After decades of perseverance, an actor redefines success and finds happiness

Patrick Healy, The New York Times, 1/3/12

When Reed Birney's big break finally came, after 30 years as a journeyman actor in New York, he nearly let it pass him by. [In] 2008, at one of their regular coffee-cum-commiseration sessions, the actress Marin Ireland asked Mr. Birney to join her Off Broadway in Blasted, a British play about lost souls enduring emotional and physical atrocities. Later that day, after reading the first few pages, Mr. Birney shot her a text message: "I CAN'T TAKE MY CLOTHES OFF!" But soon he said yes, reasoning that he had nothing to lose by testing himself with a character who not only got naked but also raped and maimed before dying miserably. "At first the idea felt as silly as somebody saying, 'Reed, we want you to play Stanley Kowalski,' " Mr. Birney said. "I realized, after so many awful years in the business, how little I thought of myself as an actor sometimes." Blasted paid $300 a week, played in a 73-seat theater and changed Mr. Birney's life. His acclaimed performance led to important roles in seven other celebrated Off Broadway productions -- and now to his first play on Broadway since his debut 35 years ago in Gemini. Mr. Birney is returning in the small but key role of a henpecked businessman in the revival of Picnic. Winning a Tony was a childhood dream of Mr. Birney's ever since he began fantasizing about Broadway from his rural hometown, Seaford, Del. But at 58, after landing his second job on Broadway, he is quick to say that he'd be getting ahead of himself to imagine winning Tonys: "Right now I just feel like I'm the poster boy for perseverance... When I was young and cute, I thought I had to really get rich and famous. And I was getting older and my looks were going, and I wasn't getting famous, or even a little bit famous, I thought -- oh dear, what a sad thing. I was just wildly frustrated. I felt like I had something more to give, but no one was buying for the longest time." Now, it seems, no one can get enough of Mr. Birney, at least among downtown theater artists, many of whom are half his age. "Playing middle-aged roles Off Broadway was never what I wanted, but it has given me this wildly unexpected happy life," he said. "And now I believe again that I could play the great roles anywhere. Even Tyrone. Even Broadway."


Commentary: This year, more artists should redefine success

Polly Carl,, 1/6/13

I think the idea of what defines success in our field has become significantly more narrow over time. In fact, I might argue that what defines success has become so tedious and tiresome that new definitions are coming out of the closet to challenge a version just serving as a cover-up.

Tired Trajectory to Success: Theater artist gets trained > Theater artist emerges > Theater artist gets small gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets big gigs in small theaters > Theater artist gets small gigs in big theaters > Theater artist gets big gigs in big theaters.

This journey toward success suggests many things that I find problematic for any art form: That success is linear. That the definition of success is predetermined. That success in the theater is realized by simply counting the number of people sitting in the theater who see your writing or your performance or your design. These problems beg the question: Why? Why do we love theater? Why do we make it? Fifteen years in, I keep redefining success for myself. Success for me might just mean creating theater with more gravitas -- a profession that has more weight and bearing in the world -- by making theater in whatever way we do it, we succeed when we become more gracious and generous people. The problem with predetermined paths to success is that for better or worse, the paths are well trodden, and the deep grooves cause us to try and find a way to make ourselves fit into something that has become ossified and unoriginal. And the truth is that not many theater artists, because they are such creative people, can make it down that predetermined road with any regularity. And strangely, many artists who do find success on these terms don't recognize it when they get there. I've met very few theater artists who will acknowledge that they've "made it" even though from the vantage point of those success markers, they clearly have. Why is that? Is it because they had to make so many compromises along the way? Is it because like for those who go down the Wall Street road, there's never enough? Never enough money? Accolades? Positive reviews? Awards? Standing O's? Like the billionaires, they've spent so much time in acquisition mode, they can't stop wanting more, they can't stop and see that at some point there is enough for them, and perhaps in a more generous world, for everyone?


Commentary: Playwright residencies: success on whose terms?

David Dower,, 1/9/13

On Sunday night, as Polly Carl's post about defining success was landing on HowlRound, the New York Times broke the story of the Mellon Foundation's National Playwright Residency Initiative, which places playwrights on the staff of 14 theaters in eleven cities around the country. This capped a busy couple of weeks for playwrights and residencies in the press. I should have been celebrating. This is a drum I've been pounding for nearly a decade. Instead I was struck by the gulf revealed in the reporting between what I perceive as a movement gathering steam and the way this movement is perceived by my colleagues in the press. The disconnect reveals the full importance and challenge of defining success in our field in terms that are relevant and organic, in particular when those terms buck the traditional narrative. [In 2010, when Arena Stage launched its own residency program, the American Voices New Play Institute, Washington Post critic Peter Marks called it:] "...a simple idea that is almost revolutionary. If the initiative works, the way theater treats these key players will change dramatically." Over the holiday break I read the latest post in [AVNPI's blog]. You get a sense of the sweeping impact the residencies have had, not just on the playwrights, but on theaters around the country that have successfully mounted work by these writers since the residencies began. This post was accompanied by a Washington Post article [by theater critic Peter Marks] that announced the departure of Katori Hall from the program and called into question the success of the residency program, based on the [number of] Arena Stage productions that have resulted from the initiative, now entering its third year. Please note that both Mr. Marks and the Post in general have been stalwart in their support for new work in the D.C. community over a number of years. So it is particularly alarming when this paper, and Mr. Marks in particular, seem to lose the thread. The definition of success that Mr. Marks is setting out is not the same definition the theater is using. I have no doubt that there are legitimate terms of success that could be used to describe the importance of this opportunity for the writers Arena has engaged. And it would be interesting and informative to understand and track those. But as it stands, the markers that are standing in the void left by a transparent, clear, and truthful assessment of success doom the effort to failure, a failure which will become attached to those same writers.


"The Weekly Howl" is an open-access discussion about theater culture and contemporary performance on Twitter. Today (Thursday, January 10) at 2pm EST/11am PST [you are invited to join an online] talk about how you define success and failure in the theater world from the perspective of artists and organizations. Get heard in the conversation by searching for #newplay on Twitter (sort by "all") and by putting "#newplay" somewhere in your messages.
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