Call them indie, Off-Off-Broadway, downtown, or 99-seaters — these are the theatres where many actors begin their careers in New York City. Known for being open to veterans and newcomers, union and nonunion, Off-Off-Broadway can be the ideal community for new arrivals — if you know how to get your foot in the door.
There is no one way to network in independent theatre. Off-Off-Broadway venues, coalitions, festivals, and support are constantly in flux, and theatre companies often adopt informal policies regarding casting or membership. However, some Off-Off-Broadway actors have developed tricks for finding a foothold in the field of independent theatre.
Are You In This Scene?
Off-Off-Broadway began in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s in response to what its progenitors saw as the increasing commercialization of Broadway and Off-Broadway. Off-Off-Broadway has since become an official designation, one not defined by geography but by the size of the house: any theatre in New York City with 99 seats or fewer. It has retained much of that theatre-for-theatre's-sake spirit, but it has also come to represent a developmental stage for actors and other theatre artists in the early years of their careers.
Much of the union work at the Off-Off-Broadway level falls under Actors' Equity Association's Basic Showcase Code. Equity members can work without pay in shows with up to 12 performances in four consecutive weeks (plus an additional four performances in exchange for a $10 stipend and transportation costs). The ticket price is limited to $18, and the production's budget cannot exceed $20,000. Points are not awarded to Equity candidates working toward membership.
According to the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation (www.nyitawards.org), a nonprofit organization known primarily for presenting the annual Innovative Theatre Awards, there are approximately 500 Off-Off-Broadway theatre companies, which produce about 2,000 shows annually with an average budget of about $18,000 per production. Many of these plays and musicals are produced as part of the city's countless theatre festivals — such as the New York International Fringe Festival (www.fringenyc.org), which opens Aug. 8 and presents more than 200 Off-Off-Broadway shows each year — but there are also a significant number of groups that produce independently every season.
Special-interest theatres, such as the historically black New Federal Theatre, the People's Improv Theater, and Los Kabayitos Puppet & Children's Theatre, have also blossomed Off-Off-Broadway. And though the term often refers to work done in Manhattan, independent theatre in the outer boroughs — such as the Astoria Performing Arts Center in Queens and the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn — has grown in the past decade.
Shay Gines, a co-founder of the NYIT Foundation, says Off-Off-Broadway is an alternative to New York's commercial theatre landscape. "In most theatres, it's all about money," she says. "I think that Off-Off-Broadway is really starting to fill a niche in the New York City theatregoing public, because they need something that is new and edgy and much more affordable."
A Growing Community
The idea of a cohesive Off-Off-Broadway community is relatively new, according to Gines. She recalls "silos of organizations focused on their own work" when she arrived as an actor from Salt Lake City in 1995. But today there are several groups trying to address issues common to the city's independent theatres. In addition to the NYIT Foundation, there are the League of Independent Theater (www.litny.org), a coalition that unites Off-Off-Broadway theatres to address common concerns, and the Community Dish (www.communitydish.org), a consortium of independent theatre companies.
According to Gines, the biggest advantage of acting with Off-Off-Broadway companies is the "freedom to create on the fly. You can create what's in your heart without having to answer to commercial entities." That independence, however, does not rule out commercial success, says actor Evan Enderle, who moved to New York from Missouri in 2004. Enderle auditioned for the Bats, the resident company of the Flea Theater; was accepted; and as a result of one of his performances, acquired an agent. "Instead of sitting in EPAs waiting to be seen for roles I would have never been considered for, I decided to put my focus Off-Off-Broadway, where the opportunity to play more-rewarding roles was far more realistic," he says. "Playing a larger role in a smaller theatre makes you more visible to the industry." Last fall Enderle landed a role in the Flea's production of Bingo With the Indians by Adam Rapp, and he frequently auditions for commercials through his agent.
At the same time, Off-Off-Broadway is not for everyone, says John Clancy, an actor and co-founder of the League of Independent Theater, the New York International Fringe Festival, and the Present Company (www.presentcompany.org), an Off-Off-Broadway theatre. "People get discouraged because New York is so expensive and you often need a dumb day job to support yourself," he says. "There are people who work for 15 years in this scene and are still unhappy, and I want to tell them, 'You're living in a shoebox. You could have a porch if you left New York.'"
