As a struggling actress, Nancy Hartman traveled around Florida in a crow suit, accepted walk-on parts way, way off-Broadway, and crisscrossed the country in a Winnebago as a Vanna White-like "spokesmodel."
But then, about two years ago, she met a man who changed her life: an unscrupulous Hollywood agent who wanted more from her than the traditional 10% or 15% cut.
"After six months I said, 'If I have to sleep with (this guy) to get what I want, I'm not going to do this,' " Hartman said recently. "So I moved to Laguna Beach and got a job at the (Laguna Art) museum and decided to write a play. I decided I was going to get a stable job, stay in one place for a year, and move back to L.A. only once I had something to present."
True to her word, Hartman put pen to paper, writing during lunch breaks and after hours while earning her keep in the museum's development department. She hasn't exactly moved back to the La-La land of opportunity--she's now a "bi-county" resident, she says--but she opened her true-to-life play in Hollywood this month, starring as herself.
"On the Edge of Town," which has an open-ended run Monday nights at the 85-seat Tamarind Theatre, is a comedic "travelogue" in which the leggy, energetic Hartman, clad in '60s-style hot pants and fishnet stockings, tells of her disastrous six-month stint as a "spokesmodel." The show follows her from the day she was hired to help promote a coffee-table book that chronicles the 20th Century.
At first, she envisions talk-show interviews galore but ends up as chauffeur and grunt worker to a hot-air balloon team, driving their 37-foot RV across the United States in pursuit of air shows and photo opportunities.
She finds both at numerous state and county fairs, witnesses pig races and climbs aboard treacherous carnival rides, getting involved in equally absurd, risky and self-destructive relationships along the way.
There's Mike, the wishy-washy married man, and Nick, the British bloke she follows all the way to London after a first meeting, only to be quickly sent packing.
Hartman stages the play--a one-woman show except for actor Michael Lariscy, who serves as an emcee of sorts--as if audience members are attending her self-help seminar, "Smart Women Who Make Stupid Choices and Travel Too Much."
"The play's really about a woman who has made a lot of mistakes and has used traveling as a means of escaping her real problems and uses men to try to fulfill herself," she said, noting that she's moved about 22 times in the last 24 months.
"Believe it or not, it's all true, and I basically set out to write it because I thought I'd gotten myself into all these ridiculous situations and instead of getting mad at myself, I'd turn it into a comedy situation and laugh at it."
In conversation, the 28-year-old actress takes frequent jabs at her self-inflicted travails. But she's been serious about a career in the theater since her childhood in Colorado.
"On the Edge of Town," directed by Gregory Thirloway, marks her professional writing and producing debut, although she says she wrote her first dramatic treatise in the fourth grade.
"I played all the characters and had all the teachers bring their classes into the assembly room for a performance," she said in Laguna Beach, where she lives part time with her boyfriend. (She shares a West Hollywood apartment with a former college roommate as well.)
After attending Stevens College in Columbia, Mo., and earning a graduate degree in theater from Florida State University, she donned the crow suit for a year while doing children's theater throughout the Sunshine State. Then, like many an aspiring actress, she headed to New York. She landed a few off-off-Broadway bit parts and earned a living waiting tables before she got a call for the now infamous book tour.
"He said, 'You're going to travel all over the country to all these great places like Aspen, and they're offering you the job,' and I went 'Great! I'll go,' " she said. "And I got there and they said, 'You'll be driving a Winnebago and living in it.' All my friends thought I was insane.
"The trip was really interesting, though. I didn't really fit into New York, but as I got farther into the rest of the country, I realized that that was more surreal. At the Battle Creek, Mich., balloon show, you could get a quarter off admission for bringing an empty Wisk bottle, and I lived in the Winnebago on the carnival grounds (where the air show took place) next to the wiener wagon. Seriously. It was unbelievable."
Hartman headed for Los Angeles in early 1990, but after her encounter with the manager and his casting couch, she left for Laguna Beach and took the museum job. As development assistant, she quickly made friends with museum staffers, who found her unusually dedicated. Museum director Charles Desmarais once told her as much when he discovered her slaving over a word processor late one Friday evening. Hartman set him straight.
"I said, 'Oh Charles, get real. I'm working on my play,' " she recalled.
In addition to a steady paycheck and a quiet place to write, the new job provided valuable enlightenment, Hartman said. For starters, she learned just what development in the arts world really entails.
"I found out it (meant) begging for money," she said, with characteristic deadpan delivery.
She also learned that business and art can go hand in hand. Hartman said her ex-boyfriend, whom she met in college, owns the Tamarind, so she got a break on rental fees. But producing "On the Edge" with her own money--about $2,500--has put her in debt. The show is losing money, and she says she'll soon have to "get a real job" again. But now she believes she won't have to go it alone in the future.
"I figure if I could ask corporations for $10,000 for the museum, why can't I ask for money for me?" she said.
Hartman, whose play is rich in descriptive detail, also credits the museum job with improving her writing. "I was doing grant writing, and I think that helped me. When you're submitting stuff to the (National Endowment for the Arts) and you have four pages to tell why the museum should get $100,000. . . ."
Hanging around painters and sculptors had an effect, too. In the past, she had felt helplessly dependent upon her audience.
"In theater you need an audience, you need a producer, you need a director, you need a casting agent and you're kind of the last person on the food chain," she said. But "artists do their art for themselves and to express themselves, not necessarily for someone else to see. So I wanted to adopt the artists' mentality. I was going to produce my own show and do it for myself as a means of expression, and if someone wanted to see it, fine."
On those terms, she considers "On the Edge" a success. While she isn't too optimistic that it will make any money before the final curtain, she says she has reaped reward enough in writing, producing and appearing in her first play. Plus, she thinks the show will have lasting power. Citing "Wayne's World," the hit film that grew out of a "Saturday Night Live" skit, she said that once the show closes at the Tamarind, she'd like to take it elsewhere.
At the very least, she said, she's benefited from her own fictional seminar about making stupid choices: "Nancy Hartman does not go after married men any more."
It appears, however, that she isn't completely over her old ways, at least not when it comes to traveling.
"I was driving by John Wayne (Airport) the other day and I don't know where I was thinking of going," she said, "but I had this desire to get on a plane."
Nancy Hartman appears in "On the Edge of Town" Mondays at the Tamarind Theatre, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. Curtain: 10:30 p.m. Admission: $10. Runs indefinitely. Information: (213) 466-1767.