Lessons from Shakespeare in the Park

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Life of an actor in New York is no picnic

By Lorraine Duffy Merkl

“Is this the one with Al Pacino?”

That was the question du jour directed to those of us waiting on line to see Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park. Confirmation was needed because the play alternates nights with the Pacino-free A Winter’s Tale.

The snake of free-theater lovers stretched way past the commonly referenced “big rock.” For those of you new to NYC, that means the line was really, really long.

A yearly ritual for my husband and myself for the past 25 years, Operation Delacorte was usually something I did alone—procuring only two tickets for our date night. Last year though, I brought my teenage son (who swore he’d never again participate) so that the whole family could attend. This year, my 12-year-old daughter, Meg, joined me, enthusiastically I might add—waiting six hours to get four tickets.

I must admit, I really didn’t think Meg knew what she was getting herself into when she proclaimed, “I want to sit for Shakespeare,” and feared that after an hour we’d be packing up the towel, sand chair and oversized bag full of books, writing assignments, a PSP as well as DS and newspapers to trek home across The Great Lawn.

But no, the girl who has ants in her pants stuck it out. Since she wants to be an actress, I suspect she felt it was all part of the dues-paying process.

Right now, thespian is one of those “when I grow up…” pipe dreams, like being a princess, cowboy or astronaut. But if she keeps taking her drama classes after school, and attending theatre camp, it may turn into a serious career goal, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

The life of an actor is hard; a New York actor even harder, since so much production is done in Los Angeles. And with the demise of Law & Order—the show that kept many New York actors working—there will be even fewer opportunities.

She has had school teachers, gymnastic coaches, camp counselors and even acting teachers who are still anxiously awaiting their big break. I’ve also met many mothers through my children’s schools and sports teams who moved here long ago from various parts of the country “to be an actress.” Even though they have found success at their Plan B jobs, and speak of the unfulfilled dream with acceptance, their voices reveal a twinge of lingering disappointment. (Like actors, writers live with rejection as part of the game. I, too, can speak with pain about many an editor’s “I’ll pass.”)

I, like any mother, don’t want to hear that dejection in my child’s voice.

Until, if and when Meg changes her mind and chooses a new career path, I’m trying to find a way to think positively about a business where I have no connections in which to help her.

Watching Pacino as Shylock gave me some hope. Like me, he grew up in the Bronx. I once heard him speak about how his neighborhood, as well as his lack of interest in schoolwork, was the steppingstone to joining a gang.

A teacher suggested he try acting, and the student listened. Despite his humble beginnings, Pacino’s determination, hard work and talent have made him a star.

With someone like that as inspiration, maybe someday all of New York will be out en masse—way past the big rock—to see Meg star in Shakespeare in the Park. I just hope she doesn’t make me wait on line. n


Lorraine Duffy Merkl’s debut novel, Fat Chick, from The Vineyard Press, is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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