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The Working Actor

Road Rage

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Road Rage
Dear Michael:
I recently went through a rough experience involving my first professional tour and am desperately seeking advice on the situation. I'm a nonunion actor who frequented a local community theater. The author of a fairly well-known children's book series and collaborators created a musical based on the series, used the theater as a venue and cast amateur actors, then hired us for a national tour of this musical. During rehearsals, we started working with puppets created for the show. While working with them, the muscles in my left arm became inflamed. The use of my arm became limited, and I was laid off until after the Christmas break. I was sort of puzzled, because I hadn't even gone to a doctor to get a diagnosis and see how long it would take me to recover.

About a month later, they flew me to the tour's next venue to watch and get worked in. Upon arriving, I was told some of the cast members were starting gossip and rumors and that I should maintain the mindset of just being happy to be there. Castmates told me the manager had been favoring certain people, buying them gifts and having them report any rumors. I learned there'd been a quarrel between the producer and director and that the director would not be returning after Christmas break. One castmate said, "If this is how regular show business is run, I don't want to be part of it."

I watched for a week, then was thrown in without rehearsals. I missed one cue. The next day, the choreographer came to my room and scolded me for not knowing the choreography, telling me I was too shy and should ask more questions and that shy people don't get anywhere in this business. How was I supposed to have memorized choreography that was never taught to me? My one official "rehearsal" lasted for 10 minutes after a matinee and focused on the puppets. The producer happened to be there and complained that I wasn't handling the puppets well enough.

One night the tour manager had a party in a suite at the hotel. Older crew members and some of the cast (her favorites) became so intoxicated and out of control that police were called and everyone was asked to leave the hotel. I didn't know about this until I was called to a meeting, basically consisting of the manager chastising everyone.

A week after the leg ended, the tour manager called to say I was no longer needed for the production. She gave no reason. I called the choreographer, who claimed the show was making budget cuts and that I wasn't the only one being let go, none of which was true. I've gotten no explanation and was thoroughly confused by the behavior of the tour manager, who had told everyone she had a position with Equity.

Is this how normal shows are run? Do I have to get used to this sort of behavior? Was it my own fault I got fired? The only rationalization I've had for being fired was that while laid off, I got a haircut that may not have been to the producer's liking, but I wasn't under contract when I did. Or it might have been for missing that cue the first time I went on. This has been on my mind for so long, and I really would love a professional's advice on it.

—Really Confused
via the Internet


Dear Really Confused:
I know how it is when you care about your work and professionalism, try to do your best, and still get a raw deal. In answer to your questions, no, this is not how professional shows are run, and no, it wasn't your fault you got fired. Most of the confusing, outrageous stuff you experienced has to do with the production's nonunion status. Actors' Equity Association has strict protocols dictating the circumstances under which someone can be fired (missing a cue or getting a haircut isn't adequate grounds), the handling of company-member injuries, and so forth. These rules can protect us from at least some of the insanity and abuse.

But Equity isn't a panacea. Even in an Equity show, people who join an existing cast have no guarantee they'll get rehearsal before being thrown into a performance in front of hundreds or thousands. What can you do? That's what keeps showbiz exciting, and it makes for a good story later on. But just to be clear: Going by your description, it certainly sounds like what happened to you was unprofessional, unfair, and a bit cuckoo.

As for the gossip, the rumors, and the way show people sometimes treat each other, well, I'm afraid there is no union protection against that. We're a crazy, emotional bunch, and drama isn't unusual. Producers and directors scream and rant and say terrible things to their actors. Choreographers can be monsters and make their dancers cry. Fellow performers can be downright sinister. And the road can bring out our worst if we're not careful. As the months and the cities rack up, we can get restless or sick of each other. And that's when the rumors and feuds and politics and cliques can start. And if the show is bad or the housing is uncomfortable, it's even worse. Seasoned pros learn to skate over all the muck and mire and keep a sense of humor, but it's easy to get drawn in or fall prey.

Please know that it's not always like that—not by any means. But with younger or less-experienced show folk, it's not uncommon for things to get vicious. It also can happen with performers who stay on the road too long. Still, rest assured that much happier experiences lie ahead. You'll find each job has its own vibe, and future ones will seem like a skip through the tulips compared to the one you've described, especially once you get your Equity card. Just don't expect all the craziness to disappear. Instead, embrace it as part of the profession we've chosen and a characteristic of the colorful people with whom we work. Hey, it beats the hell out of an office job, right?

I don't normally plug my own work here, but for a glimpse into life on the road with two professional Equity tours, you might enjoy my book, "Letters From Backstage" (you can find it on Amazon.com or at most theater bookstores). It should make for an encouraging comparison.

Whatever you do, don't despair! You just had a weird, difficult gig. That's showbiz.


Any questions or comments for The Working Actor?  Please email Jackie and Michael at theworkingactor@gmail.com.  

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