U.S. actors not based in NY, L.A., and Chicago are potentially employed more—as actors—than their survival job counterparts who’ve been pulled into entertainment’s gravitational pull of planet NyLaChi. Screen and stage actors with bank accounts and retirement pensions that aren’t impoverished. American actors who gig as principal actors in the U.S. Actors who rarely, if ever, audition in NY, L.A., or Chicago. Who’re these profiting thespians? Are they phantom players secretly stuffing treasures for decades into their creative and financial coffers? Celebs? No. They’re actors-without-borders. Working continuously; some at 50 weeks per year without interruption.
Some actors-without-borders receive 2 weeks of paid vacation—and their employ doesn’t require the Joker’s eternal menacing grin flaunted to tourists at a theme park or on a cruise ship. Actors-without-borders are fulfilling artistic joys as principals often busy alongside household names. These relatively unknown-to-the-masses actors own comfortable homes. One actor gladly doles out monthly mortgage payments of just $500. Compare that overhead expense to the average 1 bedroom or studio rental in NY at a whopping 2014 average of $3,200 plus, or $2,000 in L.A.
“‘Cause I’m Happy'”
When 6 actors-without-borders I recently interviewed were asked “On a scale of 1 – 10 what is your career/life happiness quotient with 1 being “Someone rescue me” to 10 being “I’m loving my life and the work I do” each answered at 8 or above.
You’ve possibly never heard of these actors-without-borders. They’re not your AMC box-office draw. Nary a Netflix superstar. But these industrious actors have worked closely with stars who populate our collective celebrity-consciousness including: Dustin Hoffman, Jim Belushi, Kevin Costner, Colin Firth, William Hurt, Andrea Bocelli, Kevin James, Heather Headley, Jimmy Buffett, Cheryl Hines, Wayne Brady, Morgan Fairchild, Hayley Mills, and Paul Rudd. The actors-without-borders have also shared their creativity closely with highly-sought, high-profile directors including: three-time Oscar winner, and Golden Globe recipient Robert Benton (Twilight, Places in the Heart, Superman), writer-director Jeb Stuart (Die Hard), writer-director David Wain (Wanderlust), film and TONY award-winner, director-writer Frank Galati (American Playhouse, Ragtime), director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun (Disney’s Newsies, Grease), TONY award-winner Mark Lamos (Our Country’s Good) plus legendary writers including Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk, Lee Blessing (A Walk in the Woods, Eleemosynary, Cobb), and screen-writer and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (The Duchess, Stage Beauty).
These 6 joyful actors-without-borders thrive (or had blossomed) without need or want of planet NyLaChi.
One actor’s career boiled in The Deep South (actor, Drew Battles). Another is presently far from being frozen in the wintry but artistically active Twin-Cities (actor, Steve Hendrickson). While 3 of the interviewed actors-without-borders have nurtured a network of entertainment industry vines abundant as is kudzu in the Southeastern U.S. (actors Tricia Matthews, Rick McVey, and Martin Thompson). Want glamor with possibly a dab of sin? Roll for Las Vegas (actor, Kate Gordon). In the Washington D.C. / Baltimore capitol region (actor, Carolyn Agan) there’s no political gridlock for actors.
Where’s The Work for Actors?
While I was directing the regional premier of A Free Man of Color in Baton Rouge local actors in my cast working alongside New York actors often heralded the abundance of screen work (union & non-union) now hanging in Louisiana as liberally as does Spanish moss from the state’s majestic Live Oaks. “Louisiana is Hollywood South,” actor Drew Battles, recently of The Deep South, states. “If you are all-in on the TV/film industry, there is a great deal of work to be had.” Battles states this work benefits from Louisiana’s generous tax incentives the state offers film makers. “You will be busy if you want to be busy,” he continues. “Also, [Louisiana] is a great place to be if you want to self-produce.”
An Acting Career Takes Flight
Actor Martin Thompson, who made the Southeast his home and workplace for more than a decade, agrees. “The Southeast has really taken off in film and TV production! With the tax incentives offered now in Georgia and Louisiana, as well as North Carolina, many television productions have made a home in the Southeast, and shoot their seasons there. In fact, many actors are leaving L.A. to move to Atlanta these days!” Battles’s and Thompson’s enthusiasm for the opportunities The Deep South and Southeast offer is mirrored in their personal lives with benefits New York and L.A. actors may not, if ever, enjoy as a continually working actor. “I had the opportunity to work in all areas of the industry,” Martin says, “while maintaining a comfortable suburban lifestyle! My children were able to grow up in a nice community, and family was close by.”
Dixie Beats Yankees
Battles, who recently moved to the St. Louis area, also enjoyed a comfortable home and family life while living and working in Louisiana. “The region is rich, culturally,” Battles says. “I love that you can be the kind of artist you want to be in Louisiana. There are a lot of options and you can control many more aspects of your own career. I never could wrap my brain around having a family in NYC. The balance of family and career was more attainable to me in Louisiana.” Battles’s leave from Louisiana came about because, “My wife and I now live in St. Louis. We have let our academic careers lead us in a certain direction. I never felt like I needed to move back to NYC while I was in Baton Rouge. I was very happy there, artistically and personally.”
Keep On The Sunny Side
Actors Tricia Matthews and Rick McVey have found a balance of family and performance-work in the Southeast. Albeit a bit hectic, and sometimes self-admittedly “stressful” with too much work. Their schedule as actors is six days a week, 50 weeks a year acting simultaneously in multiple projects. Each is a Resident Acting Company member at the TONY award-recognized Barter Theatre. An AEA LORT member hosting three performance spaces with a rotating repertory program that for 80 plus years has been the cultural institution of Southwest Virginia. The Barter Theatre is also The State Theatre of Virginia. Presenting each season, February to December, a minimum of 26 productions, plus the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights mid-summer. And the Barter has a touring company. Having directed at Barter thrice myself I’m always amazed at how the actors maintain focus, energy, and good humor while six days a week they rehearse two, possibly three productions, in-between performing two separate productions daily. “Working at the Barter keeps me employed 50 weeks a year, full-time,” says Tricia Matthews who has called Barter and Abingdon, Virginia home for 9 years. Matthews relishes that while at Barter she enjoys, “…a house, varied roles and directing opportunities, a sense of family with the people I work with.” Matthew’s fellow Barter Resident Acting Company member Rick McVey agrees.
“I’m currently in my tenth year in the Resident Acting Company,” McVey says. “I can’t imagine a better venue for a working actor. I’ve performed in over 70 separate productions in my time here and a wide range of challenging roles, from Ray in Blackbird to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street to Javert in Les Miz. It can be hard work but I can’t imagine a better venue for a working actor.” McVey was also an intimidating Bill Sykes in my Oliver set during the Blitz of 1940 England in which my Oliver was portrayed by the 20-something actress Maxey Whitehead. Barter’s Artistic Director Richard Rose is deeply committed to offering actors opportunities to explore roles that beyond Barter the actors would almost certainly never be cast in.
“You’re gonna make it after all…”
While calling the Twin-Cities home actor Steve Hendrickson has made for himself a screen and stage career that is truly international and national. From his Minneapolis home Hendrickson’s resume reads like a map of the U.S. with pins dotting the country for the venues he’s worked his craft including: The Old Globe in San Diego, Syracuse Stage, Florida Stage, Arizona Theatre Company, Orlando Shakespeare, Chicago Shakespeare, Barrington Stage Company, and of course his hometown theaters including the Guthrie. Often Hendrickson needn’t leave his home to audition. “Networking is critical to finding work, both locally and across the country,” Hendrickson advises. “The Internet has completely changed the playing field for actors outside the major markets looking for stage work. It’s easier to keep interested parties up-to-date on what you’re doing and where. Video auditions and Skype interviews are becoming more commonplace—my last job was booked off a video submission.”
Hendrickson reveals his networking necessity is similar to one I’ve been championing in my book, articles, and classes. Hendrickson lays out how he has for years efficiently networked. “If I’m passing through a city with a theatre I’d be interested in working at,” Hendrickson says, “I try to arrange a general audition, always stressing that I’m not looking for immediate work but to start a relationship that might lead to something in the future. Gate-keepers (casting agents) and Fire-givers (directors) almost always respond positively to this approach.
“If it’s a cold-call,” Hendrickson continues, “I will send a snail-mail letter (not a resume) first. Letters tend to receive quicker and closer attention while manila envelopes often get shunted to a look-at-later pile if they’re not outright tossed. I print my letters on a color laser printer and always include a headshot and one production photo in the body of the single page. I close the letter saying I will follow up the next day with a resume and full-sized headshot and make a follow-up phone call two days later if I haven’t heard from them first. I try to mail the letter to arrive on a Monday, the CV on Tuesday and make the follow-up call on a Thursday.
