Almost everybody at one time or another has wanted to be an actor. I see it all of the time, and confess that I was bitten by that bug as early as age seven. I knew that was what I wanted to be, not a fireman or a policeman or even president of the United States. I wanted to be an actor.
As luck would have it, I achieved my goal. I have spent a little more than 35 years as an actor and director in live theater. True, I’ve had to supplement my income now and then (I’ve sold real estate, vacuum cleaners and waited tables between gigs) but mostly I have made my living from show business. I’ve done a few films independent and student films here and there, but mostly I have worked on the live stage…nightly…to the tune of seven or eight shows per week. Sometimes I would be rehearsing a play during the daytime hours and performing another play at night, all in the same theatre. While that kind of schedule can be tiring, I can tell you there is no better way to make a living if you love to act.
So how does a person get started in this type of work? You make a commitment to act, and you begin. There is no “easing in.” You have to make the jump if you are serious.
First of all we need to identify what you want to do as an actor. I use the term “actor” to apply to both genders. I don’t like the word “actress.” I don’t call a female physician a “doctoress” or a female attorney a “lawyeress,” so I really don’t need to call a female actor an “actress.”
If you want to head right out to Hollywood and jump right into film, I suggest you learn how to type, wait tables, or otherwise support yourself while you slowly come to realize that you need some theatrical background to survive in film. I can’t help you if you are hell bent on doing this, so I’ll just wish you the best knowing that you are too impatient to finish this article, much less start your career off correctly. To those of you less impulsive I suggest we start out with the breeding ground of good acting – live theatre.
If you have absolutely no experience on stage, I would suggest you start in community theatre. Go to a few of their plays and get acquainted with how they work. More often than not these theatres are populated with actors that work regular day jobs and perform for fun. While not always top notch performances, these good folks are doing it for the love of theatre and that cannot ever be discounted.
To start at this level you do not need to do anything to prepare but find out when the next audition is scheduled, and go audition. A musical is a good selection because the casts are large and sometimes these smaller theatres need the bodies on stage so the odds are in your favor. You may not get a ‘part,’ but if you are in the chorus then you can get to know how the rehearsal and performance system works without a lot of stress. The bad news is you will have to sing at the audition, and that sends some people into the cold sweats.
Be prepared to sing and audition in front of the other people who are also auditioning. Most professional theatres will have audition appointments for a one-on-one audition, but the amateur (or community) theatres they don’t have that kind of time and need to go through a lot of people in an evening or two.
Pick a song that is not from the show that is being auditioned. Directors tire of hearing the same song over and over. Once I heard 75 off key renditions of “Doe Ray Me” as an assistant director for The Sound of Music. It was maddening and after a while we mentally crossed off anybody singing that song. Pick something that is like a song from the show (a song from the same writers but from another show is a good idea) so they can hear what you sound like. If you are auditioning for Rogers and Hammerstein, choose a Rogers and Hammerstein song from another one of their musicals. The idea is to make it easy for the director to cast you. This is not an adversarial relationship; they want you to be good because they have parts they need to fill. Also, don’t be disappointed if you get stopped after a few bars. They don’t need to hear the entire song, and will usually stop you with a polite “Thank You” after about eight to ten bars.
Be sure to bring the sheet music to the audition so the pianist can accompany you. Taped music is annoying to a director. If you have to fiddle with the CD player to get it like you rehearsed it in your bedroom, it is counting as marks against you in the director’s mind. Give the pianist the sheet music and trust that he or she will do you right.
After the song you will probably do what is called a Cold Reading. This is giving you a section of the script (called a side) and told to perform it with another actor. If you happen to get direction during this, consider it a good sign. This means that director is seeing how you respond to taking direction.
