One lazy Saturday, my friend Inger called, saying she was in town for the weekend and wanted to know if we could meet for dinner.
With bright red hair and fair skin, I always thought Inger was more at home on the sand on Manhattan Beach rather than the grimy streets of Manhattan, but while doing graduate work at Harvard, she had spent a lot of time up and down the East Coast. She told me before I moved to New York that the reason people were so literate here was because they spent so much time on the subway -- with nothing to do but read.

Inger was staying with her cousin Anna who was an actress, and yes, a waitress.. Her intermittent role on an afternoon soap opera, was, well, intermittent -- playing the wacky girlfriend of the leading star's first husband. Though small, she described her role as providing a comedic interlude interspersed between the more dramatic scenes of divorce, adultery and generally indecent behavior. When I first met her, she was afraid of being written out because several new characters were being added to the show. When your primary reason for being is because you're a minor character's love interest, you tend to put your faith and economic well being in the hands of something more tangible - like waiting tables.

Anna was tired of the feast and famine cycles of the soaps and was finally taking the first step to bigger things. She and 14 other itinerant actors friends of her had decided to form a non-profit ensemble theater group. And non-profit was the truth. She explained most actors are either LA based or NY based and when they go to the other city, they're completely lost -- they just dont have the same network of contacts with which to find out where there's work. By forming their own bi-coastal acting troupe, and commissioning their own plays in both cities, they could steady their workloads and incomes.

As is typically the case, there was very little start-up money, although they did get Bryant Gumbel to commit to publicizing the venture on the Today show - the result of one of the members being Bryant's second cousin or something like that. Anyway, true to this spirit, they were putting out the call to all their friends and relatives, and in my case, friends of relatives, to help out in what conceivably could be an "exciting and unique opportunity".

Inger couldn't participate because of school, and thought if I'd be interested, I could design a set or two because I wasn't working yet. It had been a long time without getting any interview calls and receiving enough rejection letters to wallpaper my bedroom. The chance to design something that might, just might, show up on the Today Show made me quickly forget I wasn't going to get paid for it. The group also made me realize that there were a lot of people in New York who were actively pursuing a dream - projects they believed in, not because they could make a lot of money doing it, but the city was the perfect place to bounce your ideas off others. This was the most important thing I learned from having dinner with Inger that night. And the most valuable, because the whole project fell apart a week later. They really had no money.

Attuned to New York's acting industry, I suddenly realized how many TV shows and moview were being produced here. Everywhere I looked, I kept running into film crews. One night, Spike Lee had taken over an East Village Street for a future movie, the next day I see Liam Neeson hailing a taxi on Fifth Avenue dressed in red Reebok tennis shoes and a fedora. The next morning in front of my apartment, I go to get the paper and see hundreds of acting hopefuls, all preppily dressed and carrying head shots. They had been waiting patiently in line since 6AM for an audition -- at a studio two blocks away! The following weekend, while exploring the East Village, I ran into a film crew who had set up in a rundown schoolyard, with a real backdrop of empty tenements and garbage on the streets. I walked past a homeless person rummaging around in the back, away from the cameras. He looked like your typical down and out New York bum - stooped walk, ratty clothes, bad smell. But as I walked past, the director in the distance yelled "CUT!" prompting the bum to turn to a p.a. to say, "Yeah, like I was saying, I answered that cattle call the other day and found out about Scorsese's new movie, but they said they were looking for a more clean-cut type.

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december 1999