BELIEF No. 5:
'EVERYONE HAS TO PAY THEIR DUES'
A QUARTER-SMILE on her face, Tonya Pinkins stood at the front of an ugly rehearsal room one Friday evening in March, biding her time like a teacher during a pop quiz she knows everyone will fail. Behind her, on a whiteboard, the name of the class -- ''Tonya Pinkins: The Actorpreneur Attitude'' -- was written in jaunty bubble letters. Before her, three dozen aspiring actors, crammed into uncomfortable chairs, labored over her first assignment: to rate, on a scale from 1 to 10, their agreement with 30 statements listed on a lavender handout called a Belief Questionnaire. Having paid as much as $1,295 to attend this three-day career boot camp for people in a profession that (as Ms. Pinkins described it) features 99 percent failure, the participants considered such propositions as ''I have to get a job to support my art'' (No. 14) and ''Superstars are usually mediocre talents'' (No. 23). The 10's piled up, as Ms. Pinkins knew they would.
Wearing a simple black blouse and white stretch pants, her hair in rust-tinged springcoils, Ms. Pinkins waited for the room -- loaned to her by the Public Theater -- to settle. She was almost unrecognizable as the actress who won a 1992 Tony for her portrayal of Sweet Anita, the spitfire chanteuse in ''Jelly's Last Jam,'' or who appears as the sober-suited lawyer Olivia Frye Cudahy on ''All My Children'' or who will open on Broadway tonight, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, as the witheringly severe, white-uniformed maid in ''Caroline, or Change.''
Despite 20 years of hard work and intermittent acclaim, it's that last role that probably accounted for her workshop's excellent turnout: the Off Broadway run of ''Caroline'' -- just a few hundred feet away in the Public's Newman Theater -- had recently earned Ms. Pinkins the best reviews of her career and brought her, once again, to the brink of theatrical stardom. Most of the young actors were probably unaware of the enormous pain she had suffered on the way, nightmarish even by theatrical standards; they didn't see a 42-year-old woman who had almost gone mad but a radiant sibyl with a magic formula.
To an outsider, the formula seemed obvious: talent. But Ms. Pinkins's message had more to do with personality than performance. The Actorpreneur Attitude is a course for actors that teaches no acting -- because its premise is that theatrical achievement is not so much about vocal technique or sense memory or looks as about removing ''hidden emotional blocks to success.'' That's probably just as well; the participants seemed pretty despairing about their gifts, at least at the start, and in the unflattering glare of the fluorescent lights -- an effect not mitigated by several 20-ounce Martha Stewart vanilla bean candles -- they did not look like potential leading men and ladies. But actors are failures, Ms. Pinkins explained, because they choose to be.
If that sounds like some sort of self-help bromide (you're not a hopeless actor, honey -- you're just thinking wrong), perhaps that's because Ms. Pinkins developed the workshop from principles she learned as an adherent of the Agape Church of Religious Science, a Los Angeles-based spiritual center that has recently become popular among some Hollywood actors. According to the church's teachings, the world is an endlessly benevolent place, in which success and prosperity are ''spiritual attributes'' that belong to all people, if only they knew how to use them. That was why, Ms. Pinkins explained, she was offering a ''spring cleaning'' of the mind, to see what old, nonfunctioning ''programs'' could be deleted. If the first hour was any indication, the process would involve plenty of rhyming catchphrases, mystery acronyms and droll sentence inversions.
''Without healthy roots you can't produce enough fruits,'' Ms. Pinkins intoned.
''Oh!'' the actors murmured.
''It's not 'I'll believe it when I see it' but 'I'll see it when I believe it!' ''
She gave quite a performance, beneficent but bullying. The two qualities seemed related, as if being immensely sympathetic and immensely overbearing were traits that somehow required each other. Indeed, Ms. Pinkins, for all her thoughtful enthusiasm, can seem manipulative. Some of her come-ons were Hobson's choices (''If I could show you the exact success you always dreamed of, would you say yes or yes?'') and even the Belief Questionnaire turned out to be a clever trap. All the statements on it, she later revealed, were examples of the kind of bad thinking that gets actors nowhere. And yet despite her insistence that the workshop was not about her -- ''I already have my success,'' she asserted -- those beliefs might as well have been the story of her life.
