Maybe You’re Just not a Belter: A Letter to a Young Actor with Vocal Strain

Dear Young Actor,

I get it.

You’ve listened to Barrett Wilbert Weed and Krysta Rodriguez and Sutton Foster and now you just want to sound just like them. We’ve all been there.

Contemporary Broadway is full of belters belting their faces off. It’s flashy and impressive and now basically everywhere you look.

Here’s the thing about belting.

Everyone has a natural shape to their voice. Everyone’s larynx, vocal folds, and resonators (like the mouth and sinuses) are built just slightly differently. This will change the way your voice sounds– speaking voices and singing voices alike all sound different from person to person for this reason. Some people’s vocal folds are longer than other’s, or thicker, or more slightly elastic– all of these factors will cause the vocal folds to vibrate slightly differently and produce different sounds.

Some people are built for different kinds of singing than others. This might be why some people you know can sing soprano with no training while you struggle to sing higher notes and vice versa.

Your speech patterns and habits can also effect your singing voice. For example, you might be prone to mumbling and always talk in the lowest pitches of your voice. You’d probably tend toward a closed mouth and the lower range of your singing voice, because this is what you’d be used to.

You can change the natural build of your voice. This is especially evident with training.

With practice, you can well and truly do nearly anything you want with your voice. Though certain biological disadvantages may stop you from being able to hit record-breaking high or low notes, you can achieve extraordinary results with training. The important thing is that you practice, and practice hard, with someone who can coach you to safely achieve these results.

Which brings us to where you are now: young, and early in your training, with a very sore throat.

Belting is not an in-born ability. Some might be biologically predisposed to it more than others, and some may have certain speaking or singing habits that helped them achieve their sound relatively naturally. However, no one is a natural belter. Belting takes years of time and practice to perfect safely.  The Broadway stars we know and love for their clear, powerful tone have worked likely for decades to achieve their sound. They have studied vocal technique extensively and learned to make habit certain behaviors that make belting easily attainable. They have specially trained the muscles that support breathing and phonation to take pressure off of their vocal folds and make the process safe.

When people don’t learn to belt safely, they end up ruining their voices. It’s common. The strained, tired throat you’re nursing now is in the very first stages of this downward spiral. When you strain to belt, you put pressure not on trained lungs or supporting muscles but on your vocal folds directly. The pain you’re feeling in your throat is from forcing the sound out instead of letting it naturally float. This can be traumatic to the vocal folds and the longer you do this, the more you risk permanent injury. At best you’ll find yourself in pain when you sing, or nursing vocal polyps or cysts that will go away on their own with vocal rest. Or you might end up with vocal hemorrhaging, which will require surgery to resolve and keep you from singing for months.

So give it a rest.

Your dreams are not in vain. You can learn to sing however you want. However, make sure you’re doing it safely. Find a good voice instructor. If possible, find one who can teach you the basics of classical singing technique– Barrett Wilbert Weed attributes her success with belting to her background in opera singing. Learn how to create a resonant, well-supported tone, and then worry about putting the power behind it. Feel free to explore pop and rock sounds, but do so in a safe way.

Remember, even with training, vocal injuries are incredibly common due to the demand for high, show-stopper belting. Even trained belters run into trouble when they have to belt at the top of their ranges 8 shows a week. So don’t rush yourself– take your time. Build up the muscles and perfect the habits you’ll need to keep your voice safe. Ask yourself if the song or role you really want is really attainable for your voice yet– and save it for later if it’s not. You’ll get there some day soon enough. Don’t blow your chances by being impatient.

And if you can’t achieve the belting of your dreams? That’s okay too.

Not everyone needs to be a belter. There is room for a wealth of voice types and personalities in performing. You’re better off performing in a way that is healthful and attainable for you than what is ideal for someone else. By all means, work and push yourself– but don’t lose sight of your own original sound, either. You were born with your own unique voice for a reason. Use it.

Take good care of your voice, and it will support your passion for the rest of your life.

You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Love,

A concerned friend

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5 Nonfiction Reading Recommendations for Theatre People

Because it’s the subject in life I’m most passionate about, theatre is nearly the only subject on which I actively seek out and enjoy nonfiction. Some might say I’m just growing up and discovering a more sophisticated taste in books, but fiction is no less refined than nonfiction, and I’d make a list on theatre-related fiction recommendations if I’d read more of it. (Maybe soon!) Regardless of your ideas on the sophistication merit of nonfiction versus fiction, these are five nonfiction books anyone can appreciate, even if nonfiction isn’t your usual gig. For the sake of the less enthusiastic nonfiction readers, I will order this list following a sliding scale of “reads like a novel” to “reads like an essay” and let you decide for yourself where reading will become a chore. I really encourage everyone to try these five books, even if they intimidate you– they’re worth the struggle!

1. Without You:  A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent by Anthony Rapp

This memoir reads like a novel about the first toddling steps of the musical Rent, and I love it to pieces. As a huge Rent fan, I geeked out over almost every page. You learn about the true stories of real people involved in the original try-outs and OBC of the show, unfolding alongside personal events in Anthony Rapp’s life. Just like the musical, there is equal measure joy, sorrow, and meditation on LGBT+ issues, woven together by hard reality and the drive to connect to others through our passions. If you are a Rent fan, this is absolute required reading. If not, I advise you to read anyway– you may find more to take away than you expected.

2. Theater Geek: The Real Life Drama of a Summer at Stagedoor Manor by Mickey Rapkin

Half history lesson on the famous performing arts camp and half reality show unfolding in its midst, Theater Geek is supremely fun and validating to read. The camp is a haven for those who throw themselves wholeheartedly into their passion for theatre. While high school theatre kids get a bad rap for being dramatic, ambitious, and larger-than-life, Stagedoor Manor welcomes and worships these qualities, and promises unparalleled training and potential fame to the best of the best. Rapkin weaves the perilous history of the little camp that could turned Broadway pipeline with the true dramas of young actors preparing to perform with all they’ve got in the camp’s most demanding productions. A page-turner that keeps you in true suspense while delivering triumphantly, lovingly never-dry history on a camp we’re all too old to attend– but wish we could go to, anyway.

3. The Actor’s Art and Craft: William Esper Teachers the Meisner Technique by William Esper and Damon DiMarco

If you’re looking to learn something about acting, I would recommend this book in a heartbeat. The Actor’s Art and Craft is like being a fly on the wall in one of the most incredible acting classrooms in the world. It’s a relatively easy read, with all of the acting advice given in narrative form through a fictionalized re-telling of Esper’s tutelage. It is inspiring and deeply informative, and full of heart in a surprising way. You read this book because it’s interesting on its own and realize you’ve learned more than you bargained for along the way. A fantastic primer on Meisner technique and a shining beacon for anyone interested in the art of acting.

4. The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods by Richard Brestoff

An unconventional read that provides a basic background on the greatest actors and acting teachers in history– essential reading for anyone looking to learn more about acting. Chapters provide history as well as sample lessons on the beliefs of each teacher. The wide sampling of ideas provides ample room for further reading, while also giving readers a basic understanding of many viewpoints on acting. This is a fantastic starting point for those looking to deepen their knowledge of acting as a craft. It is shockingly dense and yet surprisingly easy to read– you could read it in a day if you wanted, though you’d hardly get the full weight of the content if you rushed through it so fast! Take your time with this one and absorb as much as you can. It is well worth it.

5. The Empty Space by Peter Brook

Undoubtedly the most involved read on this list, and yet the shortest. Essentially a set of four essays on theatre as a whole– what it is, and what we do with it. This book provides a vocabulary for feelings about performances I previously had no words for, and lights a way to creating lively and inspiring theatre going forward. Reading it has fundamentally changed my understanding of theatre. If you are passionate about theatre, it is required reading that may shake you to your core.

A Director’s Guide to Making your Set Builds and Strikes more User-Friendly

Getting your cast and crew to stay focussed and productive during set build and especially strike is always a challenge. Although it can seem like inaction on the part of your actors is purely a matter of laziness or disrespect, many actors simply don’t know how to help or be useful. If you want to keep everyone active, some small steps on the part of the director can help.

Keep your goals clear and visible.

Make sure your team is clear on everything that needs to be done for the day, and make these goals visible. If you have access to a large whiteboard, write out every individual goal for the day. Otherwise, print out sheets of paper and post them somewhere they may be easily referenced. Check off tasks as you go. When everything that needs to be accomplished is clearly established, no one can claim ignorance as an excuse for inaction. It also lessens the amount of questions you’ll have to field– everyone has an easy resource to consult should they complete their task and find themselves seeking another. 

This also makes it easy to keep track of what you’ve accomplished and what will still need done. I’ve been to many set builds where the day’s goals are only clearly enumerated in the TD’s head, and things are easily forgotten. Posting a list anyone can see keeps everybody on track and knowledgeable about the total progress.

Assign specific tasks to specific people.

Don’t just assume your cast and crew know where and how to be helpful. Give everybody a specific task, from your previously established list of goals! If you have enough people, create teams in charge of specific areas. This is especially useful at strike, where you likely have a large cast available to help and a lot of work to get done. For example, you may establish a “dressing room team”, who clean out the dressing rooms, a “costume team”, who gather and store all costume pieces, and a “tear-down team”, responsible for the heavy work being done on stage. When one team finishes, they can find another team to assist. 

Teams are a good way to “divide and conquer” when it comes to your goals for the day. This allows several tasks to be reliably undertaken at once. If you establish teams, make sure you group people who are liable to work well together! Otherwise, teams may wind up being less productive than individual work.

Establish leaders besides yourself. 

You may find yourself quickly swamped with questions if a lot of people are approaching a lot of different tasks. To take the pressure off of you and keep the work flowing smoothly, make sure everyone knows who besides you they can report to with questions. You can also appoint leaders for each “department”– for example, establish one person as the authority on costumes, one as the authority on props, one as the authority on construction/tear down. Ideally, this is your costume master, props master, and TD, though in small theaters or school settings, all of these titles may belong to one person. Dividing the responsibilities keeps things moving and increases accountability. With many authorities, it is easy to supervise lots of work. Actors are also more likely to ask for help if their authority is easily available to help, and not already helping several other people. 

An especially useful authority figure is one who can show people how to do things. For example, if many of your cast don’t know how to use necessary power tools or don’t know the theater’s organization system for props or costumes, having people who can explain protocol to others in invaluable. 

Always be ready to assign further work. 

Inevitably, a time comes during strike and build when one group is accomplishing a particularly difficult task that all the rest depend on, and the rest have nothing to do but sit and wait until this task is completed. There is always a surplus of things to be done in these settings– if only you know what they are when the time comes. Be ready to hand out lots of odd jobs, even if they’re not directly related to what you wanted to accomplish today. For instance, there is always something to be organized, cleaned, or prepared for future rehearsals. Keeping a list of these “nonessential but helpful” tasks ready in case the opportunity arises will keep everybody busy. 

This is especially paramount if you’re working with young actors– downtime can become dangerous, especially minimally supervised downtime!

The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Tech Week

I have a sickness of the mind, and it is that I kind of get a kick out of tech week. The idea of 12 hour rehearsals gets me sort of jazzed sometimes. The head-down, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other grind of tech week is very fulfilling to me. It’s a week to throw the entirety of my energy squarely at two targets: put on a good show and don’t kill yourself. It’s like a week of wilderness survival but for a theatre kid. It’s exhilarating and when it’s done you get to show off all your cool scars (some figurative, most literal).

I’m a dweeb about tech week preparation, it’s true. If tech week is wilderness survival, I am your overenthusiastic survival guide. I will get through it and I will get you through it, too. Just heed my advice.

This guide is divided into four sections: Pre-Tech Preparations, Maintaining Mental and Physical Health, Vocal Health for Dummies, and Show Run Reminders.

Pre-Tech Preparations

Before tech week starts, it is helpful to get some other responsibilities out of your way. Clear your plate, because you won’t have time to keep up with too much else once the week begins.

  • Take care of any homework or work assignments ahead of time, if possible. If there are any big projects due in your life during tech week, get them over with before the week begins, or else have them mostly done before the due date. Tech week is exhausting enough as it is. If you’re like me, putting things off until tech week means they simply won’t get done. You never know what may need taken care of at the last minute for the show– don’t run the risk of leaving yourself without ample time to complete whatever you need to.
  • Clear your schedule as much as possible. This means obviously making sure rehearsals and show nights are free of conflicts, but also applies globally to the week. Schedule yourself as lightly as possible– refrain from making any appointments this week if you can. Work is also a consideration. It’s possible to work 8-5 every weekday and then go to rehearsal every night. It’s even possible to work right up until call for your shows come opening night. However, you are guaranteed to tire out quickly this way. If it’s not absolutely necessary, and you can get away with a few days off, now is a good time to take them! PTO is especially useful in this situation. Of course, not everyone can swing this. I recommend at least getting the days of the show off if possible– you want to be at your absolute best come showtime, not exhausted from working early.
  • Pick up any supplies you may need. I keep all of my supplies in a large tote and bring them with me each night. Below is a non-exhaustive list of things you may want/need:
    • All required costume pieces, makeup, etc
    • Your script/music
    • Bobby pins, hairspray, hairbrushes
    • Makeup wipes
    • Light snacks (I always have an assortment of nuts and crackers)
    • Water, sports drinks
    • Safety pins, tape
    • Bandaids
    • Pencils, hi-lighters, sharpies
    • Throat spray, lozenges
    • Tissues
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Deodorant
    • Phone charger (preferably not your “home” charger, in case you forget it at the theater!)
    • Anything else necessary to maintain your health
  • Make sure you know your stuff! Tech week isn’t time to learn– it’s time to review and polish. Your lines, blocking, set move assignments, and vocal parts should be, at least in very large part, learned by this point.

It’s also important to make sure you’re absolutely clear on when each rehearsal begins and when you are to be at the theater for the shows. In general, don’t leave anything about the week up to fate– be as prepared as you possibly can be.

It’s important to take care of yourself leading up to tech week, or you have no hope of getting through it at your best. Make sure you stock up on all the rest, food, and water you possibly can before tech week begins– you’ll be wanting for it later!

Maintaining Mental and Physical Health

It is absolutely crucial that actors take care of themselves during tech week. It’s so important, I will say it again, in bold this time: it is absolutely crucial that actors take care of themselves during tech week. Our society glorifies working until you drop, but running yourself to your absolute limit absolutely doesn’t help anyone. Think of it this way: if you pass out at rehearsal because you “heroically” skipped dinner to get to the theater on time or injure yourself because you’re asleep on your feet due to staying up all night cramming homework, you can delay rehearsal or stop a performance in its tracks. You can totally undermine all of the effort everyone has put into the show if you don’t take care of yourself. You can suffer severe health consequences, too. For example, if you don’t take care of a sore throat and sing all through tech week and performances with no regard for your health, you can severely damage your voice and be vocally handicapped for weeks or longer. Be smart. Take care of yourself.

Here are some tips for doing so:

  • Always, always, always make food, water, and sleep a priority. This is why I advise you to get other work done and clear your schedule as much as possible– it is most important, now more than ever, that you get proper rest and sustenance. This is what you have worked for for weeks, don’t settle for delivering less than your best. (And you will, unequivocally, deliver less than your best without these health staples.) Get 7+ hours of sleep a night, eat 3 meals a day, drink around 8 cups of water.
  • Stretch and warm up your body before the show. This will help you prevent injury and keep you alert and aware. Acting is a full-body exercise! Warm up each of these muscles before the show begins so you are ready to tackle the performance. Even if the group does stretches together, considering doing further stretching on your own time. You should know your body better than anybody else; therefore, your perception of when your body is warmed up and ready will be unique from everyone else’s. Keep going until you feel totally prepared, and then stretch a little more, for good measure.
  • Take care of your face! The routine of putting on and removing stage makeup each and every night can be a lot of stress on your skin. Always be sure to remove your makeup and rinse your face thoroughly. Pay attention to your eye makeup, too– although it can be harder to remove, heavy eye makeups can cause styes, itchiness, and dryness if left alone all week. If you’re not familiar with facial care, consider looking up some tutorials on YouTube to get an idea of how to save your skin during this week!
  • Minimize stress as much as possible. This sounds like a funny joke, I know. However, stress can cause somatic symptoms like stomach problems and sleep disruptions at worst, and keep you off your game at best. Minimizing your other commitments and being prepared for the week will help keep the stress load light.
  • Keep yourself clean. Maintaining personal hygiene will never be as paramount as it is in tech week. Shows are gross and sweaty, and no one likes to be (or be near) the smelly person in the dressing room. Bathe, brush your teeth, wash your hands frequently. I like to take a quick shower before I leave for every tech rehearsal and performance, if possible– even if not totally necessary. This is also a good way to “reset” your mind from the day and get in the zone for the show.
  • Sickness and injuries must be taken care of. Take you vitamin C and go to the doctor if you’re sick. Manage your symptoms and pain, and absolutely take it easy if you must.
  • Save yourself for the show. Don’t go giving 110% every night of tech. Save your voice, energy, and muscles for the performance. This doesn’t mean slack off during rehearsal, but go easy on yourself. Your director will understand.
  • Pretend you’re a healthy person. Even if you’re usually a hot mess, tech week is a great time to play the part of a person who has it all together. If you convince yourself that you’re organized, dependable, and healthfully-minded just for the week, you’ll be better inclined to take care of yourself and keep up with whatever the week throws at you. Eat the right foods, get your exercise, meditate, use essential oils. Whatever you need to do to trick yourself into staying on top of things, do it!
  • Reward yourself. Disregard my previous point for a moment, now. A big part of maintaining your mental health during tech week is giving yourself a pat on the back for the work you’re doing. So don’t skimp on the self-care this week: Take a bubble bath, do a face mask, eat some cake, sleep in a little. Just don’t reward yourself in a way that might be deleterious– for example, getting wasted after a performance and having a wicked hangover for your matinee is never a winning option.

