Pulling Up My Wagon

by David Greenspan

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

TCG: When was the moment that you decided to become a professional theatre actor? 

David: I honestly don’t know if I ever decided to make a career in the theater.  I suppose I made some sort of decision when I chose to major in Drama at college.  I had been acting throughout high school and was one of those kids in the Drama Department. I can say, however, that I fell in love with the theater when as a child I watched Mary Martin in Peter Pan.  The music, the story, and her performance enthralled me.  I wanted to fly and I wanted to sing.  I was hardly ever taken to the theater growing up in Los Angeles. But I listened over and over to the musicals my father recorded from the radio. And later on I listened to the ones I checked out from the library—I recorded them on my reel-to-reel tape recorder and played them over and over again. During my final year of high school I worked as an usher at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles. The big road shows would play there. I watched them over and over again and when Angela Lansbury was concluding her run there in Gypsy she left a lovely note for the ushers (all of whom were theater students) saying she hoped to see us on stage some day: That was very exciting.

Aside from a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-me film roles, I’ve worked exclusively in the theater. Gertrude Stein says of her writing career:
None of this has been intentional.  One may say generally speaking that anything that is really inevitable, that is to say necessary, is not intentional.

TCG: What is one challenge in the acting profession that you would like to change? How would you do so?

I don’t know that I would change anything about the acting profession. I think I face the same challenges actors have faced since Thespis first pulled up his wagon: developing my craft and artistry, finding work and making a living. But making a living in the theater is tough.  Or at least it is for me.

I heard Arthur Miller speak at the New Dramatists annual luncheon at which he was being honored. He expressed surprise that anyone still wanted to write plays; he assumed young writers would prefer writing for film and television. He spoke of a time when the economics of the American theater permitted actors to earn a living from stage work and thus remain in New York acting in plays—that there existed a theater culture that didn’t require actors (and playwrights) having to go to the West Coast for pilot season.

I feel that the current theater scene has great vitality. And there are actors working in film and television who, if they’re known at all, are best known for their work on the stage.  I’ve worked for many playwrights and directors—from traditional to experimental. I really have no complaints. There’s nothing I’m dying to change.  But making a living as a freelance actor in the theater can be tough.  Then again, what to do about it?

One of the most troubling developments in our country is the corporatization of culture – small businesses being swallowed up by large corporate entities. Corporate dominance means less and less choice; and the inability to choose is emblematic of an eroding democracy. But what about actors?  What about an actor who for monetary (or career) reasons drops out of a stage production after landing a role in film or television? Feature films and television even at their best are corporate enterprises—many of them owned by large media empires. What about an actor who drops out of a small-scale theater production for a higher paying theater job? Who funds the higher paying theaters? How should one feel about his or her work receiving corporate sponsorship?  It’s all very difficult. How does one distinguish a career from careerism?

I know actors whose ambition is to work in film— it is a media that truly calls to them.  And there are gifted film actors who dedicate themselves solely to that media. I think many actors would like to coordinate film and theater work, if for no other reason than to subsidize their theater career. But there is no doubt that the theater cannot compete financially with film and television.

Some actors earn their nut through voice-over and/or on-camera commercials. But what does one end up selling? Lotteries and baloney?  And who is one selling it for and to? What about voice-over work for violent video games?  Again and again, actors are faced with tough decisions. Some actors teach, some drive a cab, others hold other types of jobs. Making a living in the theater is a very complicated proposition.

Myopia - Shriek

TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an actor?

I have never had a big break.  Well, actually I get a big break every month: I open my credit card bill and realize I’m broke.  Big time!

What I’ve had are opportunities—and I’ve had many fine ones, I couldn’t choose among them as each is meaningful to me. Some jobs are particularly sweet; so much comes together— the play, the ensemble. But even the jobs that are not so sweet—or the ones that are a bit of a mess— are looked back upon with fondness and humor. There are inevitably things learned (at least in hindsight) or memorable acts of camaraderie or generosity. I believe in creating opportunity and generating work.

