In which everything I thought I knew is a sham.

What in the actual hell am I doing with my life?

Let me rewind a bit. Singer and Broadway veteran Melissa Errico recently went crazy (or has perhaps always been crazy, by mere dint of being a musical theatre actress) and has been writing a bizarre, meandering, adolescent-like blog about the circumstances of her unplanned departure from the recent off-Broadway revival of Passion. The situation sucks, but it’s kind of an hilarious read on account of her being that actress; the one who devours Rousseau’s epic Julie just because it’s mentioned passingly by two characters in a scene in which she does not even remotely figure, and then rapturously brings it up to the show’s authors only to find out that duh, of course they haven’t read it, because they are not insane. It’s also semi-infuriating as a whole, because it just reeks from top to tail of an obscene amount of self-involvement and beauty-and-finance-based privilege to which she seems entirely oblivious. Anyway. That whole career train wreck aside, something in one of her entries gave me pause, and I haven’t been able to shake it since first reading it a couple of weeks ago. She was discussing her contract for the show (which she had forgotten to sign, because she was too busy being in “her heaven” to understand or care about complex, arcane, earthly things like “clauses” and “direct deposit forms,” despite being in the business for literal decades) and she revealed that her payment for the production was $550 a week.

Five-hundred and fifty dollars a week, for an Equity principal in a critically-lauded, successful off-Broadway show. Five-hundred and fifty dollars a week to work directly with John Doyle and Stephen Sondheim. Five-hundred and fifty dollars a week before taxes, agent fees, and Equity dues. Five-hundred and fifty dollars a week to live on. In Manhattan.

Here’s the thing: I am never going to be a big, famous, theatrical success. I mean, the odds wouldn’t be in my favor in the best of circumstances, but as it is, I am very tall (unchangeable), very fat (changeable to a point), and neither pretty nor photogenic. I have zero dance skills, some passable acting skills (but zero creativity), and a voice that is limited (though what it can do, it does the ever-loving shit out of). In a world where the upper-echelon divas need to be camera-ready and able to belt up to Es and Fs, there is no room for a dame like me, which means if I were really going to try to make theatre/performing my life, I’d have to resign myself to playing a very specific set of roles in niche markets. Which I was fine with. I’d made my peace with pragmatism ages ago. But the thing is, I think I still entertained the notion that once you reached a certain level in your career — say, a principal role off-Broadway with the likes of Judy Kuhn — you’d be making a certain amount of money. Enough to let you live in New York, not just survive.

I am currently making $250 a week before taxes at my current non-Equity gig, for eleven weeks, and due to a series of circumstances which are nobody’s fault but my own, that shiz has to last me until the end of 2013 (pre-paid, rash-decision-made-in-better-times Disney World trip aside). It is hard. Especially when you’re trying your damnedest to eat mostly veggies and lean protein because you’ve grown weary of small children mistaking you for an errant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. And I’m not paying any kind of rent or utilities or bills or health insurance premiums or anything else. That is basic food-and-gas money. Yet I’m struggling. If I added even one other kind of financial obligation on top of the few I now have, I’d be flat broke within a month. It sucks, but it was also — to my mind — a necessary ladder-rung. Yeah, I’m making beans, and yeah, I can’t afford a place to live and will still be in my childhood bedroom when I turn 30, and yeah, I’m frustrated with this show and my performance and almost every single aspect of my life at present…but. It’s another credit for the resume. It’s another eleven Equity points. It’s another step towards the day when I’m getting paid enough at gigs to afford all I’ve ever really hoped for in this life; namely, a stable, clean place to live, basic life-necessities, and the occasional vacation.

