A 2009 LA STAGE Times article about a document written in 1945 recently resurfaced on Facebook and made its way through the blogosphere. It centers on a Code of Ethics found among the items in actress Kathleen Freeman’s estate. Freeman wrote the Code when she was 24 years old and establishing one of LA’s first small theater companies.
Its 17 rules cover such topics as respecting props, costumes, curtain calls and entrances and promising to never lose one’s enthusiasm for theater because of disappointments.
We queried several people to gauge the Code’s applicability in today’s theater environment, starting with Chris King whose recent blog on June 2 kicked off this conversation.
King describes himself as a professional Equity actor and music director in Vancouver, BC. “I’m just old enough to have learned under the guidance of an older generation of actors and directors. As a younger actor I would never have broken these codes because I respected these much more seasoned artists. As my career has gone on, I have found that the lessons in the Code of Ethics have not been taught or practiced as much as they used to.”
Yet he adds, “It’s amazing that so much of it has remained ingrained in the very fabric of every actor, director and stagehand. It’s a tradition and how we continue to work and survive.” He calls it the essence of theater, both amateur and professional.
The essence, perhaps, but actress and comedienne Marilyn Pittman believes such codes shouldn’t be necessary. “But that may be because I grew up in the theater in college and these values were instilled from the beginning. My mentor in college was a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV producer and I think I learned my professionalism from him. That said, I think the Code is an excellent sort of Hippocratic Oath for actors.”
Freeman’s Rule 3: I shall forego all social activities which interfere with rehearsals or any other scheduled work at the theatre, and I shall always be on time.
Freeman’s Rule 4: I shall never make a curtain late by my failure to be ready on time.
Freeman’s Rule 7: I shall not let the comments of friends, relatives or critics change any phase of my work without proper consultation; I shall not change lines, business, lights, properties, settings or costumes or any phase of the production without consultation with and permission of my director or producer or their agents, and I shall inform all people concerned.
Reading Freeman’s Code of Ethics gave playwright Mary Willard reason to relive some particularly egregious moments. “The actor who improvised a line in place of my line, and when I asked her to say my line so I could see what worked, told me her line was the only funny line in my comedy. The actor, who after being told not to bring food on stage, brought coffee and spilled it on his costume. The actor who didn’t know her lines OPENING night and was furious that I was upset because she had been “˜busy’ all week.”
Freeman’s Rule 12: I shall respect the play and the playwright and, remembering that “a work of art is not a work of art until it is finished,” I shall not condemn a play while it is in rehearsal.
Willard, whose husband Fred recently performed her play Deathtroupe, also recalls the actor who told the director to shine his boots. “And as my wonderful playwriting teacher, Romulus Linney said, “˜There are three basic human needs: food and water, air to breathe, and rewriting someone else’s play.”
Sometimes, Willard says, it’s the audience members who often are the culprits and should sign a Code of Ethics. “Cell phone lights, gum chewing, coughing on laugh lines”¦ they should be willing to laugh, cry, applaud, believe there are Martians or sexy math teachers or a streetcar named Desire because in this play, that is the path to follow.”
Freeman’s Rule 9: I shall remember my business is to create illusion; therefore, I shall not break the illusion by appearing in costume and makeup off-stage or outside the theatre.
Samantha Starr, grants specialist at the Skirball Cultural Center and former education director of A Noise Within, agrees the Code is a very thoughtful work. “Clearly the writer thought through very carefully not only the emotional process of creating theater, but the snares and snarls of producing theater. We would all do well to read it and try to work within some of the wonderful truisms that lie within.”
Kathleen Freeman and a few fellow UCLA acting students, including William Schallert (TV’s Gidget), moved out of a friend’s Hollywood living room into a space at El Centro and Waring in Los Angeles. From that grew Freeman’s Circle Theatre, to which the likes of Charlie Chaplin, William Saroyan, Clifford Odets and Edward G. Robinson ventured.
