Thirteen-year-old Tucker McCrady didn't understand his first stage role. He was cast in Waiting for Lefty at his Sewannee, Tennessee school. Called on to play a Jewish doctor during the Depression who was being fired because of his religion, the young McCrady was confused, especially about why the doctor was fired. But after long rehersals with the director, McCrady could act the part without really understanding it. A few months later his school was set to perform the Mikado. But McCrady sat that one out: "It sounded Japanese, and I couldn't sing and didn't want to do it."
"I saw it in the audience and decided I never wanted to miss another." McCrady has hardly missed a beat since then. Ironically, despite his reluctance to sing in seventh grade, the Adams House senior has become best known for his singing roles in the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.
And what began in seventh grade as a refusal to miss out on the fun has turned into a decision to pursue an acting career. McCrady will attend Julliard for the next four years, earning a second A.B. in the dramatic arts.
McCrady is one of about 10 Harvard graduating seniors who are determined to become actors. Most are setting themselves up for years of grueling work, bouts with depression after audition failures, and minimal job security and financial recompense.
Actor's Equity boasts a 90 percent unemployment rate. But most of them say that they have to face this, that they are only truly happy when they are acting.
"It's a pretty grim profession," says Jonathan E. Marks, who teaches courses on drama at Harvard and is the literary director of the American Repertory Theatre. "Talent itself is sufficient only in the case of the most extraordinary talent." While Marks will not individually assess this year's senior acting crop, he says he would not be surprised to see several of them in the profession 10 years from now, "which is remarkable."
Notes the ART's casting coordinator Sandra L. Matteson: "In any other profession the harder you work the more you gain; that doesn't hold in acting."
In the next 10 years, these actors most probably will face what Marks calls the twin themes of acting: "insecurity and rejection." The bounce between those two experiences is "almost constant. You are always being judged and almost always being rejected," he warns.
Inger D. Tudor rejected a sure thing for acting. She got into Harvard Law School this spring. She applied because she wants to be a lawyer--it's one of several career goals that she has, Tudor notes laughingly. Even before she was accepted to the Law School, however, Tudor believed that she wanted to take time off to teach or act. When the Harvard acceptance letter came, that was still her decision. "It's still very, very scary, but I have to do it; and I have to do it now."
Tudor is going to New York to act. She will get an apartment in Brooklyn with a friend, hunt out a temporary job, and then start auditioning. "I've allotted two years. I'm going to use it if it kills me," she says.
Linus Z. Gelber is a psychology concentrator, so he found a phrase to describe what it takes to be an actor: "tolerance of ambiguity." Here's the ambiguity he faces right now: he is waiting to hear from the Circle in the Square Repertory Theater in New York and the British American Drama Academy in London. In about two weeks he will know, and if both answers are no, he will go to Dallas with senior Lisa Lindley, who is entering Southern Methodist University's acting school.
"We're going to pack all of our earthly belongings into a U-Haul and drive to Texas. We've never been there. We don't know anyone in Dallas. We are just going to go there," Gelber says. "Some people might find this terrifying. I find this terrifying. But we also think of this as an adventure. You could call it an adventure streak. you could call it a death wish."
Four days after she graduates, Kristen Gasser is flying to Chicago to begin rehearsing for a part in Helen by Euripides. "I want to take a chance and see what the acting lifestyle is like." The role in Chicago doesn't pay. Gasser is going out there without a job but at least a place to stay for a while. She will live with Eric Ronis '86, who is directing Helen.
About week ago she went out for drinks with her sophomore year History and Literature tutor and the three women who were in the class with her. One of the women had won a Rotary fellowship, the second had one a Marshall scholarship, and the third was going to Yale Law School. Then she told them she was going to Chicago to act. "It sounds much more amorphous," Gasser understates. "I think if you were really realistic about it and looked at the big picture, it would be too frightening." In Chicago she is going to try to teach acting to school children, look for temp work and the ever-ready waitressing jobs.
Naama Potok is somewhat less sure of herself. She auditioned for Yale's Drama School, London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Acting, and the ART Institute and was rejected. The year is open to her. This summer she will work at the Williamstown Theater Festival. Afterwards she heads for Israel and Europe. "This summer should tell me something. I have a feeling that when the juices get flowing that I will be more than willing to be acting." she says.
