By Jewel Elizabeth
My episode of "Actor's Next Level" with Renee Threatte is totally inspired by actor freedom. As the producer of her own web show, "Cue Black Girls," she learned the ins and outs of going from auditioning actor to independently producing actor. Here, some of my favorite actors-turned-producers tell you the best reasons to produce your own work.
1. You get to be the boss.
"It's great knowing everything is your own. You get a greater appreciation for all the people involved in the production—costumes, lights, sound, directors, writers. It feels great to know that ultimately they're there to make your vision come to life." - Scottt Raven, creator of "Milkshakespeare," a web series written in sonnet
2. You get revenge.
"I have never felt more empowered in my career. The idea to produce a play about Anne Boleyn stemmed from a failure. I auditioned for a regional production of another Anne Boleyn play and didn't get cast. After a few days of moping, I thought to myself, 'Why am I waiting around for someone to give me permission to play a role that I love?' " - Kate O'Phalen, producer of "The King's Whore," playing at Walkerspace, July 26-Aug. 11
3. You can play the roles you've always dreamed of.
"By self-producing, I have the ability to chose (or even write) roles that are exactly right for me. There is no more waiting around for the phone to ring... I can call myself!" - Ronit Aranoff, creator of the web series, "Seeking"
4. …One way or another.
"Producing my own project has been a very liberating and rewarding venture. I am now comfortable watching myself perform and I have been able to see myself from 'the other side of table,' which has had an immense impact on how I approach auditioning. Because of this project I have since booked two amazing musical theater jobs in the past six months, including my dream role, Cosmo in 'Singin' in the Rain.' " - John Scachetti, co-producer of "Who Could Ask For Anything More"
5. You can stop waiting around for your agent to call.
"I am less and less dependent on my agents these days. The network that I'm creating by being proactive in self-producing has made me more visible." - Lisa Biggs, producer of the audiobook, "Patches and the Feelings Tree" and voiceover agency, "Voxy Ladies"
6. You impress casting directors.
"Recently I was in a workshop with a casting director, and when I mentioned the project, she perked right up. She went on to mention how it's such a great idea for actors to make their own work and how much those actors are respected." - Rebecca Kopec, creator of the online sitcom, "Just Super"
7. You can create your perfect community.
"I actually feel a tremendous sense of possibility that I didn't feel before. I also feel like I have a lot of allies, since I've received so much support as a producer. At times it felt very lonely and competitive as an actor but once I started writing and producing short plays, the business started feeling more like a community." - Lindsay B. Davis, creator of "Brattleboro," playing at the Dorothy Strelsin Theater, July 26-28
8. You are guaranteed a rewarding experience.
"Since producing my own work I think I have a better grasp of what goes into making films, TV shows, commercials, and plays. When you produce your own work, it's your story. It's nerve-wrecking and terribly exciting. It's total creative freedom; it's your point of view, your message, and it's tremendously rewarding." - Bettina Bilger, producer/director of the comedy film, "In the Dark"
9. You get to be fearless.
"I haven't put myself out there like that as an actor or director. I do have enough footage to create a solid reel, and I'm in the process of doing so. A lot of my vids are comedic so I really needed to find and trust an editor that can edit comedy. And with self-producing, I'm around the work all the time, I write it, film it, edit it, and release it, so I'm really close to all my work. So it's great to have someone else edit that reel for me, and also good to have someone you trust give you feedback on your work." - Jeremy Day, owner of Cake for Breakfast Productions
10. You show up to auditions with a built in audience.
"I have taken a couple classes where network heads have said that they do take into consideration when they’re hiring or casting people if they already have a bit of an audience. I figured if I already had my own sort of web show, then that would behoove me when it came to larger parts. People already watch this girl so people will want to watch her there." - Renee Threatte, creator of "Cue Black Girls"
Jewel Elizabeth is the executive producer and host of "Actor's Next Level," an interview show with the industry's top casting directors and agents. As an actor she's appeared on "All My Children," "Celebrity Apprentice," Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and the Upright Citizen's Brigade. See all episodes at www.ActorsNextLevel.com.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson