Why I Broke Up With The American Theater
“Is there anyone here with you today Mr. Lucien?” The doctor asked before re-explaining the impending procedure I was there to receive. I shook my head, no. I shook my head because I was shivering so hard in the medical facility that shaking my head was easier than speaking. The night before, I had tried to make a list of questions to ask the doctor performing the procedure because I knew no one could come along with me, and that I would be alone. I told myself I had to turn my feelings about the procedure and the events leading up to it into an out of body experience. I had to approach this as though I was here for a loved one and I was livid on their behalf. This would enable me to treat myself the way I would treat a friend who needed my help. I could be their back up. The fierce advocate I often failed to be for myself.
The young doctor started to explain the procedure again because I just asked him the question I had been wondering since the shuttle picked me up from my home and drove to a facility in New Jersey. I asked him if he was sure this procedure was necessary. My voice shook as I spoke. He went through the explanation again but this time he leaned in closer and his expression softened. In that moment it was clear to me that he saw straight through my advocate façade. Everyone who was there did. They knew the truth and why I was there. It wasn’t a friend who was hurt. It was me. I was the one who needed help. I had been injured while rehearsing a show and soldiered on without missing a single performance and as a result, I was the one living through the effects. Not any one else. Just me. Resources on the production were limited so I had to do my part, right?
As I waited for medical professionals to wheel me into the operating room, shivering under two blankets, I felt scared. I felt alone, and, for the first time, I wondered why I was there.
The obvious answer was I got injured while working on my last show. I suffered three herniated discs in my neck, and a badly injured back. It started as a back injury which I told stage management about twice. But I understood how stretched stage management was so, when nothing was done, I kept going. Until the major injuries happened.
This was not the first time that I had been injured on a show, but it was the first time I found myself unable to answer the questions of why and whether it was worth it. I kept looking at the operating room doors like I was expecting someone to show up. They’ll be here any minute and I’ll ream them out but I’ll secretly be so thrilled they showed up, because them being there would justify the sacrifices I had made to be with them. What I had given and given up for them. I realized it wasn’t a loved one that I was waiting for. All of them had been accounted for via text or phone call. So who or what was I waiting for and why did I know deep down that in my moment of need, I would never hear from them?
I want you to imagine this. When the discs in my neck herniated, the fluid contained within them began to leak. As it did, it reached the nerves that go down both of my arms, creating a loss of sensation and tingling. Think of hitting your funny bone. Now, imagine that same sensation happening whenever you perform a simple move of your arms or neck. Now intensify it. Let it travel from your shoulder down to your fingers. Let it go until you start to lose feeling in your arms, fingers or your entire hand. Imagine this feeling can be triggered by sitting on a subway seat, standing on a subway platform, looking up, lifting your hand, resting on your forearms, lying on your back, and the list goes on. Imagine sometimes feeling an itchy feeling in your fingers that no amount of scratching will satiate. Let that feeling of frustration linger.
Now, picture feeling all of that while doing over 15 quick changes in a 90 minute show, having only seconds to run at full speed, in awful sneakers, to get in position one floor up and across a pitch black catwalk for your next cue, saying both of your lines, and running the distance again in the opposite direction, then a few minutes later losing complete sensation in your arm when you lift it, only to know you’ll have to rehearse the same scenes, each day, for hours, despite your injury, until your body just breaks down.
You’re encouraged to rest but when can you? Doctors tell you to stop performing but if you do, you won’t qualify for health insurance.
Picture doing this for an employer that you don’t feel appreciates you or takes your injury seriously. A group of people who may have meant well, but who bit off more than they could chew while not providing adequate resources to complete the requested tasks. I was losing feeling in my arms and was asked if a night off would allow me to fully heal so that I could fully rehearse. When I said no, a member of the artistic team called my agent to ask them. Why was my white male agent called about what my body could do moments after I had just told them? Did his word hold more weight with this creative team comprised overwhelmingly of white women than my word did? If so why?
Picture being drastically underpaid while doing all of this. Many of you may be saying “hell to the fuckin nah.” However, I feel like many more of you, especially if you’re also a performer, have your own horror story to match.
So why did I do it?
I liked to think I performed every show due to the absence of understudies. It was more than that, however. It was something deeper. When it came to performance, which is my passion, I believed in five words more than anything else.
The show must go on.
Those words motivated me so much that despite being utterly unhappy and drenched in pain after every show of that production, I had believed, and had it ingrained in me, that the importance of the show was paramount. Any sacrifice I made for that or any show was in service of something noble, something greater than myself. These were the things that I had been taught when I started acting 14 years ago.
