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.”
Occasionally, an actor will decline the Guthrie for the chance to play a larger role. Ann Michels was offered a small part in the Guthrie’s “Born Yesterday,” but stayed with a commitment to “Rancho Mirage” at Old Log.
“You don’t hear the stories about actors who stay with a show,” Michels said. “I hate to turn down or leave a show. Getting up the courage to tell someone you’re leaving or taking a different show makes for sour stomachs and sleepless nights.”
Don’t feel bad for the Guthrie, though. Last summer’s production of “Clybourne Park” took two key actors away from Ten Thousand Things as that small company was weeks away from starting rehearsals for “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Ansa Akyea, who was set to play Stanley Kowalski, was invited to audition for “Clybourne” and took the bait.
“That was on me,” he said. “I’ve had calls from the Guthrie before, but when the opportunity came up to do ‘Clybourne’ and to work with [director] Lisa Peterson, I didn’t want to pass it up.”
“Streetcar” illustrates another aspect of the revolving door. Ten Thousand Things lost three actors and its director for that project when Lear deBessonet got an opportunity at the Public Theater in New York. Yet, artistic director Michelle Hensley said the defections allowed other actors to work.
“We really did luck out,” she said. “I never make actors feel guilty if they have to leave. Everyone is trying to make a living.”
Ten Thousand Things casts its shows far in advance, so in some ways it is vulnerable. Still, Hensley will occasionally have to secure a specific pledge.
“We did that for ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” Hensley said of a production slated for next fall. “The chemistry is so important in that show, and we asked, ‘Are you truly, truly committed to this project?’ ”
Try to make everyone happy
Richard Cook, artistic director at Park Square, said that his company also casts far in advance and that he fears cherry-picking.
“If the Guthrie calls, we can’t compete financially,” he said.
He said he wishes producers would find more flexibility in making it possible for actors to figure out a way to do both shows — because it’s often rehearsal schedules that clash.
“If an understudy offer comes from the Guthrie, the actor might not ever get on stage, but they have to leave our production,” Cook said. “That’s when I chafe.”
He told the story of an actor who was in just that situation and was required to attend tech rehearsals at the Guthrie and could not leave to do performances at Park Square.
“That drove me crazy, and there was no give,” he said. “I’m not dissing them, because there are times they’ve worked things out, but that one still feels like scar tissue.”
Which gets us back to Cat Brindisi. The punch line to her saga of leaving Mixed Blood for CTC is that she never even started rehearsals for “Shrek” because in the meantime, she was cast in “My Fair Lady” and given a chance to understudy Eliza Doolittle. She desperately wanted to do both shows, but there was a week of overlap in “Shrek” performances and “Fair Lady” rehearsals. The Guthrie made no allowances.
Brindisi talked it over with Rothstein, who is directing “Shrek,” and he encouraged her. The possibility of covering a performance in the lead role of “My Fair Lady” is just too juicy.
And what did her father, the producer/director who deals with actors leaving his productions all the time, have to say?
“I applauded her for doing it,” he said. “It’s a business; she has a career. “