The fate of the nation: It’s all showbiz

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL

I just love it when reality and fantasy collide.

Luckily for me, we live at a time when it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Objectivity barely exists in public discourse, and the daily media-political mashup is the equivalent of a demolition derby.

“Politics is show business for ugly people,” analyst Paul Begala reportedly said in the ’90s. True enough, but the politics-as-showbiz era started long before.

If you want to pinpoint the moment when political decorum began its long downhill slide, then I vote for Richard Nixon’s two-second appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in” in 1968 when he was running for president.

Nixon looked at the camera and deadpanned the show’s signature line with an incredulous tone: “Sock it to me?”

nixon-featThink of Tricky Dick’s novel decision to lower himself to the garish world of show business as a pebble bouncing down a mountainside that would be followed in time by a relentless avalanche.

Nixon was a legitimate political leader — a former vice president who had served in both the U.S. House and Senate — and his appearance on a prime-time variety show that riffed on ’60s counterculture was an amusing anomaly. And it raised an obvious question: Didn’t the candidate have better things to do? Crafting position papers on the Vietnam War, perhaps, or the nuclear arms race?

But Nixon had learned his lesson. In his earlier bid for the White house in 1960 he met in a series of televised debates with the future president, John F. Kennedy. The medium chewed him up and spit him out.

The debates trumped rhetoric with visuals: the relaxed, articulate Kennedy vs. the ill-at-ease Nixon, whose 5 o’clock shadow and sweaty face made him look scared and indecisive. By ’68, he’d wised up. Now he meant to be in control. He would use the medium, not the other way around.

Politicians were still figuring out how to dance with the succubus of television in the ’50s and ’60s because politics and TV were seen as separate worlds. Politics was serious business, historical clay being modeled by dour white men in dark suits in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress. TV was a box in your living room where you could watch rigged game shows, aging comedians hosting variety hours or Marshal Dillon blowing away frontier sociopaths.

One thing TV did have was journalists — a gallery of grumpy middle-aged guys who were credited with presenting something close to objective reality through the evening news and Sunday panel shows. Anchors were not yet considered stars. Journalists were not exactly celebrities. Not yet.

The politics-as-showbiz era began in earnest in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and TV pitchman, won the White House.

Reagan was an adequate actor in movies (his last feature-film role was as the heavy in “The Killers,” a 1964 Don Siegel crime flick with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson), but I think most Republicans and Democrats would agree that his greatest performance was as President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan never lost his handsome jawline — he always looked great in a Stetson — and at the podium spoke with a conviction that betrayed no hint of hypocrisy, no dissembling, just pure starry-eyed belief in the shining city on a hill. Sometimes that could be a little scary.

In 1980 he sat for an interview with televangelist Jim Bakker on “The PTL Club” in a bid to curry favor with evangelical voters and declared that “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon” — a cheery thought from a guy who would soon have access to nuclear launch codes.

Whether Reagan really believed everything that came out of his mouth is a question for historians to answer. But like any great pitchman, he made us believe that he believed.

After Reagan completed his two terms, during which he theatrically pursued a program of deregulation, tax cuts, defense spending and saber-rattling, I held out hope that we could watch him resume his acting career. Chalk it up to my weakness for post-modern weirdness. Just think if he had been available for, say, “Independence Day” or “Armageddon.” How wonderful it would have been to watch the roster of stars in the opening credits conclude with: “And Ronald Reagan as the President.”

No doubt about it, Reagan led the way. He showed us that qualifications didn’t matter. There’s just one goal: Become a celebrity. Be a salesman. In the words of playwright David Mamet, always be closing.

These days news people interview each other. Actors pretend to be journalists. Presidents go on talk shows. Politicians and celebs alike snort airtime like cokeheads. Stephen Colbert, like his mentor Jon Stewart, has become an obligatory TV stop for power-seekers, except now he’s talking to talking heads on a late-night network broadcast instead of a late-night basic cable comedy show.

Barack Obama, a sitting president, agreed to appear on daytime gabfest “The View.” And why not? Obama is the most TV-friendly president in history. It’s hard to name a talk show he hasn’t gone on.

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George and Laura Bush calculatedly demeaned themselves by sitting for an interview with Dr. Phil — the celebrity psychologist who became a star after appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show — to discuss parenting.

Earlier, candidate Bill Clinton in his 1992 race for the White House put on a pair of sunglasses and played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the sax for Arsenio Hall’s TV audience.

Think about that for a minute. Try to imagine President Dwight D. Eisenhower going on “What’s My Line?” or “I’ve Got a Secret.”

We now live in an age when anyone can become an actor and any celebrity can run for office. For a Republican Watergate lawyer and U.S. senator, Fred Thompson was a pretty good actor as long as he played characters that were a lot like Fred Thompson. Sonny Bono was a pretty good congressman for a ’60s pop singer.