Maintain your life outside the show– remember, once the week is done, you’ll have to go back to all those other realities you need to attend to. However, let the show be your main focus, just for now. This way, you can cut down on the stress of juggling thirty different tasks and ensure you’ve got the energy to perform at your best.

Vocal Health for Dummies

It is alarmingly common during tech week to hear complaints about sore, strained throats with no plan for restoring and maintaining vocal health. Again, don’t run yourself into the ground– take care of yourself! Aim for prevention of injury or illness, and if this fails, absolutely make recovery a priority. Here are some tips regarding keeping your voice in the best possible shape during a strenuous production week:

  • Drink water. This is a mandatory baseline. When you sing, it is the mucousy  membrane lining the surface of your vocal folds that does most of the vibrating required for sound production. These membranes absolutely need to be hydrated. Hydration is also useful for flushing phlegm from the throat, soothing and repairing strain, and keeping the rest of your body healthy. Drink water.
    • Soda/Pop is not a substitute for water, and creates excess phlegm in the throat.
    • Alcohol, coffee, and sugary beverages like energy drinks will dry out your throat even more. Avoid them as much as possible.
  • Warm up and warm down, gently and thoroughly. Even if the group does warmups together, you should know what your voice feels like when it is warmed up– do what is necessary for you to be prepared, not what is necessary for everyone else. Thorough warm ups can prevent injury and keep you sounding your best. A gentle warm down, such as humming, is a good way to relax the muscles after all the hard work of performing and helps you mentally wind down from the day’s work.
  • Prevent injury. Avoid over-singing, and avoid anything that is stressful to your voice, such as screaming, whispering, coughing, or clearing your throat. If you begin to feel pain, assume you are beginning to strain your vocal folds and back off.
  • Immediately respond to symptoms. As I’ve already asserted, you should be the authority on your own body. If you start feeling pain in your throat, heed the message! Strain is very common during tech week, as performing so much can take a heavy toll, especially if you aren’t used to performing often and don’t have strong stamina built up, or if you are recovering from previous vocal injuries or sickness. When you feel pain, it is important you assess and respond.
    • Am I sick or am I strained?This is a valuable question to ask, though the treatment for both will be relatively similar. A “sick” sore throat will often feel rather different from a “strained” sore throat.
      • Sickness: Raw or dry feeling in back of throat, “thickness” or tickle in the throat, accompanying symptoms of illness such as sinus problems, fever, etc.
      • Strain: Pain in the musculature in any part of the neck or throat, especially under the chin or around the sides/front of the neck. Pain might get better when the voice is not in use. Voice might sound breathy, raw, or weak, especially when singing.
      • If you are totally unable to discern whether you are sick or feeling the effects of strain, continue as if both were the problem, just to be safe.
    • Treatments for sickness:
      • See your doctor for diagnosis and more complete advice.
      • Take Vitamin C.
      • Expel excess phlegm from the body– blow your nose and attempt to clear post-nasal drainage, which can irritate the throat.
      • Avoid coughing or clearing the throat as much as possible. If you’re phlegmy, you might feel the urge to do so a lot, but it can be very damaging. Clear the throat with some gentle vocal warm ups (lip trills and 5-note arpeggios are good) or by drinking water– not by force.
      • Remember to clean/replace water bottles, lest you reinfect yourself.
      • Drink water.
      • Get plenty of rest.
      • Avoid misuse of the voice and go easy during rehearsals.
    • Treatments for strain:
      • Immediately cease misuse.
      • Go on vocal rest, if at all possible.
      • Assess singing habits (with the help of your vocal coach/music director, if possible) for damaging behaviors, and immediately seek to change them.
      • If possible, sing a different voice part closer to your natural range, or don’t sing at all in rehearsal. (Discuss with your director/music director so they don’t think you’re just slacking off.)
      • Be sure to warm up and warm down extra gently.
      • Drink water.
      • Get plenty of rest.
    • Remove the cause, not just the symptom: … but manage your symptoms, too. Here are some suggestions for soothing the pain in your throat:
      • Drink water… or hot drinks like tea for immediate relief.
      • Gelatin is soothing to a sore throat– Marshmallows are a common method of consumption.
      • Honey does wonders.
      • Potato chips are a weird suggestion, but they work. Try plain Lay’s the next time you have a sore throat.
      • Toast can be good for gently scraping some of the phlegm out of your throat, if you’re feeling especially “gunked up”.
      • Apples (and many other fruits) are full of Vitamin C, high in water content, and contain acids that can gently flush phlegm from the throat. Therefore, they’re pretty great for performers. Apple cider vinegar is even better, if you can stomach it– adding a small amount to a glass of water is a good way to flush toxins from your system.
      • REMEMBER THAT SOOTHING PAIN IS NOT THE SAME AS SOLVING THE PROBLEM. Drinking lots of Throat Coat and then singing away as though healthy just because your pain is temporarily gone isn’t the goal. Pain is important– it sends us valuable messages. By all means, soothe your pain, but remember to take it easy and seek to solve the underlying problem rather than only the symptom.
  • Avoid eating right before performing. Though nothing you eat will ever actually touch your vocal folds, eating directly before a performance can make your voice feel “thick” and hard to manage.
    • Side note on this: Dairy. Some say it makes them phlegmy and swear it off in the days before performing, some don’t care. Find what works for you and do that. How you feel is most important!

The most important take away from this section is take care of your voice. And also drink water.

Show Run Reminders

These are some general reminders for tech week and the show beyond:

  • Always pay attention to what your body is telling you, and immediately stop and inform your director/stage manager/music director/authority who can help when something is painful or feels wrong. If you feel dehydrated or lightheaded, take a minute to seek solutions and ensure you are alright before trucking on with the show.
  • Maintain your health above all else. Sleep, drink water, eat enough food.
  • Be responsible at your after-parties, especially if you still have shows left. If you have no shows left, go wild, but always be wary of potentially harmful situations. You can’t perform well in the future if you’re dead.
  • Keep alert by getting enough rest and getting light exercise. If you must drink coffee or an energy drink, seek low-sugar options, and drink it well enough in advance that you have time to chase it with water and keep your vocal folds effectively hydrated. This goes double for energy drinks: drinking these too close to the show can cause your heart rate to rise sharply and suddenly especially when nerves or lots of dance are factored into the equation. This can lead to hospitalization. Be careful, and avoid these “boosts” as much as possible. Get energy the old-fashioned way– with sleep!
  • Stay in the moment, especially once the rehearsal run or performance starts. Keep yourself fully occupied with the tasks at hand and save the rest for later. This will help you avoid stupid mistakes!
  • The worse the dress rehearsal, the better the show, or so they say. Don’t get too down about rough rehearsals. Just fix what you can for the next one and keep plugging along. A negative attitude won’t help you succeed.
  • Know when to give your all. You’ve got only a small handful of chances to perform– so don’t tire yourself out prematurely by going to hard during tech week. Save yourself for the show, and then give 110%.

Final Thoughts

Drink water.

Tech week can be long and painful, or it can be relatively painless and easy if you take care of yourself and keep up with the punches. Opt for the easy route: get sleep, get hydration, get sustenance, keep yourself healthy!

Why Working in an Escape Room is a Great job for Theatre People

I’m lucky enough to have a part time job I really enjoy. Like most of the world, I’ve done my time in retail, and I hated almost all of it. Though great co-workers and the occasional fun customer can liven up any job, the feeling that you’re just putting in boring, tedious hours to scrape out the money you need to survive is draining and unfulfilling. It helps if you can find a job somehow relevant to your passions, but many of us aren’t so lucky. I struck gold when I found my part time job working at a local escape room.

