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Theater and The Strip; Like Ships Passing in the Night

 

 

Today’s blog is from Timothy Cummings.

Cummings sorta came with the slab. He was in our first full stage production and I’m pretty sure he’ll be in our last, right before we lock up for good and toss the keys back over our shoulder on our way to the greener pastures of obscurity working as a greeter at Walmart. He’s a strip guy as well: Caesar’s Palace, the Excalibur, the Flamingo, Stratosphere, Venetian. Most recently he was with Cockroach’s “Still Dance the Stars” and he emcee’d for our last super badass Outburst.

I asked him about the theater in Las Vegas, as well as the Strip: Do the two coincide? Intersect? Overlap?

Whatever, man, you pick. Here’s what he said. Tell me what you think in the comments; I’ll probably pick a fight with you and if I don’t, Joe certainly will.

It’s sorta what we do.

-DCK

 

Here’s Tim:

When I first moved to Las Vegas 22 years ago there was no intersection between strip performers and local theatre artists. Or, rather, the only intersection was local performers would go and see Strip shows  – when they could afford it or if they received a comp – ​and Strip performers would – if their performance schedule allowed – look in at theater performances. And that was the only intersection between the two.

Contrary to popular belief, Las Vegas is a city with a lot of history! Or, rather, a lot of performance history.

Sarah O’Connell of Eat More Art Vegas recently documented the rise of local theater performance in Las Vegas from the 1960s to the present in her presentation at the Clark County Library. Her oral history documented how theatre in Las Vegas rose primarily from the efforts of a few like-minded individuals at the University of Nevada Las Vegas Theatre Department in the 1960’s and spread outward.

It took time for this intersection between Strip performance and local theatre performance to increase and become more, well, intersectional.

In my experience, it started with Super Summer Theatres’ efforts at Spring Mountain Ranch.

The annual offerings in June, July and August, afforded Strip performers of different degrees of pedigree the possibility to appear in something different than what they were doing nightly.

And why would a Strip performer want to appear in a show for little or no pay way ​out at Spring Mountain Ranch?

Notoriety​? S​ure.

Celebrity? Well​,​ maybe a little.

I believe the answer is simpler.

It has two intersections.

A recent conversation with Mindy Woodhead of the Las Vegas Theatre Alliance may shed some light.

We spoke of many things and one of the topics we touched on in a long and wide ranging conversation,​ was the difference between “entertainment” and “art.” She and I agreed that “entertainment” is performing the same show every night, night after night, often more than once a night.

Although this can be financially and psychically rewarding, it may​ be unfulfilling ​to a performative artist ​after a time.

Once a performer or entertainer ​has mastered the many variables of a set performance, ​it may prompt the performer to question their validity and worth as a performing artist. This is when entertainers begin to look to other performance opportunities to express their artistry.

Witness the recent limited flights of Strip performers to local performance venues. Jonas Woolverton of Cirque du Soleil in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at Cockroach Theatre. Christopher Brown of Blue Man Group Las Vegas performing in “Foxfinder”, “A Summons from the Tinker…” and “When the Rain Stops Falling” at A Public Fit. Dina Emerson of Cirque du Soleil performing in “Iphigenia 2K16” and “Antigone” with the LAB, “The Seven Deadly Sins” in a co-pro with Sin City Opera and Cockroach Theatre and, most recently, in “Animal Farm” at Majestic Repertory Theatre.

Why would these artists seek out these opportunities?

I believe the answer is artistic expression.

As stated previously, once a performer has bumped up against the limits of their artistic expression in their Strip gig, they will seek ways to express themselves more fully, even if the expression is limited to a relative handful of audience members and performances.

Art finds a way.

Art always finds a way.

And although this artistic expression may be limited in quantity in terms of audience and performance dates, the artist feels a more immediate bond with their audience in these smaller, venues with these close ended runs.

That’s one intersection.

The next intersection is Money.

For perspective:

Stand at any of the four corners of The Strip and Flamingo Boulevard. Regard the traffic and activity. Contemplate crossing it on foot. (I used to do this nightly, before the lanes were widened and the pedestrian bridges were built.)

Today, it would seem a near suicidal errand.

And yet, that is the hurdle that many vibrant and thriving local arts communities in Las Vegas face.

How do we cross the street? How do we get there from here?

The answer, of course, is Money.