When the current GOP presidential candidates lined up for televised debates, it was tough to see them as anything but deadpan comedians.

There was Donald Trump, former reality TV star and “self-made” jillionaire, jutting his jaw as if posing for a Roman bust. Many a blogger compared Carly Fiorina’s demeanor to Cruella de Vil. And Jeb Bush, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, wishing he could rent a thimble of Trump’s charisma.

This is where we are: Politics as performance art.

There is a wild card out there, though: Bernie Sanders. His rumpled persona falls far short of movie-star translucence, and the pundits all say he doesn’t have a chance.

But I have to say the idea of a debate between Bernie and the Donald would make some fine television.

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on Oct. 3, 2015. Go to www.kansascity.com

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Acting is hard, and living on an actor’s income is even harder

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

To be an itinerant is the actor’s lot.

It was true in Shakespeare’s day, when strolling players would travel from town to town and perform in village squares or barns. And in a sense it’s every bit as true today.

One night Rusty Sneary, an actor and the artistic director of the Living Room, took the stage for his customary pre-curtain opening-night remarks and thanked the audience for being there.

But he also thanked the volunteers. Without them, Sneary told the crowd, these shows wouldn’t be possible. The audience that night in June had gathered to see “The Death of Cupid,” director/playwright Kyle Hatley’s exploration of Greek and Roman mythology, and the cast was enormous: More than 30 performers, most of whom had worked professionally in Kansas City. A couple — Vanessa Severo and Katie Gilchrist — were members of Actors Equity Association, the union for actors and stage managers.

Sneary welcomed donations and said the company’s goal was to be on a firm financial footing so that in the future the volunteers could be paid for their services.

Sneary later said in an interview that by “volunteers” he didn’t just mean people to tear tickets and work the bar. He was referring to the actors, none of whom was paid except the two Equity members.

“We’ve been striving from the beginning to be a supportive theater for the artists in this community,” Sneary said. “We’ve been incredibly blessed and inspired by a multitude of amazing artists who have done this just for the love.”

Sneary said the Living Room wanted to be a “bridge theater” to help talented young performers establish themselves.

“Other directors know they can come here and discover new talent,” Sneary said. “It makes us very happy for young artists to show what they can do and go on to be hired by the Rep or the Unicorn or any of the other wonderful theaters around town.”

Actors in Kansas City fall roughly into three categories: Full-fledged members of Actors Equity; non-Equity professionals; and actors who work for nothing either for the love of it or to gain experience. Some performers have feet in more than one camp.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre employed a large, mainly non-Equity cast. Frome left, Jessica Franz, Kyle Dyck, Whitaker Hoar (foreground), Donovan Kidd, Jordan Fox and Alan Tilson.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre employed a large, mainly non-Equity cast. Frome left, Jessica Franz, Kyle Dyck, Whitaker Hoar (foreground), Donovan Kidd, Jordan Fox and Alan Tilson.

Actors Equity, founded in 1913, sets pay rates and ranks theater companies in terms of seating capacity and box-office revenues, among other factors. According to Equity, membership can happen two ways: An actor can be offered an Equity contract by a theater company, which automatically makes the performer eligible for membership; or actors can participate in the Equity membership candidate program, by which a non-Equity actor can register and eventually become eligible for membership after working 50 weeks at participating theaters.

Equity membership in the Kansas City area includes 183 actors and stage managers and 132 candidates.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the city’s leading professional theater, is a C-level company in the League of Resident Theatres, and pays a minimum of $731 a week for actors performing at the Spencer Theatre, less at the Rep’s downtown venue, Copaken Stage, which has fewer seats. In contrast, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, which operates with a small-theater contract, pays $322 a week to Equity performers. Some theaters pay less.

Clearly, professional stage actors aren’t getting rich. Starlight Theatre, which sometimes produces its own shows, pays the highest weekly Equity minimums in the area — $922. Even if an actor could work at that salary every week of the year — and none do — he or she would still fall below the national median household income of $51,017.

The New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park offers one of the best pay rates for actors in the area: About $590 a week for Equity members, more for principal performers and probably much more for guest stars. What makes New Theatre attractive to actors is its long runs. One show can offer as much as three months of steady work. Other theaters in Kansas City rarely run a show more than four weeks. Most run three.

Non-Equity professionals are customarily paid less than their union counterparts, although one company — Quality Hill Playhouse — makes a point of paying Equity and non-Equity actors the same rate. Another, Kansas City Actors Theater, pays non-Equity actors better than most other small theaters — about $400 a week.

“That was part of the founders’ commitment, to pay from the get-go a living wage,” said John Rensenhouse, KCAT’s managing director who is a member of Equity.

But often nonunion actors earn less than half what their Equity counterparts are paid. The MET doesn’t pay non-Equity actors a weekly rate but instead pays a stipend of $350 to $1,500 per show, which is determined by the actor’s experience and the size of the role.