'I HAVE TO SUFFER FOR MY ART'
Tonya Pinkins was a self-righteous child. Growing up a devout Roman Catholic in a racially changing Chicago neighborhood in the 1960's and 70's, she clung to a few self-invented ideals. She didn't believe in gossip, so she was quiet and therefore came across to others as conceited. Not approving of elitism, she wouldn't be part of the chic black crowd, but the other black kids found her too ''white'' so she hung out with the Jews. (She played Golde in her junior high school production of ''Fiddler on the Roof.'') She escaped into acting classes at the St. Nicholas and Goodman theaters, but when she was offered a full scholarship to Yale -- her longtime goal -- she turned it down. ''No one cared,'' she said, almost wryly, of her chaotic family. ''So I didn't go.'' Instead, she entered the music theater program at Carnegie Mellon University, where a sight-singing teacher said she was hopeless and an acting teacher described her work as ''a rose wrapped in cellophane'': beautiful but soulless. No matter; by the end of her freshman year she had won a role in the Broadway production of ''Merrily We Roll Along,'' dropped out of school and moved to New York, where the show promptly flopped. She was 19.
Even the most successful stage résumés are studded -- almost necessarily -- with failure: lost opportunities, casual cruelties, degrading money jobs. (Working as a restaurant hostess after ''Merrily'' folded, Ms. Pinkins was told to make her customers uncomfortable so they wouldn't linger. She says she was good at it.) But few actors retain the overwhelming sense of oppressive loneliness that Ms. Pinkins's story suggests, perhaps because most actors' lives improve if they become successful. For Ms. Pinkins, success was directly implicated in the events that nearly ruined her, in 1992.
''It had been the most exciting year of my career,'' she said between sips of onion tea in her dressing room. ''I'd just won the Tony for 'Jelly's Last Jam.' I had two beautiful children and was married to someone I loved'' -- Ron Brawer, a soap opera music director, whom she thanked in her Tony acceptance for taking care of their sons so that she could work. At the height of her happiness -- with no clue, she said, of what was about to happen -- she walked out of the Virginia Theater's stage door after a Saturday matinee, accepted what she thought was a request for an autograph and found, as she started to sign her name, that she had just been served with divorce papers. (Among other things, the suit cited Ms. Pinkins's Tony speech as evidence of her secondary parental status.) Thus began a seemingly endless legal battle in which she lost custody of her two young boys (despite being declared a fit parent), was ordered to pay $25,000 a year in child support, had her wages garnished for failure to do so, was barred from and eventually lost her equity in the couple's Manhattan loft and New Jersey mansion and ended up -- even as recently as two years ago, when she was already workshopping ''Caroline'' -- on public assistance, all but homeless and dependent on her friends. Meanwhile, she had had two more children, whose fathers left her, and them, without a penny.
The legal case was so tortured and its outcome so unusual -- since when does a legally fit mother lose custody of her children? -- that it became the subject of news reports, feminist crusades and law journal articles. In Ms. Pinkins's retelling, it sometimes seemed too dramatic to be true. She willingly discussed her anger at the judge, who wrote of her ''palpably obvious anger throughout the proceeding,'' but omitted, for instance, her handmade poster campaign against him. More than that, there was a question of extremes. How can you be a Broadway star one day and a deadbeat mom (as The New York Post branded her when she fell behind on her child support) the next?
''I don't think her story is so rare,'' said George C. Wolfe, the director of ''Caroline'' and a longtime colleague of Ms. Pinkins. ''Artists have rough lives! That's how they get an audience to experience joy. When success comes, it's very wonderful: you get paid for commercial success. The rest of the time -- you don't.''
