Theater: Twin Cities actors bail out for better gigs

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2014 - 3:11 PM

Actors leaving shows for better offers elsewhere is a fact of theater life. That doesn’t make it any easier.

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Tyler Michaels, center, in “Cabaret.”

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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It’s not easy when everybody wants you at the same time.

Actor Cat Brindisi had won a role several months ago in “Passing Strange,” which opens April 25 at Mixed Blood Theatre. In the meantime, director Peter Rothstein asked Brindisi to audition for the musical “Shrek” at Children’s Theatre Company. Great! Except that “Shrek” opens April 22. Brindisi would have to bail out on Mixed Blood if she wanted “Shrek,” which offered more weeks of work and a larger paycheck.

“It stunk,” Brindisi said recently. “I was torn that I’d said yes to one thing and I was backing out. Jack [Reuler, Mixed Blood artistic director] and I had a little tiff about it. His point of view was that he doesn’t cast a show and then immediately go out and find someone else. My point was, I have to pay rent.”

Brindisi’s situation is part of the unseen game of musical chairs that actors play in Twin Cities area theater. Actors sometimes chase a better deal — whether that means more money, the role of a lifetime or a longer run. Producers and directors sometimes grumble about loyalty and sometimes accept it on the terms of a free market.

“It’s happening so much right now,” Brindisi said. “How do you make the right decision and not burn bridges?”

She has for many years had a ringside seat for this part of the business. Actors often leave during long runs at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where her father, Michael, is artistic director. Most of the time, he understands and wishes the best for his talent. However, he said, he’s also trying to run a business.

“Here’s what ticks me off,” he said. “Talent has to be sensitive to the point that they are putting the finances in jeopardy because I need to hire and rehearse replacements. The other thing is, if you leave, leave for a reason that everyone understands. If you are a lead out here and you go someplace else for the chorus, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Supply and demand

His situation the past few years has grown more complicated because musicals have gotten more popular. Park Square did a big “Ragtime” a few years ago. The Guthrie has gotten into the game, and Theater Latté Da has become a major producer. It creates demand for singing actors. Take the case of Tyler Michaels, for example.

He just completed a sensational turn as the Emcee in Latté Da’s “Cabaret.” He took the role last summer, before he auditioned for “Fiddler on the Roof” at Chanhassen.

“I told them I had to leave by this date to do ‘Cabaret’ and I’d understand if it wouldn’t work out,” Michaels said.

Brindisi wanted Michaels, so he cast him in “Fiddler”; in December, the young actor went off to Latté Da. In that case, he took less money for the chance to work with Rothstein and play one of the best roles in musical theater.

Brindisi put in a substitute, and there apparently were no hard feelings because Michaels will open “The Little Mermaid” at Chanhassen — and then leave again to play Freddy in “My Fair Lady” at the Guthrie.

“This time, it was the opposite,” Michaels said. “I’d been cast in ‘Mermaid,’ and then I got called in to audition for ‘Fair Lady.’ It was a great step forward for me and Michael [Brindisi] sent me a really kind e-mail supporting me.”

Dog eat dog

The Guthrie is the top of the food chain for actors, in terms of prestige and wages. Artistic associate John Miller-Stephany, who is involved in casting, said he feels bad for theaters that get caught in the Guthrie’s wake, but he pointed out that “every actor is a free agent.”

He said it can happen even to the Guthrie, using the example of New York actor Erin Krakow, who pulled out of “Pride and Prejudice” last summer, one day before rehearsals were to start. Krakow, who was to play lead character Elizabeth Bennet, took a TV show, and the Guthrie was left with a bad taste.

“Oh, absolutely,” Miller-Stephany said, when asked if that will affect future dealings with Krakow and the agent who represented her. “You think twice.”

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  • Tyler Michaels as Fyedka in “Fiddler on the Roof” at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.

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