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Actors/performers/hosts/voice-over artists, etc., interested in joining the group, can reach out to Henkels at [email protected] 

You can also apply for the Fall 2020 round of Philadelphia Theater’s micro-grants. To be eligible you must: 

  • Live within a 35-mile radius of Philadelphia’s City Hall.
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  • Not have another source of income OR a second source of income is also limited.

“Actors Have to Work On Their Craft”

The Covid-19 recession has hit theater—and those who work in it—hard. A virtual networking support group is helping them stay connected

“Actors Have to Work On Their Craft”

The Covid-19 recession has hit theater—and those who work in it—hard. A virtual networking support group is helping them stay connected

Jeffrey Adams Baxt is no stranger to joblessness.

A publicist by trade, an actor by passion, Baxt got walloped hard in the last recession, out of comparable public relations work for four years, from 2009 to 2013.

“Depressed lethargy, stagnation,” Baxt says, describing the psychological struggle that accompanies unemployment. “It’s disheartening. You feel like you did something wrong.”

Do SomethingBut because he struggled so hard the last time, Baxt already knew what to do when it hit this time, when part-time work undertaken after he semi-retired in 2018 dried up in the pandemic and when his theater and commercial acting gigs came to a screeching halt: Get support and get it quickly, because the biggest battle in unemployment is the battle to preserve self-esteem while resisting depression, loneliness and isolation.

Of course, in this pandemic, depression, loneliness and isolation are not the exclusive properties of the unemployed. Which is why, when a friend and acting colleague proposed gathering weekly for an actors’ think tank via Zoom, Baxt was all in, immediately.

“It was a lot more fun. It feels like I’m doing something for myself, it’s something enjoyable. I’m not a world-class actor, but I’ve grown my skills,” says Baxt, who lives in Roxborough. “Acting, when you are in the moment—it’s a lot of freeing up of tension.”

Support groups sprout during recessions. Some of them have been place-based, hosted by a church, synagogue or library, serving unemployed across all fields from secretary to store manager. Some focus on specific professions, such as support groups for marketing and financial directors or displaced C-suite executives.

“Depressed lethargy, stagnation,” Baxt says, describing the psychological struggle that accompanies unemployment. “It’s disheartening. You feel like you did something wrong.”

Either way, the concept is the same: the jobless have somewhere to go, combating isolation. They join new colleagues bound by the shared mission of landing a job, sharing tips and leads. And, importantly, they receive career-building advice on enhancing LinkedIn profiles, networking, and resumé-building, often from professionals who volunteer their services.

The group Baxt joined, the Actors’ Think Tank, does all that, albeit via Zoom and minus the mediocre coffee, a support group staple.

Learning Tricks of the Trade

On a recent Wednesday, for example, James Doolittle was the guest. Doolittle’s is the vice president of productions at All Ages Productions, a Philadelphia creative film and video company that specializes in commercials and branding. In other words, a place where any of the 17 people on Wednesday’s Actors’ Think Tank Zoom call would love to work—full-time, part-time or just as a gig.

Doolittle began by complimenting the group on their Zoom backgrounds. “Everybody’s so much better than me,” he said, before letting loose his big silly laugh. “I feel lacking.”

And he was right—no nostril upshots, nice plain backdrops, make-up in evidence. Clearly, the actors had gotten the message about a professional look. One by one, the actors went around the Zoom grid, unmuting in turns to tell their “slate,” acting lingo for a short self intro.

“Still in Philly, still pursuing the dream,” actor Vinny Ali said, reporting that he had just had two voiceover auditions.

Lynia Love offered to sweep the studio. “If you need anything, if you need someone to bring your coffee, just to learn,” she said, adding that she was in the final stages of readying a self-funded, self-produced movie.

“I love to be in front of the camera,” Gabi Faye said during his turn, but lately he’s also been seeking work behind the camera.