BELIEF No. 25:
'I NEED TO BE LIKED'
In ''Caroline,'' Ms. Pinkins plays Caroline Thibodeaux, who makes $30 a week doing housework for the Gellman family of Lake Charles, La. Rose Gellman, a nice Jewish lady hoping to teach her morose and careless stepson a lesson about the value of money, instructs Caroline to keep any change she finds in the boy's pockets. For a black woman in 1963, with four children and no husband (she sent him packing after he hit her once too often), even a quarter would go a long way, but Caroline is at first too proud to take it. Still, by the time a $20 bill -- the boy's Hanukkah gift from his grandfather -- shows up in the hamper, the unstoppable gears of desperation have started grinding.
Tony Kushner, who wrote the musical's libretto, gives the story a strong political context, but ''Caroline'' is not an economics lesson. It's an intimate look at a woman in extremis; an actress who doesn't get that -- who's slick or ingratiating -- could reduce Caroline to a mere Brechtian symbol: Mother Discourage. On the other hand, unless cast with a fierce and ironclad force of nature, Caroline could squash the performer: the part is a beast, dramatically and vocally. Jeanine Tesori's music (which was written with Ms. Pinkins's voice in mind) synthesizes field hollers, R & B, juke-joint swing, Delta blues, klezmer, Mozart and gospel, among other styles, as a demonstration of the way disparate lives come smashing together. And Caroline is where all those sounds intersect.
The authors were lucky in that Mr. Wolfe had already directed Ms. Pinkins in ''Jelly'' and, more recently, in Michael John LaChiusa's ''Wild Party.'' Mr. Wolfe said that he knew she was perfect for Caroline even aside from the parallels (40-ish black single mother of four) between actress and role. ''She's able to do something thrilling,'' he said. ''Take a composer's notes and make it seem that she's making them up as she goes along. I knew that 'Caroline' required someone with that kind of command. Someone not scared of her own power and rage -- and Tonya has easy access to her rage.''
Mr. Wolfe chuckled; their relationship, now close, started off rocky. (He fired then rehired her on ''Jelly's Last Jam.'') Ms. Pinkins's colleagues, describing her demeanor, often use words like ''ferocious'' and ''outspoken'' -- which are sometimes euphemisms for ''difficult,'' but can be tinged with admiration. Ms. Tesori said that though she found Ms. Pinkins warm and even gentle, some people's reaction when she comes into a room ''is to take one step backward.'' Perhaps this is why, from the first reading, it became less and less possible to think of anyone else as Caroline. The actress never tried to minimize the character's unlikable characteristics; in a way, she even emphasized what was rigid, ornery, prissy and cosmically dour about her. This refusal to play for sympathy somehow enhanced the sympathy she aroused; the show regularly reduced audiences to tears.
So when the Broadway transfer was announced earlier this year, Ms. Pinkins found herself in an unusual position for an actor, especially one with her recent history. She had everyone over a barrel.
BELIEF No. 1:
'REAL ARTISTS DON'T MAKE MONEY'
A lot has been written about the salary Ms. Pinkins initially sought; according to her manager, David Guç, it was $25,000 a week. Pinkins partisans -- not just Mr. Guç but plenty of actors -- point out that she had devoted a significant part of the last three years to the show, working at the Public's standard rate of about $650 a week. Now she wanted to be treated like the star everyone agreed she was. On the other hand, the show's producers were trying to keep costs down in order to give the serious chamber musical some chance of recouping. They argued that Mr. Kushner and Ms. Tesori and Mr. Wolfe had all deferred royalties. In response, Mr. Guç drastically lowered the salary request, but held out for hair and makeup artists at publicity events and a car to and from the theater. If this seemed diva-esque, the producers were stuck with an even worse image problem: seeming to offer a poor black woman, with four children to support, pocket change in return for exhausting physical labor.