For those unfamiliar with the escape room trend, here’s a quick explanation: You are placed into a room (or multiple) containing a series of puzzles that you must solve within a certain time frame. Often the rooms are themed. Most escape rooms are designed for anywhere from 2 to 10 participants at a time. As you solve the puzzles, a Gamemaster watches (usually from cameras) and can provide clues if necessary. Find a key to open a box, from which you get a math puzzle that works out to the combination for the 4-digit lock, which opens an envelope full of a documents that spell out a coded message– that sort of deal.

Working in an escape room is a lot of fun on its own, but it appeals especially to me because it uses many of the same skills I need when I’m working on a show! The relevance isn’t always clear from the outside, but take it from an insider: escape rooms are a great employment opportunity for those interested in acting. Here’s a few reasons why.

1. Public Speaking Galore

Part of the typical gamemaster’s job is standard customer service– greet customers, take payment if necessary, maybe have them sign any waivers required by the business. Usually the gamemaster is also in charge of explaining the story/circumstances and rules of the room to players. Some escape rooms present five to ten minute introductory presentations to explain all the players will need to know to solve the room, for which gamemasters are responsible.

If you are someone who struggles with stage fright and nerves in front of crowds, public speaking practice is especially helpful. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran in that regard, finding ways to make your audience listen and laugh to your dry introduction is a valuable skill, and can be a lot of fun.

2. Memorization Game

Memorization is a necessary skill for all actors, and one we can always use a little more practice with. As I mentioned in the previous point, gamemasters are responsible for presenting the stories and rules of their games. Usually, this means memorizing as much of the necessary information as possible to make presentation to customers quick and painless. You’ll also need to memorize the path the players will take through the game, and memorize the room layout to return all of the props and puzzles to their correct places once the game is over. (It’s a bit like setting up the stage for the top of the show after a rehearsal!)

Running a room is an active exercise in memorization. Forgetting a step or resetting the room incorrectly can have consequences. Build your memory while being accountable for a customer’s gameplay experience– you’ll train yourself to double and triple check your work very quickly!

3. Acting Opportunities

When thinking about acting jobs, few would consider escape rooms. Admittedly, very few escape rooms hire people just to act. Some escape rooms hire actors to play characters inside the rooms, though this is rare. Slightly more common is commitment to character before a group enters or exits a room. For instance, at Enter The Imaginarium, an escape room in Pittsburgh, PA, all of the gamemasters roleplay as members of a mysterious “Order”, and act in character, even while giving clues during gameplay.

Perhaps the biggest acting opportunity for escape room workers is totally hidden– an opportunity where your ability to sell someone on a slightly bent reality really matters. When groups fail to escape, they are often very hard on themselves. The fact that they didn’t escape might totally ruin their experience if they get too down about it. It’s important players know that the fun of escape rooms is in playing the room,  not necessarily the escape. Sometimes they play very well and get stuck on small things, or wind up very close to the end. It’s a shame to let a group like this leave thinking they did poorly! Then, your acting skills can come in handy for raising their spirits. Even if they did poorly, no one wants to leave feeling dumb. If you have to bend the truth just a bit to make them feel better, that’s not a bad thing– but you’d better be convincing!

4. Practice Problem Solving on the Fly

One of the best things you can learn in live theatre is how to handle crises in the blink of an eye (usually, in the dark backstage, while being totally silent). Say a prop breaks right before your entrance with it– you need to be prepared to find a solution! The same goes for working in an escape room. Puzzles break all the time. Escape room props will likely be handled roughly. Important items will snap in half, locks will fail to open, and computer-driven sequences will fail to trigger. When this happens, the gamemaster needs to be able to handle whatever is thrown at them.

Both on stage and in escape rooms, sometimes shit just happens. Getting used to that fact and becoming intimately familiar with how to behave when it does is always of your benefit.

5. Build, Design, and Get Creative

Though some escape rooms buy their games as kits and purchase their props and puzzles, many design and build their own. This is a fun, creative process wherein you can flex a lot of crafting skills! There are large “set pieces” to construct– things like tables, counters, walls, and closets– where you can practice carpentry skills useful in theatre tech. There’s also small props and pieces to design. At my job, I’ve made magic wands out of metal rods, magnets, hot glue, masking tape, and a fancy paint job. There’s also the escape room equivalent of “set dressing” to be done, providing miscellaneous non-essential props to decorate walls, shelves, and floor space. Designing the actual flow of the room is a complex process that requires consideration for storyline flow, practicality, and a whole lot of abstract thought– a bit like the thought process required in directing or writing a show.

Most importantly, working in an escape room is fun. It’s an opportunity to get away from food service or retail and work in an entertainment capacity– even if you yourself aren’t the chief entertainer! If you love theatre, working in an escape room can also be relevant to your passion. It may not be your dream job, but it can be worth your time for now!

I’m Disappointed, Too: A Letter to a Young Actor

Dear actor,

It’s very clear what you expected to happen at auditions. It’s very clear you’re unhappy with the results. In a sense, I’m not happy about them either.

You had reason to feel good about these auditions. You’ve gotten a few shows with us under your belt. You have some experience with all the proper skills. You know how we work and have a working relationship with us. By all means, you should have nailed this audition.

Here’s the thing, though: Whether you did or not wasn’t really the issue in the end. What really ruined your chances was your attitude.

It was clear that you came into this audition with the mindset that this show had already been cast. You expected nothing less than the lead, and didn’t think for a moment you might have to really fight for the role. You prepared for your audition as a formality, and it was clear in your presentation. You did not show us your best performance. We have seen your best performance before, and we are honor-bound to hold you to it– you deserve nothing less than to be held to the highest standard, because you can meet the highest standard. If this audition were based on what we have seen you do before, you’d be home free at the top of the cast list. Instead, you gave us a half-hearted effort and a lot of attitude, leaving all your talent and hard work a ghost in the back of our minds. That is disappointing to all of us.

To be clear: I’m not disappointed in this outcome. I’m disappointed in your actions. You have gotten the role you earned. This is the role you deserve. By not giving your best effort, you earned less than you wanted. That was strictly your own doing– you have no one else to blame. I am as disappointed that you chose to give us less than your best as you are disappointed in the outcome.

However, please note: This is not a punishment.

We are not personally spiting you. To say I cast the show out of spite is an insult to every other actor who did their best in auditions. Everyone earned their roles in those auditions. There is not a bad role in this show. We, as a production team, see and respect the actors who recognize this. The ones who show up and give their all will always be favored over those who rest on their laurels. After all, they will always give their best effort, and that is a powerful thing.

Not being the lead is not a punishment. If you treat it as such, though, you’ve given us good reason to continue not casting you as leads. It means you think you deserve the lead, and I am always eager to break that line of thought.

To let you get comfortable and think you “deserve” leads would be to do you a great disservice. Casting is a complex process based on many variables, and the only way to improve your chances effectively in an audition is to work. As a growing actor, one of the best lessons you can learn is that you earn your dream roles only when you strive for them. There is truly no limit to what you can achieve if you are willing to put in the effort to reach your goals. I know you have it in you to play amazing roles– if only you give them amazing effort.

Please remember, this does not mean I have any ill-will towards you. I hope there is no love lost between us. It is because I know you can do better that I have not insulted you by accepting less than your best. Please use this as a learning opportunity.

You deserve to be rewarded for your best work, and nothing less.

I hope to see your best again in future auditions.

Best,

Your Director

10 Ways to get an Education in Theatre Outside of College

A college education in theatre is an incredible opportunity. However, for many reasons, it’s not always attainable. With the current cost of college, any degree should be closely examined for its post-graduation worth. Though a theatre degree is as worthwhile as any other degree, the capital required to earn the degree is a huge barrier for many, with often uncertain returns.

Whether you cannot afford a degree, or are in the process of preparing for a degree, it is necessary that those seeking education take initiative. In today’s society, the ability to learn on your own is paramount. There are many resources available waiting to be taken advantage of by those committed to their own growth!

Here are 10 suggestions for taking your education on theatre into your own hands.

1. Learn on the job.

This is hopefully the most obvious way one can learn about theatre– do more of it. I place this first on the list because I believe it is also the most important. Do as much theatre as you can, in as many places as you can, in as many ways as you can. Branch out! While it’s good to determine favorite production companies or theaters to work with, and the connections derived from frequent work together are highly important in an industry as reliant on who you know as theatre, it’s also in your best interest to see a gamut of styles, atmospheres, and conditions. Seek as many different locations as you can, and seek varied work there. If community theatre is your usual gig, consider going to some professional-level auditions. If you normally act, consider trying directing or stage managing. Even if all of these experiences don’t lead to big roles or opportunities, the opportunity to evaluate the experience and use it as wisdom later is invaluable.

