Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Aspiring Actor Serves Drinks to Bide Time

James Quinn serves drinks at Ad Lib.
Photo by: Brooke Niemeyer


The Broadway shows were all finished up for the night, and theatergoers and actors trickled into the Ad Lib bar in Midtown for a couple drinks and dessert.

This was the busiest time of the night for bartender and aspiring actor James Quinn.

Quinn talked with the guests about what plays they saw. He knew details about them all and even sang some of the songs from the musicals. He was smiling, but it was bittersweet. Quinn wishes he were on stage instead of behind a bar. His days are spent at unsuccessful auditions and his nights are spent mixing drinks.

"The thing about being a struggling actor is that you're just always one audition away ... from going from unemployed to employed forever," Quinn said.

A study done by Actor's Equity, an actors' union, found that 88 percent of their members in New York were currently without acting gigs.

And at 41, Quinn is much older than many of his struggling counterparts.

"Sometimes it makes me feel bad about myself that I haven't made it yet," Quinn said. "But I still keep trying."

According to the United States Department of Labor, the majority of acting jobs available for men go to those between the ages of 18 and 28. And mature roles usually go to established actors.

But these statistics don't make Quinn want to give up his dream.

"I'm committed to it at this point," he said. "I've come too far to turn back now.

Casting director Donna DeSeta, who also owns Donna DeSeta Casting Agency in Manhattan, said despite the odds, there is still hope for older actors.

"We are always looking for new interesting and gifted actors," DeSeta said. "We look for actors that are not identified with any given type of role or character."

But acting wasn't always the dream career for Quinn. He majored in English at Fordham University in the Bronx. Quinn, who lives on the Upper West Side, said he was painfully shy well into his 20s. Quinn recalled an experience while he was still in school where he decided to completely ditch a class after being just three minutes late.

"I didn't want to walk in late because I didn't want people to look at me," Quinn said. He said that people now laugh in disbelief when he tells them he was that shy for the earlier half of his life.

When Quinn was 25, his girlfriend encouraged him to try acting to get him over his social phobias. It wasn't until a tragic accident took her life that Quinn went to his first audition.

"She inspired me not to care what people thought and to be happy being me," Quinn said. "Acting makes me happy."

DeSeta says that the path of becoming an actor is not for the faint of heart, and it should be done only by those who find true happiness in what they're doing.

"Acting is only for those who can find no satisfaction in any other profession," DeSeta said. "A big break is kismet."

The first role Quinn got was as a firefighter on the soap opera "One Life to Live." He was a recurring character for about a week, which was two full days of filming.

"After being on 'One Life to Live,' I knew this is really what I'm supposed to be doing," Quinn said.

He returned to the set of "One Life to Live" a few months later after the director specifically requested him.

"He said that I did what I was told and didn't get in anyones way," Quinn said. "At that point, I was just happy to be acting."

He had roles on other television shows after that, including a recurring spot as a bartender being questioned on "Law and Order" and as a hospitalized man on "The Pretender." Quinn was also cast in the play "Epic Proportions" on Broadway, which ran for three months. But he said his best acting job was as a terrorist in "Die Hard 3."

"It was a big movie with a big cast, and I got to be part of it," Quinn said. "That was the most fun I've ever had."

Quinn says that after having a major role, he felt his career was going to take off, but the excitement of it all slipped out of reach when his next acting job didn't come for a while.

The last role Quinn had was in the summer of 2009 as a Russian nigh-school student trying to improve his English in the off-Broadway play "Primary English," which lasted for 25 performances.

Currently, he goes on an average of one audition per week.

As the bar emptied at the end of the night, Quinn cleaned up his area. He stacked liquor bottles under the bar while dreaming of his future.

"I'll have that audition that starts it all," Quinn said. "Until then, this pays the bills."

This is my first story that was published on New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute's publication, Pavement Pieces. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Street Performer Gets Joy From Music, Not From Money

A young man carries four plastic buckets and a worn wooden drumstick with him whenever he walks the streets of Manhattan. The buckets vary in size and are placed within one another when he is on the move. The largest one has a white plastic piece on the top of the metal handle. The plastic has a splitting crack in the middle that is filled with a bit of dirt. Black scuffmarks scatter the sides of the buckets showing the wear and tear that they have gone through during their journeys.

This man, who refers to himself only as Thomas, stops at the intersection of two streets, looks out into the road and changes his mind. He then turns around and walks back a bit so he is under scaffolding that covers the sidewalk. He goes close to the corner building and takes out each of his buckets and places three in a row, with one further behind the rest. He removes his cap, turns it over, and places it on the ground before he sits down on the largest bucket. He begins to play what he calls his “musical craft.”

Thomas is a street musician and has been practicing his craft for 12 years. He started by playing for fun on the stairwell in his apartment building because of the great acoustics there. He says this is where he taught himself to play and learned what sounded good to him. He started playing on the buckets just as a way to relax at the end of the day.

He eventually got complaints of the noise from neighbors, so he moved to the stairs in front of his building. He later had to move out of that complex, he moved into one without stairs. After that, he started playing on a nearby street corner, but hasn’t stuck to just one location since then.

“I like to move around to find me new people to play for,” Thomas said. “My music comes with me no matter where I am so I can go wherever.”

Since his days on the stairwell, Thomas decided that his music could not only be a stress release for him, but also possibly help other people slow down a bit in their busy days. He says this is why he picks busy areas and also stays near the corners of streets.

“When people have to wait to cross the street, they can listen to me,” Thomas said.

Thomas bobs his head along with the beat of each song he plays and seems un-phased by the people going by, whether they rush by or pause in front of him. Some people throw coins into his hat as they pass by, while a few others stop and listen to him play.

One woman took a dollar bill out of her pocket and bent over to place it into his hat. Her foot tapped as she watched him.

“I like to see these people who just do their thing along the road or under at the subways,” Stacie Nielson said.

Nielson said that Thomas was one of the better talents she’d seen in a while. She said she stops to listen to the street performers when she has time.

“It can’t be easy for them to be ignored when they’re performing a talent,” Nielson said. “But they keep doing it and I admire them for it.”

Thomas says he doesn’t do this for the money, but doesn’t complain about it when people give it to him. He says he thinks people give him money because of his music with nontraditional instruments.

“I get a good sound with the buckets,” Thomas said. “It gets peoples attention because of how different it sounds.”

Thomas has found the buckets in dumpsters and alleyways and is always on the lookout for another one. He has replaced them over the years when they get too cracked or worn out.

When Thomas decided it was time to move on from this location, he stood up and turned over the bucket he was sitting on. He loaded each of the buckets inside the larger ones and then put the $7.29 he earned in the past hour into his pocket. He put his black cap back onto his head and was on his way.

Thomas placed a quarter into the crumbled Styrofoam Dunkin Donuts cup of a homeless man sitting on the ground before crossing the street in search of his next performance spot.