Equity actors find friendly stages far from Broadway's lights

Professional actors in Capital Repertory Theatre's 'Shakespeare in Love' prove they can work a day job and pursue their craft

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ALBANY, N.Y. — There is something special going on with Capital Repertory Theatre's production of "Shakespeare in Love."

The comedy-romance is one of the largest productions in the Rep's history. Its cast of 23 includes 14 Equity actors, seven of whom — Benita Zahn, David Girard, Kevin McGuire, John Romeo, Kevin Craig West, Justin Friello and Peter Langstaff — are local. There are also 12 local non-Equity performers in the cast. The work based on the enormously popular Academy Award-winning 1998 film is playing the downtown Albany venue though May 12.

It's a great showcase for all the talented actors who live here. To make a living as a professional actor you usually must reside in a major market or live a nomadic life. Usually, it's a combination of both. A third option is to work a day job and pursue your passion on a limited basis.

Like their other five local professional colleagues in "Shakespeare in Love," Zahn and Girard continue their respective passions for being professional performers in totally different ways in order to live in this area.

Zahn is a well-known figure in the area as a television anchor and health reporter on WNYT NewsChannel 13. Zahn has acted regularly on area non-profit stages. She worked at Albany Civic Theatre, Home Made Theatre, Schenectady Civic Players and even in Capital Rep's "Gypsy" as a non-union performer.

She decided to accept membership in Actors Equity and has continued to perform as a union member. She's appeared with Park Playhouse in "Ragtime" and at Cohoes Music Hall in "Always, Patsy Cline."

She says being in "Shakespeare in Love" validates her decision to turn professional.

"It's an honor to be in the room working with this hand-picked cast," she said. "I feel it is sort of validation for the time I put in studying, performing and just plain learning my craft."

It does bring up a sensitive issue for Zahn: respect for her work as an actor. Zahn said she is occasionally troubled by some people's attitude concerning her work on stage. People know her from television and her many volunteer hours with area not-for-profit organizations. "People will say to me, `You act too?' The `how sweet' is implied.

"No. Acting is not something I do in my spare time. I take the work very seriously," she said. "I worked hard to achieve acceptance into the union and having that card is validation for all that work. Being a member of this amazing cast is like taking my seat among the best in the area."

But there is a price to pay for following a dream: time. Most weekday nights, Zahn leaves her anchor desk at 6:30 p.m. and heads for rehearsals, which typically run until 11 p.m. Speaking for everyone who acts while holding a day job, she said, firmly, "It's not a sacrifice to do what you love."

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Local actor-director Girard agrees.

"To be a theater professional in this area you have to hustle," he said.

Girard is one of the few area Equity actors whose earnings are generated almost exclusively through theater.

Girard is a native of Stillwater, N.Y. He graduated as a theater major from Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., and got his MFA in directing from Temple in Philadelphia. He occasionally returns to act or direct in Philadelphia, but his heart is in the Capital District. Indeed, he is a co-founder of Troy Foundry Theatre, a professional theater company in Troy devoted to cutting edge work.

He's appeared on Capital Rep's stage several times, most recently in the musical "She Loves Me." He served as fight choreographer for the January-February production, "Red Maple," and played the title role in Theatre Institute at Sage's production of "Billy Bishop Goes to War." He is a performer, director and an artistic associate with Saratoga Shakespeare. He also teaches and directs at various local colleges.

In the future, he said, he might have to go out of market more frequently. However, for the present he sees himself as part of a growing arts scene in the area.

"More and more local companies are adopting the collaborative format in producing shows," he said. "They are willing to compensate the artists for their contributions. That's a very healthy movement."

He calls Capital Rep "the gold standard" for local professional theater. In "Shakespeare in Love" he plays the famous Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage. "He was well known as an actor in his market and ran a rival theater company. That's right in my comfort zone," Girard said, laughing.

However, he quickly points out that "Shakespeare in Love" director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill doesn't allow for comfort zones.

"She handpicked this cast and we respect each other's abilities so much," Girard said. "You are always trying to better yourself, digging deep and challenging yourself. All I can say is she sets the highest professional standard, which is good for an actor."

Zahn supports this attitude.

"When you're in the room with so many talented people, you automatically up your game," she said. "You realize very quickly the professional standards at Capital Rep are extremely high. It's a simple formula — to do good work, you have to work with good people. This cast is good."


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