Many patrons of the dramatic arts can be found in La Jolla. It’s the first destination of every fundraiser. Without those supporters and their checkbooks, the theater in San Diego couldn’t survive.
However, there is another type of patron without which every theater would go dark — patrons such as John Tessmer, who also lives in La Jolla. The difference is, Tessmer lives in a modest apartment and has no money, at least not in any amount to interest anyone other than a landlord.
But Tessmer has more to offer than money — himself. He is an actor; a humble one, truly humble, with every reason to be. As a member of a cast, he carries a lunch pail. He’s a guy who enters in the second act. To see his name in the playbill, you’d have to read the small print. And he will never — repeat, never — get the girl.
Edward Albee tells us what Tessmer runs into: “There are always going to be more actors than anybody can ever use.”
More often than not, he’s mainly been one they don’t use.
If we scripted a movie on Tessmer, we’d have him pacing the floor in a downtown garret, Van Gogh with makeup, living on scraps and howling his anguish at perfidious fate, boring his friends and frightening his neighbors. But no, what we have is a middle-class, conservative man who just wants to be good at his job.
He’s such a self-effacing nice guy that, doggone it, you want him to get top billing, because you’ve met some jerks who always do.
Tessmer is a tall man of 47 with thinning hair and piercing eyes that belie his gentle personality. He is slim, a condition that is companion to his purse. For the last few years, he has made between $15,000 and $30,000. That’s for a whole year. That uber-modest sum comes from acting and also grant writing, but even that is iffy. Sometimes, he does it freelance: If he gets the grant, he gets paid. If not, then not.
Tessmer was raised in La Jolla and graduated from Yale University with a degree in English. He is a man of letters. Sounds like a budding English professor or perhaps Madison Avenue, but no, he went on the stage and thus began a quarter-century of bouncing from small theaters to summer stock all across the nation. He took time out to get a master’s degree in drama from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but that hasn’t seemed to help much.
Finally, 13 years ago, he came back to perform on hometown stages. He gets parts here and there in small theaters, but nothing that will even pay the rent. For example, he’s playing in a Shakespeare ensemble in a production of the New Village Arts Theater that’s performing at the Dove Library in Carlsbad.
For the four performances that run through this week, he’ll earn about $500. Tessmer, without grumbling, says the producers have limited funding and pay the actors the best they can.
For performing in community theaters locally, his weekly pay ranges from a cup of coffee to about $300.
There’s no quit in the fellow. He says, “I co-founded and manage a small group called the La Jolla Theater Ensemble. It’s currently a reader’s theater group, but maybe my grant-writing skills will get us funding for larger productions.”
David Ellenstein, artistic director of the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, has hired Tessmer many times. He says, “John is a solid actor and a really good person. On stage, he’s a utility player, putting it in baseball terms. He’s not the star but is part of the glue that keeps (the performance) together. If you cast him correctly, he’ll do a fine job. He’s good to have around young actors, because he shows them how to conduct themselves.”
Tessmer does not show up on friends’ doorsteps to sleep on their couches. He does not mooch off his parents. He’s not on welfare. He makes do, withdraws from savings when he has to, and even saves money during his $30,000 salad years. He has gone without health insurance for over 20 years but hopes to get it under Obamacare.
Acting is his career, and all that the word means. He loves the work of the great playwrights and feels privileged to speak their lines, but his emotional reward sounds more compelling. “You want applause from the audience, but it’s about more than that. Sometimes, when it’s clicking, it’s almost a transcendent feeling. That’s very, very, very special, and you can feel it, and if you come off stage at the end of the scene and you’ve had that feeling, it’s bliss.”
Some will say, “Why doesn’t he get a real job? The guy’s a loser!”
Why? What has he lost? Money? He gets by and makes enough to suit himself. Respect? He gets it from those who count — his peers.
But wait, there is something he’s lost, or rather, has not found: love.
The price the never-married Tessmer has paid for his dedication to acting is the absence of what he yearns for: a woman with whom he can create a real-life drama. He really, really wants that.
“One reason I came back (to San Diego) in 2001 was to be more rooted, to be available for a long-term relationship, to at least give that a better chance of happening.”
Well, it hasn’t happened. He’s had relationships and has come close a couple of times, but no ring.
Perhaps he’s what a wary woman might call “too eager.” He knows that, but he’s an all-in guy in affaires de l’amour.
“In a relationship, I tend to get invested, be connected quickly. When it happens, it happens, and then you’re there.”
(I don’t know if the woman will want to be invested, but the right one won’t quibble over word choice.)
Are you too eager, maybe smothering?
“I suppose, maybe, a little.”
Are you the jealous type?
“No. Not at all. I like that both people in a relationship have independence, but I do want an intense connection. I’d like to be married more than anything else.”
You would welcome a ready-made family?
“Children? Oh, absolutely. Yeah.”
Might it be that women are leery of your occupation and lack of financial stability?
“In my heart, I know that’s part of it. It’s become clear to me that women rightfully want (security). In the past, I’ve been naive about that.”
In short, you don’t make enough money. Right?
“At brass tacks, yes.”
But every time Tessmer felt the choices were to get a regular job to save a promising relationship or continue acting, he didn’t hesitate to return to the stage.
“It’s just too much a part of me. I feel like I’m getting better after all these years, so that’s one reason why I just can’t walk away. It’s scary to do (acting) at this age, and then potentially into my 50s and 60s, but I found that I just have to.”
What do you most fear about growing old?
“Not having someone to share life with. Being alone.”
What a dilemma for Tessmer and men like him. The modern economy gives many women the freedom to choose a man for his goodness, even with an empty wallet, and it obviously does happen.
However, something has been floating in the gene pool since the time our menu was what we could club to death, and that is the compulsion to mate with the leader of the pack, the guy who can guard the cave entrance and drag in a mastodon haunch. The modern manifestation is: Success seeks success, and money seeks money. Not always, but Tessmer has learned the truth of it.
On the bigger stage of life, everyone has a role, and we have to recite our own lines. If all the engineers became actors, and vice versa, what a boring place the theater would be, and we wouldn’t dare drive on the bridges.
Tessmer has, thus far, made a scary commitment to doing what he loves at the expense of marriage, a family, prestige and the security of money. He might overnight blossom into a star, but there’s no tree remaining under which he can stand for that lightning to strike.
In later years, he could pay a fierce price for his choice, but what price would he pay for abandoning his love of acting?
We don’t envy his dilemma, but maybe in the commonness of our coziness, we should envy that he loves something that much.
John Tessmer stands on stage and recites lines such as these:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
... So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Words in a book spoken to strangers. He wishes for more.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]