September 1, 2007

A Labor's Day Ovation for the Job of Acting

What actors do is alchemy of the highest order. They take a few printed words on a page, a dab of makeup and a few bits of clothing and transform themselves into completely different people. Using their emotions and imaginations, they transport us into other times, places and lives. We in the audience are not supposed to see the effort they put into any of this, and with the best of them we never do. So it's small wonder that we theater lovers so rarely think of acting as a job. But that, of course, is what it is and despite all the stories we read about the tens of millions some movie stars are paid or even the hundreds of thousands a few rare stage stars have made (hello, Nathan and Matthew), it's not a particularly high paying one for most of the folks who do it. The median salary for an actor is under $30,000 a year. So, with Labor Day coming on Monday, I want to recommend the excellent piece on five journeymen actors that ran in the New York Times last Sunday (click here to read it). The actors writer Campbell Robertson profiles range in age from 34 to 67 and have a combined 121 years in the business. They have all been hailed for their work and they are all struggling to pay the rent and put food on their tables.

None of these folks are well known but the worry and insecurities they confess are also familiar to more famous actors, as Frank Langella wrote in a 1989 essay that is one of the most moving things I've ever read on the actor's life. "Married, single, divorced, rich, broke, breaking in or holding on, the morning after Oscar, Tony or Emmy, or struggling along without recognition; whether we are newcomers, superstars, an enduring light, a flash in the pan, a has-been or a comeback king, from low self-esteem to insufferable arrogance—we are the seesaw kids," he says in one part. And for most actors the exhilarating swoop up into the air is short-lived, while the butt-scraping time on the ground is the norm.

There's been a lot of debate recently over whether the audience should applaud when a recognized actor makes his or her entrance on stage. Critics of the practice say it's disruptive to the flow of the play and that just as concertgoers hold their applause between movements so as not to ruin the mood the composer has set and instead give their ovations at the end of a piece, theater audiences should wait until the curtain falls (or in the case of a musical, a song ends) to show their appreciation. I haven't made up my mind how I feel about that but no matter how I feel about a play or production I've seen, I always clap as loudly as I can at the end when the actors appear for their curtain call. All of us—actors included—like to think of acting as a calling. It certainly demands devotion and craftsmanship. And it can be inspirational. But it is also work, very hard work. And on this Labor Day weekend, the theater lover in me wants to take some time out to applaud all the sweat that they almost never let us see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You (and the NYT article) make an excellent point. People don't think of acting as "work" but these profiles show, on this Labor Day weekend, that acting, or any artistry--and the struggles associated with making a living at them--are indeed Labors of Love.

Just in case the article disappears into the "pay per view" archives of the Times, there is a summary of it at my site as well.

Thanks for the post!