I must absolutely emphasize that any engagement with theatre in any way is a success. Usher for shows. Take tickets for shows. Be a carpenter, costumer, or props master. Act in the ensemble. Go out for auditions for ensemble and get cut. As you work your way into more roles in theatre, you will broaden your skillset, build your resume, and create for yourself a more holistic understanding of the art. This is a fun and free (maybe even paid!) way to learn!

2. Go to classes, lectures, and private lessons.

The very same classes offered at $500 a credit to college students are often offered much cheaper through other means. Search your area for opportunities like classes, lectures, talkbacks, seminars, readings, and private lessons. Community colleges are cheaper and less commitment than large universities, and often offer “non-credited” classes to the public body. Some performing arts companies and theaters offer classes on the side, and private voice and speech teachers are usually easy to track down, depending on your area. Local Facebook events are a fantastic way to search for these opportunities! If you struggle to find anything nearby, “webinars” and skype lessons can also be beneficial.

It’s important to remember that some classes aren’t going to be as good as others. Be wary of taking anything as gospel in these classes. Unless it really, personally works for you, it simply may not be your style. Add it to your personal bank of information and move along if that’s the case. However, remember that an important part of education is keeping yourself open to possibilities– even if you’re skeptical, remember to search for meaning and use in every opportunity.

Speaking of keeping your mind open, remember that there are a variety of skills connected to theatre, and I want you to dip your toes into as many areas of theatre as possible. Therefore, a community college class in welding or carpentry totally counts here! Any way you expand your horizons is never wasted.

One on one classes in voice are so beneficial to anyone interested in musical theatre, I heartily recommend them whether you are currently in theatre school or not. Find a voice teacher you love and never let go!

3. Read, read, read

Reading is a great way to learn, especially if you’re limited on time, monetary resources, or mobility. Nonfiction can be a little dry, but when you’re passionate about the subject, it becomes easier– and learning to read and understand nonfiction is a valuable skill! Check your local libraries for books on or related to theatrical arts. If this fails, you can also seek ebooks. Scribd.com is a great resources for ebooks, for a small monthly fee– much cheaper than individual purchases. You can also find books heavily discounted on Amazon if you’re lucky– I bought Anthony Rapp’s memoir on his Rent experience, Without Youfor $0.01 (plus $3.49 shipping) through Amazon. Shop around! Of course, you can also buy books full price at bookstores, but I always recommend thrifting before going for the gusto.

If you’re absolutely diametrically opposed to nonfiction, there’s hope: reading plays and scripts is also beneficial to your growth! Again, consider seeking these cheaply before purchasing them full-price. Scripts are often easy to find online.

You can also consider taking out subscriptions to magazines or news services related to theatre!

4. Use online resources

Alt title for this point: “Duh, use the internet, you goof.”

There are quite literally infinite educational resources online. YouTube, podcasts, blogs, and Facebook groups have, at times, done more for my education than anything else. Best of all– they’re typically completely free.

Seriously, if you need a resource for anything, you can bet your bottom dollar you can find it for free online. Want to learn how to work the archaic light board at the high school where you’re volunteering? Great news, here’s a complete YouTube tutorial and a copy of the user manual that the school lost the instant they installed it. Want to learn how to sew costumes? Here’s a thousand free downloadable templates with step-by-step instructions in the readme file. Don’t know much about theatre history? Here’s a twice-weekly podcast and a blog that’s been active since 2008 written by a PhD holder.

Do yourself a favor right now and google any topic related to theatre you want to learn about. Right now. It’s free and easy and fuller than any library you can imagine. Go wild.

Apps can also be highly useful in this department!

5. Seek employment

If you’re lacking the free time and capital to attend classes and volunteer your time for rehearsals, seeking a paying job even tangentially related to theatre is a great move for your wallet and career.

Available jobs will often deal with the business and customer service side of theatre more than the artistic fulfillment side. As I’ve already established, this is all useful to your education, and since it’s connected to your passion, it’s easier to stomach than retail or food service in terms of jobs requiring entry-level skills. Even if you can’t find a job in a theater, there are a lot of jobs where you can flex theatre skills– “Princess Parties”, where actors dress as princesses for children’s birthday parties, Renaissance Festival work, and haunted house gigs are popular paid acting opportunities among my theatre friends. Anything requiring public speaking is also generally of your benefit.

Jobs in technical theatre are usually readily available as well. Join your area’s technical theatre job-seeking Facebook group. Stagehands and riggers are almost always in demand, especially for concerts and music events.

Keep an ear out, and make those connections! You never know where a seemingly insignificant job opportunity can turn into a better one.

6. Create a study group

If you have a lot of friends interested in theatre, there’s nothing stopping you from getting together to learn. Start a book club and read plays together! Do table reads of your favorite shows! Critique each others’ audition songs! Start an unofficial improv troupe! Possibilities are endless as long as you are all committed and willing to learn.

7. Practice skills on your own

Theatre is a team sport, so solo learning can be a little antithetical. Further, having the input of others is often very beneficial, and at times crucial, to your growth. However, there are a lot of tangential, useful skills that can be practiced entirely on your own.

Think about things that are relevant to theatre. Being physically in shape is important, as is being flexible. In musical theatre, basic piano and music reading abilities are useful. The ability to analyze characters and scripts gets easier with practice. These are all skills you can flex on your own.

8. See more theatre

Seeing theatre is just as important as being in theatre to growth as a performer. Similar to the first point, see as much of it as possible, in as many places as possible. See school theatre. See community theatre. See touring broadway companies and one-person shows in coffee shops. Go to improv shows and voice recitals. See shows you love and shows you hate and shows you’ve never heard of. See classic Greek plays and contemporary rock musicals.

Don’t be afraid to be a critic. While airing negative opinions about every performance you see is unlikely to net you friends, and is a quick way to get your name out there in a rather bad way, thinking about what you did and didn’t like about every performance is invaluable. Having an opinion is great! Just maybe keep your thoughts to yourself. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

9. (Social) Network

If you’re doing and seeing and auditioning for as many shows as possible in as many places as possible as well as taking classes, as I’ve advised, you’re probably doing okay in this department already. Theatre is an industry where who you know is especially useful to you, and you never know when connections may come in handy.

More importantly, I’m also a huge proponent of “learning by osmosis”: simply immersing yourself in a culture and letting it wash over you is a great way to learn. Surround yourself with conversations about and related to theatre, even if you don’t fully understand all of it. Social media is a great way to do this. Follow Twitter pages and Tumblr blogs and join Facebook groups! Especially feel free to follow groups/pages/people posting about things you don’t know much about. If you’re an actor, join a high school theatre teacher group. If you’re a stage manager, follow pages handing out vocal tips. Taking in information through passive Facebook-feed scrolling is an easy way to expand upon your knowledge.

Also included in this point: get out there, people! Go to meet-ups, conferences, conventions. Most importantly, and most easily, go to your cast parties and company galas! I’m not encouraging you to schmooze, but you never know where rubbing elbows with the right people might lead you.

10. Do your research

This is a bit of a cheat-point, since it’s tangentially connected to every other point, but the best possible thing you can do for your education is explore your options. Find out what’s available to you. Seek out local theaters and theatre people. Find free PDFs of books. Read news articles and blog posts. Watch documentaries. Get into conversations and debates and disagreements with actor friends. There are possibilities for growth in literally everything you are doing already– explore those possibilities. Figure out how to use them to your advantage!

Bonus point: You’re never done learning

This is less of a “way to learn” than it is a word of caution: make yourself an expert on as much as you can, and then, once you’re an expert, throw all of your assumptions away and seek to learn from new experts. Seek feedback on everything you do, even from people who know less than you. Learn about stuff you know nothing about, learn about new ways of doing things you’ve resigned to habit. Keep learning, and never rest on your laurels.

We live in an age where information has never been easier to find. We also live in an age where education prices are astronomical and the cost of living rises every day. The resources you want and need are out there– you need only to track them down.

How to be Useful at your Required Strike when you have no Technical Abilities

Post-show strikes are made easier when more people lend their hands to the cause. Many actors avoid them as much as possible, however, because they simply don’t know how to help. While technical skills are of benefit to every performer, and I heartily recommend every actor get the gist of as many backstage skills as possible, many times the issue is simply “what can I do besides stand around the whole time?”