It is now the El Centro Theatre where veteran director Richard Tatum currently is helming David Hilder’s The Insidious Impact of Anton. The Code, he says, is a fascinating document. “And it’s the perfect statement about the attitudes necessary to run and be a part of any of the 99-seat companies in LA. Sadly, this testament to professionalism seems to have never gone farther than [Charlie’s half-brother Sydney] Chaplin and his company. That is to say, it stayed within their ranks and didn’t get passed around.”
Tatum has worked in small theater for about 25 years. Comparing Freeman’s code to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, he remembers many times when “I would have loved to have waved them around and nailed them to a door or two. I am frequently just astonished by the sense of entitlement that some actors can have coming to LA — the lack of appreciation for the work that happens around them. Not that even a well-written or signed code would stop some people from misbehaving, but knowing that it’s there might at least make them think.”
Agreed, says Jay McAdams, executive director of LA’s 24th Street Theatre. “In the 99-seat world I still think this code is relevant and would help improve intimate theater in LA if more people took the work this seriously. I was on a panel recently (John Steppling’s The Uninvited), and an actor complained that that the producers pay designers but not actors. The counter argument was that actors run out on theater every time they’re cast in a commercial or CSI episode. But how can a struggling actor turn down a day of big money?”
A valid question, McAdams says, and one that still upends intimate LA theater. “Most LA actors are in fact LA actors because this is where film and TV opportunities lie. This is not a popular notion with theater people, but I think it is too often a reality. If everyone took this code to heart, it would eliminate this problem because those not absolutely dedicated to the art form would not make that commitment.”
Laura Flanagan, producing director at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA, adds, “This code should be required reading for every company in Los Angeles. It is terrific advice and is the only way for any functional company to survive. Every player must let go of their ego to serve the needs of the play and the company as a whole.”
Freeman’s Rule 8: I shall forego the gratification of my ego for the demands of the play.
Freeman’s Rule 10: I shall accept my director’s and producer’s advice and counsel in the spirit in which it is given, for they can see the production as a whole and my work from the front.
Producer and playwright Marla Lewin equates these truisms to the Golden Rules we find in religion. “The mission of great theater going back to Aristotle has been to create a temple of belief, a place where the audience can have a transformational experience. Certainly, the 1945 Code of Ethics should be relevant today, as it holds the principles to which we all as artists can aspire to, to highest quality of work possible at all levels of the creative experience. It is important to have a statement of excellence.”
Or, as Tatum says, “It’s a must-use for anyone running a small, actor-managed company. They should be handing it out at the border. Oh, you want to be famous in California? Sorry, you’ll have to read and sign this first or you can’t enter. Yes, we’re serious.”
Freeman’s Rule 16: I shall follow rules of courtesy, deportment and common decency applicable in all walks of life (and especially in a business in close contact with the public) when I am in the theatre, and I shall observe the rules and regulations of any specific theatre where I work.
Chris King, whose blog ignited this conversation, believes we should continue to remind “all people who tread the boards that as an older, experienced artist we have a duty to guide the younger, inexperienced artist. And though the code of ethics was written down over 60 years ago, it must not become a thing of the past.”
There are, however, contemporary interpretations. Shaun Landry, an LA-based actor who started Oui Be Negroes, one of the first African American improv and sketch ensembles (first in Chicago, then in San Francisco), breaks down what she would put up if she had her own theater and actors who would walk through her doors.
1. I’m gonna bring my talented ass to every single performance I got hired to do.
2. I will BRING IT with mad skills, and high octane YES to the best of my ability. Even if my mamma tries to make me feel guilty about seeing her for dinner,Â I’m on my flow, the girl I decided to date in this company just broke up with my sorry ass and I still have to kiss her onstage, there are less people in the audience than on this stage and it is -3 degrees with a wind chill factor of -17 (I mean come on, I live here. I should know what the weather and the traffic is going to be like. I will plan that noise.) In turn, you will give me a break if my mamma or daddy dies, out of respect for the people who put up with me doing theater for this long.
