It’s their day off, so cast members of Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse’s “The Music Man” walk down the steps of their shared house and sound off to-do lists.
“We had a show last night, and today, it’s laundry, yoga class, going to the gym, doing taxes,” Sarah Philabaum said. “All the life things.”
These seven working actors have come from all over the country, from New York to West Virginia, to perform in “The Music Man,” which runs through May 13.
Part of the deal?
Living under one roof.
In 1984, Circa ’21 bought the eight-bedroom house to offer actors a free place to stay during their roughly two-month residencies in the Quad-Cities. Over the years, the house, which can occupy 15 people at a time, has been a revolving temporary home for hundreds of actors.
Sometimes, it goes better than others, producer Denny Hitchcock said.
“Sometimes, it seems like it’s a frat house. The idea is it’s kind of like a football team that stays together,” Hitchcock said. “When they’re socializing and building strong friendships, hopefully what happens on stage is more honest and authentic. If they get more comfortable, that carries over on stage.”
It’s a common practice for regional theater companies, Hitchcock said.
“It makes it easier on them so they don’t have to find an apartment for just a few weeks,” he said. “They can focus on working."
Hitchcock has heard stories of couples breaking up and getting together while living in the house. He's also heard about lifelong friendships forming.
"After a few weeks, that's when any drama happens," he said. "It's the norm for these actors, though. I put a lot of effort into hiring people who can get along with other people. That's a huge part of it."
It seems to be working for the house's current residents, who were for the most part strangers before they became instant coworkers — and roommates — last month.
Sitting inside their short-term home last week, the actors, who all are first-timers with Circa ’21, filled me on what they call the “gypsy lifestyle.”
“We’re always traveling from thing to thing and sometimes living out of two suitcases,” said Brett Mutter, an Ohio native who plays Marcellus Washburn in the musical. “It’s hard to explain to friends from high school or my family who don’t do what I do. It’s such a different lifestyle from getting an office job.”
Mutter said some gigs can last only a week, so contracts such as "The Music Man" are a nice "breath of fresh air."
"You get to actually settle in a little bit and explore the area," he said.
“Part of being a vagabond is you start getting antsy if you stay any one place,” said Andy Brown, who recently spent seven months acting in New York. “If you live somewhere two or three months, you think, ‘I should probably be leaving now.’”
Sarah Philabaum, who is from Maryland, said she spends only about two weeks out of the year in her hometown. The rest of the year, she’s traveling for auditions or performances.
“It feels like I’ve lived out of my car for seven years,” she said. “You’ve got to be ready to pack and drive 17 hours for the next opportunity.”
Many times, she’s driving to a city she’s never visited, as is the case for Rock Island, to live in a mystery house with people she’s never met.
“It can be nerve-wrecking. At the same time, we’ve kind of all been through it before, and we can relate,” said Anna Segatti of Chicago, who recently traveled to Alaska for an acting job. “So you kind of know what you’re getting into — we’re all theater people.”
Todd Tucker, who plays Mayor Shinn in "The Music Man," said he has lived in about eight cast houses. Often, he said, natural tensions arise when chores are neglected or the internet gets hairy. You quickly learn, he said, who are morning people and who are night owls as well as what everyone eats for breakfast. But part of the job is learning to live with just about anything.
“The dark side of it is we miss family birthdays and funerals and weddings,” Tucker said. “There aren’t a lot of holidays we make it to.”
The other side, he said, is this: “The theater world is huge in one way, but it’s small in another way. You tend to either know each other or have mutual friends. You learn to adapt and that home is wherever you hang your hat.”
“In theater, everyone in becomes your family,” Segatti added. “They’re there for you, and I think that’s something that’s different from other jobs.”
As far as other cast houses go, Circa's amenities are on the sweeter side, Philabaum said. She said Circa has made it sweeter by offering basic toiletries as well as a gym membership to the nearby Anytime Fitness.
“We’ve all agreed this is a pretty sweet cast house,” she said. “We have our own space, and it’s cozy. When you do what we do, you have to be thankful for things like free toilet paper or a free gym membership. It’s pretty much a luxury contract.”
Erika Peckhardt, who is based in New York City, said this marks her first time in the Midwest. She had never heard of the Quad-Cities and was pleased to realize it wasn’t “in the middle of nowhere.”
“You think about standing in line for hours for auditions to potentially get a call back to maybe then get a job,” she said. “You do all of that because the payoff is that good. When you get something like this, you generally take it.”
They each know theater friends who haven’t acted in years, so they’ll gladly take stints of traveling over getting a "boring job."
“It’s normal to us. Sometimes, we have another job lined up, and sometimes, we don’t know where we’re going next. Sometimes, we live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes, we don’t,” Mutter said. “I like it because you get to travel and see the world … I’m all about the gypsy lifestyle.”