The Ups and Downs of Success: Theater artists between jobs

Unemployment“There aren’t enough cocktails to help me understand why I continue to be an actor! This shit is for the birds!”

Thus begins the Facebook entry by Joey, a dancer-actor-singer who played many roles along the U.S. east coast, but recently did not get hired for a new musical. He added, “People think our job is so glamorous, but truthfully, the glamour lasts for about 3 hours while the lights are up and the seats are filled!”

In solidarity, way over 100 friends “Liked” his public lament, and many readers wrote encouraging comments: 

“Couldn’t agree with you more. Been there, done that. I totally get it.” Some theatre artists even commiserated, “I’m sorry. It just doesn’t seem fair. I’ve been going thru this a lot lately, too. You are not at all alone!”

Unexpected advice from the world’s largest stage

The world’s largest stage, larger than all theatres in the world combined, the Facebook globe, brought out practical, funny, even heartwarming advice for Joey. One of the most moving and affirming responses came from one of the many patrons for whom theatre means the world:

“Every time I have seen you perform, you have always been great and always helped me escape from my real life (mortgage, taxes, school tuition, etc.). Keep doing what you do!”

Joey thanked his friends and announced that he would attend the upcoming musical at the Walnut Street Theatre: “Going to see if I can learn How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying! Happy Opening!”

Fear and sleepless nights: A successful actor’s reality

What audiences may not always see and what theatre critics rarely feature are the frequent psychological pressures and tough economic times in the life of an actor when the last curtain comes down. Joey is only one of many actors around the U.S. who has to deal with such issues.

In a recent interview, the successful Jeffrey Coon, who played the part of a corporate boss in How To Succeed—the show which Joey attended—talked openly about the similarities between the corporate culture in the musical and the culture of the theatre:

“Both cultures seem constantly consumed with ‘getting ahead’ . . . There is a certain amount of fear involved. Both require a certain amount of ‘schmoozing’ as part of getting along.” 

Coon concludes: “One of the things that I love starts and comes to an end relatively quickly. Impermanence keeps you unnerved, keeps me awake at night. You are constantly on the lookout for your next job, and that can become tiring.” 

Not to live and die on every success and failure: A director’s reality

Casey Hushion, artistic director of the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh, who directed many musicals all over the U.S., and even directed a show with the Boston Pops, left such a strong impact on several large theatres in Philadelphia that she was asked to direct How to Succeed. 

Hushion, like many parents in the theatre world, finds fulfillment “in between productions, when I raise my three beautiful kids. My family always reminds me that I have more worth than just my last show or a decision I made in rehearsal.” 

However, Hushion also addressed the dilemma of her many professional engagements.

“This business has many extreme highs and lows. I’m still working on psychological pressures every day and every show. The anxiety can get to me sometimes, but I am doing my best to learn how to manage it. It’s hard to not live and die on every success and failure. I’m trying to treat each show and any challenges as a way to learn and grow and to continue to become a better leader. There is always much to be learned from everyone around me and from seeing other shows. I hope that doesn’t sound like a self-help magazine, but it’s true!” 

Keeping up the momentum: A successful choreographer’s reality

Given the reality of the corporate and the theatre world, I asked Michele Lynch, the highly successful choreographer with a wide-ranging background in film, television, and theatre, how she structures her time in between productions: 

“I usually spend time researching or going after the next show. It’s about keeping up the momentum. Having a support group of friends is very important to me. 

“The creative satisfaction and the outlet that the theater and the workplace provide, all make up for the huge economic and psychological pressures in a theater career. Finding one’s voice drives a lot of decisions. The often very challenging downtimes make me question if I am doing the best thing for my life. And when the answer repeatedly comes up ‘yes’—I carry on. Ultimately, I have to live with a lot of trust and belief that the struggle is worth it.”

Jobless not too long ago, a rising American star today

Asked about the issues that practically all theatre artists deal with on a permanent basis, Jeremy Morse, the successful star of How to Succeed, shared these realities of the life of a young actor with me:

“I joined the Actors Equity Association, but then had an incredibly difficult time booking work. Unemployed as a professional actor, I lived on savings and help from my parents, and ended up working as a realtor, until I started booking work consistently as a member of AEA. 

“In May of 2010, I played Lo Cocodrilo, a crazy, fun, Mexican, kazoo-playing comedic villain in Bloodsong of Love at a little off-Broadway house in Manhattan, a role for which I received a Drama Desk nomination as ‘Best Featured Actor in a Musical.’ This nomination not only got me auditions, but up-and-coming composers and lyricists started asking me to do their readings and concerts. This situation allowed me to let go of my real estate survival job.

“So here I am today, doing How To Succeed at the Walnut Street Theatre. And yet, I still wonder what my next job will be, but I try not to let that dominate my life. Time between projects is a great opportunity to expand my network and skill sets. Whenever I have a couple of weeks between shows, I do a concert, participate in a staged reading, assist a director on a new musical, take a class, or do my own writing. If I need some money, I still could jump back into catering. I could also use Unemployment to cover those weeks when I can’t find that in-between work.

“Making my time as productive as possible, I find that I don’t have time to worry as much about the psychological pressures of job insecurity. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have a family that supports me fully as well as a great network of friends and artists in New York City and beyond.” 

The reality of those who didn’t get a call back for a show

Today, I asked Joey, who didn’t get called back after a recent audition, what he thought about the outpouring of support from fellow actors and theatergoers.

“I didn’t realize how a moment of disappointment would be viewed until the Facebook comments started to pour in. Even after being in this business for almost 20 years, it’s still a shock when you think you have done your very best to get the job, and it just doesn’t happen. It never gets easier. What I have learned is how to pick myself up and move on!” 

“Are you still thinking about leaving the theatre world, the theatre business?” I asked him. “That’s not happening anytime soon,” he said. “I know that if and when I stop performing, I’ll continue an artistic life. It’s all I know. And frankly, it’s all I want to do.”

And then, with renewed vigor and joy, he announced, “The good thing is Jeff [Coon] and I have started to create our own work as producers and directors. It’s something we’re very excited about, and we’re ready for the challenge. Our show, An Evening at the Cape May Summer Club, has the ability to be very successful both in Cape May, NJ, and, hopefully, in other cities across America.”

How to succeed in the theatre world without really trying?

So, Joey, no longer upset, channels his energies into a new project, a new phase in his life. Soon, together with Jeff, he will run auditions, schedule call-backs, direct actors and singers, and choreograph new dance routines. 

How to succeed in the theatre world without really trying? “Bloody unlikely,” as Eliza Doolittle would have said. Rather, Joey, the experienced dancer, will continue climbing up and down the ladder of success in the theatre world. Similarly, Jeremy Morse, the new star at the Walnut, together with Jeffrey Coon, Casey Hushion, Michele Lynch, and the entire cast—whose work will be seen by tens of thousands of theatre goers until July 13—must rise again from the bottom rung.

Break a leg, everyone. 

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com