3. My fantasy baseball league/All girl power knitting class/Comicon/ Sunday Naked Day with my significant other and/or the super special casting class I want to pay 20 bucks in hopes I land an agent, needs to wait because right now we are putting up a show you hired me for. I will not call you 10 minutes before rehearsal saying you are not going to be here for any of these things. Nor will I lie to you and say my mamma died to do this.
4. Call time is at 7. Show is at 8. If I arrive at 8 PM, I just might as well go home because curtain is about to go up and you are not going to wait for me to put on the costume that this person is currently wearing to replace my super late ass.
5. I know I should make nice with everyone behind stage, but my actual job is happening NOW. I will be especially professional and nice to those people currently on it along with the people in front of it and make my scene entrance the way we rehearsed it.
6. My Burger King fix can wait. I will not “Peace Out” this joint and head across the street to get a Number Two making you wonder where the hell I went during performance or intermission. I also won’t take my costume off and apply Ponds on my face two pages before the show ends. I need to be out there for curtain.
7. Okay. So The LA Times thinks we suck and my sister thinks this show sucks. So it goes. Life goes on. I’m not going to screw with your lines, the set or other people I might think is making the show suck. Let’s go down with the ship together.
8. I mean I think I’m awesome, but I will not do a Charlie Sheen up in here. I will turn down the ego down from 10 to zero. I will be in it to WIN IT for the Ens. Work.
9. I will use the stage door where nobody can see my ass in this 1920s Victorian costume. And for real. I will not head to concessions in the front in it either. I don’t think Queen Elizabeth had a freaking iPhone texting where they are going to be around England.
10. I’m not the director. Yea yea. I directed stuff too. My process is even different. But I did NOT get hired as the director. He/She did. I’m going to take this advice, guidance and critique and apply it generously and at will. I also will refer to number 8 when I feel like I’m getting all bent out of shape.
11. I will shut up and watch my friends’ show, say thank you brother for the free comps and leave. If they really ask me what I thought, I will be cool and wait till I’m good and damn far away from the theater and maybe take you out for yogurt with toppings on top and tell them and in turn let them refer to number 7. Oh. If I loved the show yet hate the person who gave me the ticket? Man. How I got this ticket from this person just to trash this person who did a great job is beyond me. I’m a dick. I need to head to therapy.
12. I auditioned for this production someone took the time to write and re-write in a Script Maker Program. I knew coming in this is new and still a work in progress. I will respect and give it a shout out in rehearsal when the playwright is sitting there going “I don’t think this part is working” and changes my lines. It might not be your reading, darling. It might be the playwright.
13. I will not treat my time at this theater like an episode from Jersey Shore.
14. I promise to pick up my shit and even put the TP on the spinner thingy just so this place does not look like a goddamn pigsty. We are here Thursday thru Sunday. This for all purposes is our home with roommates. Lets be cool up in here and not have some person put up the dreaded “Color Coded Chore Wheel”
15. It took a while to make those specially made leather pants I’m wearing for this production, and those cane back chairs I use for the late night Harold Improv are really really expensive and/or took time to make. I will be nice to them by not throwing them about onstage or deciding to take my leather pants and sleep in them, wear them all day the following day and during the performance…getting them to point of never getting out my funk.
16. I will not be a roaring D-Bag to people who do not vote like me, look like me, do not have the same sexual preference as me, or just happen to be another color or religion from me. Look. I know this person just threw out the N with an ER at me walking out of this place. I’m not going to do my gut reaction of being fanatically quippy an inch from their face or even sucker punch the cat. I will not engage. I will not engage. I will NOT ENGAGE. HIGH ROAD NOT ENGAGE is my mantra around this theater. This theater will be known as incredible live art. Not “The place where you might get your ass kicked by an actor” in the LA Weekly Best of Poll.
17. Theater can be a bitch. So is life. I will not give up on theater as much as I don’t give up on life.