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"Making a Splash"

Date of Article's Original Publication: March/April 1999
Original URL of Article: http://www.stanfordalumni.org/mig/news_magazine/magazine/marapr99/departments/onthejob.html
© Joel Stein for Stanford Magazine

Most actors lead a roller-coaster life. Arija Bareikis learned to hang on tight, and she's beginning to enjoy the ride.


SHE WAS SWAMPED with scripts, and I was 90 minutes late to the interview. Still, Arija Bareikis served me tea and homemade chocolate cake. For that alone, I'd give her a part. But casting agents are looking for more than afternoon crumpets. Bareikis must be delivering, because she's landed some choice parts.

Most notable was her role in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, the Tony award winner for best play of 1997. It is set in 1930s Atlanta; she played Sunny Freitag, daughter of one of the city's established Jewish families. They are a group shunned by the gentile elite -- even as they slavishly emulate them and in turn distance themselves from new Jewish immigrants. Bareikis won New York Post critic Clive Barnes's approval as "quietly confident." She also was cast as a high-school sweetheart in the 1997 film, The Myth of Fingerprints. She had a small role in an episode of TV's Law and Order and will appear in two upcoming independent films, Snow Falling on Cedars and Thirty Days. Between stage and screen parts, she does TV commercials. And she's tight-lipped about "a couple of things on the horizon" that might involve singing.

Bareikis, '88, tells me she knows so many talented actors who aren't working that she feels privileged to finally be making a living in the field. "It's a cutthroat business. There's too much talent and not enough jobs. Even if you work really hard, everything you get is luck," she says.

Her ascent hasn't been meteoric. She spent her first few years in New York studying privately with Actors Studio teachers and with Bill Esper, the head of Rutgers University's graduate theater program. "I had an idea about what it was to be a performer," she says, "but, basically, I was full of it. I had a lot to learn about the business, and about how to really listen, and about truth."

She worked as a paralegal while trying to figure out if she had a future in theater. It didn't help that her Stanford friends had become investment bankers and lawyers. "There's a lot of pressure if you've gone to a good school to make good use of your education. And there's a fairly stringent notion of what that means. It's difficult if you don't go the Oracle route," she says.

But Bareikis's calling lay elsewhere. She has a theory that adolescence obscures people's true selves -- then we spend much of adulthood trying to regain our childhood. As a little girl growing up in Bloomington, Ind., Bareikis was fascinated with acting. "I'd make up plays and force my sister to do them with me and get the neighbors to pay a penny to watch." At Stanford, though, the closest she came to acting was a stint as a Dollie her sophomore year. She never auditioned for a Ram's Head production, instead taking dance classes, working at the Dutch Goose tavern in Menlo Park and completing a psychology and political science degree. It wasn't until after she had left school and spent a few months working on a horse ranch in Southern California that she thought about an acting career. So she headed to New York.

For the next four years, she took classes, did free performances -- and spent two summers working at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. Still she struggled. She learned what it was like to use a credit card to buy groceries and run up thousands of dollars of debt. "I had an oatmeal phase because my bank account was pretty small," she says. "But there's not much you can do with oats." During that time she engaged in a lot of guerrilla theater, a euphemism for putting on a show without a permit. She did improv in an updated Lysistrata -- the Greek play whose female characters refuse to have sex with their husbands unless they forswear war -- that started in a Lithuanian church and ended up in a long run at the rock venue CBGB's.

In the mid-1990s, things began looking up. Rhonda Price of the Gersh Agency took Bareikis on as a client after an assistant discovered her in a small play and brought her into the office. Says Price: "I saw her, and that was it." Bareikis is easy to cast, Price says -- indeed, according to Bareikis, Price spends a lot of time these days telling her she must learn to say no to roles. Bareikis currently reads six to eight scripts a week. "Every actor is worried about the future. I'm always job-hunting."

How does she define a good role, I ask. "Something I'd like to see myself," says Bareikis, an avid theatergoer. One dream part is Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull. She's already had a chance to do another favorite, Juliet, at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. Bareikis prefers the stage to film or TV. "Theater is a precious part of our heritage -- a beautiful way of communicating. There is no experience like it."

But it's an institution under siege, she observes. Theater's future looks "tumultuous," given the expense of a ticket and heavy competition from other forms of entertainment, Bareikis says. She finds the pervasiveness of electronic media worrying because, she says, "you don't have to be in contact with humans."

So she works to keep the tradition alive. When she has time, she still goes to acting classes taught by Wenn Handman, a disciple of famed teacher Stanford Meisner. "It's like working out -- it's important to keep yourself in shape." To cope with the insecurity of it all, she has adopted the attitude that her profession is auditioning as much as it is acting.

But she still finds time to bake cakes -- and that's another beautiful way of communicating.