The Players' Journal


Stop surviving: an actor’s manifesto

val headshot
By Valeri Lantz-Gefroh

Can we have an honest conversation about theater training?

Robert DeNiro congratulated this year’s graduates from Tisch School of the Arts by telling them they are fucked. He’s right. Despite all our efforts, work and dreams only some actors are going to “make it.” Most actors won’t.

About a year ago, I met with Peter Zazzali who was writing his book, Acting in the Academy: The History of Professional Actor Training in US Higher Education (Routledge, in process). He interviewed actors from the (now defunct) League of Professional Theater Training schools about the career paths they had taken following graduation. I went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, one of the twelve conservatories that all had a core belief in classical training to satisfy the casting needs of the then burgeoning regional theater circuit. Peter’s question, which haunts me daily, is what are we doing with theater training now? Now that regional theaters are closing their doors at an alarming rate and television is over-run with reality programming – how has our model changed? What are we training for now? More out of work actors? Is that possible? The unions publish embarrassing unemployment data – and what AEA considers a “living wage” barely covers rent. This is an old story of course – the “starving actor” didn’t just emerge out of the last decade’s regional theater casualties. The difference is that when I was in school, I was being trained for actual jobs that I ended up getting. Today, a young actor could easily emerge from any one of our training institutions, six-figures in debt, and find themselves in casting offices losing the role to reality “stars.” This sucks – and brings me back to Peter’s question: What now?

We as educators have to stop selling survival. There are not enough acting jobs. Period. There never have been – but there really aren’t now. We all know it. Many of us are teaching because of it. But we keep training more and more students – thrilling over their talents, celebrating their victories in the field, mentoring them to find a survival job until the phone rings with an offer from their agent. We mean well. We love our students and we love this dream. We’ve devoted our lives to it. But these kids are walking out of our universities with debt they will never pay down working in this field – future home mortgages that will be denied because of it. So all our love of this work and these kids needs to be channeled into something else. But what?

Society is evolving and every field faces uncertainty. Here’s what we do know: almost everyventure requires active listening, empathy, collaboration, creativity, discipline and connection to the needs of the consumer. Actors are some of the only students taughtthese skills.

My life changed course in 2011, as did my perspective on our craft and our place as actors in the world. I was invited to work with Alan Alda to help build a Center for Communicating Science and create a curriculum teaching improvisation to help scientists communicate more effectively with the public. I had been teaching acting at Stony Brook University and thought what Alan had in mind was an unconventional public speaking course. The reality is much deeper: at the Alda Center we teach empathy and connection in one of the most satisfying applications of theater I’ve ever experienced. The scientists who go through our workshops and courses are on the live “stage” talking to congress, to voters, to parents confused over vaccines, to climate change deniers. We are helping them face a colossal mess of miscommunication that affects virtually everyone. This experience has opened a window on the value of my own education and radically altered what I think actors could accomplish in the workforce if we dared to change our model.

Here’s a story about one of my first students, Louisa – a talented young woman who grew from a brash undergrad into a stunning actress who was recruited by over a dozen of the top graduate schools. She chose NYU – certainly one of the best. By senior year she was poised to take the business by storm. She did her showcase, was courted by agents and casting people, and began to land a few gigs. That’s what is supposed to happen after you graduate from NYU.

I got a message from her about a year ago asking me to come observe an afterschool class she was teaching in the Bronx. I was there for an hour, but knew in the first 10 minutes that Louisa, the young woman that had just poured six figures into her graduate education, wasn’t just an actor; she was a magnificent teacher. She worked with students on monologues they had written to help them face difficulties in their lives. She gently coached these young people to tell their stories with grace, honesty, presence and an abundance of courage. They faced something huge in that room – something that, given voice, could alter their future. I drove home in tears, having witnessed some of the finest work I’d seen in a long time. I hired her to teach for us the next week.

I have watched Louisa and my other theater colleagues at the Alda Center work with a huge range of scientists – from graduate students to heads of national laboratories. I’ve seen these scientists transformed by their work.

Two of my schoolmates have taken radically different paths. Mitchell Riggs, has earned millions of dollars for devastated families with his company, LifeNow Videos. He produces documentary settlement videos to give voice to plaintiffs who have lost lives and limbs because of medical malpractice. And Caroline Chavasse opened a K – 12 democratic school in Baltimore to foster arts and ideas in young people. As provost, Caroline is not above any level of mentorship with her students, including the humility to pick up a paint roller or air conditioning filter to ensure the school is ready for opening. Why? Because that’s what actors do.

Theater training is extraordinarily valuable but our students of the theatre don’t think beyond the narrow path that their education has prepared them for. Why? We’ve taught them an addictive myth: to survive and wait. Inane survival jobs end up stretching on for years with small glimpses of respite – an occasional show, a national commercial – enough to fuel the addiction and keep the actor entrenched in a path of unrewarding daily existence. Here’s my problem with that. I know too many actors – skilled, creative people – wasting their talents in jobs that are far beneath their abilities. I know too many actors that feel like they have failed.

What if we changed the culture?   What if we trained theater artists as we do now, and then opened the landscape to reveal something bigger at the end – something bigger than plays: social, political, educational opportunities where our voices and talents could influence substantive change.

Let’s start a real conversation about alternative, rewarding paths that can utilize an actor’s skills and provide them personal and professional accomplishment. Continuing to pretend that survival jobs will work is foolish at best, and deceptive at worst. Let’s teach our students that if they want to be artists they don’t have to wait for a play to do it. There is an abundance of work and fulfillment for the creative mind, but it will never be reached through the culture we have created. The actors that I see breaking the mold and using their talents and perspective outside of the theater have not failed, settled or sold out – they are adventurous, invigorated people working on the front lines and transforming the world in epic ways.

We need to start talking. I believe our survival – as artists and as educators – depends on it