and the work of the designers is conspicuous. A director’s influence is everywhere and therefore in some ways nowhere. I think directors are sometimes not mentioned in reviews because it is hard for the critic to see or to know what the director had to do – beyond the obvious – to make the show work. Did he/she have to prod performers to get certain things out of them? Or did he/she have to rein them in and get them to focus? Was there one guiding principal that informed their direction or did they work it out scene by scene? What was their biggest challenge and how did they overcome it?

With a show like “Compleat Wrks” – where success seems so dependent on the interplay and the skills of the actors – the work of the director is particularly easy to miss. But coaxing that interplay into existence doesn’t just happen by itself. So Mr. Hamm is correct is saying that Matthew Ellis deserves recognition for guiding that play to success. And in my post yesterday, I mentioned the choreography without giving props to Patti D’Beck who was both director and choreographer. I’m trying to get better about this stuff, people, really I am!

So back to G&D and its visiting lead actors and the connection to Daisey’s indictment of regional theater… I haven’t seen “How Theatre Failed America” but I can at least respond to Rick’s comments.

I find his anecdote about the failure of TheatreVirginia while the downtown performance project was kicking off pretty troubling. The amount of money that can be raised to support a building – in contrast to a group of actual living people – is somewhat sad. Having said that, there has been discussion on this blog about the draw of nice venues. People respond to spectacle and there are few spaces, at least in Richmond, that are capable of supporting true spectacle. And venue debate transcends the arts world: what is the big contention for so many sports franchises these days? Upgraded venues. The reason Richmond is losing the Braves has nothing to do with how good the performers (aka players) are or what they’re paid; it’s all about a new stadium.

There are aspects of the situation facing actors that are analogous to other challenges in our current business environment. What’s one of the first things that turn-around specialists do in the corporate world? Cut the labor force. The use of out-of-town actors – isn’t this just a variation on out-sourcing? Instead of Hewlett-Packard looking to India for customer service people, you have regional theaters looking to New York for actors.

I work in the computer world 9 to 5 and I see how it favors flexibility these days; you can be an expert in one hot technology but then another technology becomes hotter and you have to adapt. Is the theater world much different? For working actors, the multi-talents seem to have the most success – if there's no work in straight plays, their ability to sing or dance (or run a light board or build sets) enhances their ability to stay employed.

But while thoughts like this may be great for making rhetorical points, they don’t address the grim-ness of the situation for actors. As Rick says, “actors…are a dime a dozen, flown in from New York to live in a dorm for 7-8 weeks with no connection to the community they are working, spending their one day a week off back in New York auditioning for their next gig somewhere else... Our society loves stars and celebrities...working actors are an entirely different breed.”

I think about all of the actors whose work I love and who have already left, or will soon be leaving, Richmond because they can’t make a living here. I also think about an actress like Rita Markova (this blog will not be “all Rita, all the time,” really, I promise). I don’t know Ms. Markova but you can tell from her recent credits that she moves around a bit. She seems like one of the itinerant actors to whom Rick is referring. She is lovely and she has amazing skills. As I mention in my review, she breathes life into a potential two-dimensional role in “Guys and Dolls.” In the Havana scene, it isn’t all about Sky for her. Her increasing abandon isn’t just a loss of inhibitions, it’s a rediscovery of vitality, a sense of relief as she sheds the burden of her mission-related anxieties. She comes to life in that scene and she brightens up the stage when she does.

Someone like Ms. Markova could land a role on Broadway or on a soap or even in movies. But those are often “lightning-strike” type events, rare and hard to predict. Isn’t the American dream about how anyone working hard, with a certain amount of skill and a modicum of luck, should be able to succeed? Should someone have to wait for lightning to strike before they can settle down in one place, maybe raise a family, and make a decent living?

Sad to say, I don’t have any solutions or even many suggestions. But I do know I’ve rambled on here (just as I feared) long enough. So I’ll go ruminate some more and see if I can think of anything helpful to say. In the meantime, please feel free to put forth your ideas.


Angelika HausFrauSki said...

I think the most frustrating thing is when the roles that are outsourced are ones that could easily be played by a number of people in the local talent pool.

I understand that B'dale has to have a certain number of Equity actors in their shows, but why not just offer Equity contracts to local jobbers instead of shopping for talent elsewhere? This is especially frustrating when it comes to young adult female roles, because the amount of female talent from age 18-35 (typical "ingenue" range) in Richmond is unbelievable. There are slews of really gifted young women in this town who never have work because either the theatres aren't doing shows that utilize that talent or the ones that are cast from out of town. It's a little ridiculous.

Not to knock my alma mater, but the demographic breakdown of talent at VCU was similar...mostly women, and many of the male actors didn't sing. So what show did they choose? The Civil War, a musical requiring 14 tenors and only two female principal roles.

It makes no sense. I know that many complain that there aren't many shows written with strong female roles, but when that's your talent pool, find those shows! Dig for them if you have to, and use them!

