When I moved to New York City 18 years ago, the bathetic declaration of Conrad's taxi man recurred to me with a resonance it hadn't held before. In fact, it became my mantra. This skinny, bustling island, with its argumentative citizens, cash-intensive attractions, and round-the-clock clatter, presents peculiar challenges to newcomers. New York is non-stop competition. With beauty and grandeur found in the same neighborhoods -- in fact, on the same blocks -- as seediness and squalor, the sensory input of this city is constant and often vexing. It's a fascinating place to be but, unless you're insulated by unusual wealth, life here is seldom easy. Craig Wroe, author of the newly published reference book An Actor Prepares...To Live in New York City (Limelight Editions, 352 pp., $16.95), understands this.
The title of the book is a clever allusion to Stanislavski's 1936 bible of performance technique, An Actor Prepares. "To survive the ups and downs of urban life and the acting profession," according to Wroe, one needs "equal parts confidence and cunning, stamina and stability, tenacity and even mendacity." He has devised a guidebook, practical as salt, that points the reader to goods and services essential to the daily grind: opening a bank account, establishing credit, eating out and eating in, keeping fit (or getting buff), locating bargains, and finding clean, safe places to pee and freshen up in a city plastered with the warning that "Restrooms are for customers only."
An Actor Prepares...To Live in New York City is clearly aimed at those who wish not merely to persist but to prevail. Its grandiose subtitle is: How to Live Like a Star Before You Become One (A Guide for Actors and Everyone Else to Getting the Best for Less and Surviving, Thriving, and Living the Good Life in the Big Apple). The author says that, during his 18 years in New York, he has been "unwilling to sacrifice quality of life to my tight budget" and has "become the master of living above my means without paying above my means."
Wroe's credentials outfit him admirably to advise the 90,000-plus struggling actors in our often unfair city. Though never employed on Broadway, he has supported himself for nearly two decades with acting jobs Off-Broadway, in resident theaters around the country, and even on London's West End, not to mention a teaching job at the School for Film and Television. He says that "a photographic memory, a network of friends and colleagues whom I continually poll for tips on the best and least expensive that New York has to offer, and compulsive organizational skills" have helped him accumulate "mountains of information" about getting ahead in New York. Wroe has transformed his personal database into a compact, thoroughly accessible guidebook which is distinctive among similar products on the market.
Wroe's authorial voice is benevolent and lightly paternal. He understands the rhythms of the actor's existence, with theatrical gigs interspersed among spells of "survival work" and unemployment. He's sympathetic to the fact that "downtime can be brutal," wounding the ego and exacerbating insecurity about "our talent, our place and ourselves in the business." He's practical: "[O]ur rent bills must be paid and we must eat." But he understands that "survival work," if it's unpleasant, "exhausts us emotionally and physically and bashes our egos that much more." Most of all, he understands the exaltations of the performer's life: "[W]e get that acting job and [we] are back on top of the world."
The author has ample advice for coping with the combined stress of city and career. He recommends sundry forms of recreation and urges the reader to take advantage of New York's cultural riches -- and he tells how to do these things without spending a fortune. "Working out," he writes, "is one of the most important things we can do for our careers -- think corsets, tights, nude scenes! Kidding aside, strong, healthy bodies are vital to our craft. We need strength and stamina to sustain a role for two or more hours, eight times a week. By working out, we can keep in touch with out bodies so that we can effortlessly create the movement and mannerisms of the characters we are working on. Exercise is also a great way for us to work through our frustrations (we'll have a few), makes us look good, and empowers us with the confidence we'll need in audition rooms every day." Wroe also has advice for finding a competent, affordable psychotherapist.
Most of his suggestions are admirable, and when he mentions a strategy that's dubious -- such as buying clothes on credit for an audition or interview and returning them after use -- he does so with a disclaimer. "Out of the necessity for full disclosure," he begs, "please don't construe my inclusion of the following as in any way sanctioning such behavior -- I'm just the messenger. I feel, though, that it is my duty to pass this secret on to you." That caveat has a hollow ring.
The closest competitor to Wroe's new book is the estimable An Actor's Guide -- Making It in New York City by Glenn Alterman, which Allworth Press issued last year. Alterman's work is noteworthy as a combination of utilitarian information, professional counsel, and philosophical reflection on the acting life. Wroe's book, by contrast, is a down-and-dirty vade mecum for finding what you need when you need it. Both offer advice tailored to performers -- where to find acting classes, play scripts, make-up, costumes, and the like. But Wroe has compiled a wealth of information that will benefit any New Yorker hewing to a budget.
A book such as Wroe's runs the risk of being outdated as soon as it appears. In fact, some of its information is already outmoded; his note that the New York Shakespeare Festival presents two or three productions in Central Park during the summer, for instance, is not currently accurate. Wroe is already at work on the next edition, and so the book asks readers for their suggestions of "way[s] to save money" and how to find "the best for less." While the publishing world ain't any easier than other New York pursuits, it's a safe bet that An Actor Prepares...To Live in New York City will be as much a survivor as Wroe himself, with successive editions available as a resource for the endless stream of newcomers who want to call this hard-knock Wonderland home.