My writing group recently started up again, after a summer hiatus. On our first session back, we read the beginning of one of our members’ film scripts, a story of young artists working and loving in various clubs while trying to stage their theatrical magnum opus. The author had been working on the script off and on for many years, and while a few iPhones and the like had been added along the way to update it, it was clear to all of us reading that its heart lay in the New York City of the late 90s, when the first draft of it was written. Indeed, we were all in agreement that it would work best as a period piece – that in this era of The Get Down and Stranger Things, the best thing for this script would be to lean into its nostalgia factor, and fashion it as an ode to a world gone by.
If you talk to New York theater folk around my age, you’re certain to hear this sort of nostalgic description of the late 90s. Compared to today, rent was cheap, and there were many more small rental theaters for off-off Broadway productions. The explosion in MFA and BFA programs meant that there was this new influx of young artists desperate to make their mark. Everyone thought they were living out the plot of Rent (minus the dying), and why not? That show’s cast was a bunch of unknowns whose tiny workshop hit the big time, and such a career trajectory seemed possible in ways it hasn’t really felt since. We look back on it now, when it’s far more difficult and more expensive to make theater happen, and view those years as a lost golden age.
I wish I hadn’t felt miserable during most of them.
After various misadventures, and after a number of other plans of mine had failed to pan out, I returned to New York City in 1997 and started pursuing work as an actor. I was doing so in the midst of the fertile climate I’ve described above, and I can’t complain about not working, because I was cast in my first show after a week of auditioning and continued to work on something of a regular basis. In the sort of non-union kiddie theater that exists to service the birthday parties of affluent Manhattanites. In outdoor Shakespeare in rat-infested courtyards, whose distracted director slept through the bulk of the dress rehearsals. In all manner of productions whose audiences numbered in the single digits, comprised of the cast’s corralled friends. We tell ourselves that the work is the important part, and a true actor will take something of value from any experience, and that’s true as far as it goes. But I was young and ambitious, desperately hoping to do something that mattered, and for all the shows I did, it seemed most of them had little or nothing to say.
I don’t think I’m the only one. Many of the truly extraordinary actors I worked with back in the 90s have long since given up the profession; the one genuinely interesting and talented playwright I worked with back then has since put his typewriter away and left the city, and is now living in Virginia with his rockabilly guitar and his dog. Part of this is the difficult nature of the profession, of course. But I believe that part of it is also the frustration of living through a time of peace and prosperity, of unprecedented opportunity, and having little to show for it (other than some admittedly awesome war stories). And it’s hard, then, to mythologize this brief moment in time when that’s your experience of it. As someone once said, the past ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And I feel terribly, terribly guilty about writing this.
Because like anybody else, I’d give anything to have this time back again.
I’m writing these words in the last hours of Sunday night, September 11th, 2016. The fifteenth anniversary. My city has endured, but the particular iteration of it I describe ended that day, and I want it back. I want the lost lives back. I want the skyline back. I want cheap storefront theaters and manageable rents back. I want the audiences back who fled to the safety of their suburbs and still haven’t returned. I want peace back. (I’d say I want “peace and prosperity” back, but I’m an actor-writer, and we’re never prosperous.) Like all of us, I want my city back.
But I can’t pretend that it was a utopia, because it definitely was not.
And I have to hope that the golden age is yet to come; that the creation of works of art with genuine meaning to them is something that still lies before me, and before all of the rest of us still crazy enough to try and do this; that there is more fulfillment to be had in the future than the past. Assuming, of course, we get out of 2016 in one piece.
And the way 2016 is going, that’s by no means guaranteed.
But we can still hope.