Scratch the surface of any actor in New York City, and you'll find a waiter underneath. Or so the cliché goes. In reality, for many of this silicon city's actors, it's the explosion of e-commerce that pays the rent while they're striving for that "big break." Chances are that almost any Off-Broadway play you venture to see has actors in its cast who spend their days doing everything from web research for pharmaceutical companies to freelance editing for websites. After all, in the downtown theater scene, almost no one is "just an actor."
If you need evidence, simply head down to The Kraine Theater on East 4th Street to see The Word, the writing and directing debut for actor Ian McCulloch. Part mystery, part comedy, and part love story, The Word explores the power of language through the escapades of Tristian Chenoweth, a radio talk-show host whose mission is to save the planet from "The Word." I spoke with McCulloch on the phone while he was at his day job at Epicurious.com, CondeNast's food website.
According to McCulloch, the idea for the play came from a song of nonsense words that he and a friend were singing one day in their car. "If we're sitting there, and you have a pack of cigarettes and I say 'give me a schmeggie,' then you'll probably know what I'm talking about. The idea is that a word, if you say it, is a real word. And that's a powerful thing." A powerful thing indeed, especially when you consider the abundance of new web words that have become a part of our daily lexicon.
After graduating from New York University's theater program, McCulloch lived in Los Angeles, Boston, and even Iowa, before returning to New York to continue his theatrical pursuits. When I asked McCulloch what his title was at Epicurious.com, he explained, "I'm a permanent freelance person. I used to be a chef, so I'm the recipe guy. I wouldn't say I'm editing, really, but hold on one second." He leans away from the mouthpiece to get input from a co-worker. "Hey what's my title here? No, I really need to know. Freelance-what? Really? Okay, cool." He returns to the phone, pleased, and announces: "Editor." This sort of relaxed atmosphere, typical of many new web companies, is the perfect setting for actors accustomed to the anything-goes theater scene.
David Cote, who plays an aggressive salesman in The Word, also finds that web work suits his lifestyle. As the theater editor for Culturefinder.com, Cote says his job doesn't interfere too much with his artistic pursuits. Coming from Cote, that's quite a compliment. In addition to his acting exploits, which have included the European tour of Richard Foreman's Pearls For Pigs, he was also the co-founder and editor of a number of Off-Off Broadway publications, including OFF: A Journal of Alternative Theater, and the director of the long-running downtown hit, Something Something Uber Alles. When I asked him if dabbling in these related fields ever threatens his acting career, he cited the success of OFF founding partner, Jennifer Woodward, who plays Effie Ruskin in The Countess, another long-running Off-Broadway production. Cote admits that he is torn between pursuing acting or writing, but for now he is happy to spend his days logged-on, and his nights on-stage.
William Peden, who plays the lead role in The Word, also spends his days online, conducting research for Phase Five Communications, "the uber-monolith of advertising," as Peden calls it. "I'm not changing the world, or curing cancer, or really adding anything at all moral fiber-wise to the world, but it pays the bills," Peden told me over the phone while on the job. Peden stumbled into the position when a friend needed someone to fill in for him while he shot a film. Two years later, he is still there because the pay is great and the hours are flexible--two qualities every actor searches for in a day job.
Even if the Web hasn't logged on to their talents, chances are many downtown actors still aren't wiping down tables to feed the bank. Eleanor Hutchins, part of the Greek-like Chorus of The Word, hasn't surfed her way into any Internet start-up, but she did manage to slide from her miserable job tending bar into another burgeoning industry: commercial production. As a prop stylist, Hutchins freelances on commercial sets for the likes of the A&E network, acquiring, building, and "styling" props. Another graduate of the NYU theater program, Hutchins told me of a teacher at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute who informed her that she had to "live, breathe, and...[you know the bodily function] theater," Hutchins said in a phone interview. "It was the philosophy that you're an actor before you are a person. But I like to write, and I like to paint, and I want to travel. And my teacher said to me, 'All that other stuff is just distraction. You have to get rid of that.' And for a while, I believed her."
However, Hutchins didn't believe her for too long. With featured roles in two soon-to-be completed independent feature films (Margarita Happy Hour and OMC), Hutchins is also going into pre-production for her first short film, on which she is not only the screenwriter, but the star player as well. "I've been working like a maniac doing the whole prop styling thing. And then doing movies, and plays, and writing, and the short film, which I'm basically producing. Everybody is mad at me all the time, because, for example, I had to stay at work late. So then I was late for rehearsal, which made Ian mad at me. But I also had to leave a little early because I had a meeting about the film, which of course I was late for because of rehearsal. Then in the morning I had to be back at work, so it's mayhem."
This exhaustion and mayhem is something which all of the actors wrestled with. However, when I asked each of them how much longer they could continue playing the role of a struggling actor whose life consists of at least two full-time jobs, not one said they intended to give up their thespian life-style for a more stable life of benefits and pensions. "Hopefully I'll be able to make a career of only the things I love to do," Hutchins told me. And that, after all, is why so many of us pursue this sometimes seemingly impossible dream of standing beneath the--oh gosh, look at the time. Gotta go, I'm late for rehearsal.