Permanent Aliens: Life as an Expat Actor in New York

Permanent Aliens: Life as an Expat Actor in New York New York City is one of the world's great international cities. Many dozens of the planet's ethnicities, religions, cuisines, and languages are represented within the burg's five boroughs. So it should come as no surprise that Gotham's acting pool isn't 100 percent Yankee.
Elizabeth Jasicki
Elizabeth Jasicki Photo by Monique Carboni

No, there are not great percentages of French or Russian or Japanese actors working the stages of Manhattan. But for many years the New York theatre community has accommodated a fair number of performers born in England, Ireland and other English-speaking countries worldwide. I'm not talking about the artists who are just visiting with a touring or transferred production, but those who have come to stay. Some are among the most prolific and recognizable faces of Broadway and Off-Broadway — such as Roger Rees (born in Wales), Brian Murray (born in South Africa), Richard Easton (born in Canada), Zoe Caldwell (born in Australia) and Brian F. O'Byrne (born in Ireland) — while others simply forge a steady, working career, no mean feat itself.

Working permanently in a country other than the one you were born in, of course, presents challenges. But feeling unwelcome doesn't appear to be one of them. "Everyone here is from all over the world, so I feel at home in New York," said British-born Max Baker, who recently acted in the Kevin Kline Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway, and has appeared in several productions Off-Broadway with the New Group, including Abigail's Party and Comedians. "New York is hardly representative of the rest of America."

Indeed, one of the attractions of making the move across the Atlantic seems to be what foreign observers call the upbeat and friendly atmosphere found in New York's theatre community. Actress Elizabeth Jasicki, who moved from England to New York in 2005, said the welcome wagon was rolled out from her first professional visit. "Everyone said, 'Yeah, we'd love to work with you. Come here.' They were so positive."

Max Baker and Charlotte Parry
photo by Aubrey Reuben

She continues to experience that attitude. "Every time I go back to England, I always feel upbeat, because everything's so much more positive and possible here," she said. "One of the reasons I like living here is the different mental attitude from the English. We're really downbeat [in England]. We'll knock you down. And the media is horrific. The way I've always put it, in America, you're innocent until proven guilty. In England, you're guilty until proven innocent." Charlotte Parry, seen on Broadway in The Real Thing and Coram Boy, agrees. "Sometimes I forget that I'm not from here," she said. "I feel much less an alien here than I used to. I think here actors are more positive. In England, I think, actors are more threatened by each other." Possibly, one of the reasons actors in England feels competitive with one another is they're all cut from the same cultural cloth and so are fit for the same parts. In New York City, English actors are more of a novelty, and seem to have a better chance of landing roles in English or Irish plays.

"Most of my work has been British work, meaning Irish or Scottish or all over," observed Parry, who is currently acting in Edward Albee's Me, Myself and I at the McCarter Theatre. "I think in this country I'm cast in these roles, but maybe I wouldn't be back home, because back home if they're doing a Scottish play and Irish play, they've got a wealth of amazing Scottish actors and Irish actors. They very rarely cast an English girl. Here, I'm getting roles that are much more challenging than I might get back home, where they can cast from type, because they have every type on hand."

Euan Morton
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Jasicki, Baker and fellow expat actor Euan Morton concur that, to an extent, they have an inside track on roles in British Isle plays. But that advantage can also be a drawback. As a Scottish-born actor, said Morton, he tends to be considered almost exclusively for British characters. "The challenge is to get them to consider you for the American plays," said Morton, who arrived in New York as the lead of the British musical Taboo, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. He has since appeared in Measure for Pleasure, Howard Katz, Brundibar and Cyrano. "If you're going to live here, you better do a really good American accent," cautioned Jasicki. This wasn't as difficult for her as it might be for others. Her father was American and her mother British, so she grew up hearing an American accent. Moreover, the year before she moved to New York, she played Americans in several British productions. "That was tremendously helpful when I moved here."

Jasicki also has an auditioning trick which helps negate any possible casting bias. "My idea is always that you go into an audition room as an American," she said. "You don't let them hear the two accents, because that's a real problem. Even if your American accent's flawless, if you're English, they'll find fault."

Parry said she is "getting more used to auditioning in American dialect," and it seems to be working, given her casting in the Albee play. Baxer — who has lived and worked in America since 1986, when he played at the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival on a summer work visa — doesn't find his accent a problem, due to the roles he typically gets. "Casting here is very visual, it's based entirely on how one looks, which I think is different in England. I look odd, so I get cast as odd people," such as "scientists and weirdos." A slightly foreign accent, he reasons, is not amiss in such parts.

One big difference between acting in London and acting in New York is the audition process itself. In this respect, Blighty has the preferred set-up. "It's much more in and out here," explained Parry. "In England, you'll sit down and have a chat for 20 minutes with the director and maybe you'll read, maybe you won't. It's much more relaxed."

"You have to go in very prepared" in New York, echoed Jasicki. "You have to give the performance you're going to give, basically. We have lovely little talks in England. 'Oh, you were in that with so-an-so. How was that?' It's very civilized." Jasicki found her first American audition quite shocking. "Brutal is a very good word for it."

Another drawback is being separate from one's family and "support system." But each actor interviewed for this article said they have made new friends in New York easily, and have connected with other members of the expat community. In fact, all four — Morton, Baker, Parry and Jasicki — know each other, and often act together. Morton and Baker were both in Cyrano. Baker and Jasicki shared a stage in Abigail's Party. Parry and Morton were together in Howard Katz. With such an impromptu community of expat professionals, who's got time to feel isolated?