Equity proscribes weekly minimums for union actors, although some performers can negotiate a higher rate. But that’s not always feasible at smaller theaters operating on tight budgets.

“We don’t do a lot of negotiating, because we can’t,” said Cynthia Levin, artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre. “If we paid people what they were worth, it would be a different business.”

Daria LeGrand, left, a non-Equity actress, performed with Equity member Vanessa Severo in "The Death of Cupid."

Daria LeGrand, left, a non-Equity actress, performed with Equity member Vanessa Severo in “The Death of Cupid.”

Money defines the difference between professional and community theater — although the pay can be negligible even for Equity members. An Equity actor performing on “special appearance” contract at a small theater can earn as little as $215 a week.

But some young actors who are not yet union members prefer the freedom to perform in shows for no pay if it’s a show they really want to do.

“I don’t want to be Equity,” said actor Coleman Crenshaw, who has appeared at professional companies, including the MET and the Coterie, but has also performed at community theaters for no compensation.

“I never wanted to be. And I don’t think it’s very good for the business anymore. I think it definitely has a place if you’re in a bigger market. If you’re in New York or L.A. or Chicago, you pretty much have to be Equity just to get into the auditions. In a smaller market like Kansas City, it limits what some theaters can do. And it limits your opportunities.”

In the last year or so Crenshaw played the title role in “Hamlet” for the Alcott Arts Center in Kansas City, Kan., and the lead in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” for the Barn Players, one of the oldest community theaters in the area. He was paid for neither performance and couldn’t have played those choice roles had he been in the union. Plus, no professional theater in town was likely to produce either title.

“Some of those dream roles … are on my list,” he said. “As I’m getting older I’m going to lose my ability to do those, so it affords me a lot more flexibility to work for free.”

A few actors have chosen to drop their Equity membership.

Bob Paisley, a co-founder of the MET, said after he formed a separate small company, Central Standard Theatre, he found himself in the curious position of hiring himself. When he appeared in “Driving Miss Daisy,” as the producer he had to post a bond covering two weeks of his own salary.

“Since I was only working for MET or myself, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to stay a member of the union,” he said. “It was costing me money and it wasn’t getting me anywhere.”

Most actors based here, even the most successful, have other sources of income — either through day jobs, gainfully employed spouses or nonstage work acting in commercials, print ads or regionally shot films.

“I’ve found that temp agencies are great,” said Crenshaw, who also teaches and is an assistant property manager for the apartment building where he lives.

Kyle Dyck, a 27-year-old actor currently appearing in (and getting paid) for “The Rainmaker” at the MET, has signed up for shows for which he earned nothing — notably, “Titus Andronicus” and the first version of “Carousel” at the Living Room.

“Because I have a steady day job — I’m a handyman — it frees me up financially to be able to do things like that,” Dyck said. “When I choose to do a show I don’t get paid for, there’s a lot of value artistically for me.

“One of my favorite places to work is the Living Room, and every time I work there it’s extremely fulfilling. It’s always nice to get paid for what you do, but that’s the least of my worries when I work for a place like that.”

Dyck plans to join the union before making the move to New York in a couple of years. Until then, he wants to remain flexible.

Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, said the company has been committed from the beginning to making sure everyone working on a show got paid something.

“There’s a difference between community theater and small professional theater,” she said. “When we started we established a bar, and our bar was that every single person would be compensated, no matter how small your job or how new you were at it, because this is not a hobby.”

And she’s also been able to attract some of the city’s best Equity actors, including Cheryl Weaver, Robert Gibby Brand, Scott Cordes and Katie Gilchrist.

“The Equity actors appreciate coming here because it’s the material and the atmosphere that allows them to do something different,” Paisley said.

One of the advantages of Equity membership is health insurance. But Equity requires actors to work 20 weeks a year before they can use it. If you don’t get your 20 weeks, your contributions have paid for somebody else’s insurance.

There was a time when Missouri Repertory Theatre operated as a true repertory company. Like the Kansas City Ballet, which maintains a company of dancers, the Rep in the ’60s and ’70s hired a group of actors for the length of the season, all of whom performed in most of the shows, which were performed in a complicated rotating schedule. The season usually provided enough Equity weeks for actors to get insurance.

That relative job security is hard for actors to find these days.

Sneary, a member of Equity, said when he performs at the Living Room on a “special appearance” contract, he usually just donates his minimal pay to the fledgling company.

And he appreciates the donated talents of the the nonunion actors as well as the Equity performers who have worked for small compensation at the Living Room.

“As an Equity actor and as a producer, I would love to pay all the actors who have worked for us much more,” he said. “As a producer I’m humbled by what the artists working for us bring. This city is growing, and it’s a wonderful theater city because of that commitment.”