Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The L.A. Theatre Dilemma: Showcase vs. Art – A perspective from guest Blogger and working actress Pamela Roylance

I have been a big fan of Pamela Roylance for a very long time. From her contract role on “Days of Our Lives,” her regular series role on “Little House: A New Beginning,” to her more recent work recurring on the series “Jack and Bobby” and recurring last season on “Justice,” Pamela defines “working actor.” The fact that she has been a client and friend for 25 years has nothing to do with it. I admire her commitment to her craft; I admire the choices she makes; and, mostly, I admire her enlightened level of emotional fitness that feeds her professional and personal journey every day.

The discussion of the state of live theatre in Los Angeles came about after my attending a performance recently of the critically-acclaimed Elephant Theatre Company’s Equity-waiver, world premiere production of Robert J. Litz’s new play “One Fell Swoop,” in which she co-stars.

Getting involved with any theatre production is a huge commitment – or should be; lots of time, very little (if any) money. So, why then would any serious actor decide to do it?

Here is where the philosophical discussion begins.

As I have seen it, all too often there is a different art to small theatre production in Los Angeles than there is in New York. All too often, Los Angeles-based actors see a local theatre production as the opportunity to showcase their talents to a perspective audience of talent agents, managers, producers, television and film directors, and casting directors. Too often, I have seen too many Los Angeles-based actors use the L.A. stage experience to attempt to achieve something greater for themselves, instead of attempting to achieve something wonderful for the entire production. Doing theatre for art’s sake seems too often trumped by doing theatre for showcase sake, which removes the actor as “ensemble player” and elevates him or her to an “every man for himself” attitude.

Let me quickly say that this was definitely not the case at “One Fell Swoop.” What a terrific ensemble cast clearly committed to project – and the reviews show it.

Nonetheless, Pamela and I began a discussion after the performance about the state of Los Angeles theatre, in general. I found her perspective so refreshing, so helpful, that I asked her to join The Business of Acting Blog as a guest Blogger to share her reflections on this topic with our community.

You’ll have your opportunity to chime in, too, later. But, first, let’s welcome Pamela:

“I was playing a role on a daytime drama when a fellow cast member asked me if I thought it was important for an actor to do live theatre. I remember being so dumbfounded by her question that I couldn’t even find my voice for a moment. It had never occurred to me that an actor would not have spent time on the stage. I thought the theatre was where all actors came from. I wondered if she were either the bravest or the dumbest actress alive to step in front of a camera without knowing the fundamentals of bringing a character to life. Granted, stage and screen are separate art forms, but that foundation of stage disciplines and character development is critical for anyone wanting to act, whatever the medium.

So, that bit of stage philosophy aside, I ponder the question 'Why does an actor who is focused on carving out an on-camera career in Hollywood, choose to get back on the stage during her free time?' Money? Not here. Not Equity-waiver. Fame? Not here. Not equity waiver. So what is the attraction?

For me, there are several lures, not the least of which is the flood of a thousand memories that rushes through me, reuniting my senses with former times spent rehearsing and performing on a number of stages wrapped in the darkness of a theatre, in a variety of locations, with countless fellow actors and directors, wearing closets-full of costumes, handling cupboards-full of props, smelling the “greasepaint,” sensing the pulse of hundreds of audience members and enjoying the applause they offer. One simple footstep on a stage brings back every memory, and I feel like I’m home.

Then there is the challenge of the work that I find exhilarating. It’s the digging in, the uncovering and discovering, the creating and fine tuning of a believable character I can hardly wait to share with an audience. It’s the undeniable fulfillment that comes from submerging myself in the task of unveiling my vulnerabilities to myself, to my fellow actors, to my director and eventually the audiences. It’s the frustrated feeling I get when I’m not quite there yet with the character, and the overwhelming satisfaction that envelops me when I do finally get into her skin and know who she is. Plowing through the work like a farmer gives me the chance to hone my talents, to sharpen my skills, to get rid of lazy habits that may have formed, and to reconnect with the basics. And like the farmer’s harvest, the reward is enormous.

There is an undeniable thrill that comes from performing live. The setting is raw, it’s vulnerable, it’s risky and it has an immediate payoff. I love that kind of card stacking. You would think the instability of the career itself would be enough, but no, I like to keep the stakes raised within the career by exposing myself to this “no do over” challenge. And on a more stable note, acting “live on stage” also offers the experience of performing with continuity. I love the feeling of getting the ball rolling, controlling the energy, taking the audience on a journey, and telling the story from start to finish without interruption.

I also love the experience of building relationships between my cast mates and myself. There is great joy in learning to trust each other. It’s a huge payoff the moment I discover there is no place safer than on stage with these fellow thespians. I’m at an age now where my work is less egotistical than it was in the past. I find myself focusing on the awe and respect I hold for talented, disciplined, professional actors with whom I share the stage.

So, for this actor, yes, it is extremely important to do live theatre. My purpose for returning to the stage is simply to rejuvenate myself. I am fed by the challenge, rewarded by the relationships, warmed by the memories, improved by the practice and like a builder or gardener, satisfied and contented by the results. It’s a great high. What kind of actor would sacrifice that?”

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