The Irrelevance of Being an Actor
By Laurence Luckinbill actor
The New York Times, July 19th 1970
Relevance and bread. Comfort and commitment. I haven't stopped trying to get it together, you know, within the system. Now that the Weathermen have defined the outer limits for me with an explosive exclamation mark, I must face the fact that I like the system, by and large. It is not only that I don't want to be blown up while stepping out -of the elevator to go. read for an enzyme-detergent commercial in the Pan Am building, it’s also that I guess I believe in systems, generally, and I know that no matter whose it is, there will always be one. For me, it's largely a matter of how much room in the middle they give the sane ones to do their thing. To me, the theater is a sane thing. Considered in the abstract, it stands.on the delicate middle ground between action and reaction, subtly shadowing both. I remember a photograph in The Family of Man of a dead soldier, lying on his face in a ditch. He is American and the war is Korea, but he could be Viet Cong, Ibo, or Persian. The caption is from Aeschylus, telling what is important: “Who is the slayer? Who the slain?" it says. This is what the theater can do.
All the more unfortunate then, that the theater is dead. There is no longer either relevance or bread to be had within the system. We are all - those of us who are left - continuing out of sheer reflex of habit and/or the hope of relevance, or television, where the oldest American illusion of happiness - richesse - can still be realized. In the 10 short years since I came to New York - prepared for a life in the commercial theater where I would use my talent and training in exchange for a living wage- I have seen any hope of this dwindle to almost nothing.
I have been totting up my balance sheets, in other words, and it comes as something of a shock to realize how little, economically speaking, the legitimate stage has meant in my life. It may be a shock to you too, dear 4 per cent of the upper-middle-class, culturally speaking, to find out that your all there is. If you cancel your subscriptions next fall, we’ve had it. And this would cause not an eyelash to flicker in the other 96 per cent of all the people in the country to whom the theater never speaks, and who couldn’t care less if it did.
Leaving them, a silent majority if there ever was one, out of it - since they are, it seems, permanently - let’s us 4 per cent get into this issue of bread a little, since we have to assume that it is fully as important to me as it is to you. The thing is, you haven’t got enough of it to support me - entertaining you in style can be an expensive luxury for me. Recently I with five other actors, got together on an Off Broadway project called “What the Butler Saw,” a high comedy face by the late English playwright, Joe Orton. We opened to generally excellent reviews and are considered a hit. In this worst of all seasons we are doing all right, but not great.
Now, since actors are paid, Off Broadway, on a sliding scale depending on profits, this creates certain difficulties. If a show closes immediately, I’m only out about a thou, but if it is a hit, it can bankrupt me. I’ll explain by laying out my own finances - which are by no means extraordinary - for you. I have a wife, child and mortgage. For the four weeks of rehearsal and previews of “Butler,” I took $67 per week. My expenses - including parking, gas, meals out, singing lessons (nine out of ten Broadway shows are musicals, Oh Ethel, don’t ask!), the nurse who takes care of my son (my wife works), mortgage, phone, lights, food and Pampers- run above $300 per week. Thus, for the period before opening, it cost me more the $1,000 to be in the show. I am now taking home around $100 per week. Thus, if I were to be in this hit show for one year, it would be possible for me to end up $11,700 in debt. Even if I were getting the top salary payable on the sliding scale, I would end up over $5,000 in debt.
This is my seventh Off Broadway show. My third hit. I will have made - including a year in “The Boys in the Band” - about $12,000 over 10 years Off Broadway. Now add my two Broadway shows, and one year at Lincoln Center, shake well and spread out- and slide rule handy, I work out the total, divide by 10 and come up with , ah, right, $3,700 per year for my labour in this vineyard. You’ve no doubt heard all the arguments for government subsidy of the theater. We don’t need it. Actors subsidize the theater.
This spring, my wife telephoned a window washing service in Brooklyn for an estimate on doing out house. It came to $75 for a day’s work. Naturally, she argued with Manny Schmidlap, the manager, explaing to him that that was as much as her husband made in one week. “Nobody works for that,” he coughed contemptuously. “All right,” she told him, “you want to know who works for that? Off Broadway actors.” A moments silence. “Then,” said Manny with the light Bay Ridgean irony, “maybe he should quit acting, and go to work!”
