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The Crossover from non-Union to Union actor/artist"

Peter Mazzucco and Tony Nappo share their thoughts

Headshots provided by Messrs. Mazzucco and Nappo

Joe Szekeres

The term ‘professional actor’ is bandied around so much that it has often confused me.

Anyone can call themselves an actor, and the first two questions asked if you do: “What have you done?” or “What have I seen you in?” If someone hasn’t heard of anything you’ve done, then most people may think you’re nothing.

What I have learned about the world of the ‘actor’: one does not have to hold any conservatory or post secondary education to become a member of CAEA (Canadian Actors’ Equity Association) or ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists). If a non-Equity or non ACTRA company contracts and pays non-union individuals to perform, then those actors are technically involved in a ‘paying gig’ and, in that case, are free to call themselves professional if they wish to do so; however, being a member of one of these two labour unions means you are paid union status (which is higher) compared to non-union status.

A quick re-cap on these two terms: CAEA is the membership/labour union to which the professional live theatre actor and stage managers belong to perform in union shows here in Canada. ACTRA is a Canadian labour union representing performers in English-language media in film, television, radio, and all other recorded media. Some professional artists are members of both and/or perhaps only one. I also understand there are stringent rules regarding credits attained to gain union status but, for the sake of this article’s length, I won’t bother delving further here.

I was recently reminded by a union artist who told me if someone wants an actual career as an actor, then that person must become a member of either CAEA or ACTRA. From his understanding, there’s no way around it. For this article, let’s define career as someplace where the actor will go for work whether it’s to a film or television set or to a live theatre.

Credit for this personally learned fact came from Toronto based resident and Union actor, Tony Nappo. He also writes a weekly column for Intermission magazine called ‘Nappoholics Anonymous’ which features twelve random thoughts. Take a look at his column online when you get a chance as it led me further into the world of this complex being.

Recently I had the opportunity to have a Zoom call with him and Durham Region resident and non-union actor Peter Mazzucco to gain their perspectives on the challenges of crossing over from non-union to union to legitimize, to be thought of, and to call yourself an actor, as Mazzucco wishes to do.

Mazzucco grew up in Etobicoke while Nappo was raised in Scarberia (that’s Scarborough, Ontario to outsiders) and what you see and hear from both these boys is what you get in humour, wit, temperament and yes, the occasional colourful language. I respect that as this is who these guys are. There are no pretentious airs about either of them at all as they kept me grounded during the conversation where Tony playfully said at one point:

“Just trying to bust your balls as we did in Scarborough, Joe. You’re doing fine.”

Peter and Tony are close in age and knew of each other where they attended the same post secondary institution, (The Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto), but never graduated. Both recalled a similar incident on campus which changed their career paths completely. They were both tapped on the shoulder from Cathy Smith, Movement and Voice teacher at the Scarborough campus, who stated they were wasting their time there and to pursue studies further elsewhere. Mazzucco was flattered with the compliment from Smith but declined as he was content with what he was doing at the time.

Nappo, however, took the advice and enrolled in Manhattan’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts programme, completed it, and returned to Canada to begin his successfully rewarding career.

For me, it was an interesting process to see how they became connected once again. While wrestling with the question of becoming a union actor for quite some time, Mazzucco values Tony’s experience and agrees with the latter’s advice that “this is a fucking hard industry”.

Mazzucco didn’t originally start his post secondary studies immediately in the Arts. He always had a fascination with film but went via a completely different route for personal reasons. He attained dual citizenship and wanted to study theatre at LAMDA in London, England. He later credits the arts as a creative form to which he was drawn when he was in his twenties.

Nappo originally came to the Scarborough campus to study English literature. The opportunity to study theatre came later as he jokingly said at one point: “It was a way to meet women back then.”

I had heard of Tony’s name over the years and realized later I had seen his performance at Toronto’s Canon Theatre as part of the Mirvish series in a terrific production of Yasmina Reza’s ‘God of Carnage’. I personally had the chance to meet Tony when he appeared in a fiery production at Soulpepper of Stephen Guirguis’ ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’.

Both guys have opted to stay the course and continue their involvement in the arts despite this pandemic and the harsh reality it has brought the industry to a standstill. They recognize the key for success is having a good agent. Peter had one, dropped that agent, and then legendary Casting Director Gloria Mann (whom Mazzucco calls ‘wonderful’) wanted to get him an agent after she booked him on one of the shows she was casting. For personal family reasons, Peter did not seek an agent, and Gloria said she would be his ‘agent’. She booked him two lead roles on two separate shows in the process. They still keep in touch and although she’s not his agent, Peter holds great respect for Gloria.

Mazzucco’s day job is in the corporate world. Nappo has worked non-stop during the pandemic under the strictest Covid-19 protocol standards. As a working union actor, Tony makes a healthy living in television and film during the year. When he has nothing to do, he does painting of any type (house/office/touch ups).

Peter point blank stated how he would love to become a member of either CAEA or ACTRA but has had experienced some challenges to achieve these goals. For example, members of ACTRA or CAEA may apply for non-union jobs without their union knowing. Again, Peter wanted to clarify that not all do it, only some. He doesn’t like that because he doesn’t just get to go to ACTRA auditions as a non-union actor, but Peter lets it go because he gets enough acting gigs each year to keep him happy.

