If I Can Make it There…

If I Can Make it There…

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway,They say there’s always magic in the air… 

Perhaps George Benson said, or rather sang, it best in his 1978 hit “On Broadway.”  Broadway connotes a sense of wonder and majesty, not just as a destination of evening entertainment for tourists and natives, but also as the ultimate goal of the aspiring theater actors of New York City.  Thousands devote years of preparation– and heartache–in the hope of someday standing on a Broadway stage as the curtain falls to rapturous applause.

…But when you’re walkin’ down that street, And you ain’t had enough to eat, The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere…

However, the journey to Broadway is not one to be taken lightly.  Despite the reality of sporadic employment, every year countless would-be stars flock to New York City with the belief that they will be the one to make it big.  In a tricky economic climate, and an already competitive field, thousands of actors in the city go months between acting gigs and turn to other forms of employment to stay afloat.  Of the 28,812 members of the Actors Equity Association who live in the Eastern Region (New York, Washington D.C, Boston and Philadelphia), an average of just 13 percent  work on a weekly basis.  More than half of these members reside in New York City.  And, there are hundreds more hopefuls who don’t possess the coveted equity affilifation.  Nevertheless, this does little to deter the determined, dazzling stars who are willing to make financial and lifestyle sacrifices for their craft.  Maybe their blind passion will serve them well.  “The ones who are passionate are the ones who will get somewhere and make it in the business,” says Jodi Kipperman, president and owner of Kipperman Castings, Inc. in New York, who makes a point to note that luck and timing play a big part in most success stories.

Some actors begin the process with a BA from one of the city’s drama schools; others find an agent, take headshot photos and audition.  New York is the city of dreams but it is also the city of unsuccessful auditions, vicious competition, no-thank-yous and a whole lot of waiting.  So in the meantime those aspiring actors wait tables, pour drinks and attend classes.

…And I won’t quit till I’m a star on Broadway…

The Seasoned Pro

Meet Jessica Faller, actress, writer, director, producer, one-time Japanese porn voiceover artist, and a waitress.

In a cozy and convivial West Village restaurant on a brisk, November Saturday afternoon, Faller, 27, is playing her thrice-weekly role.  With dark hair tightly swept back in a low bun, bright-red lacquered lips, and impeccable posture, she artfully balances five bottles of ketchup as she weaves between tables, with soft jazz music as her accompaniment.  She carries herself with poise and gesticulates with long fingers as she presents the menu to customers, clears tables with a flourish and retreats with a gentle bow.  She is clearly a performer.

For Faller acting was always the goal.  Growing up in a small town in Long Island, which she calls “the home of the strip mall,” getting to the razzmatazz of New York City was the first step.  After graduating high school Faller gained a scholarship to study drama at Marymount Manhattan College.  At first being in the city was overwhelming for Faller, a feeling that wasn’t abated by a heroin addict roommate.   But even that experience — the girl went on to marry a member of the Russian mafia, before being kicked out of school — provided fodder for later creative production.  “It’s these kind of experiences you can draw on later in writing and acting,” says Faller.

Some weeks Faller finds herself with numerous auditions and multiple offers, yet other weeks she won’t get a single callback.  “Auditioning can be f**king stupid,” she says.  “An awful lot of auditions are just not for normal projects.  You can be misled.  It’s not that they’re nefarious it’s just that they’re humiliating and ridiculous.  You get all amped up and do the work to prepare for something and then realize it’s just not worth it.”  Some of Faller’s auditions-from-hell stories include being sent by an agent to audition for a hip-hop music video seeking African American males; Faller is white and female.  Then there was the time she attended call back, after call back for a role in a low-budget play that required her to master 27 different accents, only to be told at the last hurdle that the role required someone who looked believable as a waitress.  Faller was late to her restaurant job that day due to the long-running audition.  Nonetheless, she contends that the process of auditioning and being rejected can be both cathartic and useful.  “If you’re going to go through all that disheartening hell, you’ve got to turn it into a story,” she says.

