August 30, 2008

Another Labor Day's Ovation for Actors

Around this time last year, The New York Times ran a series of mini-profiles about blue collar actors, the folks whose names seldom appear above the title, whose faces are often only vaguely familiar. Their tales of very hard work, relatively low pay but continuing devotion to their craft made a fitting Labor Day tribute, a reminder to us theater lovers that acting is a job as well as an art. And they still do. So in case you didn’t get a chance to read those pieces when I recommended them last year, you can do so now by clicking here.

Or, if you’re in the mood this Labor Day weekend for a more uplifting and entertaining view of the journeyman actor’s life, pick up a copy of “Letters from Backs
tage: The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor,” an account of 18 months in the career of the actor Michael Kostroff as he crisscrossed the country in touring productions of The Producers (he played in the ensemble and understudied the role of Max Bialystock) and Les Misérables (he was the innkeeper Thénardier) from 2002 to 2004. Kostroff (that’s what his friends call him) is perhaps best known as the sleazy lawyer to the drug kingpins in the HBO series “The Wire” but he’s also a song and dance man who has survived in show business for over 20 years and the author of a no-nonsense advice column in Back Stage newspaper called “Working Actor” (click here to check it out.)

His book, as he explains in its preface, started off as emails to his friends and eventually morphed into stories about life on the road with a big traveling show. In samizdat fashion, the friends started forwarding his accounts to their friends, cast members began asking for copies and strangers even put in requests to get on his listserv. Finally, in 2005, Kostroff collected his reports into a slim 209-page valentine to show people.

This isn’t one of those air-the-dirty-linen tell-all books. The way Kostroff tells it everyone he works with is hugely talented on stage and good company off. Alas for those of us who relish back stage gossip, the one or two exceptions don’t get named and don’t get much ink either. But in between all the bonhomie, “Letters from Backstage” offers glimpses into what hard work acting can be. Like how
touring companies perform eight shows a week and then often spend their day off hustling to the next city on the itinerary. Or like how traveling cast members often have to pack hot plates, lamps and even light bulbs to create some semblance of a homey environment as they move from one economy-priced hotel to another. Or like how these actors have to prove themselves over and over again in auditions for the next part no matter how good they were in the one before.

But Kostroff, who says he didn’t get his first paying job as an actor until he was 30, refuses to complain. Like so many stage actors, he has never appeared on Broadway and yet he works steadily and is grateful for that. “Being on the road isn’t always
easy, and it isn’t always fun,” he writes. “But even with the ups and downs, this is a great job. Eight times a week, we get to entertain thousands of people. It’s a job I dreamed of. One which I’m fortunate to have.”

We theater lovers are fortunate too. Actors like Kostroff are the backbone o
f the theater, the ones we see in regional productions, national touring companies and big Broadway hits when the stars leave after the first or second season. “In our business, working at all is, in itself, an accomplishment,” Kostroff writes. It’s an accomplishment that deserves more recognition than it gets. Kostroff is currently appearing as Max Bialystock in a Gateway Playhouse production of The Producers that is playing in Patchogue, Long Island through Sept. 13. If you see it, give him an extra round of applause for me.


Anonymous said...

i agree with you blogger- i have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. kostroff in several wonderful productions in NY & LA and it is true - he is one of many "backbone" theatre actors who deserve our appreciation for the work they do- here here

Unknown said...

I have an autographed version of "Letters from Backstage." I LOVE Kostroff!! Especially as Herbie in Gypsy! Oh, how wonderful!!

jan@broadwayandme said...

How wonderful to discover there are so many Kostroff fans! Many thanks to all of you who hunted this entry down and special thanks to Anonymous and Village Tribune for commenting on it.