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Letters from Backstage:
The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor
Book Review by John Olson
As a theater fan rather than a performer I sometimes try to picture the everyday lives of the people who make a living on stage. It's not hard to empathize with taking acting and vocal classes (I've been to school), and I would guess that auditioning is not so different from the hundreds of job interviews I've had. What captivates me is trying to picture the routine of performers in a long-running show: what I would imagine to be the short work-days, the relatively predictable responsibilities each day, things like that. Especially, though, what it must be like to be on tour and be separated from one's home, friends and family for a year or more. Letters from Backstage, a journal of two years on the road written by character actor Michael Kostroff promised to answer those questions and I jumped at the chance to read it. A charter member of the first national touring company of The Producers, Kostroff followed a year with that tour by immediately signing on for a year with a new touring company of Les Misérables in which he would play Thénardier. His book, which he says began as a series of emails sent from the road to friends, undoubtedly captures a lot of the details of life on tour, but it seems to miss the essence of the experience.
It may be that the routine of a performer in a tour is fairly mundane and not all that different from the experiences of anyone who has to travel for work. I think, though, the reason I felt like I was missing something was that Kostroff doesn't really share much of his feelings. Though he reveals that he's single, I don't know anything about how he felt about being separated from friends or any other loved ones back home. He mentions certain castmates and tells stories about little side trips or adventures they shared, but he doesn't give any details about these castmates that would allow us to know them or understand his relationship to them. Do they form a surrogate family on the road? Did he seem broken up about leaving his Producers co-workers after a year? It's hard to tell. For example, he describes Michael Paternostro, who assumed the role of Carmen Ghia after the tour was underway as "a wonderful, positive guy who fits right in with our cast" and that's it. No examples of wonderful, positive behavior that might help us picture the man and decide for ourselves. His Madame Thénardier is "the delightful Cindy Benson." Delightful because ? Were there any cast members not wonderful or delightful? Kostroff may have been respecting the privacy of his coworkers, but he's equally guarded about himself, and the book suffers for it.
There are some nuggets, though, and the book picks up considerably after Kostroff joins the Les Misérables tour. We hear more about his connections with locals like teaching a master class in Cleveland and conversing with an odd but enthusiastic stage door regular in Boston. He gets out and explores the communities visited by the tour as well, giving a sensitive reaction to the recession-ridden Flint, Michigan, finding respect for Des Moines, Iowa, and getting bored with the Lincoln sites in Springfield, Illinois. The Les Misérables chapters also offer some dish about tech problems, like malfunctioning turntables and computer boards, that apparently come with the territory for long running shows. Kostroff shares a number of anecdotes about various games and pranks played by cast members during performances, which though not wildly funny, help to establish a picture of life in a road company. For example, on the night of the Tony Awards (the year their director Jason Moore was nominated for Avenue Q), cast members watched the telecast offstage and passed notes relaying the results to the actors onstage.
Some of the other strong points include descriptions of the historic theaters in which touring companies perform. The vast 4,600-seat Fox Theater in Atlanta with its "neo-Middle-Eastern-exotic" design, seven floors of dressing rooms and a basement so huge its hallways have been given street names to keep performers and crew from getting lost sounds particularly fascinating. So does the Fox in St. Louis, with an auditorium so vast Kostroff says it has a time delay between the punch lines and the laughter. Then there's the allegedly haunted Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, scene of several mechanical failures and otherworldly phenomena.
Maybe the life of a touring-company performer is not all that different from that of any "road warrior." Kostroff's horror stories about bad help at hotels and restaurants certainly ring true, and that may be precisely why he didn't need to include quite so many of them. It seems he also follows up most of his minor complaints with an acknowledgement of how lucky he is to be working, and in such important shows. True enough, but it gets old to read that in every chapter. Still, if you don't mind wading through a lot of less than fascinating stories you'll undoubtedly find some anecdotes of interest in Letters from Backstage. As a "civilian" I can't say if touring companies casts are just "blue-collar actors" (a term Kostroff uses) with relatively mundane routines or if he was just too timid to let us in on the juicy stuff. Maybe the best genre for the type of detail I'd like to read would be a fictionalized novel or TV series. Desperate Chorus Kids?