Monday, May 05, 2008

Nicholas Martin Repeats the Theatre's Biggest Lie

Thanks to Art at Mirror Up to Nature for linking to the Nicholas Martin interview. Nice choice of quotations to feature, Art. I'll let Mike Lawler discuss the staff cuts, but I will say this: is this some sort of new trend? Did the artistic directors go to some TCG workshop where a consultant described how they could improve their balance sheet by eliminating staff?

I'd like the address this particular quotation:
MARTIN.The really, really good young people - you can have them when they're just in college and just after. They're quite right, they go to New York. I don't blame them, they have to make a living. A really hot theater town - which Boston wants to be so badly and may be someday but really isn't yet, if I may say so - in a really hot theater town, a good actor can earn his living doing theater. And when [celebrated local actor] Nancy Carroll has to work a day job, that's just wrong.
In the novel The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho describes "the world's greatest lie," which is "that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate." The theatre has its own version of the world's greatest lie: that are lives are controlled by place.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote: "One of the problems in our tradition is that the land -- the Holy Land -- is somewhere else." He follows this up by talking about a section from the book Black Elk Speaks, in which Black Elk describes his vision: "He says he found himself on the central mountain of the world. And the central mountain of the world was Harney Peak in South Dakota. 'But anywhere,' he says, 'is the center of the world.'"

Nicholas combines two great theatre lies into one quotation: that the center of the world is New York City, and that it is possible for a young actor to make a living doing theatre there. Do we really need to rehash the argument against this? The Actors Equity employment figures, for instance? Do we really need to discuss whether there is a need for more young actors, even "really, really good" ones, In New York? If there is a need for actors in New York, I would venture to say that it is a need for an entirely different demographic -- say, "really, really good" middle-aged men. But young people? Dime a dozen. But the center of the theatrical world can be anywhere, as long as it is where you are actually doing theatre.

What Martin is talking about is not really "making a living" in theatre, but rather participating in more auditions. There is no arguing that there are more auditions in NYC on a weekly basis than anywhere else, more by far than a single actor can possibly take advantage of. What is the value of all the auditions that you can't attend?

And while there are many, many auditions, the ranks of the unemployed in New York are so huge and the over-abundance is so tilted toward the young end of the scale that even if you are "really, really good" the likelihood of making a living in the theatre is infinitesimal. But we keep repeating this lie, sending our young, talented people off to NYC like they sent the soldiers of World War I over the tranches to certain death from machine gun fire, because we can't think of a different way to do it, a different story to tell.

I agree with Martin that young actors should go where there is the best likelihood of working as often as possible. Actors get better mainly through trial and error, by being in front of audiences and figuring out what works and what doesn't. The same is true of directors and designers -- practice is the best teacher. But what you are going to get the most practice at in New York is not doing theatre, but auditioning. And maybe networking.

Of course, part of the problem is that someone like Martin, who is in a position to actually employ young actors, doesn't want to actually grow good actors, he just wants to pluck them ripe from the tree.
They have to be "really, really good" before he'll touch them. It is the super market approach to theatre, where somebody else does the spade work for you. George Steinbrenner is the ultimate example of this in action -- don't develop players, just buy them after somebody else does the work.

Well, for young people, I would argue if you really want to have a career in the theatre, figure out the best way to get yourself in front of an audience as often as you possibly can during your younger years. Any audience. Work work work. Then debrief debrief debrief. After every show, try to figure out what worked, and just as valuable figure out what didn't AND WHY. Be honest, be critical, be focused. Use your stage time to learn and grow, not simply to self-promote.

I would argue, contrary to Martin, that New York City is NOT where young people should go. If you are moved to see NYC as your final destination, I would argue that you would do better to do what Moliere did: spend some time learning your craft in the "provinces" BEFORE you head for NYC. Moliere BOMBED in Paris the first time, because he got an opportunity to perform for the court before he really knew what he was doing. So he took his company on the road for over ten years before he ventured back to Paris again, and to eventual triumph. During that time, he worked constantly and grew as an actor and as a playwright. That's what young people should do.