Clancy adds that although Off-Off-Broadway is not subject to commercial constraints, its offerings can be as prone to pretension as the commercial theatre's are. "In downtown theatre, a lot of people fall into righteousness and say, 'We're the heroes,'" he says. "But really, there's as much crap in 99-seat theatres as everywhere else, so you really have to know what you're getting into."
The Price of Submission
Casting notices and theatre company websites are good starting points for networking. In addition to BackStage.com, popular New York casting sites include ActorsAccess.com, NYCasting.com, and CastingNewYork.com.
Submissions, however, frequently get lost in a pile, and though actors are sometimes cast because they mailed in a headshot and résumé, it's not always the best way to find work. Lanie Zipoy, managing director of Manhattan Theatre Source (www.theatresource.org), says she would avoid public casting notices altogether if she could. "Submission is not the best way for actors to get work," she says. "We posted a breakdown on Actors Access and got 850 emails in a day."
But there are other ways to get involved in Off-Off-Broadway theatre and ultimately find acting work. The Flea, the Actors Theatre Workshop, and the 13th Street Repertory Company are among the many theatres that offer classes, workshops, readings, internships, community events, or other opportunities to meet company members and staff on a more personal level than auditioning provides. "It's good for actors to go find different writers' groups and workshop spaces in the city," says Zipoy. "You can be a part of readings and get your feet wet."
Sometimes collaborating on an original project is the path to take. Venues such as the Tank (www.thetanknyc.org) and Here Arts Center (www.here.org) accept proposals for group (or individual) projects, allowing actors to collaborate independently with each other as well as with directors and writers.
Smaller membership organizations such as Theater Resources Unlimited (www.truonline.org) and the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (www. hellohola.org) offer workshops, networking, auditions, or other services. Fractured Atlas (www.fracturedatlas.org), a service and advocacy organization for independent artists, hosts frequent networking events. And many theatre companies, advocacy groups, and online communities maintain mailing lists or online message boards to help keep you connected.
What with ushering, scenery painting, box office management, and envelope stuffing, Off-Off-Broadway companies are in frequent need of extra hands. Some have standard volunteering procedures. The New York International Fringe Festival gives a free ticket to anyone who volunteers a two-hour shift, while the Flea requires all members of the Bats to put in five hours of work.
Other groups, such as Emerging Artists Theatre (www.eatheatre.org), employ volunteers for chores such as program folding on an as-needed basis. According to EAT artistic director Paul Adams, the theatre does not invite actors to join the resident company unless they have worked with the group in some capacity — through volunteering, internships, or workshops, for example. "It's necessary that we see if people are collaborative and play well with others," he says.
Though it might be tempting to volunteer with as many theatre groups as possible, that could spread you too thin. Concentrate on one or two of your favorites in order to build longer-lasting, more-enriching relationships. Volunteering also demonstrates a commitment to the community, says Clancy: "I can usually tell the difference between an actor who is going to treat the theatre like it's some ghetto they have to climb out of and an actor who is going to stick around. There's very little room for posers in independent theatre, because it gets old very quick."
Committed volunteers typically develop a more rounded sense of the theatre, he adds. Because issues of space, money, and resources directly affect actors' work, it's useful to learn the landscape. "Some people are just actors and that's fine," he says. "But if you want to have the full experience, it's more fun when there's more ownership involved."
But not everyone believes that sweeping floors enhances artistic development. Inma Heredia, an actor and flamenco dancer who came to New York in 2003 from Seville, Spain, and who works in Latino and other Off-Off-Broadway theatre, says volunteering, although important, would take time away from auditions rather than serve her. "It's great to help and volunteer whenever one is available," she says, "but as actors our job is to be acting, auditioning, taking a class, attending a networking event always, every day. I can always be involved in some kind of creative project...and they can always lead to other projects and open new doors."
