FRUstarts; Career Tips for African American Actors

FRUstarts; Career Tips for African American Actors Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column looks at the frustration of a very young actor, explores when Equity cards might not be useful, and provides some useful information for African American actors. I invite actors of all ages to continue to write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's column looks at the frustration of a very young actor, explores when Equity cards might not be useful, and provides some useful information for African American actors. I invite actors of all ages to continue to write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Question
Dear Blair,
I am aware that you have answered this question before, but I didn't really feel like the answer was very helpful, so maybe I better tell you more about my problem. After reading "an awkward age" in a past column, I was elated to find someone in the situation! But not only am I the wrong age, I also have been trained classically in voice for two years and I'm tall for my age, so none of the few auditions for my age are very appropriate. Everytime I audition (which is not often), I get oodles of compliments from other auditioners, parents, and the director, but they always have the same thing to say -- keep trying, but they don't have a part for me. This is really frustrating, because I know I'm talented, but I haven't found my "place" yet. The other thing is that I live in a place that has NO professional theater and only a few community groups, which doesn't give me many options for when I get older. My mom also doesn't like driving me around a lot and especially not after dark and won't let me carpool with inexperienced drivers. PLUS the fact that she doesn't let me miss school to perform, which most groups here do, and that she worries about me not being able to keep up in school if I did find a show. Some of my friends just audition as a fifteen or sixteen year old, my mom won't let me do that either, but that doesn't frequently work anyway. PLEASE HELP! Thanks!
-- A Frustarted [sic] Young Performer

Dear FYP,
I loved the way you signed your e-mail "A FRUstarted Young Performer ." The misspelling (now I misspell words in my e-mails all the time so please don't feel I am making fun of you. . .I'm just using the mistake for a purpose) of the word is very comical. Because, if you will, that's what seems to be happening in your career -- it's off to a "FRU start." FRU being my made-up pneumonic word in this instance, for "Friggin' Royally Unfair start."

I don't have much advice for except to trust me when I say -- things won't always be like this. One day soon your mother will let you audition as a 16 year old because you will be that age, and you will be able to drive yourself to rehearsals. There will come a time when people might envy you for being tall, and your classical training will make you ahead of the game.

But for right now, just know that it's going to be a bit of a struggle. It's good for your character and for building patience and perseverance--two very important elements of being an actor. I strongly suggest you read a few previous columns titled "Acting in the Boonies" to offer you some alternative things you can do in your FRU time. Hang in there!

Question
I'd like to get your advice... I am a 26-year-old Equity actress living in the Southeast. I am preparing to return to acting full-time after taking a few years off (to gain some perspective and save some money). I was lucky enough (or maybe unlucky) to have been offered an Equity contract right out of college with a small regional theatre. I have enjoyed my acting experiences and amassed a few decent credits (all in small regional theatre).
I am now ready to move to NYC and try to move my career to the next level. My question to you concerns my Equity membership.
Over the past few years it has become increasingly difficult for me to secure Equity roles. I attribute this mainly to the current economic climate and the dwindling of equity contracts -- plus there are many, many non-union actresses in my age bracket (I tend to get cast in the 16-26-year-old range) who are as good as I, but less expensive for a theatre to hire (as non-union performers). My most recent director advised me to drop Equity at this point in my career -- his opinion is that I will then have a better chance at being hired and building credits. However, on a recent "scouting" trip to NYC, I met many actors who advised me to keep my Equity card since it will be an asset in NYC. What is your opinion on my situation? Given the current change in eligibility rules for auditions, do you think my Equity status will help me? Or would it be better to drop the card for the time being?
Thanks so much for your advice!

Dear Card-caught,
Thanks for the kind words and question.

I want to commend you for taking your time, getting some experience and saving some money for the big move. Here's my advice:

The best thing to do before giving up an asset like your Equity card is to test it out once you move to NYC.

To my knowledge, Equity cards are a big advantage in New York. They allow you to get into bigger and better auditions and be seen by important industry people.

You may also know that being an Equity member automatically (through payment) allows you to become a SAG member. If you are interested in working in television or film, this is a great thing.

Keep auditioning at Equity theatres in your vicinity until you are ready to move.

Good luck in the next phase of your career.

