For Downsized Actors, Performance Anxiety Looms

Brittany Baratz i i

hide captionBrittany Baratz, from Gaithersburg, Md., signs in at an open-call audition for the Kennedy Center's Theater for Young Audiences program in early April. Actors face increased competition as financially strapped theaters shorten their seasons and program smaller shows.

Coburn Dukehart / NPR
Brittany Baratz

Brittany Baratz, from Gaithersburg, Md., signs in at an open-call audition for the Kennedy Center's Theater for Young Audiences program in early April. Actors face increased competition as financially strapped theaters shorten their seasons and program smaller shows.

Coburn Dukehart / NPR
Nisi Sturgis and Gregory Derelian in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' i i

hide captionNisi Sturgis (as Stella Kowalski, with Gregory Derelian as Stanley) drew critical praise in a New Jersey production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2008. Once booked a year or more in advance, Sturgis has seen times get tougher — and has given up her Brooklyn apartment until the economy improves.

Gerry Goodstein
Nisi Sturgis and Gregory Derelian in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Nisi Sturgis (as Stella Kowalski, with Gregory Derelian as Stanley) drew critical praise in a New Jersey production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 2008. Once booked a year or more in advance, Sturgis has seen times get tougher — and has given up her Brooklyn apartment until the economy improves.

Gerry Goodstein
Jennifer Timberlake i i

hide captionJennifer Timberlake, who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, waits to enter the audition at the Theater for Young Audiences.

Coburn Dukehart / NPR
Jennifer Timberlake

Jennifer Timberlake, who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C., area, waits to enter the audition at the Theater for Young Audiences.

Coburn Dukehart / NPR
Amanda McCrossin i i

hide captionAmanda McCrossin (center) waits with other actors at the Kennedy Center audition. She tells NPR that times are so tight one theater she has worked with is shutting down — and another has asked her to bring her own tap shoes.

Coburn Dukehart / NPR
Amanda McCrossin

Amanda McCrossin (center) waits with other actors at the Kennedy Center audition. She tells NPR that times are so tight one theater she has worked with is shutting down — and another has asked her to bring her own tap shoes.

Coburn Dukehart / NPR

Nisi Sturgis has been a professional full-time stage actor for nine years. She's on the road a lot.

In New Jersey she drew critical praise for her Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. In Colorado she was Lady Anne in Richard III. And in Massachusetts, she was Sarah in the play Trying.

So ask Sturgis where she lives permanently, and she just laughs. She doesn't have a fixed address anymore. When the economy started to tank, she decided to give up her Brooklyn apartment.

"There's no way to afford it," she says. "It doesn't make sense. It's smarter to put your stuff in storage and live in sublets until you know where you are going to be, which you usually don't."

Sturgis can tell how bad things are for theaters by looking at the few opportunities that are out there for actors right now. She says this time last year, she had a year's worth of work already lined up.

"I was lined up back to back," she recalls. "From three months to the next three months to the next three months, or a six-month season at a certain theater."

It's hard to know just how many fewer jobs there will be for stage actors this year. The Theater Communications Group, a national trade group for nonprofit theaters, tried to get a handle on the sector's fiscal health with a study back in December and January.

Of the 200 theaters that responded, 20 percent said they planned to shorten their seasons; 30 percent said they planned to produce plays with smaller casts.

One big drawback: Actors need to work a minimum number of weeks to qualify for health insurance through their union, Actors' Equity Association.

So "if a normal theater season is 38 to 40 weeks, and budget cutbacks force them to cut two or four weeks," says Equity chief John Connolly, actors feel the pain pretty quickly.

Cast sizes matter, too, Connolly says.

"If instead of doing Our Town with 25 actors they do The Gin Game with four, that's going to shake out somewhere down the line," he says. "So our members are going to have to deal with that."

On a rainy Washington, D.C., Monday recently, about 50 actors showed up to audition for the Kennedy Center's Theater For Young Audiences program. Actor Amanda McCrossin came down from Philadelphia.

"I usually go up to New York for auditions, and they're packed," she said. "They're so packed because no one has jobs right now. It's hard to even get seen in New York, so it's a little easier to come down here sometimes."

McCrossin says one theater she worked with canceled auditions — because it is closing. Another is having a cash-flow problem and hasn't paid its actors.

On the bright side, she'll be in the chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie at a professional theater in Philadelphia next month. On the grim side, that theater has asked actors to help cut costs — by supplying parts of their own costumes.

"They're actually renting my tap shoes from me so they don't have to actually purchase them," McCrossin says. "I don't know what the fee for that is. Go figure."

Even in the best of times, most actors live with a lot of uncertainty. Over the past decade, though, regional theater has grown considerably, giving stage actors a lot more work, and a degree of stability.

"We have developed healthy communities where actors can live in these towns like Denver and have a home, and have a family and have the things that traditionally actors have not had in America," says Kent Thompson, artistic director of the Denver Center Theater Company. "What I hope desperately is that in the recession we don't forget those artists."

But actors have good survival skills — including the capacity to adapt.

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