Here is a set of suggestions for everyone, no matter their strength, skill, or abilities, regarding making themselves useful at strike. The list starts with the least technically-inclined options, with the “hardest” options at the end.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask where you can help. The director, stage manager, and technical director should all be able to point you in the right direction, and many of your cast and crew will also happily accept help if you offer it. Of course, use your best judgement– asking for direction repeatedly while others are busy with their own work can get annoying and makes it seem like you lack initiative.
  • See if any painting needs done. The stage or walls may need primed and repainted if such is practice in the theater. This is almost always one of the last steps of strike, but it’s one anyone can do!
  • Get on cleaning duty. Strike requires much more than tearing down sets and lights. The lobby, house, bathrooms, greenroom, and dressing rooms may all be part of strike. Find out what needs cleaned– anyone can take care of organizing scattered materials, gathering items for the lost and found, vacuuming, or wiping down surfaces. However, remember that strike is messy business! Don’t bother cleaning anything that is likely to be trashed again by the end of the process until all of the work is done.
  • Take out the trash. As the set gets ripped apart, a surplus of discarded hardware, bits of wood, and miscellaneous trash will likely quickly accumulate. Gathering this and throwing it away keeps the space clear for other, more important work. Just because something has been used doesn’t necessary mean it is garbage. Again, use your best judgement– Large sheets of plywood or bits of lumber at a reasonable length can be reused, as can screws that aren’t stripped (meaning, the “X” on the head is not deformed in any way) or otherwise mangled. Anything broken, badly damaged, or under a reasonably useful size should be trashed.
  • Assist with costumes, props, or furniture. Returning these pieces to the theater storage is often relatively light work. If you have the muscle, lifting furniture into trucks or up and down stairs can be very helpful at this step– the “heavy” muscle is typically assisting with the technical work at this time.
  • Return reusable lumber and hardware to storage. Make sure you are clear on what should be trashed and what should be kept. If there are no organizational rules about where these things should go, strike may be a good time to do some organizing!
  • Be ready to help lift, lower, and store structures. Small structures like legs and flats can be taken to storage by those with less strength. Often, large structures like platforms need to be lowered onto one side or moved in order to be taken apart. Even if you lack muscle, lifting these as a group effort is easiest, and more hands are always beneficial. If you see people struggling to lift something, don’t take the time to worry about if you’re strong enough to help– just help!
  • Don’t be afraid of the tools. Even if you’ve never used certain tools before, there will likely be someone willing to show you what to do with them. Removing screws or bolts from structures is a necessary step in the process. Hammering staples and nails flat in pieces to be trashed or stored is also an easy, low-stress, but important job.

Now that you have some suggestions for how to make yourself useful, here are some friendly reminders of what isn’t useful:

  • Don’t get in harm’s way. If you feel unsafe with something, leave it to those better equipped to handle it. Everyone would rather you pass off the job to someone else than be injured. Further, if you’re waiting for a job or for instruction, make sure you’re not, say, in the path of a light rail coming in, or underfoot when people are lifting heavy objects. Stay aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t play supervisor. Regardless of how poorly you feel others may be doing their jobs, nothing is worse than watching someone simply stand back and tell others what to do. If you feel you must give direction to someone, do it, and then return to your own work. However, make sure you ask yourself, Am I a reliable authority on this issue? If the answer is no, consider keeping your advice to yourself.
  • Don’t hide. This is a popular pastime for those who don’t know what to do with themselves at strike. Yes, we have noticed you’ve been mysteriously missing for the last three hours. No, it’s not a good look.
  • Don’t leave. Even if you have to leave early for any reason, try to be helpful in some way before you go. It’s better for everyone (yourself included) if you do a little rather than nothing.

A Deeply Personal Analysis of Company

Company is one of my favorite musicals. As a big Sondheim fan, I can comfortably say it’s my favorite of his works. 

One of my favorite things about it is the fact that I’m still not sure I get it. In fact, it seems to change in meaning every time I listen.

The first time I saw it, I knew next to nothing about it. I had previously learned the song “Another Hundred People” as a potential audition song for a show once. I listened to the title song on the way to the performance in some half-hearted effort to get the basic lay of the land and recognized “Not Getting Married Today” from the Glee cast cover. The rest was a mystery. I was riveted, and loved it, and at the end I said, “so this is a musical about a guy whose friends are fucking with his head and ruining his life.”

Then I drove home and cried inconsolably while listening to “Being Alive” because I was majorly depressed and incredibly lonely at the time and some part of my brain connected this song about love to the friends I was yearning for, and it broke me. “Make me alive / make me confused / mock me with praise / let me be used / vary my days / but alone is alone / not alone…”

I listened to it on and off for a few weeks after that. I was working out my interpretation of it then— his friends aren’t fucking with him, they’re trying to help him. It’s a show about friendship. Sort of. But also it’s not. And his friends totally are fucking his life up, sometimes, accidentally. Actually, do his friends even like him? Okay, scratch everything.

Right around this time I started dating a girl. She was really sweet and nice, and I thought I could totally have a relationship with her. I kind of wasn’t sure. All the pieces were there, and I even enjoyed hanging out with her, but I just never felt the way I always thought you were supposed to feel about people you’re dating. I was listening to the show, and I thought, this is what the show’s really about, throwing yourself into relationships, giving it a try, letting love happen. “Hey, buddy, don’t be afraid it won’t be perfect. The only thing to be afraid of really is that it won’t be!”

I gave the relationship a try and we broke up two months later.

So I listened to it some more, thought about it some more. I noticed the recurring theme of duality in the show. I think I’m onto something with that one for sure. I went through the show song by song and broke down how each song was like a self-contained lesson in polar opposites. In the title song, Bobby loves his friends, but also his friends are suffocating him, and he says marriage is what life’s all about, but he loves the “no strings, good times” of good old-fashioned friendship. In “The Little Things you do Together”, relationships are fun but also hellholes of arguing and the best thing you can do is get a divorce. “Sorry-Grateful” is like an entire thesis on the subject: “You’re sorry-grateful / regretful-happy … which has nothing to do with / all to do with her”. I could break this down for literally every song in the show, but I’ll save the words— just think about it yourself, if you’re familiar. Some of the songs are directly foiling each other, too. “Have I got a Girl for You” directly contrasts with “Someone is Waiting”— one’s about setting Bobby up with a lady and how marriage sucks, and the other is about how Bobby doesn’t want set up with a lady and there must be a perfect one out there to marry. The act 1 finale, “Marry me a Little” is a foil to the act 2 finale, “Being Alive”— while the former is about how Bobby is ready for a relationship as long as it’s easy-breezy, the latter is about being ready for a relationship as long as someone is there to “put you through hell” and be there for you, as much as you’re there for them. And then there’s the characters themselves. Do his friends hate him or love him? Who knows! Do they hold him in contempt or pity him? Hard to say! Is Bobby happy with them? Absolutely, and also absolutely not. The show at its core is a contradiction: It’s a story about love without being a love story.

Pleased with my analytic efforts, I kept those thoughts in my back pocket and left them to stew a bit longer. I finally gave the female version a listen. Bobby becomes Bobbie, bachelor becomes bachelorette. I loved the concept, but was turned off when I actually started listening. Seemingly a small change- but it changes the entire show. I was unsure if I liked this change. The issues became entirely different. This is especially clear in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” where a brief dialogue break wherein the female singers would shower Bobby with impassioned but largely trivial insults became instead a trio of male singers showering Bobbie with cries like “that time of the month?” and “dirty feminist!” A new song “Tick Tock” adds to Bobbie’s plate the complex layer of running out of time to have children and start a family. “Have I got a Girl for You” describes a potential hook-up to Bobby as “dumb”, and “Have I got a guy for You” describes the same (genderswapped) hook-up to Bobbie as “smart”. The descriptions of what Bobby envisions in the perfect woman is different from how Bobbie describes her perfect man in “Someone is Waiting”. Bobby: “My blue-eyed Sarah, warm Joanne / Sweet Jenny, loving Susan / Crazy Amy.” Bobbie: “My loyal Harry, loving Paul / Cute Jamie, happy Peter / Handsome Larry”. The only similarity between the two, notably, is the word “loving”. These differences are small, but manage to create something totally different. Call me dramatic, but it felt like an entire other show— all of these changes had implications I wasn’t sure how to parse.

Shortly after this development, something else happened in my romantic life. I had the opportunity to enter into a relationship with a guy. Super sweet, getting out of a bad situation, had a ton of love to give. And while I wanted to jump in, something was stopping me— some gnawing instinct saying “this isn’t quite right.” It’s not that I wasn’t into it, I was, and I wanted the relationship. I was coming out of a bad situation of my own, too, and I wanted the comfort and camaraderie and affection and yet something was holding me back. 

One night, while I was turning the prospect of this relationship over and over in my mind, I took the long way home from a rehearsal and listened to the female version again.

