“Lack of confidence had always held me back, but I figured since I’d waited 40 years to do something I loved, I had to take a chance.”
The theater has been in Vicki Klein’s blood since she was a kid. Her grandparents were in vaudeville, her uncle was a comedian, and her aunt was a singer. As a child, Klein was always singing and performing for her family, but her mother didn’t encourage her to take it further, and so Klein ended up becoming a school guidance counselor and working in the NYC public school system for 24 years.
She didn’t completely give up on theater, though. In her spare time from her job, Klein occasionally did amateur community theater, and when she retired from the New York City public school system at 65, she decided she would finally pursue acting as a professional career. She moved to Florida, started auditioning, kept knocking on doors and finally was cast in a professional production. Her career took off from there.
A plump redhead with a New York accent who belts out tunes like Ethel Merman, Klein has played everything from a homeowner who gets hysterical when her car is repossessed on the reality show “South Beach Tow,” to Grandma Emma in “Over the River and the Through the Woods” and a character with an Irish brogue in “Dancing in Lughnasa.” Most recently, she played Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof.
Klein spoke to Senior Planet in person at her home in Boca Raton, Florida.
What does it take to become a professional actress post-60?
Talent, plus a belief in yourself. It helps to be thick-skinned and able to tolerate rejection. You have to remember that getting a role isn’t always based on talent, but it’s about do you fit the height, weight, hair color, age requirements. There are so many factors. The competition is tough, but in general, there are more roles for older actors than for middle-aged ones. Just don’t expect to play the ingénue.
When did you decide that you actually could act?
I took an acting workshop in the 1980s run by a well-known actor who kept telling me how good I was. He told me to get out there and audition for community theatre. I got a role after my first audition, but since I wasn’t in [the actor’s union] Actor’s Equity I didn’t get paid. I longed to act in live theater, but I kept my full-time job as a guidance counselor. I wasn’t willing leave a secure, well paid, full time civil service job to go for a professional acting career. Very few people can make a living acting, and I was not willing to make the necessary financial sacrifices.
What changed after you retired?
I had a pension and didn’t have to live on what I made acting. Lack of confidence had always held me back, but I figured since I’d waited 40 years to do something I loved, I had to take a chance. I moved to South Florida because I couldn’t tolerate the weather in New York anymore and turned professional. Professional means I got paid to act. And now that I don’t have to get up at 6am, I can spend more time working lines, thinking about character. There are more opportunities in Florida for professional actors, because Actors Equity doesn’t have the monopoly on professional acting it has in New York. Despite the competition — and there’s plenty of it — I’m only one of about five chunky grandmotherly redheads in the business here, so I get work. My first professional gig was with the Broward Stage Door as Grandma Emma in “Over the River and Through the Woods.” When I was offered the role, I cried. It was such a thrill to finally make it as a professional actor at my age.
How did your experience as a guidance counselor play in to your acting career?
My civil service job taught me about life. As a guidance counselor, I experienced a myriad of emotions, so as an actor I can relate to different characters, different life experiences and better understand the characters I play. As for my age, it’s actually a plus. There are more roles today for older women — mother and grandmother roles.
How should aspiring older actors get started?
The best place is community theater. You can find theater groups in churches, synagogues, high schools, community centers, senior centers and nonprofit organizations. From there you can work up to professional productions once you get some experience and credits. Directors want to know which roles you’ve done in the past, and the more experience you’ve had the better. To find auditions, I joined the South Florida Theater League, which sends an email every week with everything going on in Southeast Florida theater. I get audition notices, classes I can take, unified auditions. You can also go to the websites of individual theaters to find out their audition schedule. As for unions and associations, it doesn’t pay for someone starting out our age to join Equity or the Screen Actors Guild. It’s too expensive and limits the productions you can appear in. Equity is for young people.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of your new career?
A major challenge for me was getting the confidence to put myself out there. I was so insecure that when I first went to a unified audition, I left when my name was called. I got so nervous, I got sick. At a unified audition, anywhere from 12 to 20 theater companies show up, and you get one minute to do a monologue or 16 bars of a song. Last year I finally got up the courage to sing and I got calls from all over. That’s how I got a role in the original musical “Generation to Generation,” where I got $600 for two performances.
Rewards? I realized a lifelong dream when I walked out on the stage in my first professional role, delivered my line and heard laughter. When I took a bow and got applauded, that did it. I became an acting addict. Good reviews are thrilling.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Not sitting down in a chair and watching TV. There’s so much to do, I don’t know what to do first. I not only act, but I also do ceramics and glass art. I swing dance, I do volunteer work. I was recording textbooks for a time as a voiceover artist. Even though I have no children or grandchildren, my voice will be remembered through those books.
The Bottom Line
What kind of training is required?
Klein recommends taking classes. You don’t have to spend a fortune for acting workshops and classes. Just look around at your local community college programs, arts societies and community centers. If you have some training already and feel you need additional help in any one area, you might want to hire an acting or voice coach, which can cost $50 per session and up.
How much money can you make?
As a non-Equity professional actor you can make from $25 to $350 per performance. Equity actors make much more, but getting into Equity is not easy, and you have to pay high annual dues and are barred from performing in non-Equity shows, which limits your opportunities.
What’s the investment?
Classes, which vary widely in cost depending on where you take them, from about $2 and up; private coaches for people who have some training can cost $50 per session and up; Vicki, who lacks confidence in her singing voice, paid for some sessions with a voice coach. Besides training, actors generally have to invest in head shots, makeup and scripts. All of these expenses can be deducted at tax time.