Editor's Note: “Senior Thesis” is a special week-long series that brings together venerable veterans in various fields with university students hoping to forge a career in the same field.
Actors, especially aspiring actors, can't wait for the perfect role to come along, says veteran of the Seattle stage Bob Wright.
"Put yourself in a position to work," said the actor who's been listed in Seattle Playbills with the name "R. Hamilton Wright" since 1979. "It's better to work than not work. Find ways to act."
It's straightforward advice Wright offers gingerly to young performing artists; he knows it can be tough to follow, even for veterans. The national union representing stage actors and stage managers says, in an average week, just 13 percent of its members are working.
"It's an industry in which you can at once be the most educated, most experienced actor and get a lot of work — or get no work," said young actor Spencer Hamp, who graduated from the University of Washington last weekend. "And you can at once be completely inexperienced, you can never have seen a play necessarily, and still be cast to work."
Hamp earned his theater degree, but he's not quite sure yet what he'll do with it. He doesn't see the allure of following the well-trodden paths to Broadway or Hollywood, but instead hopes to get more chances to build a career as an actor in Seattle.
Yet Hamp, whose future in the theater is to an extent "at the whim of circumstances out of my control," must hedge his bets.
During an 80-minute conversation with Wright in KPLU's studios last week, Hamp said he wants to continue to act, but might also try to find work off-stage as he seeks his first big break.
'Didn't Have Any Goal In Mind'
Wright's own career in the theater began almost by accident.
Entertaining "vague ambitions of becoming a writer" as a freshman at Western Washington University, he decided to take a theater class to fulfill his speech credit. While stage managing a production for the class, he found himself fascinated by the collective energy of the actors.
He left college before earning his degree, feeling he was "wasting his dad's money," and ended up landing a job at the now-defunct Empty Space Theater in 1975. Surrounded by actors like John Aylward, Lori Larsen, Megan Dean, Tommy Spiller and Rex McDowell, Wright remembers it as a kind of "informal apprenticeship."
"I was terrible — just terrible — as an actor. But they let me hang out and keep working," Wright remembered.
"Do you think it that kind of collective energy, that community, that made you pursue [acting]?" asked Hamp, sitting across from Wright.
"Yeah. That, and the fact that, frankly, I didn't really have any goal in mind," Wright said. "I was pretty unfocused."
It wasn't until 10 years later, after he'd been hired to be a member of the company at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, that Wright says he realized acting was more than an avocation.
"It was about a decade in which I started out dabbling, then it got more serious, and then, again, it overtook me," Wright said.
'I've Spent So Much Time Building A Craft'
"It's wild to me to think of the way you started," Hamp told Wright. The 22-year-old Mercer Island native can still remember, as a high schooler, watching from the audience as Wright played Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."
The two men could not have found more different paths to the stage.
When he was Hamp's age, Wright had only seen a play or two in his life. Hamp has been acting since he was 11, when Youth Theater Northwest cast him in "Sleepy Hollow." Among the dozen or so stage credits he accumulated during college, Hamp recently played the title role in the UW Undergraduate Theatre Society's production of "Cyrano de Bergerac."
"I've spent so much time in the classroom and in the studio trying to build a craft — maybe artificially, maybe more organically, I don't know which it is," Hamp said.
During his hour in the studio, Hamp exhibited so much curiosity about Wright's career and openness in Wright's advice — "I just feel like a sponge," Hamp said at one point — that it's surprising to hear Hamp speak about fears that his ego gets in the way of his work.
"I have questioned often whether I will keep [acting]" for that reason, Hamp said. "There was a recurring pattern when I was working on shows that I'd become much more self-interested and ego-driven... and I don't like that. I didn't like that feeling."
"It's tempting to make the work about me," Hamp added, "when I know it needs to be about everybody else."
Wright nodded. It's easy, he said, for actors to become more focused on their technique than the work.
'Always A Way To Find A Way To Work'
What does Hamp want to do with his degree now?
"Plan? Survive!" he joked. His plans aren't quite concrete yet.
Hamp has worked with homeless youth and has some experience with theater administration. He may pursue jobs in those fields as he tries to land auditions.
During college, Hamp worked with a group of friends to stage a production of "Waiting for Godot" in Waterfront Park in downtown Seattle, an experience he hopes to repeat.
"I have a great group of friends and a great community who, for the most part, want to stay here for the time being and make work together," Hamp said. "That's the kind of work that I would love to do."
In addition, he added, to work in bigger houses. Maybe. Someday.
"I would love to keep working in the theater. I would love the opportunity to act more and act on different stages and act with different people," he said.
The best way to achieve that goal? Work, Wright said. Keep working.
"I'm not being glib about it," he said. "I think there's always a way to find a way to work. Sometimes you have to make your own."