He shared something rather amusing that happened recently. Peter was told he could earn his ACTRA status on a film, if he chose to do so, by appearing semi-nude in one scene.

Did he do it?

“No, I chose not to do that” he said with a chuckle and offered no explanation because neither he nor I felt one was necessary.

In his 40s, Peter was so disheartened by what he was seeing in the corporate world that he quit a lucrative job and decided immediately to pursue his passion in becoming an actor.

The challenge? He never discussed with his wife what he wanted to do. If you are in a relationship:

“Never, ever, make rash decisions like this without consulting your spouse or partner first. My best year as an actor was $9400, embarrassing, but true as it was not enough to pay the bills around the house.”

Nappo fondly recalls his first Equity show at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre: ‘Paradise by the River’ written by Vittorio Rossi in 1998. Tony had met Vittorio where he had seen him in a couple of films, nothing major. When actor Richard Zeppieri wasn’t available for ‘Paradise’, Rossi thought of Tony for the role instead. Tony auditioned and called this first Equity show a great experience in a real house with audiences that were more than just family and friends.

Up to this point, Tony had only done some Summer Works shows, even a Fringe and Rhubarb. He was working a lot in film and tv at the time playing what he called ‘bullshit, nothing roles’. In the Festival shows, Tony said he was playing a couple of interesting things, but his focus hadn’t been on theatre at all. He then realized that if he wanted to do anything on stage, any acting that was more than three lines or holding a gun, he had to act on stage.

It was a joy to be on the stage for this momentous occasion in his life as Tony was getting paid to do something for which he was passionate.

Does Mazzucco hold any regrets that perhaps he should have taken that same route to Manhattan as Nappo or to LAMDA when he had the opportunity?

“No, I don’t have any regrets at all as I got married and my wife and I have a beautiful daughter. I also turned down a lead role in a TV drama funded by the CBC for family reasons. The drama was nominated for three Canadian Screen awards. Family responsibilities plus work responsibilities placed that part of my life on a different shelf at that time.”

Now that his daughter is in her teens, Mazzucco continues his involvement in the arts through participation in community theatre and in short films because he doesn’t want to look back on this part of his life with regret knowing he wanted to perform but didn’t do it. Several years ago, I’d seen his work in Whitby Courthouse Theatre’s poignantly moving production of ‘August: Osage County’ and in ‘Mambo Italiano’ where Peter was nominated for a community theatre Thea award (the highest achievement for community theatre performance in Central Ontario) for his performance.

And I found what Tony had to say next enlightening for me regarding involvement in community theatre and non-union work.

While he doesn’t make a point of attending non-union or community theatre, Tony reminded Peter and me that if you just want to act, remain non-union. Tony is the first person to admit he doesn’t judge people and is aware that, yes, there are probably some good non-union actors out there; however, if you want to make any money, to make credits in theatre that count, if you want to be seen in ‘shit’ on stage that people attend and go to, you have to go union. If you don’t, it’s not like you’re a nobody or your work isn’t valuable or you’re nothing, but it doesn’t carry the same weight.

Tony acknowledged that he tries to support his friends and what they’re doing and doesn’t care wherever they’re doing it either non-union or community. He has seen some good work outside the union and spoke of a nice little show he saw in Hamilton a couple of years ago, but Tony is not interested in it, doesn’t seek out non-union work or community theatre or wouldn’t do it because union acting is what Tony does for a living. Tony also firmly stated that he’s not against people who perform in non-union/community theatre shows, but the assumption is “The best people are performing on union stages.”

At the same time, there are some union productions Tony does not attend. The Stratford Festival is one he acknowledged where nothing there interests him at all either. Tony is interested in what he wants to do and the people he wants to work with, and that’s the stuff he primarily focuses on – watching people he respects, watching people he wants to work with, keeping track of theatres that interest him. He’s not going to work for no money through non-union or community theatre because he can’t afford it.

Tony finished by saying it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t respect the work that is done on the non-union/community theatre stage or certain professional stages, it just means he chooses not to follow it, and doesn’t offer any explanation for it. I don’t seek out Tony’s reason because none is necessary.

Peter got involved in community theatre to get his feet wet again after being involved in it while at university. He spoke about some work he performed at Alumnae Theatre; however, he sees his involvement in community theatre coming to an end. Both he and Tony spoke about some of the non-union Toronto houses that produce good work, and Alumnae is one. Another one both guys spoke of was the Leah Posluns Theatre.

At the end of the day, Tony states that an actor should act and, until Peter gets to act on the union stages, he should act on ‘whatever fucking stage he wants’ because an actor is always learning, and always growing especially since Peter has been in the corporate world for over twenty years. Once this pandemic is lifted, Peter is quite serious about becoming a member of both CAEA and ACTRA because he wants to have a career that he enjoys and loves.

This is not to say that the union actor will have a cozy life. Here in Canada, it is difficult to be an actor and rich and famous, unlike Hollywood, California. Earlier in summer 2020, I held an interview with Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill where she stated the industry at times is not all sunshine and autographs. There are down times where a union actor/artist may not work at all and that’s scary in not knowing money is coming in to live on.

Tony bravely and honestly spoke about some of his personal struggles and demons he has overcome throughout his career. I thanked him for his candour in sharing them with Peter and me. And I can’t wait to see his next project whether it’s on stage or in film. I plan to follow Peter Mazzucco’s journey carefully from non-union/community theatre performer to union actor.

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