Lots of money! Coming from three sources; tri-level government funding – municipal, state and federal; Corporate funding – Hello, Target! Hello, Southwest Airlines! Hello Local Retailer! Restaurateur!; and personal – ticket sales and individual donations.

Recent tax laws have dampened the flow of funds to local and national not-for-profit arts organizations and to many other not-for-profits.

And yet;

If we want the world to be a better place;

If we want Las Vegas to be the Arts Destination beyond the Strip, that we have proven we have the promise and the drive to become;

If we want to offer the opportunity for every “entertainer’ and every performer” to excel and exceed beyond what they have already become, to explore artistry and grow with their community;

We’ll need three things.

 

Patience.

 

Commitment.

 

​Money.​

 

JR Reed is One of Those Guys Making a Quiet Career in the Arts

JR is a Las Vegas native, Bonanza High School graduate who now and for the last 20 years has been working exclusively as an actor, writer and musician in Hollywood. He’s been a zillion TV commercials, done gobs of prestigious LA theater, and worked with a who’s who list of celebrity actors and directors. On top of all that, he’s been happily married for 8 years and has a 5 year-old daughter.

I just saw him in a production by his current theater company called The Next Arena which used a bunch of Vonnegut Short stories called Vonnegut U.S.A. It was great. JR has this great vibe to his performances that I love: it’s a sort of presentational aspect, a certain theatricality. It’s as if the characters know they are being watched, even though they remain completely genuine to the moment. And he does it without a trace of irony or self congratulation. Really cool and fun to watch.

 

DK: I’m flummoxed by the entertainment machine lately. I feel completely lost in the morass of youtube, cable, live streaming, whatever. You and I go way back and we each have a super traditional training background. Are we relevant anymore? Where do folks like us fit in?

JR: I think he/she fits in as one always has in terms of having really useful tools, skills and training to draw from. Fortunately, those things are always positives for the performer and respected and acknowledged by creative types in all facets of the biz. However, this business is extremely hard for someone to break into that’s not-well connected through family or well-positioned friends. That has always been the case, I’m sure… but the amount of people trying to compete and the catch-22 of not being able to get ahead without a powerful agent and not being able to get an agent without big credits… which are nearly impossible to acquire without top-drawer representation… makes it an often frustrating and unforgiving pursuit. It took me about 10 years to get a commercial agent and then another ten to get theatrical representation. I now have a manager and an agent. Neither of which are very well-positioned and so I mostly go out for co-starring roles, which are usually just a scene or two and a handful of lines. I also think it takes a certain personality to make big strides in Hollywood. I’ve never been one to do the social scene much, and yet I see friends that do and it works for them. Plus you gotta be ok with about 98% rejection. Seriously. And of course, for many it only takes that one successful gig to propel them onto a path of career stability. But for every one of those I know about a hundred more, like myself, who are and have been continuously hustling and clawing to make a decent living here, one gig at a time.

DK: What are the rules for you in terms of what gigs you will or won’t do? What types of jobs make you happy?

JR: Easily- I’ll do about anything acting-wise for money. Within reason, of course… haven’t done or plan to do any “adult” entertainment and I have a few deal-breaker positions with certain companies that I wouldn’t do a commercial for. But otherwise, I have carved a decent living out of being a commercial actor that has kept me from having to have a day job for the past 18 years. Knock on wood. If you had asked me coming out of UCLA if I was going to be doing mostly commercials to support myself, I would have either laughed at or slapped ya. And fortunately I belong to a theater company that I really enjoy working with where I get to do developed performance work that does bring me that genuine fulfillment you speaketh of. Of course, we aren’t doing theater 365 days a year, or even a third of that time, so those periods of fulfillment are spread out and thus I have to find other means of feeding my soul enough to stay afloat in these murky waters. I hike locally, backpack in the High Sierras, meditate, and for the last 5 years, chase my daughter around many a playground. I think to survive in Hollywood you need to have a balanced existence that includes many hobbies and activities, family-life, friends that exist away from work pursuits. Being a human first and an actor thereafter seems to work well for most in my eyes.

DK: About 25 years ago in Manhattan, Bob Duva (is that guy still around?) and I had a meeting in his fancy uptown office and he really belittled me for wanting to work in the theater. He insisted I had to make a choice, either theater or show-business. What’s the diff?

