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A Panel: Crazy for You...the Stage - Panel of Top Artists Analyze This Screwy Business

A panel of top theatre talent recently tackled the intriguing topic of "craziness" in The Business. But the success of these distinguished artists indicates they can't be quite as "crazy" as the discussion's title suggests.

Actor Tony Roberts, widely recognized for his roles in Woody Allen films, is also a popular theatre actor with many credits, including "Victor, Victoria," on Broadway. Dancer-actress Donna McKechnie was the original "Cassie" in "A Chorus Line," and touts a resume with credits galore. Carol Hall is lyricist and composer of "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," as well as many other shows and songs.

The discussion took off on a light note, but the panelists' thoughts soon turned serious.

What does "crazy" mean in this context? Panelists initially spoke about having chosen a lifestyle with no "job security," frequent rejection, and long stretches of time working hard for little or no money-certainly not what most of society views as the ideal work life.

Each described his or her artistic development, wrestling with personal issues that helped or hindered growth. And each spoke of feeling driven by the need to continue doing creative work.

"The need to communicate is always there," said Roberts. He recalled the enormous feeling of discovery and growth he experienced when he was a drama student at Northwestern University. "We performed classics, modern works. We discussed them." His professors had an enormous influence on him. He has carried that spirit of exploring throughout his career.

The trauma that actors experience with constant rejection comes from the fact that "it's you they're rejecting, unlike in other businesses," noted Roberts.

McKechnie described having to adjust to the fact that different kinds of roles are available to women as they grow older, "but the need to work is a driving one, so adjust you do."

We Are Family...

The panel talked about one show business problem less likely to confront people in other lines of work: the intense closeness, the family feeling, which often builds within the cast of a play or a film. When the play has "run" or when filming is over, the group disbands. Some friendships survive. Other close relationships disappear. Each panelist described the feeling of losing a family-and then developing a whole new family on the next project. Each had kept some old friends from previous "jobs" for years. But other associates had gone by the wayside as each moved on.

The audience's questions took a different slant-how to balance the creative drive with maintaining relationships with family members and friends who simply didn't "get it."

McKechnie described working hard to maintain her relationship with her brother and sister. Hall mentioned friends "back home" whose lives focus on very different things. "I speak to them in one way; but I have many friends who also write and are involved with music and other areas of the business, and I speak with them about that part of my life."

The panel made clear the artist's need to have other creative people in one's life, who understand how consuming a project can be, and the irregularity of the lifestyle, the erratic schedules, and occasionally rocky finances.

"In the end, it's the work which keeps you going," said McKechnie. "That desire to do this work is a driving force that is always there."

The panel took place at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health's Institute for Performing and Creative Artists, founded by Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon to allow performers access to inexpensive psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Director Jennifer Lyons Roberts, who planned the program, noted that the institute is expanding its focus beyond performers to artists in many creative fields-writers, photographers, visual artists, and others.

Programs offered which deal with performers' problems include "Surviving the Audition," "Maintaining Creative Vision," "Juggling Career with Survival Job," "Obstacles to Success," "Relationship Issues," and "Career Transition." Planned programs will deal with "writer's block" and problems that hold artists back.

The Center is located at 124 E. 28 St., NYC 10016. To receive information, call (212) 831-4809. For an appointment, call (212) 576-4190.

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