• StevenF

The Closed Curtain (My Acting Career)

I don't mean for this to come across as a pessimistic post because that is not how I am intending it, but I have sometimes wondered if my best days of acting on stage have passed.

I don't think they have, but as I get older, I find my body and my voice have gotten out of shape. I'm certainly not old by any means—only 51—but I do feel my age.

Unfortunately, I have let both my voice and body get flabby, and I find it a greater challenge to do what once felt easier. When I sing or speak, my voice gets tired a lot faster in a way that sometimes even feels disconcerting. I no longer have the same breath control I did at the height of my stage career. My muscles are stiff and my joints ache. I'm pretty sure I'm going to develop arthritis if I haven't already. I'm often in a lot of pain, to be perfectly honest.

I've thought a lot about stunts, pratfalls, and choreography I did during my stage career when I was a younger man. I remember one show I was in, an actor wearing a banana costume tore it off in mock anger at the end of his scene, and then I would come on and button the scene by "slipping" on the giant banana peel. I did that for two or three months, eight performances a week.

Or the show I was in where my character got stabbed in the back and I fell down some stairs. Or another show where I fell through a trap door every night. The thought of doing any of these things now feels painful just thinking about it. I honestly don't think my body could take the shock now.

I remember an audition I had about five or six months before the pandemic shut everything down. It was for a farce called The Play That Goes Wrong, which is an enormously physical show. I had been called back, and we were put through a sort of test to see if we could withstand the physical requirements of the show. We were required to run, fall, get up quickly, and do different stage fighting maneuvers and stunts. I was easily the oldest person called back, and I'm sure I was called back based on my comic timing and character work, not my physical prowess.

I was determined to keep up with all the young 'uns, and to my credit, I did. But when the callback was over, I thought I was going to die. My lungs burned, my body ached, I kept coughing, and I felt like I might actually pass out, so out of shape I was. I hurt for days afterwards and even wondered if my body would recover. I didn't cast in the show, but I was proud that I had gotten through the callback.

But in all honesty, I was kind of grateful I wasn't cast after all. If that was the kind of physical abuse my body was going to have to take night after night, no thank you. I'm getting too old for that kind of stuff.

Musicals were often my bread and butter when I was at the peak of my stage career, and honestly now, the thought of having to learn, let alone do, choreography makes me tired and sore. I know I could build up my stamina and breath again, but I don't know that my body has what it takes anymore.

And auditioning. Proving myself over and over just to find a job, it can be kind of exhausting. I actually don't mind auditioning. Sure, I get nervous sometimes. I like cold reading or scene auditions this best. I'm really good at those. Monologues and songs I like less. Monologue auditions often stress me, and second guessing what song I should use for a specific audition is a bugaboo for me.

I also get antsy about messing up. Forgetting a lyric or lines or cracking on a note or having a subpar accompanist who can't sightread my music well. Ugh.

But my attitude about auditions has changed positively over the years. I used to get so nervous and put so much pressure on myself. Now I don't even look at it as trying to get a job; just an opportunity to act as best I can. But the instability of an acting career can get tiring.

Working at Omega Mart kind of fills my acting needs these days. I play different characters night after night, and it's fun. I enjoy it. I suppose if a really great part or show came up that I was interested in doing, I would jump at it. I do miss being on stage sometimes, but not as much as I used to.

I remember when I took a hiatus from my acting career in 2013. My last show in November of 2012 was Of Mice and Men at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was a terrific and collaborative production, one of my favorite I have ever been in, and I played a character very different from who I am. There was so much that was satisfying about it: great material, interesting concept, fabulous director, wonderful actors, good part. It was just heaven.

I remember thinking that if that was the last show I ever did, it would be a great sendoff to my career. At that time, I had been away from Isaias off and on for many months on end for four years. I had spent every summer away from him. One year, I did three shows in a row at Pioneer Theatre Company, which meant I was away for four months in a row.

I was also taking care of my mom, who had dementia at the time. So I was essentially visiting my husband whenever I could, which was not nearly as often as we wanted, or he would come visit me. So it wasn't a very satisfying situation.

And I began to realize, too, that I was too often putting my career ahead of our relationship, and that if I continued to make that choice, it wouldn't be good for us in the end. Eventually, this realization on top of the fact that my mom had to be moved into assisted living and the hiring of a new artistic director at Pioneer Theatre Company made me decide that I needed to take a break from my acting career, or at least try to start a new career here in Vegas.

The hiatus was meant to be temporary and short. I discovered, much to my dismay, that the presence of Actors' Equity, the union to which I belong, has a very weak presence here and that the same job opportunities I was able to find as a union worker in Salt Lake City were rarely available here.

I did audition for things in L.A. or the very occasional union job here in Vegas when it came up, but I also did not have the same network as I had had in Utah, so it was like starting over. I got an agent here in Vegas who helped me get occasional gigs here and there (if you go to the airport here, you can see me every day in one of the TSA instructional videos). But the work was not (and hasn't been) plentiful here.