"I had this romanticized view. You climb to the top in college--well gee, that'll happen in the real world. The closer I come to some of the grim aspects of this type of life, I ask myself, is this the sacrifice I want to make," Potok says. "The being hungry for a while doesn't worry me. If the passion's there, you'll get there. The difficulty is doubting the passion." Potok thinks she may work with an acting teacher in Israel or return to America and head to Chicago.
Jennifer A. Litt is packing for Chicago too. After a summer at the Bennington, Vermont writing program, she will move to Illinois to act, direct and write. With one prize-winning, published play already under her belt and a partially completed novel, Litt says she feels secure about her writing. "I'm much more scared about going into theater, but I will," she says.
Litt always knew she wanted to be involved in the arts, yet when senior year rolled around she nearly applied to publishing companies, magazines, and graduate schools. But she knew she had to try to write and direct. "There is a great pressure at Harvard to know what you're doing for the rest of your life. But no one really knows what they're doing even if they think they do. I don't mind not knowing what I'm doing. I'm not uncomfortable."
What all of these seniors have in common is that they are willing to face this uncertain profession. they have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Few other Harvard seniors are willing to leap into the world with so few safety nets. Many may not know what they are doing after graduation, but for most that is a temporary condition soon rectified by a steadily paying job or a spot in a graduate school. These actors have chosen to pursue a career even when there are few jobs.
The ART's Matteson warns: "There are probably 100,000 actors for every job. It's a field that you have to break into with a vengance."
Every year, Harvard seniors go into acting. last year, Ronis, who spent four years acting at Harvard, went to Chicago. "The most difficult thing is making the decision to do it," he says. Within two weeks he was cast as the lead in Arthur Miller's Creation of the World at the Performer's Arena. But in January he hit a lull. Although his parents had given him enough money to pay for a year's rent, it was gone within four months. He wasn't being cast and had to take a job in a bookstore to support himself. "It was a real depressing period," he says. "But I kept telling myself I've only been here for three months." Since then things have picked up, but it wouldn't be surprising if there are more lulls.
Tudor has found the inner reserves to face acting, insecurity and rejection for the next two years. She comes from a family that is "very concerned with making sure you're secure. They always like to make sure you're doing something that will have a paycheck, and I think I started to fall into that pattern." But she was driven to try acting for at least a while, because it might be her last chance.
She says she knew she wanted to be an actress when she was four or five years old. "Everyone had imaginary friends; I had imaginary companies."
At Harvard the Adams House resident has acted in, produced or been involved with a play almost every semester. From Amen Corner freshman year, to The Wiz to The Tempest to For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, the English concentrator has found that acting is her greatest joy. "there are a lot of things that are fun to do, but there are very few things that I enjoy that make me so happy. I could act 'til I die."
While many actors go to New York undertrained and short on contacts, Tucker McCrady has the closest thing to a ticket to success. He is a member of Julliard's 20th dramatic arts class. To gain admission, he competed against more than 600 people for one of the 20 openings. At the prestigious school he will receive voice, movement, dance, and acting lessons among others.
Julliard actors are rarely unemployed. From their school they make inumerable contacts, an invaluable aspect of any successful actor's life. Agents and casting directors come to the school every year in search of new talent, and McCrady definitely seems like the talent they will find. A tall, lanky man he has versatile looks that have allowed him to play the romantic lead in a Pudding show and the lead in The Elephant Man.
McCrady is sure of himself as an actor, a confidence that comes from years of training. In high school, he left Sewanee for Minneapolis to spend a year at the Minneapolis Theater School. Every summer has been spent in summer stock. He has appeared in three Hasty Pudding theatricals, two Gilbert and Sullivan productions and numerous other productions including Play, where he and two other actors performed sitting in urns. Freshman year he was in five shows plus the Pudding. "And I was also trying to convince myself I was a mathematics major, which was tough." Fall semester junior year, already a philosophy concentrator, McCrady directed a show in the Ex, acted in two plays and sang for the Krokodiloes.