Regarding legacy—I know nothing about it.  I know about diction and projection, memorization and pacing, mental, physical and vocal flexibility.  I know that it is important to cooperate with the playwright and director and to be a good stage partner.  It’s so hard (or at least it is for me) to simply strive for excellence – developing my craft and refining my artistry.  Other things enter into it: like getting attention and having an important career.  Fame is in the picture almost from the get-go (or at least has been for me).  And that corrupts everything.  But,

I like to bake. And when I can, I like to bring something in to rehearsal or a performance for a special occasion or a celebration.  Perhaps I’ll be remembered for my gingerbread.


David Greenspan’s credits include premieres by David Adjmi, Sarah Ruhl, Adam Rapp, William Hoffman, Terrence McNally, David Grimm, Kathleen Tolan, Harry Kondoleon, Richard Foreman and Mac Wellman; solo renditions of The Patsy, Gertrude Stein’s lecture Plays, a program of Stein lectures entitled Composition… Masterpieces… Identity; and his own plays, most notably Dead Mother, She Stoops to Comedy (Obie), The Argument (Obie), The Myopia, Go Back to Where You Are and I’m Looking for Helen Twelvetrees.  Two performance Obies: one for The Boys in the Band, one for Some Men and Faust; Fox Fellowship and an Obie for Sustained Achievement.

Photo Credit: Aric Mayer (headshot)

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/ralphstalter/ Ralph Stalter, Jr.

    As the lyrics go: “Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor’s life for me!” I literally fell into it in high school too, David, then ended up with an MFA in Acting from Boston University — spending over 17 years as a producer/manager/fundraiser in the nonprofit professional theatre!

    Over the course of my professional theatre career, I worked with 3 different theatre companies that are members of the prestigious League of Resident Theatres (LORT) — the largest professional theatre association of its kind in the United States, with member Theatres located in every major market in the U.S., including 29 states and the District of Columbia. LORT Theatres collectively issue more Equity contracts to actors than Broadway and commercial tours combined.

    As you pointed out: “I couldn’t choose among them as each is meaningful to me. Some jobs are particularly sweet; so much comes together— the play, the ensemble. But even the jobs that are not so sweet—or the ones that are a bit of a mess— are looked back upon with fondness and humor. There are inevitably things learned (at least in hindsight) or memorable acts of camaraderie or generosity. I believe in creating opportunity and generating work.”

    Ironically, the most intimate constituency of the regional (or resident) theatre movement has always been its community of artists! Artists who inaugurated the movement in the late 1940′s because they, too, were passionate about “creating opportunity and generating work!”

    As Joseph Wesley Zeigler wrote in his book, “Regional Theatre, The Revolutionary Stage” (1973): “The actors, directors, artisans, and administrators who form its working family are all professionals who earn their living at the theatre. They have banded together out of a belief that theatre is best when created through group effort, each person’s talent complementing and enlarging that of all others.”

    They all, like you, “bring something in to rehearsal or a performance for a special occasion or a celebration” (the creative process)… to cooperate with the playwright and director and to be a good stage partner.” Every theatre professional continually “strive(s) for excellence – developing (their) craft and refining (their) artistry.”

    Throughout history, especially in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, the support that kings, popes and the wealthy provided to playwrights, actors, musicians, painters, and sculptors helped to preserve and extend their talent and their artwork well beyond their lifetime. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.

    Figures as late as Mozart and Beethoven also participated in the system to some degree.European culture eventually moved from such a patronage system to the more publicly supported system of museums, theaters, mass audiences and mass consumption that is familiar in the contemporary world.

    Without the Carnegies, the Fords, the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Vanderbilts, Bill & Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and other great American philanthropists (including corporations), there could be no PBS, no Lincoln Center, no Carnegie Hall, no American Theatre Wing (with their SpringboardNYC and Theatre Intern Group programs) — and far fewer opportunities for individual theatre artists to make a living (or a life)!

    To read more about these seminal figures in American philanthropy, please visit the Hall of Fame at GreatPhilanthropists.org

    Americans — and American Corporations — donate generously to charitable organizations of all sorts. According to Giving USA, Americans gave $13.1 billion to arts, culture and humanities organizations in 2003. The American model may be uniquely suited to this country, and deserves recognition as a system of arts funding that presents a viable alternative to direct, state-sponsored support of artists and cultural projects.

    I agree wholeheartedly that, “Making a living in the theater is a very complicated proposition…” But I, for one, continue to treasure every collaborative experience and lifelong memory… All of which would go well with your gingerbread and a hot cup of tea!