Sally Wingert has been working full-time as an actress since she was 23 years old, when she was invited to join the ensemble of the Actor’s Theater of St. Paul. When talking about it—and her subsequent invitation to join the acting ensemble Garland Wright created at the Guthrie, she uses the word “miracle” a lot. And, when I mention the phrase “day job,” she flails about for some wood to knock on. Even Sally Wingert, after all these years, is superstitious as everyone else about the stability of her career.
“My second miracle,” she said, “was Garland Wright asked me to become a company member. I was too ignorant to realize how astonishing that was. . . The first thing he did was raise salaries for actors by a substantial amount. He said, ‘I want you to commit to me in the middle of the country. I want you to buy homes here. I want you to raise your family here.’ “
Tracey Maloney came to Minnesota in 1994 after a few years in Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio because she heard it was a good theater town. (Serious question: How many people have moved to one of the coldest cities in the country for the performing arts? Does any other Minnesota industry have as good a record of attracting young, talented people away from the coasts or warmer weather?)
In “2000 or 2001,” she said, Tracey quit her “day job” (waiting tables and working for a roommate referral service), got her Actor’s Equity card, and decided it was time to make her art work. “I had a year or two when the voiceovers started to feel pretty good. I was getting repeat things, and national things. . . I got cast in a play at the Humana Festival, and I would have to leave [town to do the show]. I took that as a sign that when I come back then I’m going to make a go of it. . . . It never feels like, ‘O good, now I don’t have to get another job. I always feel like I’m gonna have to [find a “day job”].”
Unlike Sally, Tracey doesn’t make her living predominantly in the theater. “Voiceovers, pretty much, make the theater easier for me. Every once in a while that will dip, and I’ll maybe get a lot of work at the Guthrie. . . So far, something is always enough that I’m not just totally destitute. Both financially and spiritually. Something is enough. Something is interesting. Something is artistic enough to keep me happy.”
Bethany Ford was laid off from her “day job” in May of 2009. “I thought I was kind of on a role,” she recalled thinking, “I’ve got my day job, and I’ve got this theater groove. I’m in a groove. Then I got laid off, which came as a shock. I was absolutely devastated. . . Scott [my boyfriend] was actually the one who said, ‘Well, can’t you look at this as a sign, like someone kicking you in the ass to finally go and dive in, in a way that you haven’t before?”
“The very next day I started aggressively researching and calling everyone I knew who did on-camera work and figuring out ways to make money at it, as opposed to what I had been doing—which was to focus on making theater.”
In the past six months, she’s played an employee who isn’t very good at her job, for a corporate training video, and she’s been a customer shopping for expired merchandise on a web commercial. For Mall of America, she played a trend tracker in a corporate mockumentary: “There’s a disease going around where teens don’t know how to dress, and there’s an intervention.” Bethany played one of the interveners.
Surprisingly, most of her work hasn’t come from the two casting agencies who represent her; most of her work has been found on websites like MinnesotaPlaylist.com, the hotline of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, and a company called Walden Entertainment.
““It’s hard, it’s really hard,” she said. “I have pared down my expenses to the point where I just have to make enough to cover rent and food, and the occasional tube of toothpaste or pair of shoes, i.e. bare necessities. . . [but] I feel like I'm very, very close to consistently making enough to live. For me, I’m still trying to break into the voiceover sector. It’s a balance of on-camera, and voiceover, and print work when I can get it, and then if I’m lucky enough to get stage work in the well-funded professional productions that have 9-5 rehearsals.”
“Being broke sucks big time, and there is a lot of anxiety involved with not knowing where your next check is coming from. But I love to act - it's what I've always wanted to do. Frankly, it's the only thing I truly know. And hopefully, I'm headed toward a steady flow of work that will bring a vague semblance of financial security.”