I’ve been around a lot of performers, in a lot of different settings. I’ve directed, I’ve taught, I’ve acted, I’ve watched from the audience and from the stage manager’s booth. Every performer is unique, and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Yet, in all of the actors, dancers, and musicians I’ve worked with, I have found that there are exactly three traits every truly excellent performer has in common.
These traits are instrumental to success in the performing arts. You won’t get very far without them, and having them can put you on top in close auditions.
If you can honestly say you have these three traits, then pat yourself on the back! If you’re not so sure, read over this article closely and do what you can to pick them up immediately.
1. You are Driven to Improve
What it means: You are proud of your current abilities, but you are always looking up. You want to get better and you actively seek out learning. You invest what you can into training and consistently practice relevant skills.
Why it’s important: It’s simply impossible to become an excellent performer if you’re not striving to become excellent. While one should always take pride in the abilities you currently have and recognize that everyone grows at different speeds, an excellent performer never assumes they already know everything they need to know. In fact, a performer who shirks practice and doesn’t seek further learning because they are too comfortable with their current ability level will always fall rapidly behind their more driven peers. If you’re not working in some way to improve, you’re effectively moving backwards.
How to strengthen this trait: As a performer, you should find that “excellent” is a constantly moving target. As you experience different performances and learn more about performing, you will constantly find new heights to aspire to. Assess what is holding you back and try your best to constantly crush your own expectations. (I wrote a guide on exactly that topic here.) Above all else, remember learning can take many forms: if classes or private lessons are beyond your reach, try reading books, watching informed YouTube videos, or listening to podcasts.
2. You Have a Positive Attitude
What it means: You’re pleasant to work with in productions, but you also avoid excess negativity when you’re not in a show. You avoid a fatalistic view towards auditioning and personal growth.
Why it’s important: Being a performer can be very rough on your self esteem. If you struggle to maintain an attitude that allows you to bounce back after disappointments, you’ll always struggle to navigate the performing arts world.
Maintaining a positive attitude is also instrumental to personal growth and improving performance skills. Being too hard on yourself or shying away from opportunities for learning because of personal insecurities can severely limit your growth as a performer.
Finally, an exceedingly negative attitude will make it difficult for others to work with you. Someone with a negative attitude will have a hard time getting cast, and no one can become an excellent performer if they can’t even get into a production!
How to strengthen this trait: Maintaining positivity as a performer is a lifelong struggle for even seasoned performers. Nothing will work for everyone, but learning about mindfulness and the growth mindset may be helpful for some. Therapy may be helpful if you find that you frequently feel negative or insecure. Having a good support network is mandatory.
It’s important to remember that mindless, false positivity for the sake of positivity isn’t beneficial to anyone. If you find yourself putting on a mask to maintain a positive attitude, you’ll only do yourself harm in the long run. Don’t be a mindless positivity zombie! You’re always allowed to retreat, reflect, and even mourn when something doesn’t go your way. Just remember to keep it in perspective and find ways to look for silver linings where you can.
If anyone has any golden secrets on this subject, please feel free to share in the comments below!
3. You are an Intelligent Performer Against All Odds
What it means: “The show must go on.” You love to perform, you make time to perform, and you don’t let anything stop you. You’re reliable throughout the entire production process. You know how to manage priorities effectively and set yourself up for success. Being an intelligent performer also means you can assess when the show will have to go on without you for health or personal reasons.
Why it’s important: Unless you’re a professional performer (and even if you are), theatre likely cannot be your number one priority at all times. Unfortunately, you can’t always prevent family problems, mental health crises, scheduling mistakes, or genuine emergencies. However, you can control how you handle them. When other priorities or problems may interfere with rehearsal, you must communicate clearly with your production staff. Let staff know when you’ll be late or missing, lest you become unreliable. Performers are not often cast once they are branded unreliable, and changing such a brand can be very difficult.
If you cannot do your best to put the necessary time and energy into a production, probably should not be in the show in the first place. Excelling in performance requires work, and lots of it. This is why making time for productions and training is necessary for growth. If you’re someone for whom performing is not a priority in any form, you cannot become a truly excellent performer.
You also need to be able to assess when you cannot perform. Rather than attempting to bite off far too much to chew in terms of commitments, an intelligent performer understands that trying to split time between too many priorities results in every priority receiving poor attention. This is also the case in regards to health matters. An intelligent performer needs to assess when a show places too severe a strain on their mental or physical wellbeing. If a health issue could seriously impair either the performer or the production, the intelligent performer should seriously consider lessening their performance priorities or taking a complete break until they can regain proper working conditions. Part of “setting yourself up for success” as a performer also means preparing for health crises: maintaining a healthy lifestyle according to the input of your doctors and mental health counselors.
Once again, you can’t always control the bad things in your life. However, if you believe emergencies, other priorities, and health problems are stacking up such that you cannot give the production the energy it requires, definitely speak to the production team about your concerns. It’s better to speak up about issues and even quit a show when the problem first appears than to allow a potentially preventable emergency to blindside yourself and your cast. Though having an emergency doesn’t make you unreliable, if you let a harmful problem fester, you become dishonest and unreliable by omission.
How to strengthen this trait: One more time: You can’t prevent every emergency. However, you can take steps to prevent them. Try to look ahead and keep a contingency plan, whether this means stockpiling some extra funds, discussing mental health management strategies with a therapist, or maintaining a good support network. Try to recognize when the warning signs appear, and take steps to prepare accordingly. Do you need to take a break? Maybe set up an emergency doctor’s appointment or therapist visit? Reach out for help when you need it, lest the problem become so big later on that no one can help. And remember to keep your production team in the loop!
For the problems you can’t avoid– and there will be problems you can’t avoid– hone your ability to be honest and open with your production staff. This can be difficult. Remember a production team will always admire someone who speaks their truth over someone who tries (and almost inevitably fails) to hide an issue.
There you have it– the three traits that make an excellent performer.
Some readers might feel like I’ve left a few out. “What about stellar singing technique? What about prestigious training? What about years of dance experience?”
Those things may be useful. However, I have yet to meet a truly wonderful performer who didn’t embody these three traits.
My time working on school theatre has taught me this: It’s great for a performer to have talent and training. Yet, if they’re not positive and driven, there will eventually be no place for them on stage. The ones who want to improve, who show up excited to rehearse and won’t let anything stop them, are always the ones who end up finding success.
They’re successful because they are excellent performers.
Are they jaw-dropping on stage? Not necessarily. Are they the most suited for every role? No. But they embody what it means to be a performer.
Before you worry about taking lessons and classes, worry about mastering these three traits.
Without them, you won’t get far.