Right on, Manny!
In “Butler,” four of the six of us are married, with families to support, or help support. One is maintaining a double residence, since he lives out of the city. Of the crew, tow have under-3-month-old infants, one rents a house on Fire Island, only one is young enough to have no obligations beyond himself. It is a fairly average group in all respects - settled, committed theater people - not a willing gypsy left in the crowd...all dues paid. Before we get into why such a group is willing to go on subsidizing an important branch of the American theater, we have to answer how. How, indeed?
You must first realize that we were all ecstatic to be, cast in the show, because, in the constant 1930's atmosphere of the theater, every job is a Big Break! There is no logical progression, as civilians sometimes think, from Off Off Broadway, to Off Broadway, to Broadway, to television and movies. It's catch-as-catch-can all the way, even for established "names” - a constant scrambling in the least obvious begging position manageable, with lots of waiting in hallways. Nevertheless, most actors survive because they have lots of cojones, and even manage to look successful because it’s important to protect producers from feeling guilty that they are keeping you in poverty. Salaries depend, in this unhealthy time, not on status based on a logical progression in craft, but on the whim of price-fixing producers who decide among themselves what the going rate above scale will be this season. The way ends meet in most acting families is by both husband and wife working whenever and wherever possible - on the road, commericals, soap opera, stage work anywhere - even the children work, usually in commericals. Actors seldom take vacations, other than the forced kind, and they tend to live, even when making money, simply and unpretentiously, as indeed they should.
An Off Broadway show is undertaken as an investment in one’s career, much as a manufacturer might reinvest most of his profits in new machinery at a given point - the difference being, of course, that the manufacturer at least has reasonable assurance that the investment will pay off. Actors have no such logic to back up their decision to live on the money they saved from six months on a soap opera in order to do a play. Actors talk about their “careers” as if they were insurance adjusters. I think they’re kidding themselves. I don’t think seven or 15 or 30 Off Broadway losses, spliced by the odd film, stint on a soap opera, or Broadway comedy or musical which pays a living wage, over a whole life-time can be called a “career.” I don’t know what to call it - a “careen,” maybe.
Admittedly, money is not all one works for - there is also advancement in prestige, master of a craft, the seer joy of working (yawn), and it is true that work on the New York stage is still the only place to acquire that reputation which makes you the most desired commodity of the moment. For instance, Jimmy Jones worked for years and no one knew him from Billy Jones, and even though he was as great in “The Great White Hope” in Washington as in New York, if the play, by whatever fluke, had not come to New York, Jimmy would still be plugging away around the circuit. And even after GWH, he is back Off Broadway, this very day - working, one assumes, at scale or very little more, to do a play he wants to do, to extend his range, to prove himself again where it is supposed to count. He, as I, as a hundred others lucky enough to be working at all, are working for love. We may not love much, on the surface, but what else would you call it?
But before you tell me to cut down on expenses, take the subway, carry a brown bag of salami sandwiches to work, fire the nurse, and move to a rent-controlled sixth-floor walk-up, in order to balance my budget - I ask you, would you do the same for your job? Are you so in love with the law, or corporate accounting or sales engineering, to do that? Then why ask me to? I am 35, have two degrees, have trained for 10 years to do what I do- more than most doctors. Do you expect me to take less for my life than you expect to get for doing your thing? That’s un-American.
Perhaps the theater was never meant to be a commercial activity. It is, after all, sprung from religious roots, and has its real soul in a kind of celebration of the changes of the earth’s year and men’s minds. Why else do we still call it a “season” of theater when the scrambling, opening, and closing goes on year round? To be sure, our theater celebrates fall (the best time to live in the city) as the ancient Greek theater celebrated spring (the best time to live in the city-state?). But the Greek actor did something else in the winter - he acted mainly during the celebratory period- and his psyche rested in between. In New York, there are 13,000 anxious psyches waiting on tables, selling shoes, and restlessly running out to audition for every play someone says he might put on, paying dues for their little white card, talking, thinking, and dreaming theater constantly. These people haven’t got time to consider whether the theater is relevant in a cultural sense, they are too busy trying to reverse its negative relevance to their own daily lives. Out of that group, only about 500 “known” actors get a chance to test that relevance by attempting to contribute something they may or may not consider important or describe as art, by appearing on one of the city’s stages during a given season.