JR: Well, I think NY might be a little different in that regard as there are so many more theater opportunities. And paid ones. Here in LA, that’s just not the case. Equity-waiver theater here puts a whopping $15 a show in your coin purse. There are only a handful of Equity theaters and they are mostly filled with people that come with the production from NY or a household known actor. And here if you are doing a show it is really never frowned upon if you get a pro gig. Most productions have understudies and/or will cancel the show that night if one of the leads gets a gig… really, they do. So, yeah… I’ve never really had that be an issue. And while we’re on that subject, I must say that in recent years theater has become less and less a showcase for MP/TV casting opportunities. It’s really hard to get casting directors out to see shows as they are busy working on a job and have more than enough people to consider for them. The talent pool here is vast and endless. One must really stand out to get noticed in these parts. I recommend trying to act in Hollywood like I recommend riding a motorcycle in SoCal… it’s a thrill, but you might not survive and many don’t. And now, I’m too old to do anything else, and don’t have another skill set, so here I am pounding the pavement, doing the shuffle, trying to keep swimming in these choppy waters.

DK: What do you think about theater in Las Vegas?

JR: I think it’s truly wonderful and about time it starts to be taken seriously! It only makes sense that Vegas could and should have theater with a well-supported and respected presence. I think historically the opportunity for theater has been in the shadow of what happens on the Strip and for a long time that was dominated by variety shows and sexy revues. It’s like trying to do Swan Lake next to a nightclub. But I think Vegas has become big enough and thus cultured to the extents of it being able to appreciate theater. And I’m so psyched for A Public Fit and what you all are doing to contribute to the presence of truly quality theater in Vegas. More power to ya and I hope to join in on the fun for a production in the not-too-distant future. I wish you all the very best and I know that what I have witnessed happening is grounded in the desires and fruitful results of bringing thoughtful, passionate, resonating theater to the Vegas scene.

DK: What are you working on right now, and what are you hoping happens next for you?

JR: Just shot a commercial for Bridgestone Tires last week. Have an Audi spot currently airing— it’s the one about the race horse Secretariat and how his heart was twice the size of his competitors… not unlike the Audi engine, they propose. I play the vet that discovers Secretariat’s enormous heart… and I’m in the spot for about 2 seconds. But fortunately I was on a principle contract which means I get paid the same whether I was in the whole spot or just the 2 seconds that I am. Funny how these things work. Love the unions, folks. Otherwise, I’m auditioning often. It has been a purty slow year for MP/TV stuff thus far, but hopefully that will start picking up as series shows go into production in the early Fall. I’m also developing a pitch for a TV series with a couple well-positioned actor friends. I can’t elaborate much on that right now as we’re keeping the idea under wraps… but I will say that it is set in the high-desert (not necessarily Vegas, but perhaps). One must diversify in this town if you wanna make opportunities. My music, and writing endeavors have made me money and connections to people in the biz I would not have otherwise gotten just being an actor. So what I hope happens next is that I get this idea optioned and made into a pilot… with myself as creator, actor and on the writing staff. Shoot for the stars and you’ll land somewhere in that direction… or whatever Casey Kasem said.

DK: How is the acting business different when you have a family to take care of?

JR: Having my eyes focused in the directions of making money, I suppose. Before I had a family it was much more about doing fun work, doing more theater, being the part of a very active theater ensemble where I made no money (The Actor’s Gang that is). Now I know I need to pay bills. Fortunately my wife also works. She is a realtor and is doing quite well. So we’re a team in supporting the family and that’s about what it takes here in La La Land to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence.

DK: What do you wish was going on in the theater world that is currently lacking, or conversely where do you think it’s strong?

JR: I wish there were more straight-up and dark comedies. Seems that it’s mostly musicals and revivals these days. And I get it— they are answering to the mighty $ and what people are going out to spend $100+ a seat on. And don’t get me wrong, I do like me some musicals— Book of Mormon was amazing. I’m going to see Hamilton when it comes here to the Pantages. But I wish there were more comedies like Neil Simon did … but original ones! It seems to be a dying breed. But then again, I’m not in NY, so maybe they have a life Off-Broadway. But I’d like to see some comedies break out into bigger realms… onto Broadway stages, touring and then having lives in smaller theaters. And I think it is getting stronger and more fun in the realms of musical theater. Out of the box shows like Book of Mormon and Hamilton are hopefully paving the way for more progressive, newly inventive forms for musicals.

Have you met Rebecca Reyes?