“If I’m initiating the contact through a recommendation I’ll usually send an email with the recommender’s name in the subject line and an attached PDF resume and headshot and say ‘I’ll follow-up in two days.’”
Hendrickson is an actor after my marketing-whore heart for actors. He gets that he is a business. Owner. Operator. Marketing Director. Public Relations Spokesperson. Employee. And he’s digitally savvy. Yes, he complies email lists of industry (directors, casting directors and alike) and then sends out his campaigns via a mass email marketing service. But Hendrickson goes a step further leveraging the Internet that raised this marketer’s eyebrows. “I started using Google Alerts,” he begins, “creating one for every director I had a personal connection with. As a result, I get an email alert whenever there is a press release announcing a new project associated with a particular director. I can look at the alert and if I think there might be a part for me, I’ll shoot the director a friendly congratulatory email with an “Oh, by the way, if there’s anything I might be right for, like Capulet or Thomas Stockmann, I’d certainly be interested… I don’t think a year has gone by without getting an audition or outright offer as a result.”
Impressive. His smartly promoting himself without gimmicks is what offers him the rewards of work and, “Living a fairly stable life,” says Hendrickson. “…making a living doing what I love, developing professional relationships that have been fruitful for upwards of 25 years, enjoying the respect of a community of talented peers.” And Hendrickson like Battles, Matthews, Martin, and McVey (an excellent law-firm letterhead) enjoys the benefit of his Twin-Cities based career. “I have been able to earn a steady, if modest living as an actor” he states. “This is due in large part to the low-cost of living in Minneapolis. Actors own houses here!”
Luck Be A Lady…
Maybe you’re an actor who seeks sizzle in your life beyond the cement canyons of New York or the crowded actor-cater waiters of L.A. Las Vegas is more than production shows as actor Kate Gordon states. “There’s work here! We are getting more film work, TV work, commercials/industrials, modeling…” Gordon admits that there’s not much theatrical work but there is an outlet for the stage actor-singer-dancer via production shows. But Gordon states that not all shows shine on the Las Vegas strip. “Las Vegas is known as the land of the 4-wall. [Meaning]… that in order for a show to go up, the production team is responsible for all of the costs in maintaining, producing, marketing, hiring, etc. It’s a disastrous system that needs to end. In the Rat Pack days, casinos/hotels were supportive of shows and would do almost anything to make them successful and to keep entertainment at their business. Now, properties are landlords and nothing more. Shows open and close faster here than anywhere else. We lack support… It’s challenging.” Gordon does balance nicely though the pros and cons of an acting career in Las Vegas. “A great benefit is the cost of living in Las Vegas, she states. “I’m successful and earn all of my income from performing, but there are also those times I’m waiting on checks to come. I love that I can save here.” Financial benefits are not her primary comfort. “Personally, the freedom to control my schedule, more or less, is beautiful. I work a lot, but I also have a lot of free time. It’s a nice balance.”
Want a career closer to New York City while not relying on the thespian congested sidewalks to make your audition rounds, yet still yield that option? Actor Carolyn Agan has found that acting in and around the Washington Beltway is not only for politicians. “I love this city for its ability to foster many passions,” says Agan enthusiastically. “I have been fortunate enough to work fairly consistently at a LORT A theater in town, which has led to a sustainable income for 5 years. D.C. is a smaller market and theatres tend to rely on actors they know and trust when it comes to casting.” The D.C. market also offers Agan screen-time appearing in national and regional commercial campaigns including CarMax and Wellspan Health. With over 80 professional theaters in her region hiring actors Agan states, “There are certainly no guarantees but there can be more consistency in the work. Casting season begins around February and concludes around May for the following September – June season. When you know that far in advance what you will be doing, it is easier to fill in the holes and budget your year.” And as a bonus New York City is in her backyard. “I am close enough to New York (a four-hour, $10 Megabus trip) to audition when I really feel passionate about something. Otherwise I feel really fulfilled artistically here. On a personal level, I enjoy the shorter building heights and green space available in D.C., as I am sure my dog also appreciates!”
