By Victoria Thompson
I spent all of my life, apart from the years I was engrossed in raising my children, working as an actor or, to be more exact, working at finding work as an actor. Being socially challenged, I was never adept at selling myself as a commodity or at doing the industrious networking necessary to launch a career so, despite a flurry of hopeful activity when I was young and gorgeous, I never became a star. I compensated by styling myself an artist and concentrating on the less public and sadly, less remunerative, world of the theater. This included working with regional companies that those who must be in town for the pilot season eschew, and in laboring in the little black box theaters that dot the sprawling city of Los Angeles. In the process of doing the latter, I became, almost unwittingly, part of an artistic community that once embarrassed me but in my later years I have come to cherish.
Not many people are aware of the bizarre little theater underworld that exists in L.A. and I imagine that those who know of it and are not involved find it baffling. Why, in our unapologetically materialistic country, in an even more unapologetically materialistic city, would so many people find it desirable to work full time for no pay (if we're lucky these days) in tiny, smelly, gloomy little theaters to produce plays for which there is, in all truth, no audience other than other tiny, smelly, gloomy little theater practitioners?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people who ask it. Young actors will say they are learning their craft and older ones that they are honing it. Way back in my youth, the little theaters were where actors could showcase their talents for casting directors but, although hope springs eternal in many callow young breasts, that day has long since passed. Actors will also say, sometimes honestly and sometimes to excuse an activity they are not sure is entirely kosher, that they perform in good plays without pay as an antidote to the mindless television pap they are forced to do to earn a living. I have used all of these excuses myself at one time or another. I have also periodically come to the self- lacerating conclusion that I do free theater because I am a loser and fit for nothing else.
I have belonged to a number of theater companies over the many long years I have lived and aspired in Los Angeles, but the one with which I forged the strongest bond was Theatre East. The company was organized in 1960 and its original purpose was, according to its mission statement, “to promote artistic growth through performance and self-evaluation.” In the 1960s, the success of the Group Theatre was still fresh in every serious actor's mind and no doubt some of the founders were motivated by the possibility of breaking new theatrical ground in another revolutionary era, although the company ultimately tended more toward Neil Simon than Clifford Odets. Theatre East met in a cozy little theater above a bowling alley in Studio City for over forty years.
I first became aware of Theatre East in the late 60s when I was just out of college. I had not yet accumulated enough credits to qualify for membership and I was allowed to attend the Tuesday night meetings only because I was one of the mini-skirted aspiring starlets a semi-successful television actor liked to have hanging on his muscular arm. These were tumultuous years and the performances in the workshop still tended toward the political. The ones that made the strongest impression on me were those in which powerful black men screamed obscenities with centuries' worth of pent up rage and threatened to kill all the honkies in the audience. It was also the era when we were all desperately trying to be sexually free and I remember feeling chronically uncool when the simulated sex on stage made the modest young maiden in me that I was screwing everyone in sight to obliterate, blush with embarrassment.
It was in the early 70s that my sister became a member of Theatre East and she subsequently sponsored me for membership. The company was in its heyday then and it was necessary to sign up weeks in advance to book a Tuesday night scene. Although they were performed only for the company, they were elaborate affairs with a director, lights, scenery, costumes and weeks of intensive rehearsal. We told ourselves and one another that all this effort was for the purpose of polishing our craft and sullen art, but it also helped to fill the large chunks of time that are left over in an actor's life once he has called his agent, updated his resume and gotten new head shots.
On the call board backstage there was a sheet on which members could sign up for rehearsal time in the theater. This was often the source of much of the bad blood that is endemic in theater companies. Because anyone who has the temerity to attempt something as quixotic as an acting career must have a gargantuan ego or at least the pretense of one, each of us was convinced that our particular artistic endeavor was of greater import than any other and we could become decidedly vocal about it when vying for space. Rehearsals also tended to be emotion-packed with lots of dramatic storming out because of romantic jealousy or career envy disguised as artistic differences.
Another source of dissention was the critiques. A strict protocol was followed at the Tuesday night workshop. After each performance, the actors and director would sit on the stage under the preset fernels and state his objectives in order to narrow down the range of criticism. A moderator was provided whose job it was to keep the conversation within bounds and to insure that comments were not “interpretive,” a concept that proved elusive. The purported idea was to encourage objectivity but I distinctly remember getting my most scathing critiques from women of my own age group and type. If I am honest, I will admit that it was these same women for whom I saved my sharpest barbs. When we were in the hot seat and our performances were picked apart by our fellow actors, we nodded sagely, seemingly grateful for the constructive criticism, sometimes even taking notes so that we might improve the next time out, all the while secretly nurturing animosities that would last for decades against the untalented fool who said we were “indicating.”