Nobody has ever accused APF of being the strong, silent type. Not gonna lie, we’re really the talk-to-much, therapist-on-speed-dial type. So, yeah, here’s a talk I had with Rebecca Reyes.

Rebecca was born in Vegas, she’s as much a fixture of this town as the APF senior staff. Maybe that’s why we dig her; that and her sly grin, (which is clearly hiding a serial-killer mentality that is equal parts sexy and terrifying. Just sayin.) She’s also a paralegal at Lagomarsino Law Office, which means she manages to have a respectable career outside of the theater, sort of a must these days. She once told me that even with her full time job, theater is still a focus of her life. So she continues to audition or act in short films or even make her own. “That’s my next favorite creative hobby,” she says. “Other than acting.”

So I asked her what she was working on right now.

Right now, I’m performing in Clown Bar at Majestic. I get to play a killer clown in a tutu and bleed glitter.

Why does NONE of that surprise me?

It’s actually a lot of fun! I’m also at the same time rehearsing for Hair also at Majestic. In between that and work, I’m preparing for an audition with Public Fit.

That sounds like a lot…

Who needs sleep, right?!

 

Photo by Richard Brusky
Rebecca in A Public Fit’s The Realistic Joneses from last spring

So what do you think about theater in Vegas right now?

When I started doing theatre in college, I felt like there weren’t a lot of acting options outside of college, and if there were, I didn’t hear about them. Now, there are so many wonderful companies and I feel like it’s easy for actors to find information about these companies. UNLV is even working with local theatre companies, which I think is great. Right now, we have such a great mix of shows being produced. I feel like every theatre company offers something different. You don’t have carbon copy companies, everyone has their own thing and I think that is helpful to bring more people to the theatre, there is literally something for everybody.

As you see it, is that the big difference in the Vegas art community between now and years past?

It has definitely become more art friendly. I remember going to First Friday before Zappos was in town. It was a little scary, fun, but scary. Growing up in Las Vegas, I don’t remember downtown being such a hub for theatre, yes, there was theatre, but now it just seems more so than ever. Downtown in general has gotten a facelift and I’m really happy about that. A lot of people tend to talk negatively about Vegas, but it’s my home, always has been, and I guess I’m able to find all the things about it that I love and focus on that. I have met so many wonderful people here and I meet more and more of them every day. I’ve not only made friends through theatre, but family #rarity #ponylife.

I don’t even know what that last part means.

You’re like a thousand years old.

Excellent point. So what do you wish there were more of here in town?

Support. I wish we supported each other more. I also wish we could find a way to bring more “non-theatre” people to the theatre. I think a lot of people right now are worried about day-to-day things, such as existing, working, stuff like that. How do we make theatre important to someone who has other things to worry and focus on, how do we use theatre to help them? How can we use theatre as a means for community betterment, rather than a selfish way to have fun and experience catharsis? I guess that is what I struggle with the most.

What is?

Is what I’m doing as a performer important? Am I helping people or should I be doing something else to help humanity. Do I act for me or for others? And who is to say that acting for yourself is bad? I don’t know. I grew up in a practical house, acting was not viewed as a useful talent. I hope that we give something back to the people who watch our shows and I hope that in some way it makes their life better, otherwise why are we doing it?

Well, why ARE we doing it? What’s your favorite part about it?

The variety, the people, and the energy. This is a town that has a lot of different things to offer, the theatre community has a lot of variety. The friends I’ve made through theatre and their stories, the energy of the city.

I get it. In closing, let’s make a quick list. In no particular order, tell me the 10 reasons why I’m clearly the greatest director you’ve even had the outrageous privilege of working with. Okay, go.

  1. His hair
  2. Goth Night (This is a reference to the night I made our entire cast and crew, as well as the APF staff go dancing at a local Goth night after a particularly grueling 10 hour technical rehears. Good idea or greatest idea ever? You decide…)
  3. His hair
  4. Fancy coffee orders that come with a garden on a plate
  5. His hair
  6. Puppies
  7. His hair
  8. He can build things
  9. His hair
  10. His hair again

Thanks, beautiful Pony. We are lucky to have you as an APF actor, and Vegas is better with you in it.

 

 

If you want to see Rebecca Reyes wear a tutu and bleed glitter (and who DOESN’T??) then make sure you catch Clown Bar at Majestic Rep, opening tonight. Here’s the scoop:

http://www.majesticrepertory.com/shows-1