We still tend to think of actors as living a life of glamour and fun. Oh sure, we hear their stories about how they live with insecurity, were shy, scrawny and ignored as kids, did poorly as students, and are positive after finishing one role that they will never get another.
For those who mostly love and live for the stage, much of that is true. Since I became a theatre commentator, I have had the privilege of watching and getting to know many of these performers, and have gained a whole new level of respect. It is not that only the theatuh defines a true actor. Nor is it that this breed are anti-TV or film: in fact, they constantly audition for guest roles and these days, with more and more shows being filmed in New York, they turn up often on Law and Order, Blue Bloods and The Good Wife.
As well they should -- and need to. The wonderful actor, Patrick Breen, told me that he made more money for one guest spot on an episode of a CBS drama than he did in a full season of doing Next Fall, an excellent and highly regarded play that went from off to on Broadway. (Breen is now a recurring character on the new series, Madame Secretary.)
A beautiful young actress named Carolyn Holding graduated from Harvard and then the Tisch School at NYU, and right away got a plum role in a Theresa Rebeck play in Vermont. Her reviews could have been written by her mother: "Get on an airplane and fly to Dorchester, Vt. to see a young actress named Carolyn Holding," read one. That was a year ago and she hasn't landed the next plum.""Despite the instability and insecurity, the rejection, the poverty, and the long periods of waiting for the phone to ring, there's nothing else as satisfying emotionally, intellectually, physically and dare I say, spiritually," says Holding.
She joins many others who began in theatre, do it for the love and not the money, and remain creatures of their craft. There are always a few stars, like Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane or Kelli O'Hara, (all who have done TV as well) who can rest pretty easily. But most do not rest so easy.
An actor like Jason Danieley, 43, is somewhere in the middle. This past week, I spent a little time with this charming singer-dancer-actor, who is in rehearsals for the first serious revival of Can Can in more than 50 years. It will debut at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and then likely move to Broadway. Danieley, a St. Louis native, knew early on where he was headed: he sang in barbershop quartets at Six Flags, honed his skills, and then came to New York. He has appeared in numerous shows, such as Next to Normal, and also performs in concerts with his wife of 18 years, " my soul mate and vocal partner," Marin Maizie. (A Broadway stalwart in her own right).
There are always sacrifices. The couple decided children would be too inconvenient with such a life. "I've almost always been away at least three months a year," he says. This past summer he performed with Chita Rivera in an acclaimed production of The Visit in Williamstown and then immediately went into Can Can, in which he not only sings and dances in the lead role, but does some serious fencing.
And did I mention he's simultaneously training for the New York Marathon next month, in the name of an Alzheimers foundation? "My grandmother ultimately succumbed to it," he says. "At the time, we just thought she was getting old and old people forget things. But she went on another ten years and it was hard to watch."
Like his peers, Danieley would take an episode or a commercial if it came along, but always with the notion of returning to the stage. Theirs is a life that is grueling: from the countless rejections to the first reading of a play they hope to be part of; to the backers' auditions where money is raised to get to step two; to the workshops; the out of town tryouts; and eventually, when the signs align, a Broadway run that entails eight shows a week saying the same words, singing the same songs, dancing the same steps.
Television and film actors will remind you that they work long days, wait around for hours in between scenes and so on. But their seasons are shorter, their paychecks heftier, and their audiences much bigger. They are the reel thing, no doubt, but you've got to have a soft spot for the ones who take to and remain on the stage.
People like Mary Ellen Ashley, who says she was "born in a trunk," basically performing since she was four. Now she's well into senior status but is constantly on the road in shows like "Steel Magnolias and White Christmas. She managed to raise a family and says "it was all about choices. There are many offers I turned down or auditions I didn't go to as they required travel." But like the others leading the true actor's life, there really was no choice. As Ashley says, "It becomes an extension of your inner self."