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The Untenable Career of a Successful Philadelphia Theater Artist: Interview with Charlotte Ford

Posted May 20th, 2014

“The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with 60-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.”

Charlotte Ford. Photo by JJ Tiziou.

Charlotte Ford. Photo by JJ Tiziou.

Philadelphia’s theater scene is better than ever—haven’t you heard? With so many shows, exciting performers, original work, and new theater arts grads flooding the city each year you might mistake it for being healthy. But when so few of its practitioners, on the artistic side of things especially, can eke out a living wage from it, and when even its most successful artists live a tenuous economic existence, it is time to take a serious look at how poor the health of the theater industry is in this city.

Theater artist Charlotte Ford is well known in Philadelphia thanks to her creations like BANG (Live Arts Festival, 2012), a huge audience and critical success, which she also produced and performed in. She has also been a widely seen performer with Pig Iron, the Arden, and Theater Exile, among many others, including some of the areas most innovative “art-maker” types. Over the past five or six years, she has made her living as a theater artist—meaning she stitched together income from grants that support the work she creates herself (also including Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl and Chicken), acting gigs, and teaching. Recently, however, she took a look into the future and did not like the view. She has decided to put her theater career on hold, go back to school to get a masters degree in a field that would allow her to earn a decent wage, and pursue a different future.

Recently, we caught up with Charlotte, who shared with us both how she came to make this decision, and how the economics of being a theater artist in Philadelphia just don’t hold up.

FringeArts: Recently you made a big career decision—can you explain what that was and how it came about?

Charlotte Ford: I decided to return to school to get a second masters degree in speech language pathology. The catalyst was the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative [PTI, which now exists under the more general banner of The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage] changing its funding guidelines. I didn’t receive funding for my new project. It seemed likely, given the other artists who had also relied on PTI funding for years and were denied funding, that I may never receive funding from them again. PTI has been the main funding source behind each play I’ve made. I lost the majority of my income for the year, and was scrambling to make enough money to pay rent and eat, and needed a new long term plan. I’ve been able to make a living as an artist without a “day job” for the past five years. Suddenly, I needed a day job. I love teaching, and have an MFA [in theater], which allows me to teach at the college level, but tenure track teaching gigs are about as scarce as foundation funding these days.

FringeArts: What got you interested in speech language therapy?

Charlotte Ford: I started by researching jobs that were in demand. I didn’t want to accrue more student loan debt and then graduate without any job prospects. Most speech language pathology [SLP] programs boast a one-hundred percent hire rate. Every pathologist that I spoke with loved their job. I’m excited to research how theater exercises, which can foster huge personal growth, could help clients who stutter, have selective mutism, or autism. SLP work also seems like a lucrative freelance gig where I could still make theater. If I had to get a day job, I wanted it to be meaningful work.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

Charlotte (left) with Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold in BANG. Photo by Kevin Monko.

FringeArts: Looking over the few years, can you roughly breakdown where your income came from?

Charlotte Ford: It really depends on the year, but usually, about a third of my work is made of one or two “straight” acting gigs a year at a local regional theater. Half of my year is devoted to creating my own work, and the remainder is filled by teaching gigs—I teach for Pig Iron, at the Arden Theatre, as well as lots of workshops at local high schools and colleges. I had a great experience directing and teaching at Bryn Mawr College.

It can be a tricky juggling act of taking on too may jobs because nothing pays super well, and you need to make up for the weeks of the year when you may have no employment at all, which is difficult financially and emotionally. The most I’ve ever made in a year is $23,000, and that year was filled with sixty-hour weeks of overlapping work, which I was thrilled to have.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

With Matt Pfeiffer in Red Light Winter at Theatre Exile.

FringeArts: How did you go about organizing your life so as to put this all together?

