What I Wished I’d Known When I Was in Theatre School

On the drive down Brigitte and I were talking about what we wished we’d been told in theatre school to prepare us for the ‘real world.’ My suggestions for anyone entering an undergraduate theatre program:

1) Get therapy and meds. During school you have a ton of resources available to you. If you think you might be any kind of addict, nutter, repressed this, suppressed that… get it all out of the way while you are in school. I wish I’d done this with my depression and panic attacks.

2) If you think you might like your own gender, work it out. I still think if I was out and about in college I wouldn’t have gotten as much done creatively. And I am sometimes thankfully that I was more emotionally mature in other ways before I tackled the whole ‘guys are neat, too.’ dynamic.

3) Learn the economics of theatre production. I simply don’t think I was educated how much it costs to produce theatre. Students should be forced to review the budget of all of their shows. To see where the money actually goes – and then estimate how much it would have cost to produce that show at a same-sized theatre in Chicago or another large city with equity actors, union techs and designers.

4) Get over the assholes. There will always be assholes in any industry, in any business and always in life. Learn to put assholes in the proper perspective so you can remain apart from them.

When we went to school there was still a surviving wheeze for the regional theatre movement in the this country. That seems to have slipped even more. We trained for theatre styles from Shakespeare and period movement (Restoration, Jacobean, etc.) as well as musical and modern styles. The curriculum we had was very rich – but I think outdated. Today, I’d tell kids to embrace technology and realize that they can build a cult following online before they even get out of school. You have to have an audience. That is the one thing I tell anybody asking abou writing a book – you have to prove that you have an audience. You have to cultivate your cult.

Something we also talked about was the ‘woman’s bodies’ issues that pervade campuses. Undergrad is often the first time that many young women get exposure to the rich history of the women’s movement and feminism (and leads to way too many what I call Big Fat Pussy plays – sort of like Vagina Monologues crossed with Fat Power topics – I’m all for this topic but it gets very tiresome time after time – sort of like gay plays about AIDS – or black plays only about racism’s context). The smacks right up against traditions such as ballet and the world of dance where you could be prevented from getting an ‘A’ in your dance classes because you gained weight. Same thing in theatre school. I think some of our instructors worked out their own body issues on us and convinced the girls that they had to ‘be okay with your body’ instead of saying the cold hard truth: fat girls don’t play lead roles. We had girls playing ingenues that would never ever play those roles in the real world. If you are sorprano you better look ingenue or you are stuck in the chorus. Yes, there are lead roles for actresses of all sizes but if you are choosing not to lose the weight, you are constraining your castability as an actress (especially when you are younger). Our buddy Tracy put it like this: "I can lose the weight now and plays these crazy characters and then when I’m older not have to keep it off as much so I can play the crazy aunt." This goes for the men as well. Know your ‘type’ and have a deep commitment to art and technique but know that you may have to play the ‘latino with a gun’ to pay the bills. If you are a effeminate (and can’t de-flail) you are choosing to play a certain type of character for the rest of your career. It isn’t right and it isn’t fair, but it the reality of the business.

Another thing that I wasn’t mature enough to grok in college was networking. I just didn’t get it and considered networking being fake or sucking up to people. Now I’m much keener on this: It isn’t who you know, it isn’t what you know, it is who knows what you know – or with theatre, it is who knows what you do. It is like the Yellow Pages. When people look up somebody in the Yellow Pages, that means they absolutely know no one else in their network of friends, family and colleagues that can help them. Same with auditions. When someone hires you from an audition it means they know nobody else that can fill a part. Not the best position to be in. Think of how many people you know who got jobs from cold interviews – apply that to the world of auditions.

I mentioned that I thought sometimes our faculty worked out their own personal demons on us in the classroom. I really think 1 or 2 of my acting profs might have been clinically crazy.

The one rule that Brigitte’s class has was: Don’t fuck your class. We even had a song to go with it to the tune of ‘I Love a Cop’ a terrible godawful showtune that I can’t recall its source show. Do not have sex with people in your class. Especially in a conservatory setting like we were in where you had class with the same 14 people every day for 4 years. Nothing screwed up a quarter’s worth of acting class when A and B were on the rocks. Our class didn’t obey this rule and it caused friction.

With the kind of ego destruction that we went through, I’d handle it so much better now. I’d be much more self-protective.

My laptop finds no wireless networks in the immediate area. Isn’t that remarkable.

It is about 1am here now. Time for bed.

2 thoughts on “What I Wished I’d Known When I Was in Theatre School

  1. Keith

    I think I might read selections of this to might acting class. The same things we should all know going into theatre…

    Ah. Grad school. Nice to know that ego-destruction and whacked-out professors are not unique… Good to know that most of us made it out alive and consider it to have made us better human beings.

  2. Brigitte

    “I Love A Cop” is from Fiorello.

    I find it interesting that the entertainment industry is one of the few professions where hiring based on race, sex, size, etc. is acceptable, and the norm. Yes, it stinks. No its not fair. But it’s the truth.

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