August 15, 2009

STRANGER: Cecil Baldwin
LOCATION: Belcourt, 84 East 4th Street, New York City
THEME: Acting up in Manhattan

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

Originally, Cecil Baldwin intended to be a lawyer or a high school teacher. Sound, steady professions. You clock in, you get your paycheck, you live a nine to five life. But sometimes it’s the simplest things in life that spur the greatest changes. So it was that a local storytelling competition in rural Tennessee led Cecil on a journey that present day has him living an unpredictable life working as an actor in New York City.

From the moment I met him on the corner outside Belcourt restaurant in Manhattan one warm and sticky lunchtime in August, it was easy to picture him keeping your attention on stage because when he talks, you want to listen, and he carries himself with an enviable natural self-confidence that puts you immediately at ease in his company.

Cecil, 30, is a waiter by day and an audition hound at all other times, trying out for stage, commercial, and other roles whenever he can, often several times a day. But if you’re thinking “oh, another waiter who wants to be an actor,” then please put your preconceptions to one side. Unlike glamorous trust-fund babies who decide on a whim to go into acting because they look good and think it’ll be fun, Cecil has put a lot of hard work into his career to date.

It’s a life that’s taken him on a zigzag journey from his rural upbringing to stints at college in Illinois and my former hometown of Hull in the United Kingdom, through to a good run in Washington, DC, touring the states, and his most recent goal of Manhattan.

Our speedy service at Belcourt meant that before I even had time to switch on the tape recorder for the interview we were diving into a warm, delicious pair of buttermilk biscuits with Italian butter, house made ricotta, honey and preserves. Understated flavors and a great start to brunch, washed down with a $10 mimosa for me a $9 champagne julep for Cecil. The drink prices were a bit steep, but the $7 price tag on the biscuits was good value.

Disclosure: I interrupted Cecil’s life story to ask him what the white stuff on top of the biscuits was, which he knew was ricotta — shame on me for not reading the menu. With my fat face stuffed full of food, it was impossible for me to interrupt again, so Cecil resumed his story.

He’s from a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee, growing up near the Appalachian Mountains and spending 18 years enjoying — and sometimes not enjoying — the rural way of life. This was around the time he still wanted to go down the apparently sensible route of becoming a lawyer or teacher. But it’s also the time that he started to enter storytelling competitions.

Folk history is vibrant in Cecil’s hometown, he said, including arts, crafts, quilting, and of course spinning yarns. He gave it a whirl telling some ghost stories in the contests, and “I started to think this is really cool, here I am looking at 30 people and telling them a story and the best part is getting the energy back from. I could tell when they were interested and when they weren’t.” That initial taste of instant feedback was all it took, and Cecil’s career plans changed.

After telling his parents he wanted to try his hand at acting, he started doing musical theater at the Oak Ridge Community Playhouse, one highlight being a production of Oliver! the musical about Charles Dickens’ eponymous orphan. Oh, and he also did a few concerts singing Broadway hits while dressed in gold lame…I guess there are highs and lows in any fledgling actor’s life.

“I was in the wrong market for dating in DC

Treading the boards while at high school was all well and good, but Cecil knew he needed to go to college if he were to get a real job in acting, and so he started looking around for possible venues. Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, offered him a “big ass scholarship” and that blocked out his consideration of other colleges. He rationalized that he would need all the free things he could get because he’d chosen to be an actor — in contrast to, say, a lawyer who is expected to make a certain amount of money when they graduate.

While Peoria might not be the most exciting place in the world, Cecil made some great friends and had some fantastic experiences. He says the same for a brief time studying theatre abroad in England at the University of Hull. From experience I can say that Hull is not exactly the most vibrant city in my home country, but I share Cecil’s sentiment that some of the people and some of the experiences I had there more than compensate.

By the way, if any Peorians are reading this site and take offense at the opening few words of the last paragraph, I have never visited your potentially fine city, so please don’t get angry.

Cecil graduated with a bachelor of arts in theatre performance and almost secured a minor in philosophy. He didn’t really chuckle when I quipped that he philosophized that the minor wasn’t right for him, but that could be because he was distracted — and visibly confused — at that exact moment by a rather curious fellow walking nearby who was dressed in clothing several sizes too small for his generous frame. That’s the mild version of the character that passed by.

The look of confusion and wonderment on Cecil’s face might be what he saw when he moved to Washington, DC, and started work as an actor. The city’s main business is politics, and he said, “When I would tell people in DC that I’m an actor they’d look at me like I’m a leprechaun that’s sprung up from the pavement.” It’s the straight-laced city’s same attitude to more artistic professions that Cecil says is one reason he was never able to find a serious long-term relationship in the city. “I was in the wrong market,” he said, because potential dates “didn’t understand why I didn’t work in the Patent Office or wear Abercrombie & Fitch all the time.”

Nevertheless his arrival in DC marked a five-year stay that was incredibly productive.

Cecil performed in seven plays in two years, which he said is on the high end of an actor’s potential workload, and specialized in playing parts either older than he was — he could pass by 30 in his mid-20s (in a good way, naturally) — or comic parts in classic plays. An internship at the DC Shakespeare Theatre had Cecil up against a lot of very serious, Yale-trained actors who didn’t want to touch the rich comedic parts that the Bard wrote, so Cecil grabbed them and quickly built a name as a reliable, talented performer.