Charlotte Ford: The busy year—the year I made that miraculous $23,000—all my projects overlapped. So first I was in a show at Theatre Exile while teaching, and then I was creating BANG while teaching and creating a show at Bryn Mawr College, and then rehearsing at the Arden while also creating the show at Bryn Mawr, then simultaneously teaching for Pig Iron and the Arden while performing at the Arden and prepping for BANG, then creating BANG again. So those are mostly sixty-plus-hour weeks. But then I didn’t get any acting gigs for the fall, so I needed to live off of the money I’d made in the winter and spring. That’s part of the problem: weeks of unemployment, while a necessary break after no days off for months, eat into your meager reserve. There’s no paid vacation.

FringeArts: What made you finally see this path as unsustainable?

Charlotte Ford: I was initially excited when I had enough theater work to fill out a year and quit my day job, and I naively believed that if I kept improving and having more success, that I would make more money. I was up for the Pew [grant] in 2013, and made it through four rounds of feedback before not getting it. They read you some of the feedback. One person on the panel said, “She actually thinks she can make a living doing this?” When I didn’t get the funding, after having years of increasingly successful work and still scraping by, I was like, yeah, maybe she’s right. I can’t afford to do this anymore. Maybe I could have worked smarter, and not harder—maybe I could have done a better job of diversifying my funding, or teamed up with universities, or if I was willing to relocate . . .

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No Snooze in This News

Posted September 10th, 2012

Spooky spooktacular! Not really. But after the jump, coverage of Fringe in cemeteries, my friend Cherri interviews Jumatatu Poe for KYW, some top picks from our media posse, and more. Rounding up the roundups again, here we go:

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Roundup Roundup

Posted August 31st, 2012

It’s that time in a young cowboy/cowgirl’s life where we round up the roundups, as the Festivals are about to begin. Here’s some press and press-sorting of shows to help guide your way through the next three weeks:

>>>The South Philly Review has a beautiful cover story on the Aryadareis, one of the families performing in Headlong’s This Town is a Mystery.

>>>Great story from WHYY’s Peter Crimmins on the same. Hey, ditto for the Chestnut Hill Local!

>>>WHYY’s “Arts Calendar” pulls out some pics for the festivals, including Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, Brat RockPile, Tourettes: A Dancing Disorder, and Return Return Departure.

>>>uwishunu offers up lists of top participatory shows and top bets for unusual sites.

>>>Rep Radio‘s kicked off its podcast coverage of Live Arts and Philly Fringe this week. So far: interviews with Eric Balchunas about Wawapalooza, Whit MacLaughlin about 27, and commander-in-chief Nick Stuccio about all things festivals. Listen over here.

>>>J. Cooper Robb writes in Philadelphia Weekly about what is sure to be a most amazing post-show talk on body politics in the arts (following the single performance of Arguendo), featuring John Collins of Elevator Repair Service, Charlotte Ford (of this year’s Bang), and playwright Young Jean Lee (UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW).

>>>Art Attack, the Daily News-Drexel U collab arts reporting project plugs Barbie Blended, this year’s first Philly Fringe offering (opens tomorrow, whoa!).

>>>Top ticket for Stage‘s Debra Miller? The Gate Reopened.

>>>The Montgomery News runs down the MontCo connections.

>>>Ditto for Mount Airy, via the Mount Airy Patch.

>>>Dispatch from central Jersey, who loves us. We love you too! Come on down!

–Nicholas Gilewicz

News About Us!

Posted August 27th, 2012

>>>6ABC loves the arts that we do; story featuring El Jefe Nick Stuccio above, and plugs for Sequence 8, Bang, and Le Grand Continental.

>>>The Inquirer plugs Barbie Blended: A Pop Rockin’ Musical, which gets a head start on the 2012 Philly Fringe with early shows this weekend.

>>>The Daily News, Technically Philly, and Newsworks all have Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Open Air on the brain.

>>>Alum news, via Playbill: Elephant Room, which premiered at the 2011 Live Arts Festival, goes Hollywood at the Kirk Douglas Theater.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

The Weekender: What You’re Doing and Why

Posted August 24th, 2012

Rest up and recharge, boys and girls, because we’re only two weeks out from opening weekend of the festivals, holy crap! Here are a few things to get up to this weekend:

>>>All weekend: Explore Edgar Allen Poe, his death, and production documentation at the new most excellent tumblr for Red-eye to Havre de Grace, which opens September 7 at the Live Arts Festival.

