Thursday, April 15, 2010

Once Upon a Time
I just watched a (to me at least) wonderful documentary called Every Little Step, about casting the revival of A Chorus Line.

The original came out in 1976. I was in high school and didn’t care about anything but being on Broadway. When this show came out I memorized the original cast album before it ever toured to San Francisco and dreamed of winning a Tony Award one day.

A Chorus Line was powerfully influential on my life. It was the first glimpse I had into what was really required to make it on Broadway. Although I was an actor, not a dancer, I bought the script and poured over it. It took away (in a good way) my illusions about moving to New York and having the town welcome me with a golden key and a contract.

Up until then I hadn’t really thought about what I might be facing. I knew I was a good actor. (Trust me, I was.) But A Chorus Line made me realize that wasn’t enough. I had to be tough. I had to be prepared for rejection. I had to accept the fact that for every “yes” there would be a hundred “no’s.”

I went on to study acting in college but eventually gave up because my ego just wasn’t strong enough for the constant rejection. For me the hard part was that I typically wasn’t turned down for my acting skills, but because I’m not beautiful. The reason I know this is because I heard it – over and over.

Acting is a hard profession. And a blunt one. Casting directors will come out and say things like “have you ever considered getting a nose job?” Or “You’re not physically right for the lead, how about the plain looking best friend?” In the past I overheard conversations about me that admitted I gave the best reading of the night, but I just wasn’t pretty. Um...ouch.

After years of this I gave up. Never having had much confidence about my looks, I found that my insecurities were stronger than my desire and stopped acting. Plus I got tired of being the dorky best friend. I wanted leads. But it began to sink in that nobody was ever going to cast me as Beatrice or Hedda Gabler.

Honestly, I have no regrets. I had a great time. Did some crazy things in my youth. And am very happy I never moved to New York to wait tables and get bitter. I love my life here with Husband and my wonderful friends. None of this would have happened if I did what I planned to do when I was 16. And I wouldn't trade what I have now for a mantel full of Tony's.

But watching this documentary brought back a lot of memories of my time in the theatre. The friends I made and, sadly, lost (being an actor in the 80s in San Francisco meant you had a lot of gay friends and, therefore, got hit hard by the AIDS epidemic). The roles that I learned, loved and still, oddly enough, remember dialog from.

In watching Every Little Step I saw who we all used to be. Young and idealistic. Still believing in anything. Living on ramen and hope. Working for no pay on crappy shows for the sheer joy of being on stage. Doing workshops. Going on auditions. Writing plays with your friends when there were no good roles. Working two jobs then putting in a full night at the theatre, getting off work at midnight and having pancakes at an all night diner before getting three hours of sleep to do it all over again. Putting on scenes in cramped studio apartments and falling in love, at least for the moment, with whomever you were co-starring with.

It was wonderful to see these young, hopeful, confident faces in the film. Kids with the kind of courage I couldn’t find. And to remember, for a short time in my life, I was an actor.


Duke said...

Interesting take on your body image and how others affected your ability to get roles. They were horrible to you but acting has always been a brutal profession I guess.

Since I have absolutely no talent of any kind, acting (or anything in the arts) was never a consideration to me. However, if it were I would have had trouble too. Actors cannot have a sense of shame. They must do whatever is asked even if it offends you personally. It means doing nude scenes, rather graphic love shots, violence, or whatever repulsive activity is in the script.

The elite A list actors can pick roles and turn down ones they don't like but that isn't an option for anyone else. Especially true for new actors, if you start turning down roles you'll find the phone stops ringing.

As a result you end up making gory zombie flicks where you blow the heads off people. You'll be doing skin shots for no reason than the director wants to add some nudity for eye candy. You'll wear whatever outfits they provide even if it's torn apart, see through, or indecent. Your dialog will consist of horrible words just stuck in the script for shock value. You have no say in the matter and if you complain you'll just be replaced.

Actors can't be bashful or shy about displaying their body. They can't be picky about subject matter or dialog. They are paid to act and when they rebel it's not tolerated.

I would have trouble with all that myself even if I had a body like Adonis. I could not put myself on display for money.

Decca said...

Actually, Duke, I was one of those actors with no shame. I did a topless scene once and really had no qualms. It was a great role in a great play and the scene was necessary to the plot. And hey, I was 19 and game for anything. I never got to the point where I refused roles because they bothered me.

Of course theater tends to be different than movies, less zombies and more lines.

In fact, the hardest thing I ever did on stage (far harder, oddly enough than taking my shirt off) was giving the Nazi salute. That gesture is so objectionable that it was always hard for me to do. The never really did get over feeling guilty every time I did that move.