And suddenly this version made sense.

It was totally different, but also it wasn’t. In fact, in print, very few of the situations are different at all. The obvious difference lies in the gender swapping, but the rest are hard to verbalize beyond “men’s problem’s” and “women’s problems”. Ironically, the problems are basically exactly the same. Bobby: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. Bobbie: Dealing with identifying lust versus love, difficulties finding the right mate, and commitment issues. They’re the exact same problems, but shaded so slightly differently. Bobby and Bobbie both convince their Steward(ess) significant others to stay in “Barcelona”, and both are shocked when they succeed, and both cry out “oh god!” when they realize they’re stuck with their hookup another day. And yet, these situations feel so markedly different. I think of the women I know who get stuck with lame dudes, and it feels so different from the men I know who get stuck with lame girls— perhaps I’m lingering on this point too long, but it’s just so hard to explain these nuances. There’s something to be said about what women expect from men in relationships and what men expect from women in relationships, but when you get down to that, too, the answers are more or less the same on cold, unfeeling paper: love, sex, happiness, comfort. Yet, every instance of these things are slightly different in concept to these two genders, just by virtue of what it means to live and be raised as one of these two genders. 

It’s totally different. And yet, really, it’s not that different at all. We all want the same things, but we don’t, really. There’s that duality idea again.

Company, about Bobby, made me decide to leap into a relationship with a girl. Company, about Bobbie, made me reconsider leaping into a relationship with a guy. Maybe I just knew better the second time around– or maybe I missed out big time.

I’m still not sure I get Company. I think the easiest, and most complete interpretation is this: life is hard. Romance is hard. Shit is weird and love is complicated. Your friends are great and also are what is holding you back. Finding the right person is almost impossible and even when you do find them, it’s never going to be perfect, but it’s still better than being alone, unless it’s not. Trying to weigh all the pros and cons of everything will leave you in the dust, so give in to the unknown. But when you give into the unknown in romance you’ll probably end up screwing some less-than-perfect people, but that’s kind of okay too. This seems like an anticlimactic point to arrive at, but it’s truthful, and it’s real. I don’t know if my life experiences actually changed my interpretation, or if this was coincidence entirely, but they felt connected, somehow. Maybe this is a show you just need to live a while to really understand. 

I don’t know if I really get it at all, but I love it. 

I guess that’s alright. That’s pretty much the show in a nutshell, anyway.

Ultimate Guide to Auditioning for Musical Theatre

I get pretty manic about auditioning for shows, especially when I really want to nab a part. Since theatre is basically just a never-ending cycle of auditions, I have a lot of thoughts about how to make them count.

Here is basically all of the advice I could possibly think to put in one place on the art and craft of auditioning, step by step, from before you even find a song, to what to do post-cast list.

I must note, I’m not an expert. This is just the assemblage of my personal knowledge and experience. The tips I hand out have been helpful to me, but may not work for everyone. Take what you may from this post and leave the rest behind. I won’t be offended.

Further, my advice applies mostly to non-professional community and school theatre, as that has been my domain. If you’re seeking audition advice for something in a professional domain, you may be better served seeking information elsewhere. Many of my tips should be helpful for any level of performance, however!

For the sake of clarity and readability, I’m dividing this into five parts: Research, Picking a Song, Prepping and Rehearsing, The Audition, and Aftermath.

Part One: Research

This should be your very first step. I’ve spent months in the research phase before auditions. The longer you spend at this step, the more prepared you’ll be for everything else!

  • Check Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page dedicated to the musical is a great starting point. Get your basic info at a glance: writer/composer/lyricist, era, synopsis, character breakdown and OBC, song list, notable performances and revisions, news and reception. I recommend this whether you know nothing about the show, or if it’s an old favorite. This sets the foundation for everything else you need to know.
  • Checking the licensing company’s website for info about the show can provide more specific info. You can find this by googling “[show name] licensing”. Here you can usually see a cast size breakdown, character ranges, and more in-depth character descriptions and synopses.
  • Listen to the show, preferably several times. This is a semi-passive step that can add productivity to plenty of car rides and showers! If you have an idea of which character you’d like to try for, now is a good time to see if you can discern where their highest and lowest notes are in the score (since you’ve previously scoped out characters’ ranges). I recommend listening to the OBC recording (or whatever professional recording is available) first, followed by any other regional/movie/revival recordings you can find. It also doesn’t hurt to look up performances of some of your favorites on YouTube! You can often find fantastic covers by professionals.
  • Watch the show. I consider this step vital. It gives you a better idea of the plot and flow of the action. If you’re lucky, there may be a performance happening soon in your area! However, assuming the stars don’t align, you’ll have to watch a video. If you’re not down with bootlegs, you can always try looking for professional recordings like the Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway film or anything posted on Broadway HD. Since “Live” musicals are becoming popular, you could try those as well, though they’re not always of the best quality. If you don’t mind bootlegging, the search for specific shows can be hard, but joining social media groups dedicated to sharing can be helpful. I usually like to watch the OBC if at all possible, and then I’ll usually look for a good community theatre or high school production as well. Depending on when the recording was taken, these local productions are likely performing the version of the show available for licensing, which means they may be highly relevant to your preparations!
  • Read the script/score. The internet can make this very easy! Scribd.com is a  great resource for scripts and music, I highly recommend an account. I like to read through the entire script and scan through the whole score at least once each. Even if you can’t find the script for the precise version you’d be performing, glancing over any copy can still be useful just to get a rough idea of what to expect.
  • Read/watch any source material, if at all possible. Before auditioning for The Addams Family Musical, watching the movies and scoping out some episodes of the TV show can’t hurt. You might not have time to read the entirety of Little Women or Les Miserables before your auditions for these shows, but you can read some excerpts or skim for some important events! Remember, the adaptations likely won’t follow the source material exactly, but you can get valuable insight into the characters and universe nonetheless.
  • See if there’s a TVTropes page for the musical. This is a step I discovered while preparing for my role as Miss Honey in Matilda– the TVTropes page for that musical provided a lot of insight into certain jokes and characters. Even if there’s not a page for the musical, check the one for the source material. It’s definitely worth a glance!
  • Check YouTube for things like interviews with OBC or writers, behind-the-scenes info, show or character analyses, etc.

By the end of your research process, you should have a solid idea of who all of the characters are and have a concept of how much they actually do in the show. Your understanding of the character you are interested in playing should be rather deep. Practically speaking, you should be able to recognize the songs they are in and their vocal range. Ideally, you’ll return to this process several times through the audition process, and through the rehearsal process as well should you nail the audition.

Part Two: Picking a Song

This step can be made easier if you already have a robust repertoire of songs in your audition book. For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume you do not, and that you must pick an entirely new one for this audition. In the event songs from the show are allowed (they typically are not), there is a small section at the end of this part about choosing songs from within the show. Your audition song may also be provided for you– this is especially common in school auditions and children’s theatre. If this is the case, jump to Part Three.

Your audition song can do many things, ideally: it should match the style of the show (ex, golden age song for a golden age show), match the personality of the show/character, match the target character’s vocal range (in the chosen cut), show off any necessary vocal skills (like patter, wordiness, belting, or maybe even yodeling), plus, most importantly, show off the best of your voice, tone, and range. Ideally, I like when role I want is clearly evident from the song I choose.

You don’t have to try to tick all of these boxes for every audition song. In fact, I’d rather you choose a song from your book that has nothing to do with the character that you can sing fantastically than a song you’ve chosen specifically for this role that you cannot sing at all.

When finding the perfect song, I usually look through what I know first. I’ll scroll through my iTunes library and see if I have anything that may match. When this fails, google is your friend. Don’t be afraid to get specific with these searches– while “alto audition songs” might be a good starting point, “golden age belter audition songs” might yield more workable results. You can also try googling, say, “Little Women audition songs” or “Jo March audition songs”. These may yield some very fitting results, but it’s very likely many others will use the same tags in their search, and uniqueness is generally of your benefit in auditions.

Make sure the song you choose has a good cut somewhere. Double-check whether the audition calls for a 16- or 32-bar cut, or something else. Sometimes you’ll find a perfect song that has no good cuts– you can either pick the best possible, attempt to get creative and MacGyver one together by cutting repeats or measures of rest, or simply choose another song.

Many caution about the nightmares of “overdone” audition songs. There’s something to be said for this, for sure. I won’t bother listing them all here (the lists are changing daily anyway and are just a google search away), but I will generally advise against songs from any show currently on broadway.  At the end of the day, your performance of the song is what is most important. You are certainly allowed to choose an “overdone” song– but I’d generally caution against it unless you’re certain you can knock it out of the park.