Doolittle talked a lot and answered questions, most of them dancing around how they could get his attention after they hit Zoom’s “Leave Meeting” button on their computers.

His advice boiled down to two points: When working with someone, endeavor to “leave a kernel of good will,” minimizing stress for everyone on the job. Also, he said, leave something memorable in the head of the person you’ve met. “You are basically leaving in their database of memory, something they can call up” when another need arises.

And secondly, network. But, he said, don’t network by simply sending a reel (Most of these actors have a short reel attached as part of their email signatures). Look to establish some other connection, perhaps a link to something the person might enjoy. Or, instead of sending a whole reel, send one sample of particularly excellent work. Don’t let it be a form letter, he urged. “Find an actual connection point.”

Finding Financial Support

Actor Rich Henkels of Lansdale, began the Actors’ Think Tank in March as one theater after another canceled shows in mid-run. After that, there was the ripple effect—yes, the March shows were cancelled, but theaters still held out hopes for live theater in May.

Then, one after another, those too were shut, and the situation, which started out dire became worse. Not only that, but theater people lost their back-up incomes as restaurants, where many work as servers, also shut their doors.

In a March survey conducted by Theatre Philadelphia, the umbrella marketing group for the region’s many theater companies, 98 percent of the respondents said they had lost income expected by the end of March, with a third saying they had lost all their projected income. Theaters predicted layoffs and cutbacks.

In this downturn, unlike others, there was unemployment available for gig workers, such as actors, stage managers and lighting directors, but it hasn’t been easy to access.

In response, Theatre Philadelphia immediately launched a relief drive to provide $300 to $500 microgrants to the city’s theater workers, from actors to box office staff. So far, Theatre Philadelphia has collected $289,000 and awarded 401 grants. People can apply for second grants now, says LaNeshe Miller-White, the group’s new executive director.

“Theater brings people together,” Miller-White says. “I think the time we get to have the audience’s attention is the privileged moment where we can teach, where we can change minds, where we can reaffirm who we are. It has the potential to connect people that’s different from other art forms.”

The 17 people on the Think Tank Zoom call represent just a slice of the misery because the impact is also felt region wide. The arts, including theater, contribute $4.1 billion to the region’s economy and support 55,000 full time jobs, according to a 2017 report by Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

Discovering Connection on Zoom

“Theater brings people together,” Miller-White says. “I think the time we get to have the audience’s attention is the privileged moment where we can teach, where we can change minds, where we can reaffirm who we are. It has the potential to connect people that’s different from other art forms.”

For Henkels, contributing to that kind of connection felt important when it was so absent in the early days of the pandemic. He immediately began to think about his theater community including some students in acting classes he had taught.

“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” says Henkels, who primarily works in commercials and films. “Most of the actors and actresses I know are really going to struggle to stay connected and to know what to do with themselves and find ways to continue to improve. Actors’ have to work on their craft, and you can’t do that if you are not with people.”

As the group leader, he also tries to make sure that members see each other as resources. “Everybody needs somebody to give something to,” he says. “You can see their eyes light up.”

Custom HaloFor example, actor Mike Provenzano is skilled at building websites and he has helped others in the group with theirs. Baxt, the publicist turned actor, helped develop a media campaign for Gabi Faye, who is launching a small indie production company, Andromeda Pictures. Sometimes, Henkel says, the “resource” is an encouraging private phone call at the right time.

At first the Think Tank was free, but participants now pay Henkels $7.50 a session. Some participants had to leave because of the fee, although Henkels said he has been flexible about payment.

For Baxt, the sessions are worth it. Because of them, he’s now polishing his skills in an online class offered at New York’s HB Studios by actor Austin Pendleton.

“What could I be doing in the meantime to be ready when the theaters open again?” Baxt says he asked himself. “If not for the Think Tank, I would not have been motivated to take a class. It’s very inspirational for me.”

Header photo: Local actors take part in a recent Actors Think Tank gathering on Zoom

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