Playing at life
Why does everybody in New York want to be an actor?
I’m standing barefoot in one of the hundreds of acting classes that take place every day in New York City. I’m surrounded by gorgeous boys and girls – I’m the oldest by about 30 years – who are kissing the air, swinging imaginary bats at imaginary balls, skiing down imaginary slopes. They’re trying to recreate in their bodies a satisfying moment in their lives.
Though I’m supposed to be doing it too, from time to time I sneak a peek at them and think that right now may be one of those satisfying moments. The teacher, a venerable acting coach who studied with Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg, tells us to switch to a miserable time in our lives. That’s easier. Shoulders slouch, faces drop, a heavy silence weighs down the air. But still I’m enjoying myself: there’s pleasure in reliving old sorrows at a safe distance.
These days, it seems like every New Yorker is an actor, or wants to be. The city is filled with acting schools, singing schools, dancing schools teaching everything from geriatric ballet to fusion flamenco, schools for acrobats and clowns, improvisation, stand-up, undergraduate and graduate programs in theater and film – as well as special classes in acting before the camera, soap opera acting, how to get jobs in commercials, how to be the host of your own talk show – you name it, there’s a class for it. Kids under the age of 12 have acting resumes as long as Cyrano’s nose, and teenagers who decided to forego university spend their lives going to three or four auditions a day.
Whole industries feed our addiction to performing. ‘Handlers’ of all sorts – agents, personal managers, casting agents – make their living trying to connect actors to productions. Hundreds of photographers specialize in ‘head shots’ – publicity stills that actors give away as casually as calling cards. Five or six Manhattan costume shops supply everything from wigs to clown noses to Las Vegas-style sequined tights. Restaurants and law offices couldn’t conduct their business without the hordes of young actors and musicians who come from all over the country and survive by working as waiters and temp office workers. More than one New York City private school arranges flexible schedules for students who go out to Hollywood for spring TV casting season.
The fact that it’s almost impossible to make a living as an actor here, or anywhere in the USA, doesn’t seem to daunt us. Reality shows have made a dent in the actors’ always-precarious livelihood, and apart from some soap operas, the only national TV show shot in New York is the crime series Law and Order. One of the pinnacles of success for a New York-based actor is to see himself in reruns of the show, which often run on three or four channels, and pay the actor ‘residuals’ each time his episode is aired.
Plenty of movies are shot here, which has given birth to another cottage industry in which out-of-work actors make $100-200 a day as extras and background people. But the work is sporadic, and no one can count on feeding the baby by standing next to George Clooney or Catharine Zeta-Jones for a day or two under the hot lights. As surprising as it may seem, in most New York theatrical productions actors work for free; the percentage of non-union productions is far greater than union-protected shows, and they’re often performed in odd places: old warehouses, storefronts, people’s apartments. Much of the time, even experienced actors work for the opportunity to put something new on their resume – as well as in the hope that a casting director will see their show and fall in love with their work.
Why do we do it? Hard to say. Maybe our day jobs are too hard and tedious, and we dream of doing something more glamorous and fun. Maybe the news makes everyday life too depressing, and we want to escape into the fantasies of childhood play-acting. Maybe the conventional wisdom is true – we’ve been so saturated by media that TV and film seem more ‘real’ than our real lives, and the only way we can feel authentically alive is by going through the screen the way Alice went through the Looking Glass. Maybe it isn’t enough to be human; because of the high expectations Americans have of themselves, and the difficulty of fulfilling those expectations, we all need to feel like celebrities.
Not that celebrities are ogled and pursued in New York. This is a big city. We’re cool. As in any metropolis, the fact that millions of people live in a crowded space demands spheres of privacy. Yet even if we turn red with embarrassment when our l0-year-old daughter approaches Robin Williams as he’s eating a hamburger in a coffee shop, we do feel a little more alive when we see Donald Sutherland or Matt Dillon in the subway, ride 10 floors in an elevator with Emma Thompson (she’s very tall!), almost bump into Meryl Streep on Madison Avenue just as we’re remarking what a good actress Meryl Streep is. For a moment we’re no longer on the outside looking in. In some existential sense, we’ve been included in a Fellowship of the Chosen. Under the skin, celebrities are just like us – or, rather, for that one shining moment, we’re just like them.
But I think that there’s another reason that Americans are so caught up in celebrity. In the USA, family ties, as well as other forms of closeness in civil society, have worn severely thin in the past 50 years. Families are more dispersed over the country. Due to demanding, time-consuming jobs, we have fewer opportunities to congregate, and to nurture friendships. For many people, celebrities have become their fantasy friends and family.
A few months ago I went to a Christmas dinner with two generations of what I consider to be an intelligent, well-educated, close-knit family. While the older people chatted about relatives and mutual friends, the younger generation – not children anymore, people in their thirties – sat before a huge flat screen TV discussing the ‘private’ lives of Hollywood stars. Was Britney Spears really pregnant? Had Angelina Jolie started an affair with Brad Pitt before he broke up with Jennifer Anniston? Never questioning the sources or accuracy of their information, their opinions were passionate, and the discussion heated: they all seemed to think that they were intimately connected to people they’d never met.
But I’m not being fair to them, or to myself. At bottom, I believe that it’s about that moment in acting class – the sense of being connected, however briefly, to a group of people performing a fulfilling task. I remember a couple of years ago acting in a production of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ in an old Times Square porno theater. It was at the end of Act V, when the townspeople dress up in gaudy costumes to perform a little show before the court. There we were, four or five clowns and buffoons in silly outfits waiting together backstage to walk out on a wooden platform with a brass pole in the center. I remember thinking that there was no place in the world I’d rather be: for that moment, I was completely content.
George Blecher is based in New York, and reports for a number of European publications about American politics and culture.