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It's never been easy to make a living as a stage actor and the recession has fewer people going to the theater. Many American theaters are shortening their seasons and scheduling plays with smaller casts, all of which means even less work for actors. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Nisi Sturgis has been a professional full-time stage actor for nine years. She's on the road a lot. In New Jersey she was Stella in "Streetcar Named Desire."

(Soundbite of play, "A Streetcar Named Desire")

Ms. NISI STURGIS (Actor): (As Stella) There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that sort of make everything else seem unimportant.

BLAIR: In Colorado she was Lady Anne in "Richard III."

(Soundbite of play, "Richard III")

Ms. STURGIS: (As Lady Anne) It is a quarrel just and reasonable, to be revenged on him that killed my husband

BLAIR: And in Massachusetts she was Sarah in the play "Trying."

(Soundbite of play, "Trying")

Ms. STURGIS: (As Sarah) The measure of one's worth is the measure of one's journey, the distance between one's origins and one's accomplishments.

BLAIR: But ask Nisi Sturgis where she lives permanently...

Ms. STURGIS: Well, that's a good question for a good actor.

BLAIR: Sturgis doesn't have a fixed address anymore. When the economy started to tank, she decided to give up her apartment in Brooklyn.

Ms. STURGIS: There's no way to afford it. It doesn't make sense. It's smarter to put your stuff in storage and live in sublets until you know where you're going to be, since you usually don't.

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

Ms. STURGIS: I was lined up back to back. From three months to the next three months to the next three months, or a six-month season at a certain theater.

BLAIR: It's hard to know just how many fewer jobs there will be for stage actors this year. The member association Theater Communications Group tried to get a handle on the fiscal health of non-profit theaters with a study back in December and January.

Of the 200 theaters that responded, 20 percent said they planned to shorten their seasons and 30 percent said they planned to produce plays with smaller casts. One big drawback: actors need to work a minimum number of weeks in order to qualify for health insurance through Actors' Equity. John Connolly heads up the stage actors union.

Mr. JOHN CONNOLLY (Actors' Equity Association): If a normal theater season is 38 or 40 weeks, and budget cutbacks force them to cut two weeks, or four, that's going to shake out somewhere down the line. 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. And so our members are going to have to deal with it.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, good morning. I promise I'm calling the list for real now, starting with Equity members. Jennifer Timberlake.

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

Ms. AMANDA MCCROSSIN (Actor): I usually go up to New York for auditions, and I mean they're packed. That's - that's a huge thing there; it's so packed and no one has jobs right now, so it's hard to even get seen at auditions in New York. So it's a little easier to come down here sometimes.

BLAIR: Amanda McCrossin says one theater she worked with canceled auditions because they're closing. Another is having a cash flow problem and hasn't paid its actors. On the bright side, McCrossin will be in the chorus of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" at a professional theater in Philadelphia next month. To save money, that theater is getting help from the actors, who are supplying parts of their own costumes.

Ms. MCCROSSIN: They're renting my tap shoes so they don't have to actually purchase them. I don't - I don't actually know what the fee for that is, but go figure.

BLAIR: Now, even in the best of times, most actors are used to living with uncertainty. But over the last decade or so, regional theater has grown considerably, giving stage actors a lot more work. Kent Thompson is artistic director of the Denver Center Theater Company.

Mr. KENT THOMPSON (Denver Center Theater Company): 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. And 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.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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