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Making it: Actors work to earn a living on the Central Coast 

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the last name of actor Cameron Parker.

It was the 1980s and teenager Mark Booher decided to audition for PCPA's (The Pacific Conservatory Theatre) summer cast in Santa Maria.

"I remember sitting there thinking, 'These people are a lot better than me,'" Booher said.

He was right. Booher didn't make the cut that year. But a decade or so later, he returned to PCPA as the artistic director and associate dean.

click to enlarge MOVING DAY Actor Toby Tropper loads his car up with all his worldly possessions in preparation for driving to Utah for an acting gig this summer. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • MOVING DAY Actor Toby Tropper loads his car up with all his worldly possessions in preparation for driving to Utah for an acting gig this summer.

"Things turned out OK," he said.

From PCPA springs a fountain of actors like Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society), Vincent Rodriguez III (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Boyd James (four-time Tony award winner who's acted in Broadway productions like The Heidi Chronicles, She Loves Me, Contact, and Gypsy). But in addition to those who get their start on the Central Coast and become household names across the country, there is a contingent of actors who work to live on the Central Coast. They manage to pay the bills in one of the least affordable places to live in the country by stepping onto local stages like PCPA, the Great American Melodrama, and the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre.

"There is great artistic work happening here and some of that is paying people," Booher said. "It makes it more possible for people to make their life here."

The actors' factory

To the north and south of the Central Coast are the metropolises of LA and San Francisco. Teeming with theater and film acting scenes, those are the places where the wannabe protagonist in a big-budget Hollywood movie go to "make it big." But between the big cities, tucked away in rural Santa Maria is a rigorous theater-training program with a unique structure.

click to enlarge A FLOP GONE WRONG Things go awry when famous Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Billy Breed, right) and lowly accountant Leo Bloom (Toby Tropper) hatch a plan to get rich off a play that they hope will bomb in SLO Repertory Theatre's production of The Producers this February. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RYLO MEDIA DESIGN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Rylo Media Design
  • A FLOP GONE WRONG Things go awry when famous Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Billy Breed, right) and lowly accountant Leo Bloom (Toby Tropper) hatch a plan to get rich off a play that they hope will bomb in SLO Repertory Theatre's production of The Producers this February.

The two-year intensive acting program is a part of Allan Hancock College, meaning students pay community college tuition to attend and leave with a certificate rather than a degree, making it the only program of its kind in the country.

"The idea that they can receive professional level training at community college prices ... . I don't want them exiting the program with $200,000 in debt," Booher said. "That's just irresponsible. This way, they can take jobs in the theater rather than focusing on paying off debt."

Aside from being a bargain, PCPA's conservatory model has its teachers and department heads making up the bulk of the resident theater company. Meaning that these actors get to teach by day and practice their craft by night, often alongside their students—if they manage to land a role.

"I just thought they had the best jobs in the world," said Eric Stein, who went through PCPA's program in 1988. "And it happened to be on the Central Coast of California."

click to enlarge NOT WHAT IT SEEMS Billy Breed and Cameron Parker tackle myriad roles, like a Scottish husband and wife running an inn, opposite Timothy Stewart and Kate Worley-Beck in The 39 Steps at the SLO Repertory Theatre in April. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RYLO MEDIA DESIGN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Rylo Media Design
  • NOT WHAT IT SEEMS Billy Breed and Cameron Parker tackle myriad roles, like a Scottish husband and wife running an inn, opposite Timothy Stewart and Kate Worley-Beck in The 39 Steps at the SLO Repertory Theatre in April.

While Stein had no interest in pursuing higher education, he desperately wanted to return to PCPA as a professor and member of the resident company. So in an attempt to woo the school, he picked up a few stage credits performing on Broadway. The tease worked. For nearly 10 years, Stein has worked as PCPA's casting director, teaching classes like audition techniques and the business of acting. Right now he's playing the role of Frolo in the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame alongside several of his students.

"It is so great because we have to walk the walk," Stein said. "It has definitely made me a better actor, immeasurably. The act of simplifying something down to a clean, teachable sentence just makes me that much better."

