A friend of mine invited me to the second preview of a new play being performed at the Henry Street Settlement last night. I was moved by the story, and the power of the experimental theater production. It was a story about how a play becomes a play. How a writer/director stole someone's life defining experience and wrote it down. The lead actress in this "play within a play" went on a hunt for the truth, and kept tripping on the minor complications that come with being an actress in New York.
The play is entitled "The Reenactors" citing the fact, that actors, are more than a mouth piece for a writer, or someone else's story. A theme, and question addressed again, and again, through the eyes of actors, directors, performers, and regular civilians. We follow this young actress as she tries to hold down a job, to make enough money to pay her exuberant rent, while trying to find work as an actress that inspired so many of us to pursue this art form. She falls into a few of the classic actor stereotypes, as do her friends. She sleeps with the director, does a maxi pad commercial, questions the writer's intention and the integrity of the script. It all comes to a boiling point when the director tells her that actors are just a mouthpiece, and attempts to quote Hitchcock that "All actors are cattle." Having none of it, and being completely intoxicated, she corrects him. "Hitchcock didn't say that ... 'All actors should be treated like cattle.'"
This really resonated with me as an actress who has been in a few productions, that I was in mostly to add a credit to my resume, or to meet someone who would then hopefully cast me in another production. But this also spoke to the truth about this business of theater. Egos have become more important than the work. Writers think they are infallible, and their words and genius are only to be given to puppets (actors), while a puppet-master (director) pulls the strings. Or, if you prefer, the Director is a god, and is granting the sniffling writer a break by bringing their own genius vision to interpret the piece. The actors are their "cattle" to be moved about the stage to say and do what the director deems necessary. And as much as I hate to paint this last stereotype of ego, I shall ... The actor thinks they're god and is doing the director a favor by being there on time, and gracing the writer with their stunning genius interpretation of the writer's ridiculous script, with edits as the actor sees fit, because after all, the actor is god.
These stereotypes have shoved theater into a dark bitchy corner that resembles the cafeteria of Mean Girls, with the largest egos holding court at their coveted head table. Everyone works together because they have to. You can't put up a show without a writer, director, producer, stage manager, actors, designers, and so forth. Everyone believes they are genius, or on the cusp of it, so you should be grateful that they are working with you, and your silly production. Some may say that I have painted the egos to large, and that certain people have a right to the ego they have, after all, they are genius. But it is a stereotype. They are all stereotypes. And yes, it isn't fair, and there are exceptions.
The one exception I will focus on is the actor. I am an actor, and yes I have noticed at times that I have had a bit of an ego, but more often than not, I have felt shuttled around the stage as a prop for someone else's art. And that is why, more often than not, actors get egos, or if you prefer 'bad attitudes'. No one wants to work with an actor who has an ego, or a bad attitude, because it makes them 'difficult to work with'. It's true. I've been on the other side of the table during casting. I've heard the conversations between directors, writers, and producers. They are more focused on who is going to make their process easier, than they are on who is going to make their process memorable. Yes I am painting with broad strokes, and it is not fair to many, but I need to in order to make my point.
My point, in all of this, is that the egos of other theater artists force those without egos to develop one. If you're an actor, and you show up on time, and do what you're told, say what you're suppose to, stand where you're put, you're considered a catch. Not to mention, you have to be able to do it all. Dialects (convincingly), sing (like a pop star), dance (better than a Rockette) and have the chops of a young Meryl Streep (not that you'll use them). A wonderful actor, easy to work with, kind, generous. You get cast more often and this breeds resentment among other actors, and often yourself. You got into this business to interpret experience, and now, you are basically just a prop. You spent money on classes where you learned how to sword-fight, on the off chance that you will need to be an expert swordsman for a production of 'Hamlet'. You study with the latest and greatest acting teachers, because having their name on your resume is a foot in the door, whether or not you are talented. Other actors accuse you of not being true to the craft. If you get recognized, you get shot down by your fellow actors who aren't in the production, because you were just a mouth piece.
The problem, with the art of acting, is that it's dying from lack of recognition. More often than not, casting decisions are made on who has the most Twitter or Instagram followers, not who is the most talented. The thought is, if you have followers, you can convince them to buy tickets, and thus make the show money, and earn you paycheck. This is more important to producers, directors, writers, than an actor who takes a risk, and tries to tell a story in an honest, unique way. Telling a story, and contributing to an experience is a difficult thing to do honestly, and only the really good actors manage to do this.
Unfortunately, these actors are more focused on their craft, than writing a witty quip for Twitter, so they won't get cast in a role that needs their unique voice. So these good actors make sacrifices. You don't do your "acting homework" in order to gain a larger presence on social media. You focus on trying to pick the perfect filter for your snapshot of rehearsal, and not finding the right way to color a line so it resonates with an audience, that will be witness to a beautifully unique experience that comes with going to the theater.
So how do we save the art of theater from the social media hungry world that we have created? I don't know that we can. Social media is that double edged sword that everyone wants, and hates, to use. It gets your message out, it brings in an audience, but if not used properly, you don't have a production that people will tweet about and bring in more audience members. Thus is the conundrum of independent theater in New York City. There are so many shows, productions, artists, that unless you gain a following, you're not guaranteed an audience for your production. But if you have an audience, how do you deliver with a cast and crew of people who are marginally distracted from their art, because they're trying to gain more followers, and a larger network, so they will get a larger role in their next project.
The brilliance of "The Reenactors" was that it shed a light on the actors lives. How they live with their minor little roles, how they manage to present themselves as professionals in a world where they are treated like props. They find a way to be convincing, and strive to be better at their craft, even though their strides are blatantly ignored, or belittled. And even though they are a product of the world they live in, they still manage to be supportive of one another, and sympathetic to the trials they all face.
At the conclusion of the play, one of the actors gets a job in a production that will tour Europe for three months. She is excited and thrilled, not because she gets to travel Europe on someone else's dime, not because it's a paying job, but because the piece "has room in it". Room for her to explore her craft, and create something honest, and fresh instead of the constant cliches she's forced to portray. It was one of the most honest moments of the evening. And it was then followed by another: two actors, while working a "survival job", end the play by talking about what it is they do as actors. They find the "hidden sadness" and breath life into it. They share the experience of one, so that it becomes the experience of many. I have yet to meet an actor who didn't want this. I want this. I owe a huge THANK YOU to the playwright, Juliana Frances Kelly, for being so eloquent and honest about a group of artists who are looked down upon. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I hope more brave and honest artists make a change and take this risk with you.
London Griffith is an Alaskan born, Montana raised, Southern influenced, New York Actress. She occasionally writes about her life and experiences of being on the verge ...