How to Get Acting Jobs Without NY / L.A. / Chicago
How do these 6 actors-without-borders generate work beyond Hendrickson’s digital savvy? For Battles when living in The Deep South he recommends “StageClick, New Orleans…for staying on top of theatrical auditions in the area (that and word of mouth or just following companies on Facebook). Securing an agent is crucial for film/TV/commercial work. Coming [to Louisiana] with a reel (even a small one) is helpful in this quest, as there are a lot of actors flocking to the region.”
McVey while busy at Barter incredibly wedges in other acting pursuits. Admitting that there’re not many casting directors or agents in his rural region forcing he network directly with artistic employers. Commercials and industrials can be found in nearby commutable markets of Charlotte, NC, Atlanta and D.C. He’s been in several independent films, two of which he produced FREEDOM (2007) for which he wrote and directed and THIS WORLD (2013) of which McVey co-wrote. “While not financially rewarding,” McVey admits, “they both were extremely satisfying on an artistic level.”
Former neighbor to McVey, Martin Thompson in North Carolina generated his commercial, television and film work through his local agent, and by just being “known” by the handful of casting directors responsible for casting features and episodics in his region. As Thompson admits, “It wasn’t necessary for me to market directly to those CDs. In a small market everybody knows everybody! And usually the CDs would simply request me through my agent.” His theatrical work was self-generated. “I would submit headshots and resumes, or make appointments for general auditions at the professional theatres in the region myself. I would also check the audition listings on the AEA website to find auditions in my area for specific shows. And, I would also attend the larger regional theatre auditions, such as the Atlanta Unifieds, The DC League Auditions, and SETC, in order to network with the folks from all the professional theatres in the region.”
Gordon wins her work in Las Vegas mostly, “…through my agents or through audition websites,” she states. “I network as much as possible and try to keep in touch with the quality performers I meet as well. Beyond Las Vegas, I don’t work much. Occasionally, I travel to Chicago for a quick gig, but that’s about it. I am lucky to keep busy in Las Vegas.”
Hendrickson working screen and stage nationally while living comfortably in Minneapolis has built for himself a foundation for finding work that every actor need follow his blueprint. “I believe the most important factor for a long-term acting career is creating and maintaining relationships,” Hendrickson states. “As a result, anytime I come in contact with a director or casting agent, the first priority (even if it’s an audition) is never to get the job but to improve the relationship and grow my network.” He also does build bridges to industry gate-keepers. “I work exclusively with one commercial agent in Minneapolis and with a theatrical agency in Chicago. My relationship with my Chicago agency is roughly 25% their arranging auditions for me in Chicago and 75% their negotiating contracts for work I’ve found on my own.” It’s Hendrickson’s building personal relationships that forges him long-term bonds of artistic wealth.
Give & Take
Are there drawbacks to being an actor-without-borders as there are drawbacks to being an actor mired in the cement of New York City or asphalt of Los Angeles? For Hendrickson, “The hardest thing I had to let go of when I decided to leave NYC was the possibility of becoming a star. There’s work to be had outside of the big three but you pretty much have to forfeit your chance for the brass ring.” Hendrickson has chosen sustainable work, home and family over the far-reaching odds of becoming a celebrity. Celebrities often do go bust after the entertainment machine and audiences have shred and discarded the actor. Hendrickson will continue working.
For Gordon in Las Vegas the market’s shortcomings for performers remains the casinos playing dispassionate landlord to production shows. For Matthews and McVey at Barter too much work is hardly a shortcoming they don’t complain about; one that every actor dreams of and desires. For Thompson in the Southeast he thrived as an actor but backed by a resume strong with screen credits that the Southeast graced him, he believed he could move into the larger market of L.A. better equipped than most actors who come to Hollywood empty handed. For Battles in Baton Rouge the drawback he discovered was the commute from the red stick city to New Orleans. But more painful to his heart, being that he loves the stage, was, “There was a lot of work, but being Equity was a challenge. Just not enough contracts to go around and those contracts were usually pretty slim (money-wise).” Battles did work though often on screen with film and television production based in New Orleans.
When all 6 actors-without-borders were asked for advice they’d give to an actor considering a sustained career that needn’t rely on New York City, Los Angles or Chicago—Hendrickson offered a global caution. “In a smaller market one pissed-off agent, director or stage manager can inflict a lot more damage to your reputation with one email. Be. Very. Nice.”
The 6 actors-without-borders display that an actor needn’t need New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago to have a sustainable acting career… or to be healthy and happy. How and where you define your success… is the answer.
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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Elon and Wright State University. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.
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