“Eighty percent of success is showing up,” said Woody Allen.
It’s a glib quip and a bit maddening to younger actors because it begs a second question, “Show up where?!?”
Personally, the keystone of my professional survival has been to ask myself, “Where is work that I’m interested in, and how can I participate?” More than talent, more than training, I think the most important facet of an actor’s career is the consistent ability to be where the work is happeningin other words, to get into the room.
Learning the hard way
During the fall of my sophomore year in the conservatory BFA program at Boston University, I auditioned for Alan Schneider, Associate Artistic Director of Arena Stage at the time, who was directing The Skin of Our Teeth at BU.
Alan had wanted to cast me as Mr. Antrobus but had been overruled by the school administration. A role that size, said the Dean, had to go to an MFA actor. I was royally pissed when Alan broke the news, but he softened the blow with another idea. The following spring he was directing the premiere of a Travis Preston play at Arena Stage. Although the production was already cast, Alan felt that I could understudy one of the young principal roles. Would I be willing to leave school, if he could square it with Arena? Damn right I was, and said so on the spot. “Great!” said Alan, “I’ll be in touch.” I left school in January, moved back to my home in Baltimore (a 45 minute drive from Arena Stage), and waited.
I was young, idealistic and naive. As the months passed with no word from Mr. Schneider, I called Arena Stage and asked when rehearsals started. On the first day, I had my parents drive me to Washington and, while they waited in the parking lot, marched into the Arena offices and asked to see Mr. Schneider. He hadn’t arrived yet but, I was told, I could wait for him in the auditorium.
I took a seat. Onstage, the stage managers were setting up a table for a read-through. They threw a couple curious glances my way, but I must have seemed harmless because they said nothing. Actors wandered in, greetings were made, coffee was poured. Then, in a flash, down the aisle past me dashed Alan Schneider with a flurry of hellos and apologies for being late.
I summoned all my courage, stood up, and followed him. As he reached the lip of the stage, I managed to murmur, “Mr. Schneider…?”
He turned to look at me and for an awful moment he stared blankly, until a look of mortified embarrassment passed over his face. In that moment, the horrible truth hit mehe had forgotten his promise. Of course, it hadn’t really been a promise, just an idea, a casual notion, the phrase out of sight, out of mind rang in my mind. In a flash, I became acutely aware of all the eyes in the room on me. How callow I must have seemed to the seasoned theater pros in the room. Poor naive wanna-be!
Mercifully, Alan remembered my name. “Steve,” he said, putting his arm around me and moving me away from the group. “I am so sorry. I did check with Arena, and they said it couldn’t be done because of union regulations, and I got distracted with other things and completely forgot to get back to you.” 1
I was red-hot with humiliation and just wanted to get away from what I was sure were the suppressed snickers of the actors and technicians on stage, but Alan’s eyes and manner both bespoke genuine regret. “Look,” he said. “I can’t offer you the understudy, but why don’t you sit with me and watch rehearsals?”
And I said, “No.”
Out of wounded pride and foolish (yet understandable) shame, I mumbled something about “my parents waiting for me” and “not having a ride home” and “thanks very much but I really need to go.”
Alan gave me a rueful smile. “I’m really very, very sorry,” Alan said.
And I left.
It was the worst mistake I think I’ve made as an actor.
Why? Because I was in the room and had been asked to stay. Even though it was not as I had imagined, I know now that was not important. A door had opened, and I was too stubborn and embarrassed to walk through it. But I should have. I should have stayed in that room. Who knows what my sitting in at an Alan Schneider rehearsal might have led to? Perhaps nothing. But I remain convinced that, if I had stayed at Alan’s side that day my life would have turned out differently. I might have wound up working for him as an assistant, I might have made other connections at Arena Stage, Alan might have found a part for me in the next play he directed. There were a thousand possibilities waiting on my answer, and I shut the door on all of them by saying “No.” For years afterwardand today stillI want to scream at that boy walking back up the aisle snuffling back tears, “For God’s sake, turn around! Stay in the room!” Because it took me another six years to get back inside a professional rehearsal room.
Casting by coincidence
The actor-director Jon Cranney shared a parallel story at an audience talk back at the History Theater last year where I was playing Tony Guthrie in Tyrone and Ralph. As I remember Jon’s account, he was a theater student at the U when Guthrie began rehearsals for his first season. As the Vineland Place building was still under construction, the company used the university to rehearse. John had been recruited to help set up the space and decided to sit quietly at the back and watch.
In the middle of rehearsals, Guthrie suddenly exclaimed “We need an extra person for this scene. Who do we have?”
“No one.” said the Stage Manager. Guthrie looked around and saw Jon. “You! You do it!” Ten seconds later Jon Cranney was on his feet and the youngest member of the Guthrie Theater acting company. Because he was in the room.
Life often offers you opportunities disguised as detours or even disappointments. A surviving actor is a flexible actorone who has the wisdom or luck to see beyond an immediate vexation, setback, or course correction, and grab the opportunity that lies in the new direction.
1Thirty years of experience in the professional theater have given me a perspective on the situation that I could not have in the moment. Directors of Schneider’s caliber juggle a number of projects at once and their attentions are divided a thousand ways. In the days before email and cell phones, it was harder to keep in touch with people. In hindsight, I should have made more of an effort to stay in touch with him, rather than simply waiting by the phone.
In 1982 while playing a small role in a Circle-in-the-Square production of Tartuffe, Schneider came to a performance, sought me out after, reminded me who he was and how he knew me, and complimented my work. I hadn’t known he was at the performance so he could have easily ducked me, but he went out of his way to be friendly. This meant worlds to me then, and still does, and is, I think, a true reflection of his generous nature.
At Arena Stage, though, I knew none of this. All I felt was betrayal and mortification.