Ms. Pinkins disavows specific knowledge of the furor. ''I don't negotiate,'' she said. ''If someone tells me they don't have money, I'm not going to try to make them have money. It's a game, and I wasn't playing -- and the universe supported me in that my cell phone broke. The only thing I did was write a letter to let them know how much I care about the play. I hated to seem like I was begging, but my hating it so much was how I knew I had to do it.''
Most salary negotiations are unpleasant; if this one was worse that's because it represented a shotgun marriage between the vastly different economies of the institutional and the commercial theater. In deference to the former, Ms. Pinkins has in effect accepted the ''favored nations'' salary that the rest of the cast is getting: about $2,000 a week. In deference to the latter, the producers have provided a significant package of enhancements to allow her to move her two younger children (now 7 and 4) from her home in Los Angeles and to live in New York with them in the style to which she never, despite her years on welfare, became unaccustomed. (Her two older children, now 16 and 13, live in Manhattan, in their father's custody.) It is by no means a lavish deal; according to people familiar with the negotiations, Ms. Pinkins's total compensation is less than that of most other Broadway musical stars -- Donna Murphy in ''Wonderful Town,'' for example -- and does not include (as is typical for stars) any profit participation unless the show truly thrives, in which case, everyone agrees, she deserves it.
''I got what I knew I would get,'' said Ms. Pinkins, evincing a bit of actorpreneurial attitude. ''Remember, I have this huge debt to pay.'' (That debt now stands -- after the court, recognizing that she was on welfare, reduced it -- at a little more than $100,000.) ''So no matter what I get,'' Ms. Pinkins concluded, ''I'm not getting it.''
David Lansner, Mr. Brawer's attorney, agreed. ''Since she's appearing on Broadway and television now, she should be able to support her children,'' he said, ''as numerous courts have ruled.''
BELIEF No. 4:
'IF I GET PSYCHOLOGICALLY HEALTHY I'LL LOSE MY EDGE'
For most of her life, Ms. Pinkins has barely breathed while singing. For five or six years, she didn't sleep; that was when she was so deeply involved in her legal difficulties that, after hiring and firing a series of lawyers, she started to act as her own. (She handled the tricky annulment of her marriage, an experience that led her to enroll, for a while, in law school.) And then there was the time she couldn't cry. ''I was just frozen. I would go to auditions and couldn't access any feelings. The energy needed to keep from being sunk in grief was just too great.''
Today, Ms. Pinkins said, she sleeps well, cries on cue and, thanks to work with her voice teacher Joan Lader, breathes naturally enough while singing to make the dangerous landscape of ''Caroline'' a joyride. If she can never recover the years in which she was barely a mother to her older children but just, at best, ''a visitor,'' she has tried to let go of suffering. It isn't easy, and her public manner -- friendly enough, but tightly controlled -- doesn't offer complete camouflage. Certain concrete indignities betray her anger, especially the garnishing of her income, which makes her feel like ''a slave.''
''It certainly made me hate the world for a while,'' she admitted. ''People thought I was insane, and I was: it had made me insane. Until finally I just said I don't need to be right, I need to be happy. I'm out of the money he wants from me? Well, I will find a way to pay it. But I had to stop fighting. And that's when things began to turn around.'' Here in New York, she is finally enjoying some time with all her children together.
There's a point when Caroline stops fighting, too. In the 11th-hour soliloquy called ''Lot's Wife'' -- which was repeatedly rewritten to accommodate Ms. Pinkins's sense of the character -- the maid asks God to ''murder her dreams'' so she can afford, financially and emotionally, to go on living. ''Don't let my sorrow make evil of me,'' she sings. At that moment, the fusion of actress and role seems so complete that one imagines it must be unbearable to perform. But that is to misunderstand the choice that Ms. Pinkins, born 40 years later than Caroline, could make: to turn sorrow into art instead.
''No, no, no!'' she crowed, ''Not painful! It's a joy! I get to play her -- I don't have to be her. Not anymore.'' Ms. Pinkins stopped, and her smile dissolved. ''Because unlike Caroline, I didn't get crushed.''
""""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