And that probably means being part of a company, and there are many people who are afraid of that. But if you have a group of people all of whom are committed to working and developing, even if it is just doing plays in church basements or living rooms or on the back of a pickup truck or on a wooden stage in the park, you will become a better artist.

I'm not talking specifically about a theatre tribe here, although you could use that model. I'm just talking about doing work any way you can, and doing so by being in control of the work that gets done rather than hitting the audition circuit and relying on other people happening to pick plays that are just right for you.

Don't let your life be controlled by fate. Take active participation in your life.


Tony Adams said...

That's a big reason a lot of young actors head to Chicago before going to Nyla-

Ben said...

I agree with everything in the above post, Scott...everything.

But what about those young actors who aspire to be in a Broadway show? I have many talented friends who've left Minneapolis for NYC. Every time it happens, I feel like punching them in the face and screaming "are you crazy". But they're not crazy. They just have a different goal than I do. My goal is to make a living as an actor. Their goal is to appear in a Broadway show...something they can't do in Minneapolis.

Now personally, I think that's kinda dumb for the simple reason that Broadway show doesn't always = the best show. I think you can find Broadway quality work in many non-Nylachi places. But not every actor would agree with that statement.

I guess if you want to be able to say you're a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, you kinda have to live in or around Rochester.

Director said...

Agreed. I've got friends who want to pack up and move to Nylachi and try and break into these big name theatres, and I keep telling them that just because they have a B.A. in Drama from some backwoods university in Alabama and that they got cast as the lead in Grease (namely because the talent pool is so small) doesn't mean that they're going to make it in NYC. Here, there's only one short, chubby guy with red curly hair that can sing decently and pull off the look of the Mayor of Whoville in Seussical: the Musical. In NYC, there are five hundred people who are shorter, chubbier with hair that is redder, curlier, and voices that are better. How can they possibly compete? My answer: by getting experience.

Another friend of mine wants to pack up and move to Chicago to break into Second City. He's fresh out of college as well. My advice was to tour the country with a touring group, get his acting chops there -- you learn a lot more working for a good professional company that you ever will at a university. After a few years of work and several professional credits to his name, he'll me that much more likely to get a spot at Second City.

To extend your metaphor, if you want to be a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, you still have to go to med school. Likewise, if you want to get on a Broadway show, you have to either be extremely extremely lucky (a la Harrison Ford) or you have to have practice -- and lots of it.

nick@ said...

And collectively the theatrosphere sighs, “There he goes again.”

Since I am the Last Comic Standing on the debate scene now, I guess it's up to me to kick this dead horse a few times. Scott just can't help himself from dragging this old rotting corpse of a rant against the "New York lie" on stage again.

Scott said,
"The likelihood of making a living in the theatre is infinitesimal. But we keep repeating this lie, sending our young, talented people off to NYC like they sent the soldiers of World War I over the tranches to certain death from machine gun fire, because we can't think of a different way to do it, a different story to tell.”

Scott returns with the same ol' same ol' fire and brimstone rant. But does the preacher practice what he preaches? Because there is no doubt that the Mega-Church purveyor of this myth about "making a living in theatre" would have to be the universities with its professors that convince parents and students to spend tens of thousands of dollars on education toward a theatre career.

So if Scott is telling his university students and parents a "different story" about how to make a living in theatre, he is merely replacing one lie with another. If students leave his school to go foraging in the woods of Kentucky, trying to convince the hill people to come watch them perform theatre under tents, they’ll go crazy or starve much faster than if they went to Nylachi.

If you are young Equity actor wanting to learn and practice your theatre craft, you should go to New York. Actors run many of the small companies in New York. There are more than a 1,000 showcase productions a year in this city. If you are a young non-equity actor wanting to learn and practice your theatre craft you should go to Chicago. There are more non-equity production companies producing quality alternative theatre than any other city. The Jeff Awards having a non-equity category underlines the importance and prestige the Chicago theatre community places on this work. If you are a young non-equity or Equity actor wanting to learn and practice your theatre craft as you make a living in film or television, you should go to LA. There are many 99 Seat Plan companies run by actors who produce quality alternative theatre while working at day jobs in film or television.

But if you want to make a living as a theatre actor anywhere in these United States of America…. Feggedaboudid. Play the Lotto instead.