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She's Leaving Home

Teresa Strosser
The Out-of-Towner: L.A. is a cultural shift, but for Teresa Strosser it's better than playing for an audience of six in a converted storefront in the Mission.

Local actors ponder the great leap southward to L.A.

By Zack Stentz

'Leaving? That's the constant question," says Tara Howley, looking up from her falafel plate and furrowing her brow at the thought. Like many performers who call the Bay Area home, the 27-year-old San Franciscan grapples daily with the decision of whether to stay in the comfortable but limited S.F. theater and film scene, or depart for the larger venues of Los Angeles or New York.

One factor influencing Howley is the career upswing she's currently enjoying, having just come off a stretch of back-to-back appearances in four independent feature films (the first of which, Some Prefer Cake, premieres at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on June 25). All the films she has acted in, along with several plays and performance pieces, were produced in San Francisco, so she would seem to have no shortage of work close to home.

"A lot of independent films are getting made in San Francisco right now," she explains, "and they're writing the kinds of interesting roles for women that you almost never see in big studio projects."


Are any actors not leaving SF?


Wayne Doba shares Howley's ambivalence toward pulling up stakes for the big move to Los Angeles--though, as a 22-year veteran on local stages as an accomplished actor, monologist, singer, and tap-dancer (his recently closed one-man show at the Bindlestiff, Don't Be Like Your Father, revealed Doba to be the mutant love child of Al Jolson, Woody Guthrie and Spalding Gray), he brings a veteran's perspective to the matter. "I'm kind of at the make-or-break point in my career right now," Doba says, "and moving to Los Angeles is very tempting in some ways.

"I haven't had a real job in 20 years," he adds, "but I've been able to make a living, just barely, as a performer up here. If I went to L.A., I'd have to start all over again. And you know what? I've done my time as a waiter already."

Still, the lure of Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent New York, still exerts a powerful, almost Newtonian pull on Howley, Doba and their fellow performers. "Two months ago I was set," Howley recalls. "I knew I was going to move to L.A., and I was down there making plans. And then I came back here, and realized how much I love living in San Francisco. My people are here. There's a strong sense of solidarity among the creative community here. Up here, if someone gets a film role that she can't do, she'll pass it on to someone else. That rarely happens in L.A."

Howley's L.A. bashing shouldn't be entirely surprising, given that loathing our southern neighbor has long been a favorite local pastime, led by the late Herb Caen and imitated by politicos and performers alike.

But loathing L.A. is one low-impact aerobic exercise that Teresa Strosser doesn't indulge in. The San Francisco native, whose one-woman show at the Marsh titled The Life and Death of Stars won raves earlier this year, decided to try her luck in the Southland two months ago, and doesn't regret her decision at all. "In San Francisco, saying that you like L.A. is like admitting you loved Forrest Gump," she says, on the phone from her Los Angeles home. "But my experience here has been wonderful so far. I actually had someone break into my car to repair the bumper, which had been hanging off. It was amazing."

short picture description
When He Was Fab: Transplanted Londoner Andrew Abelson hasn't wanted for work since relocating to the Bay Area.

"It's not that I don't love the Bay Area," Strosser adds, " but I really felt like it was time to go. You go to an acting workshop, and everyone there says they're moving, and then you see those same people again a year later, and they're still there. The opportunities are down in Los Angeles, and I didn't want to wait until I was 30 or 35 to seize them."

The move appears to have paid off for Strosser. "I'm going to be doing my show at HBO's workspace, which is a great place to be seen," she says. "The difference between here and San Francisco is that when you do a show in San Francisco, no one in the position to give you a paying job will see it."

"In San Francisco you do a show to make money," acknowledges Doba, "and in L.A. you do it as a showcase, hoping you'll be seen by someone who can give you a job."

But Andrew Abelson has a somewhat blunter assessment of the Los Angeles theater scene. "It's a wankfest," he says. The London-born transplant, currently based in San Francisco and starring in the retro-1960s musical Fab! ("I'm Eddie, the pill-popping English goofball," he says), looks at San Francisco through outsider's eyes, and thinks locals don't properly appreciate the opportunities that exist closer to home. "A lot of San Francisco actors have a chip on their shoulder about S.F. being provincial," he says, "but it's really not. This is a great place to be, lifestyle-wise, and I'm finding enough work to keep me busy."

"If I did move, though," he adds, "it would be to New York."

Despite its traditional reputation as the American capital of the performing arts, though, New York appears to hold less allure as a destination for other Bay Area actors. "New York's a tough city," says Dobo. "And it's a lot harder to survive there with no money."

"There are a lot of indie films getting made in New York," adds Howley, "and a lot of off-Broadway shows, but in general it's harder to find work. And then there's the weather."

But Howley has spiritual as well as climatological reasons for sticking close to her home turf. "I keep coming back to what's best for my soul: Do I want to earn a living in L.A. doing tampon commercials while waiting for my big break, or do exciting work up here?"

Another San Francisco performer who's less than enamored of the job prospects in Los Angeles is well-known comedian/actor/writer Will Durst. "I really don't have any desire to play someone's wacky neighbor on a sitcom," he says.

Strosser, though, relishes any opportunity to practice her craft in front of an audience. "I don't mind the thought of doing episodic stuff on television," she say. "I just love working so much. I really like the thought of being a journeyman, sort of 'the plumber of acting.' "

And as for the creativity-versus-commerce dichotomy that Howley alludes to, Strosser replies: "I'll tell you what's not creatively fulfilling. Not fulfilling is working your ass off putting together a show and then performing it in front of six people in some dinky space in the Mission district."

Abelson muses that the best solution for him would combine the career opportunities of Los Angeles and New York with the San Francisco lifestyle he relishes. "If I could keep a base here, while working in New York or L.A., that would be ideal," he says.

A pipe dream? Perhaps, but no more unrealistic than the long odds against succeeding in any city on the planet in the performing arts, a career path which has always attracted far more hopefuls than could ever realistically find gainful employment in the field they've chosen.

And in the end, it would seem that the decision of where to ply one's trade is as individual and idiosyncratic as the actors who are doing the choosing. "It's a conundrum I'll continue wrestling with as long as I'm here," says Howley. "And I'm sure that if I do move to L.A., I'll argue with myself over whether or not I did the right thing in leaving San Francisco."

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From the June 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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