Are Regional Actors Third Rate?

Amy Clites

Featured Columnist: "Thoughts From The Third Coast"

Shortly after arriving in New York City, I was getting some career advice over the phone from my agent (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty).  Truth be told, she wasn’t exactly “my” agent given that I hadn’t signed with her.  We were working on a freelance basis, seeing if the relationship was worth pursuing.  In each of our interactions I got the clear impression that she didn’t actually like me – neither as an actor nor as a person – and I couldn’t figure out why she kept calling me anyway.  She had already flaked on a meeting we had scheduled earlier that month (after I had hauled my ass in from Jersey City in the rain), and now she called to tell me all the things I was doing wrong.

“Do you want to work in the city? Because if you keep making the choices you’re making, you’ll end up being some third-rate regional theatre actor.”

That last bit echoed in my head so clearly that I still remember it 15 years later.

…some third-rate regional theatre actor. 

…some third-rate regional theatre actor. 

…some third-rate regional theatre actor.

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I had worked in regional theatre during my college and grad school years, and I felt those were coveted gigs.  I had tons of respect for the actors that I met in those days, and even a bit of envy that their careers seemed to be thriving.  It really threw me that suddenly this New York agent was suggesting that actors who work in the regions are less talented than those who work in the city, and that those jobs are a consolation prize.  What?

I remembered one of the best pieces of advice I got in grad school: If your agent makes you feel like shit, you’re better off not having an agent. 

That phone call was our last conversation.

The myth of “New York-caliber actors”

 Sadly, that agent is hardly the only person to ever make such a remark.  The idea that regional theatre actors are somehow inferior to actors working in theatre in New York City is  widely accepted.

Last year, critic David Patrick Stearns from Philly.com wrote a piece about the Broadway debut of J.T. Roger’s Oslo, which was originally developed at the PlayPENN workshop in Philadelphia.  The New York production was directed by Barlett Sher and starred Tony winners Jennifer Ehle and Jefferson Mays.  At the end of what was a mostly positive review, Stearns surmises, “I’m not sure I’d want to see Oslo with anything but New York-caliber actors….”

A few days later he was taken to task for that remark by Cameron Kelsall from Phindie.com:

“Was a Philadelphia journalist, in the pages of the city’s premier newspaper, in an article supposedly meant to highlight the excellent work being generated in the city, really saying that this play only works with “New York-caliber actors”? But it’s there, in black and white, under the Philly.com masthead.

 Stearns’s assumption falls into a reductive – yet prevalent – view of theater as being the province of New York (and, often specifically, Broadway), with everywhere else a distant second.  It undermines the entire goal of the regional theater movement, which strives to create thriving artistic communities throughout the United States, fostering creative homes for the actors, writers, directors, and designers who choose to put down roots in places that aren’t The Big Apple.  And the tacit assumption that New York actors are intrinsically more talented than regional actors is easily disproven simply by looking at the massive amounts of talent currently occupying space on stages throughout the region.”

If you work in the business, you are no doubt aware that if you want to consider yourself a “real” actor, you go to New York to work in theatre or Los Angeles to work in film and TV.  Those are generally the two goal posts in the U.S.  Anything that is not in New York or Los Angeles is merely a stepping-stone to other, better gigs.

Is making a life in regional theatre un-American?

Where did the idea come from that every theatre actor worth his salt would ultimately want to live and work in New York? Why can’t working in the regions be an end-goal in and of itself?

Is it because in America, we’re conditioned to be ambitious? Here in the U.S., it seems success is determined by how recognizable you are in your field and how much money you make.  For actors that means making millions of dollars and becoming a household name. 

It isn’t enough to work consistently and have a respectable middle-class income.  That’s not the American definition of success.

I suspect that the reasoning goes, if you’ve committed to working in another city it’s because you realize you’re not good enough for New York.  That you know that you don’t have what it takes to make it there.  That you and your mediocre talent are OK with “settling” for a life of being the person who works all the time but doesn’t get recognized on the street. 

We all know we can call bullshit on that, right?

Is New York really all that? 

I worked as an actor in New York for several years.  I got my Equity card, became a founding member of a theatre company, Theatre Lila, and did various gigs around the city.  The most satisfying aspect of my time in New York was creating new work.  There’s something electrifying about taking an idea and collaborating with like-minded folks until you have a piece of theatre that you think is worth putting out into the world.

Except, in New York, that “world” is so, so narrow.  We, as artists, were making art that was being consumed primarily by other artists.  You know how it goes – you go see a friend’s show in the hope that when the time comes, they’ll come see yours. 

Who are these shows ultimately for? The work itself started to feel less important than scoring an audition or representation as a result of the work.

Those experiences left me feeling empty and hollow after awhile.  I began to wonder why we weren’t creating work like this outside of New York, where it might actually have an impact on an audience that isn’t comprised of friends and family that feel obligated to be there.

Of course, this isn’t every New York actor’s experience.  But for many it is.

Can the regions be the finish line?

Interestingly, I’m finding that more and more of my friends and colleagues from the theatre are operating their careers in reverse.  Instead of starting in the regions and building up a resume to take to New York, they began in the city and are taking their talent and experience back out into the world. 

Theatre Lila, once my artistic home in New York, is now a thriving company in Madison, Wisconsin.  If you want to be inspired, check out how women in Madison are shaping the theatre landscape there in ways that would no doubt be impossible in New York.  And prepared to be amazed by how much live theatre is being produced in Madison.

I have friends from my New York days who are now working actors and theatre artists all over the country.  They live and work in places like Charleston, Bangor, Portland, Indianapolis, Nashville, Chicago, Albuquerque, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington D.C., and many more.  I have friends from school that never made the leap to New York who are doing the same thing.  They run companies, they own houses, and they’re raising families.  They all have full, interesting, and meaningful lives.  They contribute to their communities.  They create impactful and entertaining art. 

How does this make them less than their New York counterparts?

It’s time to flip the script

Ask any work-a-day actor in New York, and they’ll likely tell you that the most difficult part of living in the city is making enough money to survive.  Sure, the struggle is romantic – at first.  But when you hit 40 and you realize you have six figures in student loan debt, no savings, and no hope of ever retiring, the struggle turns real, real fast.  It’s hard to have the energy for creative pursuits when your whole life is dedicated to survival. 

Why do that to yourself when there is amazing theatre being created all over this country by exceptionally talented people in much more affordable cities? And a bonus? Many of these places also have burgeoning film and television industries.  Hell, Atlanta just snagged the top spot in feature film production, beating Los Angeles for the first time.  Just because you decide not to live in New York or Los Angeles, doesn’t mean you can’t get work in front of the camera.

Really, it’s time to get our heads out of our collective asses and wake up to the fact that having a New York zip code does not make you a better actor by default.  Nor does wanting a better quality of life mean you’re less ambitious.  The industry has changed, and it’s time to put those outdated stereotypes to rest.   

 Amy Clites is a writer and actor who relocated to the Third Coast (the shores of Lake Michigan) after 20 years in NYC and LA.  She last wrote for OnStage Blog about the perils of getting an MFA. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.