To Flee Or Not To Flee: Is N.Y. Glamor Gone?

Consider these production credits: script directed by Steve Robman, with a cast that includes Jill Eikenberry, John Spencer, John Nesci and Robert Schenkkan. It reads like a playbill from off-Broadway’s Phoenix Theater. But the Phoenix folded in 1982 (Robman was the last artistic director); this would-be playbill is from a recent episode of “L.A. Law.”

With Broadway production shrinking and year-round work centered in Hollywood, New York legit casting agents are finding it increasingly difficult to get and keep top talent. The longtime trend has worsened, they say, because of the permanent migration of actors from the east coast to the west, talent agents demanding ever-shorter runs and a litany of out-clauses for their clients, and a widening rift between legit salaries and upward-spiraling tv and film paychecks.

“It’s gotten a lot harder,” says Gregory Mosher, a.d. of the hit cauldron Lincoln Center Theater. “Theater is paying roughly what it paid five years ago and tv and film have gone up. Also, we’re growing up. Actors of our generation have more responsibilities, they need to earn real incomes. Increasingly, work in the theater is seen as time off from what you have to do to pay the bills.”

In 1985, there were 17,119 Actors’ Equity members in the metro New York area, compared with 7,907 in California. Last year, the New York Equity population had dropped by 1,746 members to 15,373 and California had jumped by virtually the same amount, to 9,569.

Overall Equity population is up, too, suggesting that actors and stage managers are also landing in cities with solid resident and commercial theaters. Actors and directors used to head West for pilot season, now, every season is pilot season, and many theater people have become ex-theater people, settling in the L.A. environs.

The point was driven home, Mosher said, when he tried recently to cast the first New York production of Arthur Miller’s “The Archbishop’s Ceiling.” The show requires an ensemble of four first-rank actors.

“Every time we had the right string quartet, someone would get a movie,” says Mosher. “So now we ask for a 16- to 20-week commitment. That means you can underrehearse, or you can open and have the stars take a hike, but then the public sees a replacement.” After trying out nearly 50 actors for “Archbishop,” the author and the company agreed to postpone – a choice not always available to nonprofit theaters with subscription commitments. They either go ahead with a second-string cast, or find another work.

When it was clear that Lincoln Center’s production of “Six Degrees Of Separation” was headed for a long stand, one factor in deciding when to move it upstairs from the Mitzi Newhouse to the Vivian Beaumont was the availability of Stockard Channing. She left during the summer to make a film and returned when the show reopened in October. Of course, Channing is one stage actress who hasn’t moved West, and she is committed to playing Ouisa Kittredge through July 7, a healthy run.

That wasn’t the case with “Once On This Island,” which moved from off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons to the Booth. Kecia Lewis-Evans, a likely Tony contender for her performance, left for California shortly after the Broadway opening. Same theater’s Broadway move of Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles” had a Heidi hat trick during the year after Joan Allen left (she stayed a year), that included Christine Lahti, Brooke Adams and Mary McDonnell.

“What’s different now than seven years ago is that actors used to go and spend some time in L.A., for pilot season in winter and early spring,” says Playwrights a.d. Andre Bishop. “What’s happened now is that a lot of actors are moving to LA. to live, and pilot season seems to be every day. Those two things are crucial. It makes it tough on those of us in the theater, and it transcends Broadway and nonprofit, because it’s not about money. No Broadway salary can compete. Philosophically, the problem one has is that one wants the actors to work and make a good living. Their agents don’t want them to get overly committed. So now they come here because it’s a relatively short run.”

“It’s far more difficult to get an actor to make any kind of longstanding commitment to a Broadway situation,” says Vincent Liff, a major New York caster. “Even five years ago, an actor might sign for a year. Then it started whittling down to nine months, then six, four, even three months. In all probability, it’ll get worse as actors become hotter. They get snapped up quickly by the most powerful agents and get either packaged into projects or promises are made to them; it’s very seductive.”

“Cosby Show” producers Carsey-Werner have tapped lots of legit talent, including Debbie Allen, executive producer and savior of “A Different World” – which, unlike “Cos,” shoots in Studio City. They also have stage denizens Laurie Metcalf and Debra Mooney, among others.

Two years ago, “Cos” co-star and former Negro Ensemble Co. regular Phylicia Rashad used her tv hiatus to spend 10 weeks as the Witch in “Into The Woods.” Barnett Kellman, another well-known off-Broadway talent (he directed the stage and film versions of “Key Exchange”) used to find tv work in New York; now – so long, Second Avenue – he’s directing and producing “Murphy Brown.” And the list goes on.

“My Secret Garden,” the musical slated to open in April at the St. James, was still negotiating last week with Mandy Patinkin, the best-known member of its company. Like Channing, he has remained New York-based. In 1984, Patinkin starred in “Sunday In The Park With George” for six months and returned for the last five weeks of the Broadway run in the fall of ’85. “Garden” caster Wendy Ettinger says the L.A. shift means producers hiring ex-N.Y. talent now have to come up with living expenses, which can add a major debit to production costs. She also added, ominously, that New York is “not as glamorous as it was, though I’ve no idea why.”

David Rubin, an L.A.-based casting director with solid connections in the theater community, said, “I think it’s a shame, because New York tends to infuse an actor with a greater sense of reality and sense of the human condition. Los Angeles is a seductive and unreal place. A New York actor at some point in the day has to cross Eighth Avenue.

“I find that in setting up casting sessions in New York, where once I could fill a couple of weeks with the best talent, now I can do it in a few days,” Rubin continued. “I see nothing that would reverse the trend. Cities go through cyclical appeal, and I guess Los Angeles is enjoying a moment in the sun.”

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