God bless Henley Street for slating an all-female production of "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern" this season...they saw this well of talent at their auditions and found a way to utilize it, and I heartily applaud them for that.


Anonymous said...

Dave, you may have to get used to all your favorites leaving town, with some coming back from time to time. The good news is that actors are in fact plentiful, even the good ones! You will always have a long line of newcomers to fall in love with while they cut their teeth in Richmond before they too move on to bigger & better things. Who knows, like the Richmond Braves, perhaps our beloved town is destined to be nothing more than a fantastic minor league farm system for the bigger markets. Even then, they may not make it outside the farm. I guarantee you that even your beautiful Ms. Markova shows up at a call in NY and walks into a room of 50 women who are every bit as talented as she is and it’s a shock when she looks around the room to realize that SHE is the ugly one! I know its hard to believe, but it would be true sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I’m not sure I see the analogous relationship between the corporate and theatre worlds here. If a corporation is looking to down-size or cut labor costs, then yes, outsourcing is a possibility. The same job may be done at less cost by another company or service provider. However, in the theatre world, I don’t see how you SAVE money by bringing in out of town talent. Barksdale must use a certain number of Equity contracts, so the pay issue is a wash. But housing & transportation costs must come into play.

IMHO, the importing of talent is certainly not a cost savings. I see it as an artistic and marketing decision more than anything. Directors will bring in the actor to best fit the role, one who meets the artistic vision. Opening auditions up to out of towners stocks the talent pool with more fish, so to speak.

Producers hope that an actor’s out of town credits will add credibility to the production in the eyes of theatre goers. (It’s the whole “He’s from New York; he MUST be good!” thing. To which my response is often, “If he’s that good, how come he’s not working in New York??” :-) ) I’ve seen this in many regional theatre communities. I once tried for months to get an audition at a theatre 2 miles from my home. Then I traveled to Atlanta, 1,500 miles away, for a cattle call audition, and the theatre company called me back and offered me a role.

Bottom line is, most shows have a specific number of roles to fill (though in musicals, the size of the ensemble may vary). Occasionally, you can cut costs by casting actors in dual roles. But for the most part, you need the same number of bodies on stage in a Richmond production as in other regions. Where those bodies come from and what they will cost must be weighed against what value it will add to your production and attendance.

I think actors are quicker to adapt than most, having to switch roles with every production – one day the villain, next day the victim. The question is: how much flexibility will this theatre community afford them? For many actors, myself included, the greatest fear is that they will be pigeon-holed. “He does comedy really well! But he’s certainly not a dramatic actor...” Or, “She’s got a great singing voice! But we don’t use her in straight plays...” For some, leaving the region means being able to stretch their artistic wings, to work with directors and actors who have no preconceived notion of what they’re “capable” of. And some simply like the change of venue every once in a while. Some actors are inherent gypsies, preferring to see the world while they work.

I think the only solutions are too incredible to realize. How, for example, do we convince the entire theatre-going community that out of town talent is no better than local talent? (And then, how do we make producers realize that shift?) How can theatres generate enough revenue to keep a community of actors employed full-time when most can’t make it now without some sort of financial assistance from grants, sponsorships, donations, etc.?

Maybe the best bet is to relax about it. Keep working hard at every turn. Make the best of every production, every opportunity. And count yourself very lucky indeed to live in a society that values this art form as much as ours does. There are so many in this world that don’t have the luxury.

Anonymous said...

I think that just about everything joepabst said is spot on. Out of town actors do deepen the talent pool, and bringing them in is the opposite of outsourcing: it costs the theaters more to import them than it does to use local talent. In the cost cutting world of theater, theaters must be importing actors for a good reason.

There's another factor that hasn't been discussed in depth, though, and that's the artistic benefit. As with many cities that are small ponds, the artistic atmosphere in Richmond often becomes stagnant. Out of town actors, or even just the threat of importing them, engender competition, and competition tends to make better products/producers.

You learn that lesson quickly in New York, as soon as you sit down in your first waiting room with 40 other people who look just like you, each with good resumes. To survive in that atmosphere, an actor must work tirelessly to improve their skills, looks, etc. This is something that the Richmond theater scene lacks. The same people work over and over at the same theaters, and there's a dearth of fresh blood to keep the heart of Richmond's theater vital.

Like it or not, I disagree with joepabst when he says that out of town talent is no better than local talent. For some parts, that may well be true. For many parts, however, that's just not the case. The average working New York actor will be stronger than the average Richmond actor, simply because of natural selection. They don't have the time to rest on their laurels that local talent so often has.

I hope Richmond will continue to welcome out of town actors, directors, designers, playwrights, and audiences, and look at them not as lecherous predators, but as a means of challenging a comfortable community's standards and expectations.

Angelika HausFrauSki said...

You know, it's funny. I've been to a lot of auditions in my life, for a lot of different kinds of work, in a lot of different cities, NYC among them. And I have yet to walk into a room and see 50 people who look just like me. I think it may be just because I don't look like anybody else...a side benefit of badly breaking my nose in the 6th grade that I never could've predicted. :)