But there is no guarantee of stability at any stage in this business. Jana Schneider was nominated for a Tony for her turn in Drood, then was let go from her next show because they decided to skew younger with the cast, then left the business entirely to try photojournalism for a while, then went cuckoo-bananas and wound up on the streets before they shuffled her off to bedlam. People who’ve performed on Broadway now eke out their living via endless master classes. Dancers open studios, as do singers. Actors give workshops. The bulk of performers are, more than anything else, in the business of supplementation. And if there’s one thing I’m really crap at, it’s every single thing that isn’t actually being in a show. I’m definitely not musical enough to teach. Hell, I have no idea what’s going on with my voice. After countless hours of schooling, I still am baffled by the terminology and the concepts of what the voice can or cannot do and how, because none of it seems to apply to my particular set of pipes. So. Kinda boned on the “income from the arts” front. And as for real-world skills? Non-existent.

And I’m mad. I’m mad and disappointed and depressed because I was so sure I had it figured out. I found the thing that feels right, and I had the good fortune to be at least semi-talented at it, and I set what seemed to be reasonable, attainable goals, and now it turns out that what I thought was practical was just as absurd as building your life plan around the idea that Richard Branson might one day spontaneously adopt you and bequeath you his multi-corporation empire, allowing you to spend your twilight years drinking floating globules of cocktail in your zero-gravity space-lounge a few thousand miles above the Sea of Tranquility.

So now it may be time to acknowledge that as much as I love it, theatre and performing are not going to get me where I want to go. Theatre is not going to be worth the upwards of $70,000 in student loan debt I’d incur by the end of my time at NDNU. Theatre is not going to make sure I’m cared for and comfortable in my old age, when my gene pool (which is so heavily pre-disposed to going nuts that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that my great-great-grandfather was some kind of cashew) finally rears up and destroys my brain and any tenuous sanity I may still possess. Theatre is never, ever, ever going to give back even a fraction of what I put into it, monetarily or otherwise. Which once again begs the question: What am I doing with my life? Or, more accurately: What the hell do I do now?

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3 thoughts on “In which everything I thought I knew is a sham.

  1. I’m in a similar boat and I AM in Manhattan. I hear ya. It’s a shit show. Sincere Support Systems can go a long, long way.

  2. Yeah. That’s a stressful line of thought. The joke about actors being waiters? It’s a stereotype for a reason. Acting on stage doesn’t pay. Enough. Sucks. But dang NDNU is expensive. I’d rethink taking on any of that debt too.

  3. Your words are profound Orth! Intelligent and well thought out in your delivery. This hits very close to home for me. EVERYTHING you said about theatre is absolutely and irrevocably true, especially the “business of supplementation.” As ALL actors know, this is a business of 3 major things: luck, who you know and being in the right place at the right time. Being a Bay Area actor for the past 16 years, I’ve learned that theatre has NEVER payed, has always been unstable, and is painfully temporary. My talents are limited as well, but the thing that has saved me for these past 16 years, is that I’m completely aware of it. I know what I can do and what I can’t do, and I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks about it. I’m driven by my passion, my heart and my love for theatre. Unfortunately, it’s much easier for men to sustain a somewhat steady streak of bookings in the Bay Area, but any actor working in theatre, has to have another source of income. I have visions of bigger things outside of Bay Area theatre, but would be totally content and happy if it didn’t happen for me. I’ve discovered that the work will continue to come because of the relationships I’ve built with most theatre companies in this area, and at 39, there is no sign of me slowing down. I’ve done the best work of my life in the last 6 years. The first 10 were spent learning, studying, experiencing what I could, performing in shows, without the process being institutionalized and drowning in massive college debts. I understand that the day job is necessary, in terms of stability and matters of finance, but my true escape, my true love, my calling, is to perform for an audience. There is no better satisfaction. I’ve been lucky enough to have been hired pretty consistently for the past 16 years, but if Broadway came a calling, I’d end theatre as my supplemental income. Now, of course, this is just me, personally. Everyone has different dreams, goals, hopes and visions of what they want. The point is, I’m almost 40, and JUST figuring this all out. You gotta find your gimick! The older you get, the more everything will make sense for YOU! Just keep plugging away, and work your ass off. Do your best, and the best will come.

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