September 4, 2010

A Labor Day Celebration B&Me Style

Each September, as the nation indulges in its final-blast-of-summer festivities for Labor Day, this blog has celebrated the virtues of the journeymen actor.  But I’m changing up this year.  It’s still tough to be a working actor, to get a good part and even more to earn a living wage.  But the going seems to be even rougher for playwrights. 

So on Monday, I’ll be raising my glass and waving my banner for the folks like Brooke Berman, the talented but still largely unknown playwright who recently published “No Place Like Home,” a bittersweet memoir about the struggle to live as a theater artist in New York.

There are many more opportunities—plays and musicals staged on, off and off-off-Broadway, regional theaters and national tours, and even one-person cabaret acts—for actors to practice their craft in front of a live audience. The options are fewer for playwrights. Particularly for the unheralded ones like Berman who are still trying to break into the big time. 

These pups have to compete for stage time with the big dogs from Sophocles to Stoppard. And even those who do managed to get a first play produced often find it difficult to get additional productions (theaters like the fizz of being first with a new work) or to get a second play on the boards (unless the first made a tsunami-like splash). 

And yet, the New York International Fringe Festival, which closed last weekend, featured 197 works. Each got about a half dozen performances and most are unlikely ever to be seen again. And their playwrights were the lucky ones; hundreds of others didn’t even make the cut.  

But chances are they’ll all continue to scribble away during the coffee breaks at their day jobs and on the weekends in their outer-borough garrets. That's what Berman did and her “No Place Like Home” offers an up-close-and-very-personal look at what it can take to make it in the theater these days.

Berman is a relative success story.  She started out as an actor and was so eager to get into the world of the theater that she left Barnard after just one year.  She got a few gigs in the downtown theater scene and studied with Anne Bogart at Trinity Rep up in Providence but eventually when she began populating the performance pieces she wrote for herself with other characters, she turned to playwriting fulltime and got into the prestigious writing program at Juilliard.   

Her short play Dancing with a Devil was a standout at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1999.  Since then she’s written at least a dozen more and won all kinds of accolades, including fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and other supportive havens for artists. Her plays have been produced at regional theaters around the country, in London and here in New York.

But Berman’s life is also something of a cautionary tale about what it costs to be a playwright today. About half the plays she’s written remain unproduced. Berman has taught to supplement her income and after two decades of living in New York, recently moved to L.A. where she’s taken some screenwriting jobs.

The subtitle of her book is “A Memoir in 39 Apartments.”  That’s how many homes she had in the city between the time she was 18 and 39. Most of them—even when she was in her 30s—were shared with other people, some strangers, because that’s all she could afford.  Her wardrobe was non-vintage, pre-bedbug thrift shop. She often lived for days on a single pot of soup.

I was mixed about the one play of hers I saw, a wry romantic comedy called Hunting and Gathering that had a short run at Primary Stages a couple of years ago (click here to see my review).  But I was totally knocked out by her book, and moved by such passages as this one:

“I remember now when I was a kid and people would say, ‘A life in the theater?  That’s really hard.’ And, arrogantly, I’d think it wouldn’t be hard for me. But now I understand that it’s really objectively hard—for everyone.  I work in a profession in which there is no clear path, no ‘right way’ to go, and no reward for growth. Instead, there are a surplus of worthy plays and writers (and actors and directors and designers) and a deficit of opportunities to produce them.” 

But for Berman, and scores of other talented playwrights, there is no other home like the theater.  And without their labor, there wouldn’t really be much of a home for those of us who love the theater, particularly those of us who crave the thrill of seeing new works there. 

No comments: