A Life on the Road

November 23, 2015 / by Sarah Elizabeth Wansley, Fall Fellow


For my first Drama League assisting assignment I packed up everything I needed for 5.5 weeks in an overstuffed carry-on and hopped on a plane for an adventure…in Cleveland. Ok, I’m going to admit it took a little while for Roger to convince me to go to Cleveland – I had just returned from graduate school in California and three years of long distance with my boyfriend-recently-turned-fiancée and I was really looking forward to spending the fall in New York in our new apartment. After doing some research on the Cleveland Playhouse and the director I would be assisting, Laura Kepley, however, I signed on for what turned out to be a strange but wonderful Midwestern adventure.

Working on The Crucible at the Cleveland Playhouse was a truly fantastic artistic experience – and I owe you another blog post about that soon.  But I actually think one of the biggest learning experiences of the Drama League fellowship for me so far was having a little taste of what it’s like to be a freelance artist in regional theater. As I write this, I am sitting in a coffee shop in Sarasota, Florida visiting my fiancée (actor Tommy Crawford) as he has HIS first experience of the life of an out of town Equity actor. Between the two of us, we have learned a lot this fall about the life on the road, so here’s my top five tips:


1) Working as a freelance artist is a fascinating way to get to know parts of America you might not have otherwise visited (e.g. Cleveland. Sarasota). Unfortunately, for the first four weeks of the rehearsal process you will not get to explore your host city at all. Regional theaters work on a very quick turn around and some LORT contracts allow for longer rehearsal days than New York contracts. So if you are working on a large cast show, you might be rehearsing for nine hours a day six days a week for the first three weeks and then plunge directly into tech rehearsals. With a demanding rehearsal week, Mondays become reserved for laundry and groceries and catching up on phone calls / emails from home. Suddenly you are in week four and you realize the only part of the city you have seen is the path from your apartment to the theater to the grocery store to the theater bar around the corner. There is always a theater bar, btw.

2) The first few days of any out of town gig can be disorienting. You are not only starting a new job with often mostly new people in a new city but you also have a new housing situation. The stimulation can be overwhelming and anxiety producing. At times you feel like you are outside of your own life and you cling to anything reminiscent of home. One actor described having driven 30 minutes to go to the one Trader Joe’s in the area, just to have the comfort of familiar snacks. For other artists it’s finding the closest Chipotle, or making friends with the neighborhood bartender. But if you breathe, and make it through the first three days, the routine of the rehearsal process will start to bring some familiarity back to your life. Which brings me to my next point:

3) Theater people are the same everywhere! You may think you are off to meet a whole new species of people (Midwesterners, Floridians, etc.) but chances are that most theater people have come from / went to school in / worked in New York, Chicago or LA and even if they didn’t, we all speak the same language. Almost everyone I have met who works in theater professionally started out as an actor in middle school or high school productions and turns out we all still know the same acting games and probably worked on a production of You Can’t Take It With You at some point in our lives. If you’re working on the East Coast chances are that all the non-local actors and designers are New York based. So conversations on the first day of rehearsal about “where are you from?” very quickly turn into conversations about your favorite bar in Bushwick or bakery in Astoria.   It really does start to feel like you are part of a secret tribe.

4) The more experienced actors / artists have the life on the road down to a science. I packed very lightly for my trip in Cleveland, confusing a five-week out of town gig with a two-week vacation. I spent the first two weeks realizing all the things I forgot to bring: a hair dryer, enough pairs of socks, my checkbook, etc. The veteran artists know what’s up. They come prepared. One actor told me how he learned to pack zip lock bags of all of his most frequently used spices (not something you want to have to completely buy from scratch every time). Another designer told me she always packs a small cutting board, a sharp knife and a wine opener because as a designer in town just for tech she is often put up at a hotel. Those essentials allow her to at least make a sandwich or have a glass of wine out of her hotel room and save significant money. Another actor carries his favorite spider man coffee mug everywhere he goes. You would be surprised how much one or two familiar objects can make a temporary apartment feel a little more like home.  

5) The New York artists will be jealous of the local artists lives and vice versa. Did you know you can buy a beautiful single family home in Cleveland for only $125,000??!  Did you know that in Sarasota you really can swim in December??! (ok, you might have known that). My point is, we all make lifestyle choices in our careers and working out of town is a fascinating way to have a glimpse into possible alternate realities. I find that the local artists often reminisce about their days in New York and miss the opportunity to constantly see hot new theater, to develop new plays and musicals, be part of the larger theater community and live in the glamorous city. I find that New York based artists (desperate for a break from the city) are in awe of how “normal” the lives of regionally-based artists can be. They can afford to own houses? They have how many kids? They have stable teaching gigs and 401(k)’s?  We make these choices for myriad personal and professional reasons and often re-make them over the length of our career. Working out of town opens up your horizons to different ways of being a working artist. And even if working in Cleveland for six weeks doesn’t make you want to move to the Midwest and buy a car, it at least gives you the headspace to remember why it is you choose to stay in the city (despite the rent that is too damn high, the MTA and the rats). Which brings me to my final point about working out of town:

New York will wait for you. One of the greatest things about working out of town is coming back home. You appreciate your partner, your friends, your apartment, your favorite corner Thai place, your life so much more after taking a break from it. And if you’re lucky, you come home with a whole new group of collaborators and friends, some of whom probably live in your neighborhood. Because there is a secret tribe of traveling theater people. And you are a part of it.