Sunday, August 26, 2007

What? And Leave Show Business?


From left, Chet Carlin, Damian Baldet, Joan MacIntosh, David Greenspan and Roslyn Ruff. Photographs by Michael Nagle for The New York Times

I consider myself a worker,” said David Greenspan, who has been an actor, writer and director in New York for nearly 30 years. “I’m facing the same things that workers are facing throughout the country.”

Mr. Greenspan is right of course. It really doesn’t matter whether you write plays or pave highways when you’re buying groceries. But there is a notable, and curious, difference. Every night thousands of theatergoers fill seats in Manhattan to watch theater people at work for a couple of hours, without really thinking of it as work.

But it is work, work that is supposed to pay rent, buy food and sustain people (and in some cases families) for the long periods of anxious unemployment that are an inevitable part of a performer’s life. Given what stage actors make and what New York costs, staying afloat has always required improvisation, shrewdness, discipline, luck and a kind of obstinacy that some people call passion and others call craziness, and is probably a little bit of both.

But these days it is harder than ever. Government support for the arts is meager, leaving nonprofit theaters squeezed and scrambling to cut expenses — and cast sizes — while the cost of living in New York has skyrocketed. What follows (see links above) are five working New York City theater professionals talking about the part of the show business life that happens offstage.

The Earner: Damian Baldet

AGE: 36
CURRENT INCOME: $506 a week
LAST SEEN IN: “Gone Missing,” now playing at the Barrow Street Theater

During Mr. Baldet’s first few years in New York, days went something like this: a shift as a hotel concierge from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., a walk up to the theater for a quick nap in the basement, rehearsal from 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., a subway ride home, four hours of sleep and all of this all over again.

“By the time I got to rehearsal I was so blind exhausted I thought there was no way I could be creative or enjoy it in any way,” he said. “My performances were just completely about keeping my mind together.” He added that he fell asleep onstage during rehearsals more than once.

Mr. Baldet, over a burger at Sardi’s, talked about that period in the kind of joking way you can talk about something that wasn’t funny at the time.

But he and his wife of six years, Alison Weller, an actress, promised each other this life, even when they were making roughly nothing for acting off Off Broadway, quitting one paying job after another to make room for rehearsals and begging parents for money month after month.

That last part got a little tense, Mr. Baldet said, and led him to question whether this really was something he should be doing. Asked if he’d thought about quitting, he said yes, and then no, and then yes, and then he talked about his fantasy of being the archetypal breadwinner.

“I have said to her,” Mr. Baldet said, referring to his wife, “ ‘If we have children, I’m quitting.’ And she said, ‘If you do that, you will crush your soul.’ The gist of it was: ‘If you do that, you wouldn’t be you, and then what’s the point? Why would you have a family at all?’ ”

So, he concluded, he wouldn’t quit.

He’s much better off than he was in those early years, having toured for two years as Timon in “The Lion King,” earning $140,000 a year.

“It’s more than I’ve made combined since I started working when I was 15 years old,” he said.

He used the money to pay down debt, buy things he had been needing, like a computer, and take his wife on their first real vacation. When those two years were up, Disney offered him a job as an offstage understudy in the Broadway version of “The Lion King.”

It was good money, but the vast majority of the time it would mean not performing. He declined. Besides, Ms. Weller had gotten a job on Broadway in “Coram Boy,” which was sure to bring in good money for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Baldet is now off Broadway again in “Gone Missing,” taking home around $400 a week after taxes (the minimum salary for an actor in an Off Broadway production in a 199-seat theater). His wife, who had been unemployed since “Coram Boy” closed 25 days after opening, joined the cast of “Gone Missing” two weeks ago.

“It’s not enough money even with the two of us,” he said. “I probably should get another job. I really probably should.”