Friday, June 8, 2007

On New York and Actors

There's something about New York and actors: seems they belong together. First, there is no better way to develop your craft than to do it on stage. Acting with an audience has Instant Feedback.

Second, New York has the largest conglomeration of actors in the world. (Only vain actors actually live in L.A.; most live outside of the L.A. area.) And they actually talk to each other.

Third there are more actor support personnel in New York than in any other place: Producers, directors, playwrights, musicians, stagehands (hey, don't get sensitive), etc.

Fourth, there are more theaters in New York per square mile than any other city in the world. (And places to work if you aren't acting.)

But everyone already knows these things; what really makes New York The Place for Actors? It's not just opportunity or availability of practice there; there is something else.

The first time I went to NY was in 1956. I didn't get to see a Broadway show, but I saw a movie in Radio City Music Hall, and it had a floor show. The movie was High Society, with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Louis Armstrong. When I heard Louis play, I knew - knew - that I was going to be a trumpet player. I was nine.

I didn't return to the City until 1971, after I got out of college. An acquaintance of mine was producing jingles in the jingle mills and called me up to play, and later, to sing. The City was dirty in those days. Time Square was porn shops and hookers. They told us to take a cab, not the subway, or we might lose our horns. I joined the Local 802, AFM. Union scale was good in those days, especially if you DIDN'T MAKE MISTAKES. Luckily, I didn't make many.

After a hiatus for grad school, I began subbing in the pits on Broadway. You couldn't see down there, and you couldn't hear very well either, but you weren't there for that: watch the conductor and play. Still, I suddenly wanted to sit in the audience; so I found time to do just that. There was Fiddler on the Roof, and Grease, and No, No, Nanette (I played it, then had to see it), and Company; such a variety of moods and subjects! I played in the City occasionally until mid-1979, when my job prohibited such travel.

I began going back to the City in 2005 when my daughter got interested in seeing Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (the Revival), on Broadway. The City was changed: it was clean; it was more friendly. We saw Sweeney in November of that year, and Colleen saw it eight (8) more times, including its closing performance. It captured her. It changed her life. It gave her life new purpose.

Just as that show changed mine so many years earlier. Colleen is now studying directing at NYU. She, of course, loves living in the City.

Of course, by the time I returned to New York, I knew there was something about the City that makes art. It made me an artist at nine, and my daughter one at 16. It transforms ordinary people into extraordinary artists. It inspires, invades one's spirit, opening vistas of possibilities, laying out plans for success, and perhaps a few failures, too. It multiplies talent.

I've been to, and worked in, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Miami, Dallas, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Nice places, but not New York. There is nothing in those places that inspires and motivates artists like New York.

So, I think it must be some unmeasurable, perhaps mystical quality. Perhaps it's the spirits of millions of artists who have lived and died there. Maybe it's the atmosphere of the tens of thousands of artists and actors working there now. Maybe it's the freedom of expression that exists there to a degree that doesn't exist anywhere else on earth.

Or, maybe it's just the air.