And so it went for roughly five years. Taking parts here and there, building up his acting resume, complemented with a day job as an administrative assistant in a faceless office building. But there was something very temporary about the situation, Cecil said, an obvious statement to anyone who has lived in DC, a transient city where some people tend to drop in for a few years, pad their work experience, then move on to (typically) bigger and better things.

“I could feel myself cooling off, and felt kind of stagnant after a while. I either needed to buy a house and get a real job, or get the fuck out. So I got the fuck out,” Cecil said.

“The second I walk out of an audition I try to forget about it

The only problem with moving to New York City was a lack of funds. So Cecil went on a touring childrens’ theatre production organized through the District’s Kennedy Center. On that trip he got to see America in all its forms — good and bad — and managed to clear his credit card debt and build up enough funds to move to Manhattan. Cecil’s devoting five to six years of his life to making it in his new city, and may eventually decide to settle down in New York.

Currently he works tables as a “survival job” because competition is fierce among actors in the city. There are a lot of people all after the same job, and it sounds like a tough life because, Cecil said, 98 percent of his job is dealing with rejection at auditions.

“Most normal people have one or two interviews, and they’re going because the interviewer has seen something that they like. You get the job, and great, then you have a career for life. Imagine that times thirty. Auditioning is like going on a job interview every single day, sometimes more than once a day, except the people looking have 500 people to choose from for every single role,” Cecil said. Still, he doesn’t let the constant treadmill of auditions get to him. “When I go to an audition I prepare as best I can, but the second I walk out I try to forget about it, because if you spend your energy thinking about it, you will drive yourself crazy.”

At a restaurant in Manhattan Cecil works several days a week, though he has Monday and Tuesday off to audition and meet with his two agents. In fact, the Saturday we met he was only a few hours away from starting a shift. I think I even noticed an unspoken sympathy shared between Cecil and our waitress when she came out with our main courses.

We’d ordered two dishes: a grilled cheese and sage sandwich served beside organic tomato soup and mixed green salad for me, and a salt cod hash with poached eggs, harissa, scallions and grilled flat bread for Cecil.

The sandwich unfortunately tasted rather bland and the cheese seemed flavorless, the only prominent taste being the char on the outside of the toast. The soup ably compensated, being a rich, strong and filling complement, earning the dish its $9 price.

Cecil said he greatly enjoyed the $10 salt cod hash, but I was so full from the bread and soup that I really didn’t have room to even sample what he had to eat. Belcourt’s a nice place for brunch, and it’s somewhere Cecil said he’d been wanting to try for a while — plus, it just happened to be only a few blocks from the restaurant where he was working later that day.

While Cecil enjoys the staff he works with on his waiter job, as well as liking the restaurant itself, he looks forward to making acting a full-time profession. “One day I would love to take off my apron and not have to put it back on again, to have a life where I don’t have to ask another person whether they’d like bottle water or tap water,” he said.

Time was running out at our brunch, and so we wrapped things up quickly. The waitress returned and I asked her to take some pictures. She was delighted to comply, and in fact decided to ask us to pose for a number of shots. The first was a normal picture, which you can scroll back up to see. Next, she asked us to look surprised.

I think we both did a grand job there, though the waitress accused me of having the same expression in every single shot. Hope that’s not what I look like to passersby. Our next shot was to pose like we’d just won a million dollars, but in the interests of Cecil and I maintaining some semblance of dignity that photo will remain offline. It was bad.

The last request was to look like we were scared by a thunderstorm.

I’m not quite sure that worked. I look very relaxed — or even sarcastic — about the whole experience, while Cecil looks more like he’s in awe of the pretty lightning.

Anyway, I’m quite sure that Cecil is not interested in a future posing for photographic essays. In fact, his immediate goal is quite clear: winning a place with the New York Futurists.

They’re a theatre group that performs a show titled Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, a weekly show for six actors that write, act and perform 30 two-minute plays over 60 minutes. Audience members roll dice at the end of the show, and that’s how many plays change for the next week. The idea behind the show is to tell real stories about life that can be funny, political, dramatic, artistic, or anything else, and always with a little element of improvisation.

Cecil used to see the Chicago branch of the Futurists and would always take visitors there during his college years. “I’ve been watching and admiring their stuff for a decade.”

There was a workshop a while back that he took part in, even though “writing scared the crap out of my because outside of e-mail, I haven’t written since college.” But he said he had a good time with the Futurists, got some good feedback, and it merely increased his affection for the group.

He does some improvisation for the comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade in Manhattan, but as Cecil described it, that kind of show is “beer and peanuts” because you have a great time while you’re there but it doesn’t stick with you and is forgotten when you leave the show.

In contrast, he said the work of the Futurists remains with you. Cecil listed of a host of Futurists plays from years ago that he said were still vivid in his memory, for example a very real story of a woman who wrote a country music ballad about finding out the neighbor who lived downstairs in her building had been killing people and storing their bodies in the basement. “It’s all very true, real stories that make you think and they stay with you.”

The Futurists have an audition for a full-time slot coming up, and Cecil is going to try out. If he fails, he’ll try again when there’s another audition next year.

Cecil clearly has a rough plan of his future mapped out, but with enough flexibility that he could do something like pick up sticks and move to another city if he wanted to. Looks like his dreams of having an unpredictable, but rewarding, job are paying dividends.