The local scene

Since actor Toby Tropper (recently seen in The Producers at the San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre) graduated from PCPA five years ago, the longest he's been between roles (aka, work) has been about a month, and the majority of his acting jobs have come from the Great American Melodrama in Oceano, the SLO Repertory Theatre (formerly SLO Little Theatre), and the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, where Tropper is from. From being a sultry, all-knowing cross-dressing club host in war-time Berlin in Cabaret to becoming a panic attack prone accountant-turned-Broadway schemer in The Producers, Tropper brings a certain level of sincerity and vulnerability to the roles he takes on.

click to enlarge DREAM BIG, KID Emboldened by his dreams of becoming a Broadway producer, Leo Bloom (Toby Tropper, center) finally leaves his miserable accounting job and tyrannical boss behind in SLO Repertory Theatre's production of The Producers this February. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RYLO MEDIA DESIGN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Rylo Media Design
  • DREAM BIG, KID Emboldened by his dreams of becoming a Broadway producer, Leo Bloom (Toby Tropper, center) finally leaves his miserable accounting job and tyrannical boss behind in SLO Repertory Theatre's production of The Producers this February.

"This is how we make a living," Tropper said. "It's a very small theater community, especially on the Central Coast. We all know each other and have worked together."

Wages for acting jobs can vary widely in this region, from $300 to $1,000 a week, depending on the theater, the actor's experience, and whether or not the actor is a member of the Actors Equity Association. Still, between jobs, things can get tight. Tropper tries to remember that when he gets a windfall and plans ahead. The paycheck that Tropper gets from performing in the annual Christmas show at the Melodrama can tide him over financially for months, if he's careful.

"It can definitely be scary when you look in the checking account and there's not much in there until the next job," Tropper said. "It makes you hustle."

Unlike film acting, most theater actors aren't getting rich and famous off their performances. To help make up the difference, theaters like the Melodrama own housing for actors to stay in during the run of a show, and the SLO Repertory Theatre will call on members of the community and patrons of the arts to temporarily house actors in their homes.

Cameron Parker (currently performing in Less Miserable at the Melodrama), also a PCPA alum and Tropper's best friend, has bounced from Melodrama housing to a private beautiful home in Pismo Beach overlooking the ocean, to a house in Los Osos just 10 minutes away from Montana de Oro, to a spot located just a five minute walk away from downtown SLO, to another home only five minutes away from the Bishop Peak trail head. At 24 years old, Parker still isn't tired of picking up and going somewhere new in the name of charmingly portraying slapstick comedic roles (like a female Scottish innkeeper or a lingerie salesman in The Producers) or carving out more nuanced perfomances, such as the golden-boy-turned-widower George Gibbs in Our Town.

"All the people who have housed me have been super generous," Parker said. "It's amazing. I always have to pinch myself if I ever get bored or jaded and remind myself that I'm living on the Central Coast, getting paid to do what I love."

click to enlarge HEAR ME ROAR Karole Foreman's nuanced and powerful performance as Rose Maxson was one of the defining features of PCPA's season-ending production of Fences in 2017. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LUIS ESCOBAR/REFLECTIONS PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Luis Escobar/reflections Photography Studio
  • HEAR ME ROAR Karole Foreman's nuanced and powerful performance as Rose Maxson was one of the defining features of PCPA's season-ending production of Fences in 2017.

However, there are times when the well runs dry, at least for a time. In between acting gigs here, Parker goes back home and helps his father run the Mosaic Lizard Theater in Alhambra, where he has acted, written, directed, and produced shows, in addition to teaching theater classes. He also recently acted in a local commercial for Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center as a beaming young dad taking a selfie with his wife and new baby. Fellow PCPA alum Mike Fiore (recently seen in Lost In Yonkers at SLO Repertory Theatre) also teaches acting classes for SLO Rep's Academy of Creative Theatre for kids and starred in a different commercial for Dignity Health. Molly Dobbs, an Arroyo Grande native who starred in PCPA's November production of Freaky Friday, sometimes works catering gigs, tutors, sells clothes online, and does transcribing for medical companies when need be.

"It's not un-stressful, but I don't think anyone in my generation isn't stressed out by financial stuff, no matter what your degree is in," said Dobbs, who studied theater and acting abroad in Glasgow and London. "If you're paying your bills acting, you're succeeding."

