Friday, October 07, 2005

The Price of Success

The click-clock of an uncomfortable pair of pumps is audible as a young woman approaches an Information Booth clerk at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The overdressed future soap opera villainess requests a list of nearby youth hostels. The clerk flicks a Welcome to New York brochure in lieu of a verbal response and eye contact.

Nicole Barnes traveled by bus from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to pursue a stage and film career in the city five years ago. The skyscrapers, honking horns, and aggressive people who populate this metropolis initially overwhelmed the Summa Cum Laude graduate from Emory College with a dual degree in English Literature/Performing Arts

Nicole thought her talents as an actress, dancer, and singer would earn her a Daytime Emmy. The acceptance speech that had long since been written was creased and folded inside her daily journal. Passersby did not notice her as she made her way up Eighth Avenue toward the first name on the list of hostels.

The triple-threat, as she or people with her talents are known in the industry, remembers having gone to four of the seven places listed in the brochure, to no avail. The leggy performer recounts a story of being approached by a would-be porno producer in a local deli. “There was a man with eyes that seemed to rotate in their sockets.” Nicole said she tried to imagine herself invisible in hopes that he would walk past her, unfortunately the man made himself comfortable at her table. “I could make you a star in no time. You could be the next Lena Horne with a body like yours.”

Nicole did not finish her overpriced egg salad on toasted wheat. “I think you should get your nasty self away from me,” she said, pushing her chair backward from the table. The man was not at all surprised by her rebuff. After making sure his toupee was in place, he scanned the room for his next discovery fresh off a bus, plane, or train.

Nicole’s encounter is commonplace for some performers who make the pilgrimage to New York City in hopes of seeing their name up in lights on Broadway and on billboards throughout the world. Unknowingly, they wear naïveté as if it were a favorite cologne or body wash. The New York City branch of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) does not maintain records of non-SAG members, roughly forty percent, of the performance pool of off-off-Broadway, low or no-budget films, and convention hosts, hostesses, and costumed actors. SAG does however keep track of the cardholding members who pay their annual or monthly dues.

The SAG offices are located in the heart of Times Square, within a stone’s toss from the offices Backstage, the performance arts weekly that lists hundreds of auditions.

An unofficial estimate is that fifty-five percent of New Yorkers share an apartment, not only because of the increasing rental rates, but also because sharing a space enables many to dedicate more time to local and regional auditions. Artists living with other artists can either create a nurturing community or breed contempt. Some performers buy into the idea that it is better to live with other artists who understand the plight of an artist. A former actress who now teaches theatre in a Brooklyn after school program said, “When I first moved here, I had no place to go. My first apartment was like that Cher song, Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.

There are other hazards with which new and old artists must contend. One of those is the trap of stability and conformity offered by many jobs in corporate America. Working a day job is the last resort for an artist. The entertainment industry is one of insecurities, images, and potential substance abuse. Artists must navigate two worlds. Their world of make-believe and the real world of surviving in an often times unwelcoming city. Many with talent, desire, and thoughts of not going back to the nest, make decisions based on fear of not having shelter or food.

Flipping through Backstage, there are mainstream job ads that do not compete for attention with the audition announcements, yet they are there all the same. It might appear that there is a mixed message with the placement of these ads.

Parents of artists typically insist that their children earn a degree and find a real job. This is sound advice from parents that is received as discouragement by artists. “My mother was always telling me to get a degree. To do better than she did in life,” Nicole said. There is a dark side that many artists are unaware of. The life of a New York performer brings with it the notion of having to network at parties, clubs, and other social gatherings. There is no definitive number of artists who began using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the rejection and stress of auditioning and performing.

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