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VOL. 126 | NO. 23 | Thursday, February 3, 2011

UPTA Gives Aspiring Theater Workers Chance in Slow Economy

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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Anyone searching for a job these days knows they are up against thousands of invisible applicants. Theater actors and technicians, though, often see their competition firsthand.

Friday through Monday the 17th Unified Professional Theatre Auditions convention takes place at Playhouse on the Square and the Memphis Marriott Downtown, an event drawing hundreds of hopeful actors and technicians seeking work in a down market.

“It’s like ‘American Idol’ meets the job fair,” said Michael Detroit, auditions coordinator for UPTA and associate producer for Playhouse.

The convention is one of about a dozen regional and national conventions taking place early each year in which theater companies congregate to hear mass auditions and make their selections.

Dance hopefuls participate in a callback at the 2010 Unified Professional Theatre Auditions, an event in its 17th year in Memphis this weekend. (Photo: Rory Dale)

Actors have 90 seconds to perform a song and a monologue. Evening callbacks follow. More than 200 people audition each day of the convention. Not surprisingly, Red Bull is a sponsor.

UPTA was established under Playhouse’s umbrella specifically for professional actors and technicians, meaning those who meet strict requirements in training and professional experience including postgraduate degrees in theater, membership or membership candidacy in the union Actors Equity, or recommendations by university theater department chairs.

Detroit said that UPTA’s niche is inviting only those who are seeking year-round employment, not summer work between school semesters.

In its first year, 1994, UPTA hosted 25 theater companies and about 200 potential employees. This year Detroit expects about 100 companies and 900 actors and techs.

“We have companies coming from California to Maine, Alaska to Florida, and one company from Argentina,” Detroit said.

The bad news is that the jobs have always been in high demand and following the recession theater companies are not hiring like they used to.

John Dodd, managing director of the Texas Shakespeare Festival in Kilgore, Texas, has been to every UPTA convention to date. He said companies like his are still scaling back cost by doing shows with smaller casts.

This year he plans to hire two to three actors and four to five techs at UPTA.

“(Actors) are braving the economic weather, but there’s a sense of desperation,” Dodd said. “If we see our donations increasing, we’ll try to increase to a larger company, but all of us have to be careful about staying within our budgets. It may be one or two years before we start increasing.”

That kind of speculation is common in the theater world because hiring can take place year-round and no one knows what the national economic outlook will be like by the middle of the 2011-2012 theater season. Until then, companies must act conservatively.

Detroit said he would need a full-time statistician to figure out how many of the hopefuls at UPTA actually get jobs.

Some will be hired immediately. Others may get called in summer or early fall. The jobs they receive may last two months, a full season or an entire calendar year.

Jenny Lynn Christoffersen, associate company member at Playhouse, was hired at last year’s UPTA, her third after performing an original monologue about a woman slapped by a homeless person on a subway. She was lucky enough to be hired all three years she has attended.

“You do see people walking away saying I only got seven callbacks, but then other people say I interviewed with 35 of them and I don’t know if any of them went well,” said Christoffersen, who is from Connecticut. “And that’s just (this one convention) here in Memphis. You might not hear anything until June.”

The United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that jobs for actors would only increase by about 7,200 between 2008 and 2018. Producing and directing jobs will increase by 9,700.

One year, Christoffersen was asked to wait in the hallway after her audition and was offered a job on the spot, something she said is unheard of in theater auditions.

“You’re also meeting people who do what you do, so (the convention) becomes this giant networking tool for people who are practicing your craft,” said Christoffersen.

Few who audition this weekend will be coming to Memphis, though. Only two Memphis theater companies, Playhouse and the Tennessee Shakespeare Co., hire resident company members.

But Detroit said the impact of UPTA for Memphis is economic. He estimates that the convention will impact the city in the neighborhood of $1 million in hotels, transportation, food and services.

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