Academic journal article About Performance

Waiting to Be Seen: A Photographic Exploration of New York City Actors

Academic journal article About Performance

Waiting to Be Seen: A Photographic Exploration of New York City Actors

Article excerpt

Give me somebody to dance for

Give me somebody to show.

Let me wake up in the morning to find

I have somewhere exciting to go.

To have something that I can believe in.

To have someone to be.

Use me, choose me, God, I'm a dancer,

A dancer dances!

Cassie, A Chorus Line

The 1975 musical hit A Chorus Line offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the lives of performers auditioning for a chorus job in a Broadway show. As each character exposes aspects of their aspirations and anxieties through song, dance, and monologues, we glimpse, and are led to empathise with the hardships and vulnerability associated with being a performer. Perhaps most revealing is the way in which each of these people wants-yearns-to be seen, to work, and, ultimately, to be validated in their chosen path. The actors represented in A Chorus Line are close to desperation in their desire to be given a chance to have somebody to dance for.

The themes in A Chorus Line resonate deeply with today's crop of actors and performers in New York City, pounding the pavement as generations of actors have before them, but now with additional hardships: skyrocketing rents, exorbitant costs of living, and the all-but-insurmountable debts from education and university training programs. For some, these pressures are too much: many young artists leave the business before their time, or never start at all.

Zachary Pincus Roth, writing in Playbill, cites employment figures attributed to Actors Equity Association (AEA), the American union for stage actors and performers. In 2007 the unemployment rate among members seeking work on Broadway hovered around 90% (Pincus-Roth 2007). What this figure does not capture is that it is often the same 10% of actors who continuously work: household names such as Patti LuPone, Idina Menzel, Nathan Lane and Hugh Jackman, to name a few. Further, such figures only represent union actors, not the majority of actors and performers. For an actor to join AEA, s/he must be signed into an Equity contract offered by a producer or earn points through an Equity Membership Candidate program. Some actors are ineligible to join the union; others elect not to 'get their card' because major projects choose to stay non-union to avoid added costs: they book regular non-union work.

As Pincus-Roth explains, in 2007 there were 17,000 Equity members living in New York City and 46,000 nationwide. Out of that 17,000, only 2,070 of the Equity members living in New York City were employed in an Equity show of any sort, Broadway, Off-Broadway or otherwise (ibid.). Of the estimated 160,000 members across the United States, about 85% are unemployed; the 15% figure for employed actors includes minor roles and extra work.

At the same time, colleges and universities are producing more actors than ever (Weber 2005), and at great cost. In the United States a Bachelor's Degree or equivalent training program is generally considered a necessity for a career in theatre. To be considered for regional and classical theatres, an MFA (with costs that can add up to $200,000) is highly recommended. The overall national student loan debt in 2013 was estimated to be US$1.2 trillion and climbing (Chopra 2013). Finaid.org, a website that offers financial resources to students paying for college, estimates that the average American college student borrows between $27,000 and $114,000 to pay for college.1

In a 2005 interview with the New York Times, Scott L. Steele, executive director of the US University/Resident Theater Association explained that

[w]e're producing too many people [...] many of them poorly trained or moved into the field without the connections or relationships necessary to make their transition to a career possible. It's as if medical school were graduating people without giving them internships at a hospital. (McMahon 2012)

Alan Eisenberg, executive director of Actors Equity, agreed: "[t]hese schools are just turning out so many grads for whom there is no work. …

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