With its wonderful capacity to accentuate the positive, my memory has deleted most of my Tuesday night failures and what I remember most are triumphant performances when the appreciative applause and the subsequent glowing critique lifted me into the stratosphere and sustained me for the times I didn't get cast as a hat check girl on The Flying Nun or as a naked hippie in Roger Corman's latest skin flick. In a life full of almost daily rejection, the Tuesday night workshop provided a place in which we could, if we did our sense memory work and took enough time to prepare, redeem at least a modicum of our battered self-esteem.
Tuesday nights were also social times. We would congregate after the workshop in the bar downstairs until the alcoholism that is an occupational hazard drove us all into AA. After several cocktails, we would brag, sometimes truthfully, sometimes fancifully, about the parts we were up for and those we had booked. We'd gush enthusiastically at a colleague's successes, telling ourselves privately that shallow Hollywood doesn't recognize true talent and that sexual favors were no doubt involved.
In order to pay the exorbitant rent on the theater, the company began admitting members who some of us thought were of dubious talent and the group's reputation began to decline. I stayed a little longer than I should have, not wanting to be left without a place to work and dreading trying to get to know another group of actors. When I finally left at some perceived slight, (the usual way of leaving a theater company), I had been active in Theatre East for almost thirty years. I retained a number of friendships and I would often run into former members at other theater performances or through mutual acquaintances. I would have a multi-layered reaction to these old pals. The first was shock at how old this once-glorious looking actor had grown. The next was the disturbing realization that he was, no doubt, thinking the same about me. Then all the resentments I had nursed against this person for the blows to my ego in years gone by would be rekindled. Finally, my old actor's vanity re-emerging, I would feel embarrassed at the connection I felt with this person who, like me, had not achieved the level of success he had aspired toward.
It was always particularly painful to run into one woman, the well-endowed brunette who I had always considered my primary rival and who continued to get commercials long after all the rest of our careers had dried up. No matter what she may say, she is and always has been several years older than I am but because she had the good fortune of getting a healthy settlement from a rich husband, she had sufficient resources to surgically perk up her face and body so that she seemed never to pass forty. She was and I say this with complete objectivity, a poisonous bitch and did not deserve to live.
While Theatre East still had the space above the bowling alley, the old gang used to meet periodically for memorials when someone who had once been a member died. These were poignant occasions, reminding us all of what we probably would not accomplish before our own final curtain rang down. And then some years ago there was a celebration organized to mark the 40th anniversary of the company's founding. As the graying members hobbled in, some in walkers, I was surprised to see that the embarrassment and discomfort these people had elicited in me for so long had gone away. I found that I now felt a tender compassion for them and a warm connection. I realized that they were my people. For the first time I saw not what we had failed to do but what we had attempted. We had shot at a lofty target. We may not have hit the bulls-eye, but we tried.
Through the years since, I have developed an abiding affection for all my old friends and nemeses, even that woman. Time has finally won out over the surgeon's knife for her and when at the anniversary I saw a little bulge of skin hanging from her still handsome jaw, a bulge I knew from bitter experience made her excruciatingly miserable on a daily basis, the resentments of forty years melted away. I see her now as someone I have been through the wars with, someone who is merely mortal and as prone to disintegration as I am. I now love that woman, something I never would have believed possible when we were young and she got all the parts at which I would have done so much better.
And so, from the lofty perch of my years, I finally have an answer to the question of why so many of us continue to work for free in dismal little theaters. I have come to believe with all the sincerity of my artistic old soul, that I and the bulk of my peers do it because of some mysterious force inside of us that propels us to struggle to create something that might be called art. I am well aware that this sounds like the overwrought pronouncement of a theatre arts major and there were years when I would have called it bullshit pure and simple, but nevertheless, there it is. And, to compound my pretentiousness, I might add that perhaps the child really is the father of the man.
And why, I ask, in the florid and puerile voice I have thus far been employing, do we want to create art? Now that my ego has been necessarily shrunk by the incontrovertible fact that my day has long since passed, I can say in all honesty that I want to do theater for the same reason that I want to read and write or see others perform or listen to music – to find that elusive connection with other human beings that I have spent my life as an alienated artist insisting that I do not need.