- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

There are actors who happen to live in Washington.And then there are “Washington actors.”

For years the perceived inferiority of local actors vis-a-vis their counterparts in New York was encapsulated in this invidious distinction.

However, Washington theater has grown up, Washington actors have gained respect, and the qualifier has lost much of its If New York has had a stronger theater culture for a longer time, going back to vaudeville, the Baltimore-Washington region is catching up fast — at least in numbers of theaters and a growing awareness that a rich theatrical life can bring more returns than another shopping mall.

Today, local actors could be working anywhere. And actors from anywhere could be working here.

Canadian-born actress Susan Lynskey sees more New York actors than ever coming to Washington and raising the competitive stakes. A relative newcomer after eight years here, Miss Lynskey lived precariously for a while as an ingenue in New York and was the education director for a children’s theater when she began auditioning locally.

Last year, she was the only local actor — along with three New Yorkers — chosen for Arena Stage’s production of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof.” She ranks it as her biggest career boost to date. “I was the hometown hitter and felt a lot of responsibility for that,” she remarks. While praising Washington audiences, she acknowledges that for a long time they accepted the misdirected notion that out-of-town actors were better.

“I’m thrilled that I’m considered a Washington actor,” declares defiant 25-year acting veteran Naomi Jacobson. A 1994-95 Helen Hayes Award recipient, she came here 17 years ago on her way to New York and never left, in part because she met actor John Lescault, now her husband.

“I thought I could never live here,” she says. “Then I saw what was happening — the talent, intelligence, creativity. People that [ask], ‘When are you going to New York?’ are misguided. I own my own home and do four or five shows a year. New York actors are lucky to have that much.

“When I did ‘The Women’ here at Arena, I was with a woman from Los Angeles, one from New York, one from Minnesota and the rest from D.C. We had so much fun. The New Yorker turned and looked at me, saying with some surprise, ‘You all like each other.’ It takes them [outsiders] a while to figure out that no one is out to get them because we are not chasing money and fame. It is not about celebrity but about working together to produce the best play we can. In Los Angeles and New York, the biggest question backstage is: ‘Who is out there tonight? Who can give me a job.’ Backstage here, it is about work.”

Not that the locals are adverse to working out of town. At least not Ms. Lynskey, who praises the supportive environment here but likes the beneficial “cross pollination” that comes with working elsewhere on occasion. “It challenges you in different ways,” she says.

“If someone told me they are a Washington actor, I would say that is a compliment — someone who saves their craft for their own community,” says Dan Manning, 51, who came here cold from Los Angeles in 2000 and has worked ever since.

With ongoing TV credits from “West Wing,” among other shows, and feature film credits that include “Gods and Generals,” Mr. Manning has an agent in Los Angeles and another in New York. Like most other actors, however, he relies for jobs locally on more informal contacts. Along with wife Lynn Watson, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and theater voice coach on the side, he chose to put down roots in Ellicott City, Md., to have a sort of country life where he doesn’t have to withdraw altogether from the rest of the world.

Lawrence Redmond, 45, another Helen Hayes Award winner, says he feels “very blessed that I am at the Shakespeare Theatre for three shows in a row — great books by great white guys.” He recalls days as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland when it was thought that “everybody has to go to New York, which at that time made sense. The impression hangs on today, but it is changing.”

The typical Washington actor’s conundrum, he says, is feeling fortunate to work here even though an actor typically gets big roles in small theaters and not-so-big roles in the larger theaters. He auditioned for Eric Schaeffer at Signature three years before getting a part — a role in “Cabaret” in 1996 that earned him a Hayes Award nomination.

Will Gartshore, 29, stars currently in Signature’s “Elegies” while taking classes for a history degree at the University of Maryland. Only two years on the scene after seven or eight years in New York, he says, “I would rather be in New York only when I’m up there…. At this point I feel I am a Washington actor. It’s only a recent transition. For me, it is a whole package and not just the career. I’ve had roles here I wouldn’t be able to get up there.”

A mutually supportive attitude survives here in spite of the fact that Actors Equity, the protective association to which most experienced actors belong, only pays health benefits to those employed 20 weeks in a year, equivalent to about three stage roles.

“An actor [anywhere] is lucky to work 12 or 15 weeks a year,” says Michael Kahn, director of New York’s Juilliard drama school and artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company — currently the city’s only repertory group.

Top minimum salaries in the region fall between $303 and $772 a week, depending on theater size. Actor Ray Ficca, co-chair of the association’s liaison committee here, estimates that only 20 percent to 35 percent of some 700 Equity members in the Washington-Baltimore area work consistently and only two dozen theaters pay top salaries.

TV and film pay more, of course, and on the plus side, Pat O’Donnell of the local Screen Actors Guild says “more theatrical movies are being made here” than ever before, but the bottom line is that having a spouse or partner helps get local actors through down times. Supplemental income comes from voice-overs, audio books, readings, teaching, role-play work, government and industrial training films, and the occasional clerical job. Well-known character actor Hugh Nees has to rely on temp jobs occasionally.

Donna Migliaccio, co-founder of Signature Theatre, has had her Equity card for 10 years but says it only started paying off six or seven years ago. (Her husband is a government employee.) “I don’t know of a single actor in the business who does it off of one genre,” she says.

“Signature this year only had one person out of the area in lead roles for ‘Twentieth Century,’” Ms. Migliaccio notes proudly. “And that’s unusual.”

But getting less unusual all the time.

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