Relevance, then. The dictionary defines the word as coming from a Latin root meaning, “to relieve,” and further, “bearing upon or relating to the matter in hand.” Surely, the theater relieves a few people in a few ways, laughter chief among them- but it’s the second meaning that interests me. If we mean relevance int he sense in which students use the term- that tending to violent, revolutionary, social change - the theater is not relevant. If relevance is making use of the best energies of a segment of society in order to vitalize the rest of it, the theater is not relevant. If it is to interpret and communicate the present day to those who must live in it, the theater is not relevant. If the matter in hand is the survival of our nation through unity and understanding, the theater is not relevant. If it is to preserve the sense of humanity’s ability to bring order out of chaos, the theater is not relevant. If it is to assure us that we are noble and godlike, the theater is not relevant. if it is to communicate on a one-to-one basis a simple tribal story to all the members of the tribe, the theater is not relevant. The theater is irrelevant, because, no matter where you are working in it- Off Off Broadway, Off Broadway, Broadway, regional or university theater- you are reaching always the same audience. The top 4 per cent of the upper middle class, considered culturally, educationally and economically.
In other words, dear Kultur Maven, we are all in a closet together, a rather small closet, shouting at each other. We influence only each other. There is no pervasive power in the theater. It is not a leader, but a camp follower, On any given day at any given place in this city, stop, look around, and try to imagine how how many of the people surrounding you have been to theater recently. Do you think they miss it? I taught middle-class college students in Queens who had never once been to the theater and who would never have gone had I not appropriated money to take them myself. Their parents had never been, and their children will never go.
With a few exceptions- a few street theaters and neighborhood theaters scattered around Manhattan- theater does not exist for the people of this, its capital city. And has not for two generations. A trip to the theater is as impossible of conception for most New Yorkers as a walk in space. So who are we kidding? I know a group of students who recently turned down a grant of money to do theater, in order to concentrate for nothing on political action. They were theater students. In fact, the may have been right, for unless one’s sensibilities swell at the though of entertaining one’s friends and co-workers. (I, for one, have been aware for a long time that I work almost totally to please the people I’m working with and those I respect in the business - and, although that doesn’t seem totally wrong, it isn’t right, either), or a few commuters from well-off suburbs, a few conventioneers wand buyers from the rest of the country, a few coerced students, arid a few social Manhattanites who see everything that’s in and avoid the really possible experiences, it’s difficult to construct a reason for doing what I’m doing with my life.
The horrible reality is finally sinking in to a lot of the front-line troops. There is a horrible malaise in the land of make-believe - a further complication, as they say, in the already moribund corporeality. It’s leukemia. The bloodstream of the theater - those dumb fools, those “subterranean minds,” as David Susskind chose to call us recently the actors, are ill. It happened spontaneously during the rehearsal period of “What the Butler Saw.” Suddenly, one day, we came up against a real despair- we were into a scene, trying to work it out, and everybody just stopped, sat down, and looked at each other. Cambodia had been invaded, four white students killed at Kent State, closely followed by two blacks at Jackson, Miss. Hard-hats were rioting in support of the war or in hatred of students, and were being congratulated at the White House. Stocks had fallen 80 points to a new low. The police were being investigated for graft, the air was unsatisfactory, strikes threatened postal service, garbage pick-up, telephone service, building services. Brownsville was burning. An 8-year-old drug addict was discovered in Harlem. And we were doing our comedy.
Well, that was all right- there’s sanity in humor- and our play has magnificent characters like the inspector who announces that he is from the “the government, your immediate superiors in madness.” And lines like “radical thought come easily to the lunatic,’ or, “an olive branch may be used as an offensive weapon,” and an ending which includes the sentiment, “Love must bring greater joy than violence.” The problem was not that there was not time for comedy, particularly this one. The problem was, and is, that what we are saying is inevitably to be directed at the already convinced. Not a single person, very likely, in Brownsville, will hear those lines. If they did, they wouldn’t get it, because they never saw a play before- an art that requires almost as much as it gives, in which reciprocity is a very special human contact and joy. We despaired because we were investing in nothing. We are plowing back 50 per cent of our incomes each year into an occupation as peripheral as a company that making plastic candy for display purposes only. We are constructing a limited, throwaway product for a minority market that buys it in that spirit. No more is expected of us. Once we had some communal-creating magic. Now we are barely more than polluters.