So I got a normal job. I was sort of an acting job, but not entirely (much like the job I have now): I worked as a Gatekeeper (glorified usher) at the MGM for Cirque du Soleil's show, KÀ. Our primary role was to seat people, provide directions, answer questions, etc., but we also played characters and were designed to add atmosphere and serve as a sort of appetizer to the main course that was the show. It was fun, but I also often felt that there was a lot of inconsistency and lack of commitment from some on our staff, and unfortunately, I often felt management was not a strong or caring enough to be able to motivate us all to create a truly immersive experience for the guest. I always felt it could be more than it ever was, and it often felt like a missed opportunity to me. But as an individual, I often had fun with it and enjoyed the job overall for quite a while.

Still, I often ached to get back on stage. During this time I did two productions, a show called Passage at the College of Southern Nevada and a staged reading of a play I quite like called August: Osage County playing a part I had always wanted to play.

Passage was an experimental piece, which I liked and appreciated, and I really enjoyed working with the director. But I was working with college students, many of whom were inexperienced and undisciplined, so that made both the rehearsal period and production frustrating and unsatisfying at times. Still, it was fun to get back on stage, and the role itself was fun to play.

August; Osage County at A Public Fit was much more satisfying. It's a top-notch script, and I was working with so many great actors and actresses of exceedingly good caliber. My part was small, but one I had been eager to play because I thought it was an excellent role for my type and skill set. Because it was a reading, I got a waiver from my union, so it was an unpaid gig, one I actually had to take days off my paying job to do. We only did one performance of it, but it was such a gratifying experience and reminded me of my glory days. I was incredibly sad and fell into a slight depression when it was over.

My "hiatus" job at KÀ ended up lasting six years. That was never my intention when I applied for and got the job. I thought it would be a short-term thing until I found the next great acting opportunity. But I discovered something: it felt kind of nice to have a stable job with a regular paycheck, one that allowed me to be at home with my husband and cats where I didn't have to live out of a suitcase and where I didn't have to constantly be on the lookout for the next gig.

I liked it. It made me happy. And hey, I was still using my acting skills. So I stayed. One year turned into two. Two turned into four. Four turned into five.

By my fifth year, though, I was starting to get bored. Our new manager asked me if I would be interested in applying to be his assistant, and one of our plans was for me to kind of revamp or motivate the team to draw out some of the performative elements of the job. I thought long and hard about it. Management wasn't really what I wanted to do, but as I said, I was getting bored of my current role, and I really thought I might be able to make a positive difference in a department that often felt dysfunctional in several ways. I thought I could maybe help my coworkers be as excited about the performative aspects of the job as I felt they could be.

I made some positive changes, I think. I tried to improve things. You would have to ask my coworkers if I succeeded. But ultimately, there were aspects of the job I just didn't enjoy, and there were some employees where it just felt like pulling teeth to get them to come along for the ride. It was tiring. My optimism led me to believe I could do a better job than I felt I did.

I felt like my boss and I made a pretty good team, but I also felt more and more that the performative aspects of the job were losing the focus I once thought they would have. Bottom line, though: I just felt like I wasn't management material. Middle management is a very challenging place to be. The people under you complain about stuff you wish you could fix and are trying to fix. The people above you have their own priorities and goals and expect you to carry them out. And sometimes those things conflict with each other.

I was just unhappy as Assistant Showroom Supervisor a lot of the time. Certainly more so than I had been in my Gatekeeper job. It wasn't necessarily anyone's fault. My boss was trying to make positive changes, and we worked well together. But I feel many in the department were set in their ways and resistant to change while also admitting that some changes made were also not to my liking, either, but my job was to support and administrate those changes, regardless of my personal feelings.

I'd like to think I was good at my job, but I just wasn't very happy in it. It was sometimes stressful and even lonely. I was also privy to some behind-the-scenes stuff that kind of disillusioned me. I was grateful for the experience but ultimately decided after a year that the job wasn't for me.

So I took a ginormous leap of faith. I decided, with no real plan at all, to relaunch my acting career. I quit my job at the MGM and started auditioning for stuff again. And it was fun. And exciting. And Isaias was supportive. And I had enough money banked to give it a shot again. I even got some callbacks, which was gratifying.

But seven years had basically passed since I had really put myself out there in an assertive way, and the landscape had changed. I was older. My network was no longer the same as it had once been. The Equity opportunities weren't as plentiful as I had hoped. But I kept at it.

Eventually, I was hired to do another production at the College of Southern Nevada with the same director who directed Passage. This time he was a co-directing Waiting for Lefty with another director. The play is good. The concept was interesting. I was cast in a couple of appealing parts. It was a fun project to work on.

We were two weeks away from opening (on my birthday, no less) when the pandemic shut everything down. My entire industry shut down, and of course, work opportunities became even fewer than they already had been. Unemployment only covered so much, and Isaias and I spent much of our savings to stay on top of things.

And then I eventually got my current job at Omega Mart through Meow Wolf. And our industry is still recovering. Jobs seem even less available than they were before the pandemic. In many ways, I feel my union, which, unfortunately, has often been a weak union is probably the weakest its been.