>>>All weekend: More exploring. Next week, you’ll read intrepid blog contributor Julius Ferraro’s report on Museum Without Walls, a new way to explore the remarkable collection of 51 sculptures along Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Kelly Drive. Go this weekend, and compare notes with Julius on Monday.

>>>Saturday: The first of two must-do Saturday shows, Megan Mazarick presents DBDP, AKA the David Bowie Dance Project, an informal showing of work set to David Bowie songs at the Mascher Space Cooperative. Dancers include Bethany Formica, David Konyk, Beau Hancock, Lindsay Browning, and others. 8:00 pm. (And don’t forget to check out Megan’s Philly Fringe show, Mining the Mine of the Mind for Minderals.)

>>>Saturday: After DBDP, bust down Frankford Avenue to Johnny Brenda’s. Martha Graham Cracker turns seven, yikes, she’s old stately and handsome. What a dame! Dame Martha. Pre-Martha performances include a special pre-festival performance from the dames of Bang!, who, according to JB’s website, “promise a naked karaoke keytar extravaganza.” Sets start at 9:00 pm.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Besties! Charlotte Ford and Headlong

Posted August 6th, 2012

Actually, do they hang out? I don’t even know. But in the department of PHILLY IS SO REAL, the arbiters of the very best of us, Philadelphia Magazine, gives the propers where the propers are due in their Best of Philly 2012 issue.

BEST DANCE COMPANY: Headlong Dance Theater, with a plug for their 2012 Live Arts show, This Town is a Mystery.

BEST THEATER ARTIST: Charlotte Ford, with a plug for her 2012 Live Arts show Bang.

Congrats, folks!

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Google Banging

Posted July 17th, 2012

One of the tricks of the lazy blogger is to set up Google news alerts for anything you’re working on. So we get flooded with news stories, videos, and such about 2012 Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe. Turns out that the “Charlotte Ford” news alert brings up, shall we say, news not specific to her career or show, but out of which we bet she could generate a new performance:

“Deputies: Trio used baby, stroller to steal shoes”

“Colorado Cantaloupes Return: Growers Push Safety”

“Teen breaks into Charlotte Ford dealership”

“Society, Celebrations, Charlotte Ford, Grosse Pointe Farms, 1959”

Is this helpful, dear readers, as you think about whether to buy tickets to Bang? Probably not. Does knowing that the show will include nudity? Probably—we know you too well.

Bang runs September 4 through 12 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Old City. Times vary, $23-$35.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Lee Etzold And Her World Of Funny

Posted May 7th, 2012

Lee Etzold with Madi Distefano, co-artistic directors of BRAT Productions, going over finances.

When it comes to creating art, Lee Etzold is not afraid to work up a sweat.

“I’m not really a sit-down-at-a-computer playwright. I’m more of a get-in-a-big-space-and-jump-around playwright,” she explains.

A lifelong athlete, Etzold has always been a very physical person. She played sports in high school and believed she would play basketball or field hockey in college. Everything changed when she auditioned for a school play and turned her attention to the arts. As an actor and playwright today, she brings her athletic background to the stage.

“Because I was an athlete first, I always have a physical approach to theater. I have better muscle memory than any other kind of memory,” she says; in fact, she never learns her lines until she learns her blocking. [Ed note: hmmm, actors have an excuse for everything.]

After college, Etzold moved to Philadelphia to work with New Paradise Laboratories, the experimental theater company headed by director Whit MacLaughlin. It was Philadelphia that inadvertently sparked her imagination and led her to create her own work.

Etzold originally moved to Philadelphia during the Philly Fringe and saw the city rife with musicians and actors. After the shows, she felt lonely as the city went back to business as usual. “I felt like everyone I had just met had vanished into their other lives. I started writing songs—ridiculously depressing songs that made me laugh at myself.”

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