For Faller a big struggle is the expense of living in New York while trying to keep acting.  “It gets exponentially harder and harder,” she says.  “Rent gets higher and higher and the pay for the small jobs doesn’t.”   Still, even at the toughest moments Faller says she couldn’t give up that world.  “You just have to find a way to do it,” she says.

Rising Above the Competition

Jason Liles towers above the competition, literally.  At 6’10,” Liles credits his “specific skill” for landing him many of his roles.  “It’s been a good niche for me,” he says.  Perhaps the most famous role his vertical prowess helped him reach was that of an alien in “Men In Black 3.”  When first called about the role and asked if he’d be willing to be head-to-toe in makeup and prosthetics, Liles immediately signed up.  “I had no idea what saying yes would entail,” he says in hindsight.  “That’s the most demanding stuff I’ve ever done in my life.  It’s claustrophobic and heavy.  I felt like I’d worked out for 15 hours after we finished for the day.”

Tennessee native Liles, now 26, didn’t always see acting as his career path.   He had only completed one year of his theater degree in “middle-of-nowhere, Tennessee” when he decided that acting was what he wanted to do and New York was the place to do it.  “If I was going to act I needed to go somewhere where acting actually was, where I could go as far as possible and really pursue it,” says Liles.

And pursue it he did.  For five years Liles has been living and acting in New York.  Of course there are quiet periods but Liles has another secret weapon “I stay really positive even when I don’t have work,” he says.  “I know it’s going to come, I know how the business works, I know sometimes there’s nothing and sometimes there’s too much, that’s just how it goes.”  It is this attitude and his easy-going nature that has landed him many of his parts over the last few years.  “A lot of people I work with will see how friendly I can be on set and so I’ll get calls saying ‘hey this director told me you were awesome we’d love to have you play this character.’”

For Liles, the competition in New York is also a positive.  “There’s so many people to meet and make projects with, to do a play reading or a short film, or just people who can support and encourage you,” he explains.  “Every day you can do something to remind yourself that you’re an actor.  It’s a great city anyway and doing something so crazy and fast paced just compliments it.”

The New Kid On The Block

Shannon Spangler’s name alone suggests glittering success.  The 21-year-old, Dallas, Texas native is on the cusp of graduating NYU’s Tisch with a BSA in drama.  On Thanksgiving eve, as others pack up to head home for the holiday or feverishly fight their way through the crowds at Trader Joe’s, Spangler finishes acting class and has just 15 minutes to make it across town for a play rehearsal.  The production, “The Place We Built,” designed to showcase student actors, was written by  Sarah Gancher, based on the interests and personalities of the cast.  To garner as much exposure as possible, Spangler and her fellow student performers are frantically sending out postcards to influential figures they know of, inviting them to the play’s opening next week.  “The hope is they’ll come see it and think ‘we like you!  Do you want to sign with us?’ That would be ideal,” she says with a laugh.

Spangler admits that her heart is split between stage and screen.  Luckily she has a solution.  “My dream is to be on a period piece on HBO, like “Mad Men,”” she says.  “There’s a hell of a lot of money in television, so if I was fortunate enough, like if a comet fell out of the sky and hit me in the face and I got a part like that, I would work for seven to ten years and then never have to worry about working again.  So then I could do plays which don’t pay shit.” With a pale complexion, strawberry blonde hair and an elegant grace, it is easy to envision Spangler in such period parts, no falling comet necessary.

Spangler is realistic when it comes to the struggles of trying to make it as an actor in New York, noting,  “Almost every teacher I’ve ever had has said ‘Don’t do this, if you can do anything else in the world.  If you can write, or produce, or cook, or do anything else vaguely interesting, do it.’”

She fully understands that “perpetual unemployment” will likely be part of her career path.  “I’m already a waitress with a very understanding boss so I’ll keep working there,” she says.  “That’s part of what this is and that’s why you hear so many stories about someone who waited tables for 15 years then finally got their break; that’s a real thing.”

photo credit: joyhog.com

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