Seattle’s best actor, Laurence Ballard, in Savannah, Georgia, September 4, 2008. Photography by Geoff L. Johnson for City Arts.
Laurence Ballard has had enough of being a struggling actor. Here’s why you won’t be seeing one of our most accomplished performing artists working on local stages any time soon.
Laurence Ballard is one of the best actors I’ve seen in thirty years as a critic. And I’m not alone. In more than 160 shows at important regional theatres (chiefly Intiman and ACT in Seattle, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), he’s won raves from The Seattle Times and The New York Times. When he auditioned to be an extra in a Robert Altman film, Altman rewrote and tailored a speaking role for him. San Francisco’s leading critic, Steven Winn, sums up the Seattle actor in one word: “Wondrous.”
Only Ballard isn’t a Seattle actor anymore. He recently moved away to teach at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. He’s reveling in a gig offering a health plan, a pension and summers free to do whatever he wants. But his presence still looms large locally, thanks to his big, angrily eloquent mouth. In letters to local newspapers, he regularly inveighs against Seattle theatre potentates with the acidulous tone of an ex-lover, embittered yet still very much in love.
“You talk to anyone who’s trying to work in Seattle, you’re going to get – understandably – couched comments,” says Ballard, in a booming voice honed at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. “I don’t give a rat’s ass anymore. Because I’ve left the plantation. I can talk about what they do at the Big House now!”
Ballard’s 2007 jeremiad on the local industry Web site Theatre Puget Sound inspired monologuist Mike Daisey to write the show How Theater Failed America. Daisey toured the country in the show, igniting a national debate. “It called regional theatres on the carpet,” says ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie.
“I was very moved by Larry’s clear-sighted writing on the TPS boards and shocked, though not surprised, that he’d been driven to the point where he had to leave,” says Daisey. “The institutions that make up the American theatre could afford to pay artists a living wage but choose not to. By doing so little for their workers, they face a continuous ‘brain drain’ where the very best are driven out of the industry.”
“The institutions have grown large, metastasized, at the expense of the actors, the designers – the artists,” Ballard argues. “The weekly acting salary at the big Seattle theatres was between $700 and $900 back in the early nineties. The price range for acting at the big theatres in 2008 is . . . between $700 and $900. It hasn’t changed in over fifteen years!
“In Seattle the median income is now $45,000 a year. Last year, working all the time, I made $25,000. At the age of fifty-four. And $3,000 of that was unemployment.” He’s taught locally to supplement his income but says that even full-time veteran teachers of theatre at the university level here might make hardly more than $30,000 a year.
“I’m mad as hell and I can’t pay my bills anymore!” Ballard declares. This even though he is a single man without a family, has been steadily employed from 1974 on and, since at least 1979, has been in the top tier of all Equity union actors across America in terms of number of weeks worked annually.
“I left Seattle and full-time acting simply because I could no longer make ends meet. I was working more and more and harder and harder and making less and less money.” Just before the teaching offer came from Savannah – and before the economy began to tank – Ballard was taking a course to get a real-estate broker’s license.
“I’m not a young guy anymore,” he says, plaintively. “I can’t hop on a bike and deliver messages.”
But he’s well equipped to deliver his message of reform. He stresses that he’s not just bellyaching on his own behalf; he wants the wider community to grasp the professional’s plight and how it threatens the art form.
He cites Jay Goede, a close friend who played the lead in Angels in America on Broadway and recently took an acting job for $350 a week. “For me, I can understand. But for him?”
Audiences just don’t get it, Ballard’s convinced. “Marianne Owen [another Seattle actor of Ballard’s stature] once overheard two patrons at Seattle Rep. “One said, ‘I wonder how much they make, the actors?’ The other goes, ‘Oh, they’re just like the Sonics! They make a lotta money.” Ballard erupts in a belly laugh.
The boards of directors that run Seattle’s theatres don’t get it, either, he claims. Years of training and refined artistry should not be commoditized and bought cheaply. Ballard’s peeved that some boards now advocate flat-rate salaries for everyone in a cast from Hamlet to Rosencrantz. “I find a vestige of Stalinism in that,” the actor sneers.
Once he told a member of the board of one of the larger theatres in town that it was a bad idea to pay all actors the same wage. “Why not?” the board member replied. “You’re all acting.”
“You’re practicing law, you’re practicing medicine,” Ballard responded. “Aren’t you paid the same after twenty years as somebody fresh out of med school? They finally got the idea.”
“It’s not even in their skill set to think about something as subjective as artistry,” Ballard now believes.
“What I find fascinating is that the people board members have the very least amount of contact with are the ones audiences pay to see. Board members only come on opening night, most of them. Boards used to be comprised of people who were themselves more interested and active in the arts.”
Some years back, the board of a Seattle theatre put Ballard on a search committee. “These well-meaning individuals were trying to choose the most important person at their institution, their artistic director, and they didn’t have a clue!” Ballard asked pointed questions to help them focus on what he thought were the important issues: What kind of theatre did they want to be? What sort of work did they want to produce?
