Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Acting on Faith

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Acting on Faith

Article excerpt

Many Catholic actors say their love of the stage started early--glimpsed in the artistry and transformingpower of Sunday liturgy. But their faith plays a more complex role today, sustaining them when the very possibility of "making it"as an actor is itself a leap of faith.

ONE EASTER SUNDAY, LONG before I ever saw a play or movie, my parents exposed me to drama at its most sublime: They took me to church.

Surrounded by lilies and stained-glass windows, with a choir chanting while the congregation fell to its knees, I had no idea what was going on but knew it was tremendously important.

I've loved theater ever since and am not surprised at the many Catholics who devote their lives to it.

"The many years I spent as an altar boy were excellent preparation for the stage," says Thomas A. Cahill, currently portraying a priest in off-off Broadway's Joey and Mary's Wedding. "You wear a costume. You work before an audience. You have to memorize dialogue. You carry props. You're even following a kind of script.

"Sometimes things go wrong and you have to improvise. There's also the same rush of adrenaline as you walk to the altar that you get going onstage. Even the same panicky feeling that you may not be able to remember your lines?

But behind all the glamour and magic, the theater isn't an easy life for anyone, Catholic or otherwise.

"Most people go out looking for a job nine or 10 times in their whole lives. Actors have to do it every day," says Debbie Pingitore, who takes photos of other actors to make ends meet while she struggles to balance her theater career and spiritual life. "Very few of us have the things other people take for granted. We may never get married, or start a family, or buy a house and car."

The median income for an Actor's Equity member was $6,276 last year--more than $2,000 below the federal poverty line. And it's worse for the tens of thousands of non-union members who appear in off-off Broadway theaters, garages, friends' apartments, or anyplace that will have them--all too often without pay. Nor the countless beginners who never find a bona fide acting job of any kind.

EVEN THE FEW WHO SUCCEED RARELY have an easy time of it. The late Chris Farley, after being discovered at Chicago's Second City Theater in the late '80s, catapulted to fame overnight on Saturday Night Live. Soon he was appearing on many of the top television comedy and late-night talk shows and getting ever-larger roles in movies.

Farley was an ardent Catholic and active with a community services program called Friendly Visitors, at Saint Malachy's famed Actors Chapel in New York City. Sister Teresa O'Connell, a Sparkhill Dominican who works with the program, knew nothing about Farley's career. But, impressed with the enthusiasm he showed working with the poor, O'Connell became a close friend.

"Chris was terrific with people," she remembers. "Everyone liked him. He was also an extremely serious Catholic. I'd see him in the church alone, doing the Stations of the Cross. But working in the theater is a hard, hard life, and I could tell the poor boy was troubled."

Farley did a great deal of good for Saint Malachy's financially as well, making large donations to Friendly Visitors. But despite his faith, his troubles were overwhelming, and he died at 33 of a drug overdose.

Many actors look to their faith to help them handle the rough times. Joe Barbara was doing the kind of job most apprentice actors do, bartending in a karaoke bar, when he learned that two London producers were looking for an American actor to star in Buddy, a musical about rock legend Buddy Holly.

"After two auditions in New York, the talent agents flew me to London for a final audition. I rehearsed all weekend to make sure I'd be faultless," he says. "Sunday morning I thought, `I can't take time out for Mass, I've got to practice.' But I went, and in the church I decided I'd done my job. …

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