Question
Dear Blair,
An actor, who has more experience than I, told me to define my acting goals. He suggested I must decide which of the following goals are appropriate for me: first, community theater or extra film work, or second, become a working actor by targeting commercials, or lastly, become a star and tolerate bit parts until I get my big break. I want to be a star. As an African-American male, am I likely to audition for stereotypical black male roles?
Are their opportunities to be in films like the early to mid-career works of Mr. Sidney Poitier? I am referring to work like Cry the Beloved Country, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, To Sir With Love, and etcetera. I know that business side of film and television is action film. While I develop my career, are their roles and scripts being developed that are similar to the above?
Darrell Wayne Powell (Dwayne)
Texas

Dear Dwayne,
I admire your ambition and drive. I agree with your friend about making goals. However, I wouldn't divide it up as though you only had three options. You can do a little of everything, if you want. Be specific and realistic with your goal setting and write your goals down. "By April '98 I want to be cast in a major show and get paid, by May I want to be cast in summer stock, in September I want to book a commercial(s), in January of next year I want to move to LA, in March audition for a TV show, etc." You're life may not unfold exactly this way, but it's good to have a list and focus on trying to accomplish your goals.

Although I am not so familiar with all the Mr. Poitier films you mentioned, and I am not well informed about what types of scripts are being developed in that regard, I believe if you want to play roles like those of Mr. Poitier, you need to establish your integrity, and decide which roles you will take and which you will steer clear of. It is easy to get typecast and difficult to break from being typecast.

For Tagel F. Bougere, a New York actor(The Tempest, Anthony and Cleopatra) who will soon be starring in Washington D.C in Othello with Patrick Stewart, it's important to avoid taking stereotypical roles such as hoodlums and drug dealers.

Tagel is firm about declining these opportunities. He says, "My primary goal is to get into a position where I have choice. . . you get that by earning a reputation for your work. I want to get to a point where I can choose what I want to do. . . And do quality work."

In regards to avoiding stereotypes, Tagel says "it has to do with where you're coming from in terms of training and your introduction to the business." Tagel highly recommends graduate-level study. "People who are casting know you're classically trained. . .I bring up the grad school thing because I think it gives you much more opportunities than just playing a pimp on 'Hill Street Blues'."

Tagel recently completed work on a new film with Stanley Tucci. In terms of what's being written for African-American males, Tagel says, "I think the [good] roles are out there."

It's also important to remember that in the theatre world, color-blind casting is happening more and more. This means you have the opportunity to play a wider range of great roles, and a good chance at making a name for yourself playing them, if it does not conflict with your values to play roles that were not originally written with African-Americans in mind.

It also might be a good idea to pick a younger contemporary star whose career is a role model for yours. You may want to try and get in touch this model or with other African-American actors who have reached or are striving for the goals you want to attain.

Question
Dear Mrs. Blair,
I am entering my senior year in high school, and have begun sorting through the clutter of college propaganda. I have focused on a number of schools, but I am having trouble on discerning the differences between a BFA in drama and one in musical theater. I have had experience in various local theater organizations, primarily in musicals. I am also an all-state tenor, and would like to take advantage of my gift. This leads me to believe that I should major in musical theater. However, I also wish to pursue a teaching career as a drama professor later in my life, so I wish to keep my options open. Here are a few of my inquiries: Is drama more broad, covering directing, makeup, etc, while musical theater doesn't? Does musical theater have the same basic courses with a concentration on music as well? Is one degree more useful than the other when auditioning for musicals or plays? Does musical theater offer a masters degree, or can I earn a masters in drama from a bachelors in musical theater?
Thank you for your time, and for providing yourself as a source for all of us aspiring thespians. Have a wonderful day smile
~Seeking Answers

Dear Seeking Answers,
Thanks for your question and kind words.

Many of your questions will have to be answered by the colleges themselves, because each program is different. Some college musical theatre majors have almost the same course curriculums as their dramatic counterparts. When I was in the Carnegie Mellon pre-college program, musical theatre students took dance and voice, while straight drama students took movement and speech. It varies from school to school.
As far as auditioning, the degree does not matter. When Brian D'Arcy James was at Northwestern -- there was no "musical" theatre major. (I think now there is). Now he is starring in Titanic. However, if you want to be a musical theatre performer, then a musical theatre curriculum may be to your advantage. You can always go to grad school as an actor for straight Drama, pretty much no matter what your undergrad degree is in. I don't know if there are masters programs specifically in musical theatre.

Best of luck.