You will find in community theatre that these people know each other and have been in several shows together, so you will feel a little like an outsider. Remember, each one of them had a first audition too, and had to endure the same thing. Hand in there and soon you will be swapping theatre stories with them. The other truth about this is that directors tend to cast actors they know. This holds true at all levels of show business. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
Once you get the part, the simple rules of amateur theatre (these apply to professional theatre as well) is to show up a little early for rehearsal, be ready to rehearse at the appointed time, learn your lines and songs early, do what you’re told by the director(s) and be ready to pitch in to help in costuming and props.
Dress comfortably at rehearsal, but be groomed. Personal hygiene is important. Actors who need a bath are avoided and rarely see a second part come their way. Remember you are going to be working in close quarters with people, and having an offending smell will make you unpopular regardless of your talent level. Bring a notepad and pencils to your rehearsal along with some water. I pack a bag with these items along with a towel, some breath mints and a couple of band-aids. Be attentive and cheerful at rehearsals. Grumbling about the director, especially before you have ‘paid your dues’ (done a few shows) will show you to be a mal-content and will make your first show your last. More than once I’ve seen very talented people who were hard to work with lose parts to lesser talented folks who made life easier for their directors and co-actors. Rarely have I seen a show suffer when this has happened.
It pains me to have to write this because it should be obvious, but it is vital that you come to rehearsal at your full facilities. If you have a drinking or drug habit, leave it at home. I’ve seen more careers, reputations, and lives ruined because of alcohol and drugs. We all have our bad habits (mine is eating too much) but exercise control over them.
Once you’ve become part of a show, avoid the traps that rookie actors tend trip. One of those traps is being critical of another’s performance whether in the play you are doing or another work. While you may think this makes you look knowledgeable about theatre, it only succeeds in making you look small. A good rule from childhood that applies – if you can’t say something nice, it is best not to say anything at all.
There is something else you need to know about the rehearsal process in community theatre, it isn’t perfect. The budgets are small. This can make the production a little cheesy compared to most professional theatre. Remember that these sets are done by folks who have regular jobs during the day, and they are working with a very limited budget. If the finished project is not what you had envisioned then be assured that it probably wasn’t what the set designer had envisioned either. Sometimes compromises have to be made due to limited time and funding. The important thing is that it is being done. Remember, nobody is paying to see the set, but to see the play. It is up to you as an actor to make it come to life.
Don’t be surprised if you are asked to work on a set, do a little painting, etc. You might be asked to supply a costume or prop. If you have these things, supply them with enthusiasm and get them back when the show is over. You may be asked to help change a scene during the play. It all goes with the community theatre territory.
During the run of the show be sure to hang our costume up between changes. You may have to change costumes in the wing. If this bothers you, then you will need to gut it out and do it. Nobody is there to ogle you; it is a job that must be done.
As a novice in theatre, you are bound to run into the “old pro.” There are two types of these folks, the good kind and the bad kind. The good kind has been around theatre as long as they can remember. They may or may not have made a living doing it, but are still acting because it is fun and they no longer wish to participate in the cut throat world of professional acting. They will occasionally give you advice, but will not do so unless you either ask or are about make a major error. Listen to these old pros and you will fare well.
The type of “old pros” to stay away from is the ones that constantly remind you they are professionals and are lowering themselves to indulge in community theatre. You have to ask yourself if they are so good and so much in demand then why are they working on a community stage for free? They will go on and on about what they’ve done and with whom they have worked. Nine times out of ten it is total fabrication. Advice from this “old pro” is taken at your own risk, for they will rarely have your best interest at heart.
When the show is over, be sure to help strike (take apart) the set if the other actors are pitching in. This is a part of the production will help you cement that relationship with the other actors.
Following these simple rules (mostly common sense) will help you become part of the community theatre crowd. It will ensure that at the next audition, you are no longer on the outside looking in and you can begin making friends that will last you a long time. Just be sure as you gain show experience that you keep an eye out for that newcomer that not too long ago was you and help them start their way.
Above all, remember to have fun. I once worked with a director in professional theatre who told me that if I wasn’t having fun acting, why was I bothering? She was absolutely right.