For someone who has feverishly devoted himself to theater and performance, McCrady seems remarkably unimpassioned about acting. He doesn't say things like "theater is all I've ever wanted to do." Instead he says: "It's true; when pressed to the wall, I admit it's my favorite thing to do," or "I never had that single-minded drive. There are other things I can do to be happy." But he admits he may be a bit defensive, trying not to need to act so that it won't hurt if he fails.
Gasser would have applied to drama schools this year, but all of the auditions were held the week her thesis was due. She couldn't do both at the same time and might audition next year. Freshman year her first role was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then she went on to The Glass Menagerie. "I was playing old Southern ladies all freshman year." The Harvard, Massachusetts, native is ending her acting career at Harvard playing Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. In between she has played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and has appeared in Richard II, Troilus and Cressida, Savage Love and Blood Wedding, among others. "I've gained a lot of range and diversity, a confidence and ease," she says.
Gasser throws herself into her roles with intensity. Now that she's playing Blanche "I talk in a Southern accent all the time. I come out bruised and battered, physically and emotionally after plays."
With that kind of an emotional commitment to acting it's no surprise that Gasser is willing to put herself on the line. She talks about receding into the background, incredible highs. "Because of those it makes it imperative to try." But she has one worry--unlike many other actors she says she yearns for security.
Naama Potok says one of the most exciting and inspiring acting experiences of her life was in Savage Love with Gasser. And it's because of those experiences that the Adams House senior wants to be an actress. "There are moments when I'm acting when I feel I couldn't do anything else."
But not getting into drama schools made her question her path. It wasn't that she believed the schools were the only route, but "it did throw things into a certain perspective." Potok is struggling with the decision to pursue acting professionally, unsure if the passionate need to act is really there.
The point is that she can't give up the chance to act. "If I don't give it at least some kind of shot, I'd always wonder."
There are fewer doubts for Litt. For her there is simply nothing else to do but write and act and direct.
When she was 14 Litt "just kind of decided to write a play." Completed when she was 16, the play, Epiphany, won the Young Playwright's Festival run by the Circle in the Square Repertory Theater in New York City.
When the play was staged two years later at the ART, the reviewer for the Phoenix wrote that he would have included the performance is his top 10 for the year if it had had a longer run.
"I much prefer the directing role and the writing. I like having control of the project," Litt says. Which is not to say that the Cleveland native ignores acting. The North House resident has appeared in Candide, School for Wives, the Gilbert and Sullivan production of Iolanthe. She has also directed an eclectic group of plays, from Peter Pan to the medieval mystery play The Second Shepherd's Play to her own Epiphany and The Unsupervised Infant.
Gelber is not big on stability. He took two years off after high school and hitchhiked across America. After sophomore year here the Dudley House resident took off another two years to live in Italy where "I mostly drank and read books you're not allowed to read at Harvard." In Italy "I spent everything I had ever saved and borrowed some."
Being on his own in Italy didn't convince Gelber that he could be satisfied with the uncertainties of the actor's life. He already knew that. Gelber's interests are diverse though. He wants to write and act and says jokingly that he's the only person he knows who wants to support himself as a writer by being an actor.
Gelber has appeared in 21 shows at Harvard. Before college, he was perennially cast as the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. At five foot two inches, Gelber jokes "I'm under contract; whenever there is a production of Alice in Wonderland I play the white rabbit." Ironically, he discovered theater as a calling by being cast in a play where he was killed by a white bunny from outer space. That was sophomore year in The Paranormal Review.
Since then his repertoire has expanded. He played Dodge, a 75-year-old alcoholic dying of emphysema in Sam Shepard's Buried Child, a French nobleman in Moliere's School for Wives, Trinculo in The Tempest and a tough detective in Shepard's Suicide in B Flat.
While he's supporting himself as a writer by being an actor, Gelber says he's willing to support himself as an actor by being a bartender. "I don't see a job as an end in itself; I see it as a means to supporting a creative end."
He is willing to tolerate ambiguity almost indefinitely. "Another way to say it is idiocy or a total lack of concern for oneself. Things work out, and if they don't you can always get a job at a restaurant."