U.S. Their Stage, D.C. Their Playground
When the Curtain Falls, Traveling Theater Troupes Improvise to Fill Empty Hours

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

On Craigslist, the place sounded perfect: hardwood floors, new appliances, good location. Just right for four actors who needed a Washington sublet for the two-week run of their touring show, "Chicago."

"The guy on the phone told us it was within walking distance of all the monuments and the National Theatre," said Daniel Gutierrez, 26.

But when you spend months or years hopscotching the country with a Broadway play, another opening means another set of on-the-road challenges: booking a vet for your traveling cat, finding a yoga teacher, making do with an apartment that is not quite as advertised.

What the actors found when they arrived last week was not a dream sublet minutes from the theater; it was an apartment in a dicey area of boarded-up houses and abandoned cars a few blocks off Bladensburg Road, more than four miles from the stage door. The place itself was nice and the neighbors welcoming. But they warned the young actors to stay off the streets at night.

"The taxi driver was, like, 'For god's sake, be careful around here,' " said Evelyn Tonn, 23, who plays Hunyak, a Hungarian murderess. She and her roommates were unpacking, putting up their portable chin-up bar and making the best of a little tour-life misfire. "We've been in the same situation in other cities. Downtown Cleveland is no walk in the park, either."

Dozens of touring performers bring their out-of-a-suitcase lifestyle to Washington each year -- six or seven equity touring shows stop here annually. Their stays range from weeks to months. The city has a reputation among touring actors as tough for accommodations (mostly because of the expense) and terrific for sightseeing, nightlife and receptive audiences.

And, believe it or not, good pizza.

"I always go to Matchbox Pizza in Chinatown as soon I get to D.C.," said "Chicago" tour manager Dhyana Colony, who has been here five times in almost a decade of nonstop travel. Her job is to find hotels, gyms, banks, physical therapists and good cupcakes for the frequent birthday celebrations they hold during the intermissions. Once an actor asked her to find him a good colonic.

"I'm the nurse," Colony said, "I'm the camp counselor; I'm the single mom."

According to Colony and others who cycle through regularly, Washington neatly fits the actor's schedule of free days and late nights. There are movie theaters with good weekday matinees and restaurants that stay open past the final curtain call -- M&S Grill on 13th Street, which is close to the National, Warner and Ford's theaters, is filled with still-buzzing performers many a midnight.

The city's academic bent is also a plus. One cast member of "Spamalot" used the local libraries as he pursued an online degree. Another found a timely workshop in American Sign Language at Gallaudet.

"It combined my love of languages with my love of movement and dance," said Darryl Semira, 29, who took Metro to the campus each day for two weeks. "There was just enough time for me to leave, grab a bite to eat and do the show every night."

But what Washington mainly offers is lots of what touring actors covet most: a nearly endless stock of sightseeing to fill the off-hours between the breakfast table and the make-up chair.

"It's hard to get rest in D.C., there are so many diversions," Gabrielle Ruiz said one day last month as she walked toward the Capitol for a tour of the Senate. The dancer was in town with "A Chorus Line" and finding it hard to sleep in. "In Raleigh, you can rest up."

A life of nonstop touring is an odd one. On the upside, you get a precious professional acting slot, have a chance to bank some savings and forge tight bonds with an ensemble of fellow travelers. On the downside, you can go months without a meal that isn't followed by a bill, never know one bed for more than a few weeks and family relations come filtered through laptops and cellphones.

Personalizing is key, actors say, from family pictures in the dressing room to Grandma's quilt on the hotel bed. The orchestra leader of one show famously replaces all the low-watt hotel bulbs with his own incandescents.

Christopher Gurr, in his fourth year as Sir Bedevere in "Spamalot," instantly strips his rooms of corporate signage and sets up his French press coffee brewer, teakettle and laptop.

"The caffeine altar and the technology altar, and you've got your monastic cell," Gurr said. "It's about making it a little less like a hotel room." (Not completely monastic, Gurr's second order of business is to find out who pours the best Guinness. In Washington, he settled on the Brickskeller on 22nd Street.)

At the Mount Pleasant apartment "Chicago" actress Terra C. MacLeod rented with a roommate last week, she unpacked and prepared to light the Aveda shampure candle she burns to keep a consistent scent from city to city.

"I usually live in hoodies and baseball caps, but I decided to bring some of my cute clothes from Montreal," said MacLeod, a Canadian who plays Velma in the musical. "You never know who you're going to meet in Washington."

"A Chorus Line" veteran Anthony Wayne, 27, has honed his tour philosophy down to three parts, which he recites to all newbies: "Drink your water, get your rest and save your coins."

Like many actors, Wayne treats his tour years like an athlete's prime, a limited window of high-earning and nest-egg building. Actors' salaries range widely, depending on various factors. Although Washington, as one of the expensive cities where the actor's union demands a $42 supplement to the usual $826 a week, is known as a hard place to practice penny pinching, he said.

One way to save is to double up in hotel rooms or find an apartment to share, as the "Chicago" foursome did (although after a few days, they moved nearer to the theater where the show is playing through next weekend). Another is to cook whenever a kitchenette is at hand.

Carol Woods, who has toured the world as Mama Morton in "Chicago," goes further with hotel cooking than most. In Washington, she makes a point of shopping the Maine Avenue fish markets and is famous for throwing huge Caribbean and soul food feasts, sometimes taping over hotel smoke detectors to do it.

"Baby, I have cooked meals for 60 people on one of those little stoves," said Woods, who travels with pots, knives and a spice rack. "I brought my electric fry pan to Japan."

While Woods takes a little home life on the road, Colony, the "Chicago" tour manager, has become so nomadic that road life has invaded her home. When she bought an investment house in Las Vegas recently, she copied the decor from a Hyatt in Louisville. For her infrequent nights in her own room, she installed a Heavenly Bed from Westin.

"I'm just built for life on the road," she said.

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