Most artistic directors appreciate actors who demonstrate knowledge of their company, says Gines. For that reason, it is important to research before attending a casting call. "Networking goes further if you've actually seen their work," she says. "Then they'll know that you're sincerely interested." She recommends that actors attend as many Off-Off-Broadway shows as possible to gain a knowledge of venues, personalities, and production values. Actors can also introduce themselves personally to artistic directors and members of the company rather than sending a cover letter or email.
Browsing reviews is another way to educate yourself about particular companies. Back Stage publishes more than 700 reviews each year, in print and online. The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Time Out New York also routinely cover Off-Off-Broadway. And there are countless blogs, including Theatre Ideas (theatreideas.blogspot.com), maintained by drama professor Scott Walters; freelance critic Garrett Eisler's The Playgoer (playgoer.blogspot.com); former Back Stage West editor Rob Kendt's The Wicked Stage (thewickedstage.blogspot.com); Back Stage critic Andy Propst's American Theater Web (www.americantheaterweb.info); and the nytheatre i (nytheatre.blogspot.com), maintained by Martin Denton, founding editor of the leading theatre database NYTheatre.com and one of the first writers to document Gotham's independent theatre community.
Getting Off Campus
A flashy college or grad school degree may not be an asset on the Off-Off-Broadway scene. There is no educational requirement in order to audition here, and education, says Clancy, can be a hindrance when actors are stuck in an academic mindset. "They're still trying to get an A," he says, "You're not getting A's here. You get a laugh or not. You get cast or not." For Clancy, talent and bravery override a résumé. "I've pissed off some educated actors by saying things like, 'Sure, that was an A, but this other uneducated maniac from Detroit is just fascinating; I can't take my eyes off of him.'"
Zipoy says university theatre spaces are often better equipped than Off-Off-Broadway venues, and the transition can be jarring for new grads. "One recent graduate told me he hadn't lifted a finger in the theatre since he was 14," she says. "And all of a sudden he's in Off-Off-Broadway moving sets. It's all very DIY."
One benefit of a college education, however, is alumni connections, says Zipoy, and if faced with two actors who delivered equally good auditions, she would cast the trained one over the untrained one. "We have very limited time to put on productions," she says. "In that scenario, I would prefer to work with someone who has experience."
Always Be Prepared
An Off-Off-Broadway audition is like any other audition, says Zipoy. Actors should staple their headshots to their résumés, bring the sides if they were provided, and have a website for casting to refer to. But Off-Off-Broadway can also throw some curveballs. As a beacon of creative expression, independent theatre is home to a lot of avant-garde work and atypical opportunities. Openness is an important preparatory measure.
Enderle says his first break into the Off-Off Broadway scene was a dance-theatre piece for Peculiar Works Project called Off Stage: The West Village Fragments, which took place on Cornelia Street in the West Village. "Completely, completely not something I had pictured myself ever doing," he says. "Needless to say, thus began and ended my career in interpretive dance.... But sometimes it's better to be doing something that makes you feel and probably look ridiculous than sitting at home and watching TV. At least you're getting your name out there."
One way to get on stage, grow accustomed to unpredictable circumstances, and network at the same time is to perform at open mikes and monologue slams at the Bowery Poetry Club, the Manhattan Monologue Slam, or the Nuyorican Poets Café. "Sometimes it's good to just get up there and see what you've got," says Zipoy.
Networking can be a discouraging experience, particularly in a place as big and busy as New York. After several cold shoulders, actors might feel compelled to leave the city and try somewhere else. "People are really afraid to quit," says Clancy. "But you don't have to be in New York to be a good actor.... It might not be for you." However, Clancy also believes that patience is often rewarded. "The truth is, New York takes about a year," he says. "By then you're settled with your job and your apartment, you've enjoyed the city, and now you can say, 'Time to work.'"
Heredia, despite her successes Off-Off-Broadway, has had to deal with her share of rejection, but she maintains the attitude that as long as you keep trying, you cannot really fail: "Every audition and every show you go to see is a networking opportunity. I don't see how you can be rejected if you think that way."