I gave her freshly cut roses on the opening night of the play. Three weeks later the bouquet stood dried out in a vase on a small table in front of the mirror. “I almost like them better like this,” she said. “They’re more poignant. ”
“And this was really the way that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.”
–Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Twenty-five years ago, ABC NO RIO in an art exchange with Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago, brought Thieves Theatre to the Lower East Side . At the time we were doing my script Travelling Light about a long haul trucker whose CB radio handle is Bird of Prayer and the strange hitchhiker carrying a dozen eggs he picks up. The entire performance takes place within the Vehicle of Knowledge. They travel toward a rendezvous with the sexy female voice coming over the CB named Mountain Belle.
Loading the Vehicle of Knowledge into to our auction-bought Chicago Police paddy wagon we drove to New York. We slept at NO RIO the six weeks we were there and showered at the nearby Allen Street Public Bath; it must have been the last one left in the city. We paid a local graffiti artist to paint the paddy wagon with a Thieves Theatre logo so it wouldn’t get tagged by others. Pulling car seats from all the stolen and stripped vehicles under the Williamsburg Bridge we created seating for the audience at No Rio.
ABC No Rio 1981
Travelling Light is my only play but I instigated a redux of it some years back as a writing/producing project with David Bucci, Lisa D’Amour, Josh Furst, and other rat playwrights. Bucci bought a van with a play commission from Woolly Mammoth and toured northeast out of Texas with his rock band. Lisa left Portland in her Eagle headed toward Minneapolis and New York. I drove this humungous vehicle called the Ratmobile around the country from Memphis to Vegas, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia. Josh was with me on the Memphis to LA tour and we collected short plays from other writers enroute to a rat conference. Bucci sent postcards, Lisa sent audiotapes, Josh and I posted web pages and photos from Internet pods at truck stops. I can’t remember the time sequence on all this, but it was a years long relationship. All of us did make a rendezvous once in New York for a two week long performance frenzy at four different venues– HERE, Ohio Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, and Coney Island USA.
The most memorable for me was the one at Coney Island. Bucci played guitar as Lisa sang a song to the dead eye of a Steeplechase horse from the museum. I was Naked Elvis entourage in the bathtub. For the finale Bucci was tied down in a chair. Jennifer Miller, the bearded lady performing in Sideshows by the Seashore downstairs was supposed to come up between acts to perform a striptease for Bucci as she recited some Camile Pagila text but she missed her cue. So it was left to Lisa to take a razor to Bucci’s seven-year-old sideburns as the audience lined up and poured wine over Naked Elvis. The project never ended, just sort of faded away. I still hang with Josh some; he’s moved into the Dean Street hood, but I have lost touch with Lisa and Bucci. I imagine by now they have retired from the road as I have, the price of gas and all.
Writing this I keep thinking about Bucci’s seven-year-old sideburns. And I want some metaphor or allegory to clearly present itself. Something about writing versus a life lived.
When Jack Kerouac died his estate was reportedly worth only $100. The original manuscript of his novel “On the Road” was typed in 21 days on a 120-foot scroll. Three years ago that scroll was sold at auction for $2.43 million. So now “On the Road” is on the road again in a four-year national tour of museums and libraries.
A dramaturg in Nashville informs me that that there are seven strong university theater programs in his city: Belmont, Fisk, Vanderbilt, Trevecca, Tennessee State University, Lipscomb and MTSU. Together these programs are training around 250-300 young actors. He wants to cure Nashvillians of the brainwashing which has resulted from focusing inordinate attention on atheletes at the university level. As theater editor of the Tennessee Style Magazine, he believes that if he can garner public recognition and support for student actors, they in turn, would have a great deal to offer his community.
Of course his mission is hopelessly quixotic. Collegiate athletes are not just figures groomed in service to the sports culture, but are also minor league players serving our broader indoctrination into the all-embracing celebrity culture. Any supposed notion of community or local audience in Nashville will ultimately be eclipsed by the realm of fandom.
Dolly and other local legends never really “abandon their roots” as much as discover their fan base. In most ways, American Idols are just playing catch-up with their hometown audience as it transmutes toward its own Dollywood representative version of itself.
In this way, theatre is famous to NYC, so the culture here almost supports actors. Singer-songwriters are famous to Nashville, so the culture there almost supports guitar pickers. By support, I don’t mean financially, but simply the mutual endorsement and validation that a critical mass of one’s peers provides. The actors and songwriters all need day jobs until “they make it.” And even if and when they make it, no guarantee the fickleness of celebrity will not look past them later in their career, life.
Arnold was a successful body builder, actor and politician. He had to train in a very precise and dedicated manner to become Mr. Olympia, as do all professional athletes. As for him being at one time the highest paid actor in America, or the governor of the state with the most citizens… go figure. No university training needed for either of those positions.
A life in art is different than a career in art. Universities training actors are schizophrenic precisely on this point. How in good conscience can they train actors for a career in theater? Probably all of the students in Nashville will graduate without as much as an Equity card. Even if they had an Equity card, 80% of Actors Equity will have no income whatsoever in any given year.
Any university that claims it is training students to become “working actors” is the equivalent to a snake oil salesman. They often implicitly claim this in their advertisements soliciting students in American Theatre magazine and elsewhere by listing their “successful” alumni actors. The scam being they don’t list the 95% unsuccessful.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average income that SAG members earn from acting is less than $5,000 a year.
The Annual Study on Earnings, Employment and Membership for the 2005-2006 Season released by Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) showed the annual median earnings to be $7,040.
And at the Frequently Asked Questions page of Screen Actors Guild web site one of the questions is:
How do I become a performer?
SAG’s refreshingly candid and wise answer? “Develop another career to supplement your income.”
Faculty at university theatre training programs honestly interested in preparing their students, as well as advancing theatre, need to present obtainable goals and models where “making it” can be defined outside the fickleness of fame. The vital theatre in this country is being created and supported by those who have managed to sustain their life in theatre within a culture that most often doesn’t afford you a career.