I actually just attended a regional union meeting before writing this post. Equity presence here in Vegas is especially weak. I've lived here eighteen years now—good Lord, I never thought I would say that—and the amount of union jobs available here has been so tiny in that time. There is only one union show running here in Vegas—Menopause: The Musical—in a city which purports to be the Entertainment Capital of the World. The theatre scene here, as far as union jobs go, is pretty abysmal. There are some really great small professional theatre companies here, but the union contracts available through them—when they are available at all—certainly do not provide enough to make a living wage. I think it's unfortunate we seem to be unable to get a real union presence here with the bigger entertainment venues.

When I very first moved here, I was hopeful that there might be better job opportunities here even though it was never my original plan to remain here. I don't recall which ones were under Equity contracts, but during my early days here, there were all sorts of shows like The Producers, Hairspray, Spamalot, Phantom of the Opera, Avenue Q, We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and there was one at the Wynn called Showstoppers. Some of these were more successful than others. The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, The Phantom of the Opera, and Jersey Boys all had successful runs, as I recall. Most of the others didn't last long.

Part of that is just Vegas's fault. The Vegas crowds, overall, don't seem to be drawn to those types of shows the way a New York audience might be, for example. And it often felt to me that the more fluff or spectacle a show had in it, the more likely it was to succeed, which hasn't always been particularly appealing to an artist like me who has often longed to do more meaty, substantial stuff. But even then, I at least felt like job possibilities existed.

Now, there are hardly any shows like that and only one union show. It's sad to me that my union can't get a solid footing here. Some of that is due to Vegas audiences and the kind of shows they are attracted to. Some of that is due to the Vegas casinos, who have not had much success with either those types of shows or a healthy relationship with Actors' Equity. And of course, the pandemic has just made things even more bleak. It's so strange to me that I was able to work so consistently in Utah and I can barely get a nibble here.

I joined Actors' Equity in 2007. For probably the first time in my membership, I have actually seriously considered dropping my card. I pay $88 semiannually in dues (which is not much compared to some unions, but still...), and I ask myself, "For what? What has the union done to help create job opportunities in the city in which I live?" If I want to work, it seems I would have to leave to do so.

Even the two two union jobs I had here were bureaucratic headaches. The union doesn't exactly make it appealing or easy for a production company to hire you.

When I am working, I love the benefits, the pay, the treatment. But if I can't even work, what's the point? I see my non-union friends here in town doing great plays, playing fun parts. Granted, they aren't making a living wage doing it, either. All of them have day jobs to make a living. But at least they're actually acting. It's against union rules to work a non-union job, although I know of people here in town who have done just that. But I have always tried to be honest and upright in my union membership, so the result is that I don't act much professionally these days.

One reason I hang on to my membership is my pension, but given that I haven't worked much in the union the past ten years, it's not like that pension is going to be any enormous amount, so what's the point of belonging to a union if I can't ever find work in the place where I live and reside.

And I know, I chose to live here. But truth is, union acting work can be challenging to come by no matter where one lives; it just happens to be particularly bad here. And as I stated earlier in this post, as I have gotten older and out of shape, it will likely be no less challenging to get cast in a union show.

I'm not blaming the union. I make my own choices. I am the one who has let my voice and body get flabby. I am the one who has chosen to make his home in a Equity-weak area. I am the one who doesn't feel as motivated these days to make a go of it again. But this is all why I wonder when I'll get back on stage again. And I sometimes wonder why I'm in a union that doesn't seem to be benefiting me where I live and work.

And a union is only as strong as its members. And our membership is not strong here. Our local meetings usually turn out to be six or seven people hashing the same complaints and laments about how hard it is to find work here. I suppose it's just the way it is. I haven't seen any great strides or changes here in years.

The fact that I like my job at Omega Mart has made it easier not to miss being on stage as much. My biggest pinings come when I see a really terrific show and think, "Wow, it would have been cool to be in that!" And I am interested in trying my hand at more film and TV work. I've done a bit here and there, and it has been enjoyable, and I feel like that is a better avenue here in Vegas than stage work is. And I'm working on getting into audiobook narration and production. So there are other outlets.

I used to miss being on stage more than I feel I do now. If an opportunity comes up, cool. I know A Public Fit is eager to find a project that is right for me. They even wanted me in their fully staged production of August; Osage County in 2019 reprising the part I played in the reading, but I had a previous out-of-town engagement helping Isaias with his art shows, and they couldn't work around it. They were also interested in me for their recent production of Recent Tragic Events, but it didn't work out. But I am hopeful our schedules will align in the future because I like the work they do and would love to be a part of it again.

Until then, I kind of feel resigned (and even happy to be doing so) to just work where I am working. When I was at the MGM, I always said I would stay as long as I was happy there. I left when I wasn't. I'm quite content at present at Meow Wolf. If it remains that way, I'm satisfied with that. As long as I have some kind of outlet for my acting yearnings, I'm good.

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