Personally, there are a lot of factors that keep me away from more union contracts, including taking care of my partner of 46 years, whom I’m desperately trying to keep living at home for as long as he can while the degenerative ravages of Alzheimer’s make him disappear ever-so slowly before my eyes. Then there is the fact that I have found great pleasure in teaching acting the last five years at New York Film Academy's LA campus, coming to realize it’s a fine way I can pass on (before I pass on) the knowledge I have gained over the past six decades to a “new stand of cotton,” as Tennessee would say. Then selfishly and with decidedly more mercenary thinking on my part, I have also discovered, working quite regularly these days as a personal coach for the film and television community, that one gig holding the hand of a spoiled, neurotic superstar pays more in an hour than I could make in a week on a Lort B contract in some suburban enclave with a wealth of fast food eateries and a Super 8 Motel along the main highway.
Keeping this in mind, I have turned down my share of AEA contract offers and auditions since Victor’s illness reared its unfortunate head and since the beginning of my latter-day teaching career. This has honestly left me very sad I am unable to spend my usual springs in New Orleans during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and am currently in the process of letting go of my own fiercely-held longtime apartment on 76th Street used while working in New York—a city where, by the way, I have seen nowhere near the cutting-edge and courageously bold work on small stages over the years than I see regularly in the poor, maligned reclaimed-desert wasteland known as Los Angeles. And over the past decade I have done 16 plays on the west coast, 14 as 99-seat productions and two on Equity contracts. Of the 14 intimate theatre experiences, 13 were incredible rich and rewarding and I wouldn’t have traded my time in them for anything—and the 14th was, shall we at least say, great fun, even if I did warn friends not to come. The two AEA contract jobs were a misery to live through and honestly, both were at least partially made miserable because of the rigidity, nastiness, and dysfunctional “assistance” and decision-making of the west coast office of my own fucking union.
A few years ago, I was offered a fairly nicely-sized role in a film shooting 10 to 12 weeks in Alaska at a very impressive rate, even if the role could have been played by any similarly odd-looking automaton. At the same time, I was offered a chance to play the dying Brian in The Shadow Box in a Culver City 33-seat space for $9 a show. I turned down the film and took the play, losing a longtime agent over the decision. You see, I was then a four-time survivor of cancer (and currently at this point in time, a five-timer) and I knew what I wanted more than anything was to say the words Michael Cristofer won a Pulitzer Prize for creating. I had previously played Mark at age 28 and Joe in my mid-30s, the latter which became another controversial decision for me, as during the final gasps of rehearsals, I received my third cancer diagnosis and was told I had about a 40% chance of survival, but only if I went immediately into surgery.
Again, I chose the play. We were scheduled to run four or five weeks, so I knew, although I was taking a chance with my life, I would get more personal healing and comfort from saying Joe’s words and submerging myself in Joe’s situation rather than focusing on my own crap. Instead of a few weeks, however, we played several months. We closed on a Sunday and I went into surgery at 6:30 the following morning. The tumor was still there to be excised but, despite my doctors’ dire warnings of gloom and destruction, had not grown or spread in any way.
Art heals. I believe with all my heart art healed me then and continues to do so today. For AEA to try to destroy that outlet for me is unacceptable. I am still unwilling to give up my passion to somehow change the world, drip by torturous drip, through whatever talent I have been given. That should be my decision, not some little miserable worm sitting in a little cubicle at the Equity office. Several theatres that gave me that unique chance to heal and grow and communicate the human condition to others have been or are in grave danger of being totally wiped out as Equity barrels through with its dastardly proposal implemented despite our loud and public protests, simply because it cannot control the unstoppably passionate intimate theatre scene in Los Angeles. If I need to one day soon chose to take on a life-altering theatrical experience in LA intimate theatre over what should be the sheltering wings of the union I have held dear for most of my life, there would be no contest whatsoever. Fi-Core R Us.
An addendum: By the way, I currently have two pair of students in two separate Scene Study classes at NYFA working on scenes from The Shadow Box. The beat goes on.