On the road again

Come this summer, Tropper will fill his hatchback Ford Focus with everything he owns and make the long drive to Logan, Utah, to perform with the Lyric Repertory Theatre for the season in productions like Macbeth and Sense and Sensibility. A former PCPA teacher hooked Tropper up with an audition, and he'll be housed for free as part of the gig.

click to enlarge DREAM A DREAM Cameron Parker (left) and Mia Mekjian (right) deliver nonstop laughs in the Great American Melodrama's production of Less Miserable, showing through June 10 in Oceano. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GREAT AMERICAN MELODRAMA
  • Photo Courtesy Of Great American Melodrama
  • DREAM A DREAM Cameron Parker (left) and Mia Mekjian (right) deliver nonstop laughs in the Great American Melodrama's production of Less Miserable, showing through June 10 in Oceano.

"I'm excited to work with new people and see what it's like to be at a different theater," the 26-year-old Tropper said. "I'm kind of enjoying this vagabond regional theater actor thing."

Actors Billy Breed (recently seen in The39 Steps at the SLO Repertory Theatre) and Karole Foreman (seen in PCPA's production of Fences in September) are older and more established, with home bases in Santa Maria and Long Beach, respectively, but they both still travel when the work requires it.

Foreman has worked at venues like the Denver Center Theater Company, Long Beach Civic Light Opera, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She's also acted on television shows like Gray's Anatomy, Law and Order, and Pretty Little Liars.

"For a lot us making it in theater, it's the regional theater scene. Those of us who work are flying under the radar," Foreman said. "People have no idea there's some great theater in their backyard."

Dobbs was bit by the theater bug young, performing in PCPA's The Sound of Music when she was 13. She chose to further her acting craft by studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow for her undergrad and on to the Royal Academy of Music in London for her master's degree. While she's home on the Central Coast for the moment (she'll be performing in PCPA's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in June and also in Mama Mia in July), Dobbs is actively doing Skype auditions for shows in places like New York and London. Besides traveling for work, every three to four months she's either hopping on a plane or waiting at the airport to see her boyfriend, an English actor she met at school in Scotland who's currently working in the U.K.

"I'm one of those people who kind of gypsies around," the 25-year-old Dobbs said. "I never think of moving to a place."

A place to call home

click to enlarge SETTING DOWN ROOTS Local actors (and boyfriend and girlfriend) Mike Fiore and Rachel Tietz recently moved into their first place with a lease in Arroyo Grande. Until recently the two have lived in various theater-sponsored housing that changed from gig to gig. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SETTING DOWN ROOTS Local actors (and boyfriend and girlfriend) Mike Fiore and Rachel Tietz recently moved into their first place with a lease in Arroyo Grande. Until recently the two have lived in various theater-sponsored housing that changed from gig to gig.

While Foreman currently owns her home in Long Beach, she moved from show to show and actor-sponsored housing situations from 1993 to 2003, working the regional theater circuit. She eventually settled in Las Vegas and bought a home while she performed in the musical Mama Mia. She later moved back to California to be closer to friends and family.

"I really wanted to get off the road and establish some roots," Foreman said.

Breed is originally from West Virginia and trained as a professional dancer before an injury caused him to refocus his career on acting. It shows in the highly physical, comedic roles he tends to be cast in, such as a handful of characters in The 39 Steps, including a ne'er-do-well bad guy being hotly pursued by the show's hero.

After four cold years of working as an actor in Chicago, Breed took a leap of faith. He decided to try and make it on the Central Coast, first getting work at the Melodrama, then PCPA, and most recently the SLO Repertory Theatre. He also regularly travels north to work at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre. He currently rents a room from a close friend in Santa Maria as his home base.

"You get to a certain age where your priorities shift," the 55-year-old Breed said. "You think, 'OK, I still want to be a working actor, but I want to live where I want to live."

click to enlarge HOMETOWN GIRL Molly Dobbs, who plays Ellie in PCPA's 2017 production of Freaky Friday, shines as a worried mother in the body of her teenage daughter. - PHOTO COURTESY OF LUIS ESCOBAR/REFLECTIONS PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Luis Escobar/reflections Photography Studio
  • HOMETOWN GIRL Molly Dobbs, who plays Ellie in PCPA's 2017 production of Freaky Friday, shines as a worried mother in the body of her teenage daughter.