The board failed to fathom such questions, Ballard concluded, preferring to trust a consultant from the corporate world. “They spent several thousand dollars buying this big mucky-muck, high-level headhunter. On his first day, he had a stack of resumes and he said, ‘We can just throw these in the trash.'”
Stunned, Ballard asked why the resumes, many of them impressive, deserved the dumpster. “The consultant said, ‘Well, they’re just lists of their accomplishments.'” But that’s what a theatrical resume is, protested Ballard. “Clearly, you’ve got a method for finding a new CEO for some corporation. But you don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to picking an artistic director! You don’t even know the form of the resume our industry uses. That was a crystalline indication of what we were up against. The people charged with running these nonprofit arts institutions are often the least aware of what the artists are talking about.”
Some theatre insiders say Ballard’s critique is unfair. “It’s oversimplified, which, of course, makes great theatre,” says Laura Penn, former Intiman managing director and now executive director of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers in New York. “It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a career on the nonprofit stage in a city like Seattle – and that is wrong. Yet to place it all on board members is to let too many others off the hook. We all must, unions included, demand from all our civic leaders public policy that makes it possible for artists to survive and thrive.”
Actors can’t get health insurance unless they wangle dozens of weeks’ work each year, notes Beattie, and that’s hardly the boards’ fault: “There’s a hell of a lot of hard work and selfless commitment on the part of boards.”
Ballard is reacting the way his old colleague, Academy Award-winner William Hurt, did back when Hurt was a brilliant unknown in the acting company in Ashland. Shortly after he costarred with Denis Arndt and Jean Smart in a legendary production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, artistic director Jerry Turner cast Hurt in the part of a gorilla in a production of The Comedy of Errors set in a carnival.
“Bill said, ‘I can do better than this,’ and left,” Ballard recalls. “Turner said, ‘Well, he’ll never work again.'”
Ballard advises the aspiring actors he teaches to stand up to administrators and directors who don’t respect what they have to offer. Refuse to wear the monkey suit; get entrepreneurial with your careers, like William Hurt. “We live in a society that’s decided if something is good it makes a profit. When I turn sixty-five and have nothing to show for it financially, people are going to say, ‘Why in the hell didn’t you take care of yourself?'”
Ballard is now taking care of himself and of his art. He recently talked with Bartlett Sher, artistic head of Intiman and also the hottest director on Broadway – another big talent likely to soon depart Seattle – about acting for him in a show in New York next year. He tried to do a show in Seattle this summer, but schedules didn’t work out. It’s possible that we’ll not see him here again.
He’s worried not so much about his own career at this point as the fate of his profession, not to mention the future of the Seattle theatre scene to which he devoted himself for decades. He wants people to reflect on the long-term costs of bottom-line MBA thinking to the arts. Don’t dismiss the value of talent, practice, craft.
He notes that his generation was raised on novels, so they strive to infuse their roles with nuance and depth of character. He asks his students how many plays they’ve seen. It’s never a big number. But movies? Hundreds. And TV shows? Thousands. “Young people don’t even know film history anymore. So their idea of acting, on a subliminal level, has everything to do with this little box with its weird, cool, bluish light. And also a movie canvas where Meryl Streep’s eyeball is three feet across.”
Ballard deplores the old-fashioned but still dominant Method style many acting schools drum into young actors’ skulls. Hordes are coming into the theatre believing that acting is a matter of mining one’s own deepest feelings and applying them to the role at hand.
“If I could make American actors change, I would have them stop asking, what would I do in this situation and start asking what the character would do,” says Ballard. When The New York Times asked him how on earth he managed to perform six different roles in a stage version of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Ballard quoted the great (non-Method) actor Dame Edith Evans: “Dear, I pretend!”
I ask Ballard to pretend that the boards he deplores have suddenly handed him all power. What would he do? “If I were running a theatre, my trustees would see every show a minimum of two times. Not on opening night. And we need to double, treble, quadruple our pay-what-you-can nights. We need to do what they did at London’s National Theatre: lower ticket prices across the board and fill the seats. I would have our trustees look to bake bigger pies as opposed to trying to cut smaller and smaller slices.”
And how would he support this new economic model? He doesn’t know. He’s a superb actor: he can tell you what great theatre looks like but he doesn’t have the secret to fiscal salvation.
Yet he stubbornly clings to his ideals. He cites “five days of bliss” he spent in 1988 on the set of Robert Altman’s Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in Port Townsend as an indication of how things might be in a happier world. Altman was both a sometime stage director and the most theatrical of movie men, recalls Ballard. “He had microphones placed everywhere to encourage the actors to improvise. I did my first take and he asked the lighting and sound people – everybody on the set – ‘Was that OK?’
“Then he asked me, ‘How was that for you?'” Ballard hadn’t expected to have a say in shaping a great director’s work. “I said, ‘Uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . ‘ Altman said, ‘Then we’ll do it again.’ That’s when I learned that the person who had the final say on his set was always the actor.”
Should Seattle theatres take better care of their talent, give actors the last word?
Ballard has the answer to this one. “They could do a hell of a lot worse.”