By Peter Zazzali
In my last post I addressed the professional differences between theatre and on-camera acting by examining the challenges facing those seeking work in the former. While finding employment in film and television is by no means easy, it is nearly impossible for actors to make a living in the American theatre today. This grim situation started when America's regional theatres disbanded their resident companies during the 1970s in favor of hiring talent on a show-by-show basis. This change came at an obvious cost to the actors whose livelihoods were turned upside down, but it also negatively impacted audiences, insofar as they had grown accustomed to the acting company to the point of associating it with the institution’s identity. Furthermore, breaking up an ensemble that is used to working together and replacing it with a group of strangers compromises the potential for creativity. If an actor is unfamiliar with how his colleagues work, he is likely to spend the beginning weeks of rehearsal making safe choices as part of getting to know everyone’s process. This reticent approach to one’s craft is reinforced by the hireling actor’s low status within the professional sphere. For example, if an actor is employed on a show-by-show basis he is probably grateful just to have a job and will dutifully follow direction to ensure the possibility of being hired again. There is little room for negotiating artistic choices, which is oftentimes necessary to rehearsing a play. This practice is comically addressed by the monologist Mike Daisy in his critically acclaimed piece How Theater Failed America, in which he describes “freeze-dried actors being shipped from New York” to begin the formulaic process of staging a production.
If the contemporary regional theatre functions as a largely mechanical industry devoid of artistic risk, there was a time when things were different. The case of Bill Ball and the American Conservatory Theatre exemplifies the U.S. not-for-profit theatre and actor training at its very best. Founded in Pittsburgh in 1965, A.C.T. moved a year later to San Francisco to embark on one of the most intriguing and energetic theatrical enterprises of the twentieth century. A company of more than forty actors produced a repertory of as many as twenty-seven plays a year for an audience that consisted of both local regulars and first-time tourists. When the acting company wasn’t rehearsing or performing, they were busy taking classes to improve their craft. Steeped in the Continental model of Jacques Copeau’s Vieux-Colombier, Ball stressed actor training as the foundation for his organization. He reasoned that stage acting required ongoing training and development and therefore Ball required his company to attend a wide range of classes that extended from the traditional (voice and speech) to the unconventional (African dance and “laughing class”). As company member Kitty Winn shared with me in a recent interview, “Your life was the theatre…There wasn’t time for anything else.” Demanding as this daily grind was for Winn and her colleagues, according to the accounts of numerous critics and theatre practitioners, the work produced by A.C.T. throughout the 1970s was second to none. Productions such as Ball’s Tartuffe and The Taming of the Shrew remain a lasting part of American theatre history, and moreover, are emblematic of what a company of likeminded artists can accomplish.