As a result, we are dying as a craft, as a brotherhood, as a totem. here is a boredom with the very idea of communication. I once invited a group from the Open Theater- a group I was learning with for over a year- to do some workshop exercises and answer questions in a lecture hall at the college I taught at in Queens. I wasn’t able to be there, but the outcome was awful- the audience didn’t understand the exercises and asked all the stupidest questions- but the worst thing was the reaction of my confreres. They hated the audience for being stupid. The hated the questions, and they hated the experience of having their precious exercises open to questions like, “What’s that noise for?” The Open Theater was Closed to those who didn’t understand. But how could exiles understand? A friend of mine, who has achieved a glowing reputation in the press as an interpreter of nervous schizoids, turned to me recently, half-stoned (he hadn’t worked for four months and just discovered himself to be $8,000 in debt) and said, “We’re passe. Actors are passe. To be an actor is a bad thing now. I feel like an alien. What I do doesn't mean anything.”
The point is that actors have begun to lose respect for their own craft. I suppose that is not surprising in a society where planned obsolescence has induced a loss of self-respect in every kind of craftsmen, and particularly those in phased-out occupations like mine. The stage doesn’t even serve as a sensible training ground for film work. Filmmakers want “real” people- people with an exploitable, unself-conscious “quality.” This simply deal out of the market a whole range of actors who have spent years training to be able to present in large scale the quality of people other than themselves. These people have no particularly interesting “life-styles” and on screen they tend to be too “dramatic” to be “real.” Poor flopping fish, beached by a receded sea, with just enough flesh left on their bones to bait scavenger birds like the critic for New York magazine, who plucks out their eyes and slanders them in a shrill scream.
Sad, eh? So adjust, you say, like the industrial worker who is being replaced by the computer. Retrain. But actors are lovers, not fighters. We don’t know how to change. We are mostly Indians, very few chiefs, and most likely will suffer the same fate. There is a possible answer, it seems to me, in the return of the neighborhood theater- and I really mean neighborhood. Not, for instance, a Brooklyn Lincoln Center, run by bankers, doing the plastic classics, but the Brooklyn Heights Buskers, the Crown Heights Cothurni, the Flatbush Farceurs, the Mill Basin Mummers. Really serving a small neighborhood.
If the theater were once again as cheap as the movies, and you would walk there from home, and fall in and out as casually as you visit a Carvel stand on the corner, maybe it could be like it was in all those old Donald O’Connor flicks: ‘Hey, kids, c’mon, let’s get together and put on a show! Sally, you do costumes, Manny, you sell tickets, and Joe, you direct. Me, I’m gonna dance! Now if we can just get that Broadway producer up here to Camp Wackawacka...” Maybe it could all end like the last scene from “Career,” that overwrought play of the fifties about the life of an actor, where somebody turns to the main character, who has finally made it after years of incredible hardships, reverses, and a near life-time as a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant, and says, “Was it worth it, Sam?” Sam just smiles enigmatically, turns, and goes out for his final curtain call. He stands there for a moment as the ecstatic bravos- his real payment- wash over the footlights in waves of love, then he bows, humbly, but proudly. Right on, Sam!
My friend, the one who’s $8,000 in debt, ordered his third martini and stared at me. It was raining and he couldn’t leave, so he had been rambling on about a project he had been “thinking about doing.” Getting some plays together, touring around, hitting some of the towns, “you know, see if I like it.” He had played softball with some Actors’ Studio guys in the park four days straight, and it was too much. He was tired- too tired, at 30, to do that. He drained his glass and looked out at the rain splashing on the concrete terrace of Lincoln Center. “I don’t know what to do, man,” he said, “ I just don’t know what to do.”