BACKSTAGE THE PERFORMING ARTS WEEKLY | DOWNTOWN SENSIBILITY by Sherry Eaker
There's a group of actors that I define as "downtown performers," though the term has very little to do with the location of any of the theatres where these actors might be performing. It actually has more to do with a certain sensibility that they share. They tend to work at the same theatres, doing less-than-traditional fare and, instead of constantly being on the hunt for agents and doing showcases with the sole intent of attracting agents to come see them, these independent spirits make the art of their business their number-one priority.
Adam Nelson is a typical example of an actor on the "downtown" scene. Currently featured i n the Adobe Theatre Company production of "Notions in Motion" (which, coincidently, just moved Uptown to the Raymond J. Greenwald Theatre on W. 26th Street after receiving terrific reviews while playing at the downtown Ohio Theater on Wooster Street), Adam has also appeared i n production at New Georges, Cucaracha, Playwrights Collective, Manhattan Class Company, and the now-defunct Malaparte and Workhouse theatre companies.
"I just want to work ," Adam told me over the phone the other day wh en I asked him what his goals were. "I want to eat three times a day, sleep on a bed ... and do the kind of work that I can be proud of," he stressed. "I'll take anything; the challenge is always there: find ing the director's vocabulary, figuring out the way the writer is thinking ..." You can tell that Adam really gets into his roles.
Adam wanted to perform ever since he was a kid. Born in New York, he spent a lot of his growing-up years in Houston with his mom and brother and sister where he attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, taking such classes as stage combat , voice, movement , and scene study. But adolescence was a difficult time for Adam and he didn't do very well i n school. It wasn't until he got to the University of the Arts i n Philadelphia that he began appreciating his studies. "I had a thirst for knowledge that I never had before ," Adam told me . "I devoured as much as possible." His extracurricular studies included two three-month private programs, one at Yale in 1989, and one at Oxford in 1990. The courses got him to meet and work with head s of theatre departments and well-known actors. After graduating in '91, Adam came to New York, but within a few days head ed to Maine for the International Film & TV Workshop , his first real professional job. Work ing with film-industry folk further enhanced his networking opportunities.
I asked Adam if he ever worked with an agent. Actually he did. It was in L.A., where he was "stranded" for a while following their earthquake. He got an agent the fourth day he was in L.A. The agent booked several jobs for him, none of which Adam felt took any talent or education: "All it required was patience and good looks." Realizing that he wasn't cut out for L.A., he returned to New York ; counting on some of his acquaintances to open some doors for him . Yes, it was easy for him to make first-time contacts with several agents in New York, but the agents weren't interested in him, telling him that he was too "down town-looking, too ethnic ." "They told me to call when I was in something, which I did, but they never showed," Adam noted .
Does he see having an agent as a plus? "They pro vide the opportunity to go into an audition, to be seen for film and TV work , on stages such as the Roundabout, the Public ...I want to be able to work on Broadway, Off-Broadway, at the Public-I want to be able to do Shakespeare in the Park," Adam told me. "But," he continued, "I could spend my whole life doing the business of the art. I won't stop doing what I'm doing now."
And so, to fill the time, Adam wrote and performed his one-person shows, doing one here in New York at the Workhouse theatre right before the theatre closed. Adam was with the Workhouse for four or five years , and cal led himself an "orphan" now that it's no longer around. "I lost my true home. The Workhouse is where I grew up, where I learned; it gave me an identity . It gave me a cachet.
Adam described the appeal of working with ensemble groups like the Workhouse or like the Adobe where he is presently . "There's this incredible working relationship , a vocabulary that you begin to share. The work is far more rewarding."
Adam has also just completed work on a film which stars Scott Glenn, John Turturro, Amy Brenneman, and Elizabeth Perkins. "Lesser Prophets " was written by Paul Diomede, is being produced by Richard Temtchine and directed by William DeVizia all independent filmmakers, working under the banner of October Films , and doing a major studio film for the first time.
So, if moving to an uptown theatre and working on a major studio production doesn't quite fit the image of Adam that I just described, he asserts, "As long as it's not taking me away from my original navigation.
Adam is the first of a few "downtown" artists that Back Stage will focus on in an upcoming issue.