Fiore was born and raised in San Luis Obispo and finished up with the certificate program at PCPA in 2011. Shortly after that, his first professional gig was in the Melodrama's performance of The Werewolf of Dr. Oz. Aside from a stint acting in New York for six months ("Fuck that," Fiore said. "You have to be so cutthroat. It's so detached and impersonal."), he's mostly worked locally at the Melodrama and SLO Rep (with stints up north at the Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora), bouncing back and forth between actor-sponsored housing and his family's home. He turns out stunning performances that show the soft, vulnerable underside of grittier, shadier characters—whether it's the mean bully of a sibling who's jealous of his brother's success in True West or the mobster uncle who's trying to help his nephews through a tough time in Lost in Yonkers.

At 26 years old, he recently signed his first lease for a house in Arroyo Grande that he's renting with his girlfriend, Rachel Tietz, another actor. The two met working in a 2016 production of Trudy and The Beast, playing sidekicks to the lead characters. Sparks flew on- and offstage.

"I like it here," Fiore said. "Paying bills, mowing a lawn, this is all new to me, and it's weird how that can be delayed. I'm kind of seeding roots in this area."

To be continued

With the SLO Repertory Theatre going professional last year and paying actors and crews for main stage productions, local, working thespians now have three theaters within a roughly 30-mile radius to try and earn paychecks at.

click to enlarge IN THE FAMILY Uncle and gangster Louie (Mike Fiore) counsels his nephews on how to survive living with their strict grandmother in SLO Repertory Theatre's recent production of Lost in Yonkers. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMIE FOSTER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Jamie Foster Photography
  • IN THE FAMILY Uncle and gangster Louie (Mike Fiore) counsels his nephews on how to survive living with their strict grandmother in SLO Repertory Theatre's recent production of Lost in Yonkers.

"It's been great to provide another place for local actors to work," SLO Rep Managing Artistic Director Kevin Harris said. "Everyone really wants to stay around here; it's a beautiful place."

The theater is in the early stages of fundraising for a new building in the downtown area that could cost anywhere from $7 million to $10 million. They hope to break ground in 2021 or 2022. With the additional space that theater would provide, Harris said SLO Rep could expand its offerings for children's theater classes as well as add acting and stagecraft classes for adults. Harris also wants to bring in playwrights who could workshop material with local actors, enabling the theater to produce and perform original work. One day, SLO Repertory Theatre could even become a conservatory like PCPA, but that would be years and years down the road, Harris said.

"That's certainly the direction we're going in, though it's not a hard and fast plan," Harris said. "We want to be a part of the larger artistic discussion about theater and evolve the art form."

With more potential to create and develop theater in SLO, actors like Fiore and Tietz are considering going back to school to be more competitive as potential hires should that potential conservatory take shape in SLO. Fiore can also see himself maybe one day teaching something unrelated to theater, like social studies, while acting on the side as a hobby.

"It's a weird gig, and people don't understand it," Fiore said of acting. "It's great if your career makes you happy, but if trying to make the thing you enjoy a career makes you miserable, what's the point? I haven't branched out a lot."

Parker said he plans to go home to Alhambra after the run of Less Miserable is over at the Melodrama in mid-June. Parker grew up in the theater and went straight to PCPA after high school. In some ways, acting is all the 24-year-old has ever known.

click to enlarge SIDE HUSTLE In between acting gigs, Arroyo Grande native Molly Dobbs sometimes works catering jobs, tutors, sells clothes online, and does transcribing for medical companies in order to pay the bills. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SIDE HUSTLE In between acting gigs, Arroyo Grande native Molly Dobbs sometimes works catering jobs, tutors, sells clothes online, and does transcribing for medical companies in order to pay the bills.

"As I get older and my priorities shift around, I ask myself where I want to be and how much stability do I want," Parker said. "I wonder if I'd be good at anything else."

Parker doesn't know what his future holds, but he's mulling it over. He's considering maybe working with animals and wildlife, possibly volunteering at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in South Africa, which rehabilitates and provides sanctuary for orphaned, injured, and abandoned primates. Or maybe not.

"There's such great theater on the Central Coast," Parker said. "PCPA, Melodrama, and SLO Rep are just very special. It doesn't feel like theater is dying. It's such a beautiful place. It's difficult to leave. Maybe I won't leave." Δ

Arts Editor Ryah Cooley works full time at New Times, and yes they actually pay her. Send comments to rcooley@newtimesslo.com.

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