As actors, it seems, we are simply not as important as the vision of the director. I was asked to sprint around, and finding it caused further damage to my injury, warned the director it was unsafe. And because theater is an intimate business, and I, at the time, considered the director a friend, I figured this warning would be heeded. Nope. Instead, another actor was asked to sprint full speed down a flight a stairs and through a backstage area, causing a near collision. I began to feel that it was a lack of care, not of knowledge, about my injury, that was the problem. On top that, while this was going on, a half-naked photo of my body, the same body that was injured during the show, was used to sell the show. On top of that, we were rehearsing in a room that was not close to an adequate facsimile of the performance space. We only had three days of tech in the theater - not nearly enough time to adjust to make things safe.
I used to be an athlete so it made perfect sense to me. You play through the pain. It’s what you did. Back then I used to think injuries made you cooler. Somehow tougher. Ah, the toxicity we ingest. I’d watch injured sports players play through pain, and I would get inspired. What heroes, I thought. How Tough!! How cool was it to watch Paul Pierce jog back onto the court to play that finals game after being carried off after his “injury” (sorry Boston fans, I think he was faking)? Or Steph Curry attempt to play through a sprained MCL in order to win a game seven and stave off the biggest finals collapse in NBA history? And who hadn’t seen Michael Jordan play with the flu? What I didn’t take into account was that each of those athletes were not only fully backed up by a coaching, leadership and medical staff that were invested in their well-being, but they were well compensated for their efforts. What they put in, they got back. That reciprocity, which is so important to any supportive and healthy relationship, existed for those athletes, in a way that it too often doesn’t for theater artists.
I had always been weary of TV/Film because the notion was that they didn’t care about you. What I didn’t learn until I was in that hospital room waiting for a partner that would never show up, was despite all of the sweet words and the speeches about being in this together, the American Theater gave even less of a fuck about me. The only difference was at least TV/Film was upfront about it. It never claimed it would give me honesty or community or compassion or any of the things artists desire. It never claimed it would love us back. Theater sucked me in with honey words and a false sense of security, only to use the relationship I’d formed with it to suck me dry. In three shows where I was begged to do more, and told how talented I am, and how strong I look or handsome, or how appreciated I am and how none of this could be done without me, I made less than $7000. Before taxes.
My experience in the American theater has been beautiful and rewarding beyond measure. Very little leaves me feeling as fulfilled as performing on stage. However my experience in the American Theater has also left me feeling exploited, ugly, less than and cast aside. And I know I am not alone in feeling this. However as a black man, I feel that this is particularly pronounced. I ended up in a conversation with another actor injured on this production (a white male) about how as a society we do not believe that black people feel pain. He agreed and backed up what I was saying 100%. He even provided evidence of this to other actors who hadn’t heard of the studies. Whether it was dealing with a graduate school experience rife with racism so horrible that at times I thought my dark skin was ugly, or finding myself being put in positions in underfunded shows at theaters where actors are expected to do so much with so little, I have so often found myself needing to justify participating. But lately, this has become harder to do.
Why do it? Cause the show must go on? Where the fuck was the show when I was injured? When I had my physical therapy cut off because a doctor called me “athletic,” where was the show then?
Ever been in a relationship so bad that after you leave it and list all the bad qualities you think you’ll feel better? How does it feel when you finally realize that although the particulars are different, you essentially dated the same person over and over and over again? Maybe there is a much deeper problem. A problem that would improve if you could get to the actual root. The truth is, this isn’t the first show where I’ve been injured as a result of someone’s negligence. As a result of my stature I’m frequently asked to do more or lift more and am given less to do it with. At my mid Pennsylvania grad school, I was once told while receiving notes on a Romeo and Juliet scene “Andy, your Romeo is black so it’s harder to see you.” We were in a brightly lit dance studio. The examples of abuse are limitless. The problem wasn’t this director or this company. They aren’t my destructive partner.
On the surface my desire to keep pushing could be brushed off as male bravado. In service of my own ego. And maybe to some extent it was. It felt good to be able to make that run even though it was taking an injury and making it worse. I kept rehearsing, and performing, making sure we didn’t miss any time. I did that until I couldn’t. Until the pain literally went through my entire body…And then I performed some more. Was this for my own ego?
Maybe. Or maybe it was my latest act of self-sacrificial love to the theater. The very same narcissist who would leave me high and dry in that hospital room.
During the first neck procedure, when I was going under, I could feel the anesthesia, burning through my veins, and I felt strangely nervous because I didn’t know what would happen on the other side of this, or if I would even have another side of this. Now, I'm strangely nervous in a similar way, given how replaceable actors are, that maybe I may be signing the death warrant to my career by writing this piece. But this time, at least the sacrifice I may make would be my own choice.