The past few years have been hard for actor/singer/writer Holly Schroeder.
She has donned ridiculous costumes to stand out at countless auditions. She has tried going viral, putting a video reel on YouTube.
Feeling like she was getting nowhere fast, Schroeder decided this summer, after 17 years in theater in the Twin Cities, to try something new.
She packed her theater mementos, including a Wonder Woman costume and the palm-reading accoutrements she used for a gig at a Macalester College reunion, and moved to Chicago. The Windy City has more theaters, more film work, and is closer to her La Porte, Ind., hometown.
"At this stage in my life, I'm not appreciated enough here," said Schroeder, who appeared locally in such shows as "Vixens" and "Broadway's Legendary Ladies." "There are not really any cabaret venues for me to do the stuff I want to do. The commercial work that helped me to make it as an actor has dried up. And if you're a gal my age and your name is not Stacia Rice or Sally Wingert, beh."
With her big, brassy personality and specialized talent, Schroeder may seem atypical. But plenty of others in the Twin Cities theater world echoed her sentiment about how difficult things have become.
In the best of times, actors find it challenging to make any kind of a reliable living simply from intermittent stage parts. They supplement their stage incomes by getting parts in feature and industrial films, by doing voice-overs and TV commercials and by the proverbial "day job."
Now a down economy that has led to the highest number of unemployed Americans since the Great Depression and technological advances have combined to create a perfect storm of challenges for actors, hardships that have made the Twin Cities one tough theater town.
Fading American dream
"I've never seen it this bad," said veteran actor Mark Bradley, who has been performing in the Twin Cities for decades and is currently appearing in "The Emperor's New Clothes" at the Old Log Theater. "The market for industrial films and corporate videos is bad. Commercial work is way down. All the things that we generally do to cobble together a living has been affected, so it's harder to live the same middle-class dream as other Americans."
Bradley offered himself as an example. In 1998, he earned about $72,000 through acting -- 36 percent from theater roles, 62 percent from commercials and industrial films and 2 percent from other things such as print modeling jobs. Ten years later, that income had collapsed. Of the $28,000 he took home in 2008, 45 percent came from theater, 53 percent from commercials and industrials, and 2 percent other.
He would not divulge his 2009 acting income because, he said, it was now so low "it's embarrassing."
How's he living? "On credit, like most Americans," he said.
Other actors do other things. Carolyn Pool, who has starred in many shows at Park Square, waits tables at Barbette. "I feel fortunate to be able to pay my bills," she said. "At 35 hours a week, it looks more like my job than acting, but I've never been able to pay my bills from the stage."
Jody Briskey, whose memorable stage roles include Mama Rose in "Gypsy" for Theater Latté Da and Judy Garland in "Beyond the Rainbow" at History Theatre, returned a year and a half ago to her day job as a receptionist at the Edina Pet Hospital.
"I would love to just get one part," she said, "I feel kind of rusty these days 'cause I'm just singing to the dogs and cats in the kennels."
Jen Burleigh-Bentz, who has played principal roles on Broadway in "Mamma Mia!," minds her family's music store in River Falls, Wis.
"In this business, you're supposed to roll with the punches," she said. "But sometimes you don't roll at all, or you don't even get punched. You sit on the sidelines and watch or take a step back. That's where I am now, taking a step back."
To save money, playhouses have cut back, reducing staffs, budgets and the number of productions in a season. The Children's Theatre eliminated two plays from its upcoming season. The Guthrie Theater cut its rehearsal period from four weeks to three, a change that it recently reversed.
Some theaters are picking shows with smaller casts. Penumbra Theatre recently premiered "Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking," a two-hander by Gus Edwards. The Jungle's current hit show, "Irma Vep," also has just two performers.
Globalized labor pool
Actors are facing some of the same challenges as Detroit autoworkers and widget-makers nationwide: The labor pool has been globalized.
Technology has made it so that you can set up a recording session and do a voice patch with someone anywhere on Earth, said Carol McCormick, a film and TV agent at Moore Creative Talent with 30 years of experience. "So the actor who used to get voice jobs in the Twin Cities is competing against someone in L.A. or London or anywhere English is spoken."
The job market for actors has changed in other ways. AFTRA, SAG and Equity, the unions that govern broadcast, film and stage work, have a combined membership of about 1,000 in the Twin Cities. Their contracts establish floors for pay and health and retirement benefits. But as companies have cut costs, they have also undercut the unions.
Bradley, active in the unions for decades, gave an example of the stark decline in the work available to AFTRA actors. In 1990, he said, 80 employers in town had signed contracts agreeing to use union actors for industrial films and commercials. Today, the figure is down to a dozen companies, he said, out of about 130 companies doing such work.
"It's a race to the bottom," said Bradley, whose daughter Katie recently played the title character in the Children's Theatre's "Disney's Mulan Jr."
The movie business also has dried up. In the 1994-1995 period, there were "nine or 10 major feature films shot in the Twin Cities, and all of them hired local actors," said McCormick. "Last year, we had, what, one?"
As work for unions has changed or disappeared, union-certified actors have found it difficult to make the kind of living that Bradley sees in the rearview mirror. He shot a TV commercial in November 1994 for Barron's, the financial services publication. In that ad, he bobbed up and down as he floated on his back in water. That commercial ran for 14 years -- until 2008 -- and he was paid residuals over that time.
Today, nonunion members who do such work do so at a fraction of the cost. And they get no residuals, health benefits or pension contributions.
"When I retire, I'll have three pensions," said Bradley. "But my daughter, who hasn't decided whether or not to join the union, what will she have?"
A ray of hope?
The news is not all bad for actors. Many corporate training videos may have migrated to the Web, but actors are still needed in those, even if pay standards for such products are still being worked out. And if you're nimble enough, you can still make a living. Peter Moore has diversified: He used to make his living primarily on camera, doing commercials with a side of theater. As things have gotten tighter, he has added fight coordination and directing to his arsenal.
"The saying used to be that you're not going to get famous in Twin Cities, but you can work," he said. "The work part is definitely falling away. But if you don't die, your luck will change."
Actor Scott Jorgenson has a story of hope. Six years ago, the former optician who managed the Calhoun Vision Center left the business world to pursue acting full-time, doing voice-overs, commercials and corporate events.
"I was making as a part-time actor what I made as a businessman," he said. "I decided to give it a leap."
He has done 30-plus commercials in that time, his bread and butter. He also does stage plays, and was recently in "Queens of Burlesque" at the History Theatre. He recently completed his first TV pilot, and is in negotiations with a network over picking up the show.
"My mantra, every day, is: What can I do to keep working?" he said. "You've just got to put yourself out there, and keep going."
That's what Schroeder seems to be doing in Chicago. She said that she has taken to the bigger city.
"I'm trying to land a show on the new Oprah network," she said. She is also putting together a cabaret show: "Who the Hell Is Holly Schroeder?"
"Wish me luck," she said.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390