When Songs From the Show are Permitted

If you obtain express permission from the director to perform a song from the show, consider doing so! This can be an excellent chance to flex your understanding of the character and show. However, if you don’t have a strong understanding of the character and show… maybe choose songs elsewhere. Nothing can crush the production team’s vision of an actor as a given character quite like seeing the actor act and sing the character weakly. Likewise, though, embodying the character well in your audition can turn odds very much in your favor. Returning to Part One can help you ensure you’ve got the character down pat.

Careful consideration of your song is still necessary, especially if your target characters sings multiple songs. It can help to consider what you think the callback song for the character may be. For instance, you can bet the callback song for Jo March will almost certainly be “Astonishing”. In my audition for Jo, I sang “The Fire Within Me” from the show. The song has a similar range and intensity, and provides as much acting opportunity as “Astonishing”. I figured if I got a callback, they would see me nail two songs of the character’s, and I would avoid singing an overdone song in my audition as well. This worked well for me, and I got the part! Use your best judgement of the circumstances in choosing.

Part Three: Prepping and Rehearsing

This is where your real work begins.

Before you do anything else, make sure you have the details of the audition itself figured out. Be sure you know exactly when are where your audition is, and how you’ll get there. Consider things like rushing to the location from work or school, and how this will effect your audition day. Check if there will be a dance component or any cold reading, or if you should bring a monologue. You should have identified a cut in the previous part, so you should know the singing requirement of the audition. Check if this audition will require a backing track, or if there will be an accompanist there. It also helps to identify, if possible, who all will be in the room. This applies to the production staff, but also to any other auditors. It’s especially common in school theatre for auditions to occur in front of peers. By having all of these details figured out, you can avoid stressing the day of.

It’s time to really do your homework.

  • Learn your song so well and so thoroughly you can’t possibly screw it up. This includes the words just as much as the melody. Rehearse it as you will perform it as much as possible. (ie, rehearse it with a backing track, pianist, or a capella, depending on how you’re going to perform it in the room.) Listening to the song and even singing along with a recording is a good way to get the ball rolling.
    • That said, it’s usually beneficial to stop doing this as you get closer to the audition. You will often pick up subconscious habits from the recording you’ve been listening to. Ensure you are making your own choices and sounding like yourself by avoiding listening to the song right before the audition– or at least, avoiding the most famous recording of it. You could try seeking out many different recordings by various singers to listen to, rather than only, say, Krysta Rodriguez singing “Pulled” or Sutton Foster singing “Gimme Gimme”.
    • In terms of making the song your own, playing with interpretation is a good way to separate your performance from others. Work out your personal take on dynamics, rhythms, and riffs (where appropriate and without changing the entire song!). Listening to other performances can be helpful for finding inspiration, especially if you’re unsure where to start or not very confident in your musical interpretation abilities.
    • Remember that acting the song is as important as singing the song! Seek important beats in the song as you would with a monologue or sides.
  • Find sheet music for your song. Again, scribd.com is a lifesaver in this endeavor! You can also purchase music from a site like musicnotes.com, attempt to find a free PDF elsewhere online. Make sure the music is in the correct key, that it is the version of the song you want, and that the music itself is clearly legible. Also make sure it is a piano-vocal score, and not, say, sheet music for a piano cover of your song, or a guitar lead sheet, or music for three instruments plus voice.
  • Prep the song in your book. Print your music double-sided and 3-hole punch it. If you cannot print double-sided, print single-sided sheets and tape them securely back-to-back to “create” your own double-sided pages. Place your music into a plain black binder. Clearly mark your starting and stopping points and any changes you wish to make (ex: removing a repeat, etc) in your music.
    • Even if you found your sheet music in an anthology book, photocopy it and place it into a binder anyway. The pages are easier to turn and you don’t have to worry about floppy covers being a pain for your accompanist. And never bring loose leaf pages! Think about making everything as easy for the accompanist as possible. You want to stand out as a fantastic auditor, not as the auditor who brought a billion impossible-to-read pages of music in the wrong key.
    • Avoid shiny page protectors– they can cause glare from the lights, making the music hard to read.
    • It’s a good habit to always include 2-3 other songs in your book that you would be ready to perform at a moment’s notice. Imagine slating and being told “I’ve heard that song ten times today, give me something else!” You’d better be ready to sing something else! Ideally these other songs would be relevant. If you’re going to an audition for a golden age show, for example, bring some other golden age music. However, there is room for variation in these extra choices. Make sure these are prepped and marked accordingly as well.
  • Review the script again, if possible. If you’re doing cold reads from the script at the audition, a chance to get the words in your mind ahead of time (even from a quick glance or two) is very helpful.
    • If sides are available ahead of time, be sure to review them thoroughly! Print them out for yourself in the event they’re not available at the audition. All the rules for preparing the song apply here– know it forwards and backwards and make it your own.
  • Work on any dialects/accents as the script requires.
  • If you are nervous about social interactions, it helps to rehearse those ahead of time. Check the next part for more information on what to expect.
  • Update and print your acting resume and headshots if needed (do it anyway– just keep copies in your binder, it’s always good to be prepared). Several copies can never hurt!

You’ll know when you are prepared when you are fully comfortable with the song and feel confident you won’t lose out on this audition due to silly mistakes like forgotten words or off-key singing.

In the days leading up to the audition, it’s dire you take care of yourself!

  • Be sure to get enough sleep! Fatigue audibly affects your voice.
  • Drink plenty of water. This will keep your throat suitably moistened, and help stave off illness.
  • Pay attention to any vocal pain or fatigue, and be prepared to counteract symptoms of illness if necessary. If you start feeling sick or strained, go heavy on the water and vitamin C, and go easy on the rehearsing! Don’t make strain worse with over-preparation!
  • Keep the voice and body warmed up as much as possible. You can’t cram warming up! You’ll hear and feel a different between warming up for a week beforehand versus warming up for a a day or (god forbid!) an hour beforehand.

Part Four: The Audition

It’s the day of the audition! Now let’s get warmed up and make sure you’ve checked everything off your checklist:

  • Remember to bring everything you need: your book, a pencil/pen (preferably a few, you never know), water, snacks/phone charger if you expect to be there a long time, separate clothes to dance in if necessary, and your resume/audition form/anything else you’ve been asked to have.
  • I like to make warming up an all-day ordeal.
    • Full-body stretch. I usually do this once in the morning and once just before the audition. Even if you don’t have to dance, your entire body is engaged when you sing and act– stretching warms up all the muscles you need to perform your best.
    • Start vocal warm-ups slowly. I always begin with gentle humming in the middle of my range, preferably first thing in the morning.
    • Warm up through the day. Hum right when you wake up, sing a little in the car on the way to work, sing a little on your lunch break, and then get into the more strenuous warming up in the hours before the audition.
    • Know when you’re warmed up, already. If you just keep working, eventually you’ll hit the point where you’re past being warmed up and entering “overworked” territory. Keep it moderate and take plenty of breaks through the day.
    • Save it. Furthermore, if your song has a lot of really high or low notes in the extremes of your range, avoid of rehearsing them too much. Though you’ll likely be nervous for them, sometimes you just won’t have it in you to hit those notes more than a few times a day. Rehearse them in the days prior and only hit them once or twice on the day of to ensure you’ve got them. Then back off!

Be sure to be at the audition location for your audition time. Preferably, be early! If you’re unfamiliar with the location, this goes double– you never know when a confusing parking or GPS situation may throw you off.

While waiting to audition, always be on your best behavior. For one thing, if you’re loud in the waiting room, you can disrupt other auditions. Further, there is often an attendant watching over those waiting to audition. This person is often a friend of the production team, and won’t hesitate to inform the director if you’ve got a bad attitude.

Once you’re in the room:

  • Be ready to slate. “Hi, my name is, and I will be singing this song by this person/from this show.”
  • Get the accompanist on the same page, figuratively and literally. Hand them your book, open to the song you are singing. Mention any changes you’ve written in, or anything funky in the cut, like a long fermata or a tempo change. Generally, if you’re afraid they might not do something “your way”, it doesn’t hurt to mention it.
    • Your accompanist may ask for a tempo for your song, so be prepared to count it out or sing a few bars “off the record” to give them an idea. Never clap or snap the tempo, it’s considered very rude!
  • Don’t forget to act the song while you sing!
  • Follow any direction the director gives you. I’ve been told I’ve gotten parts in past almost purely because of how well I took the direction from the production team in the audition. If the director asks to hear or see anything in any way, regardless of how odd or outlandish you think it may be, absolutely do it!
  • You may be asked some questions, depending on the show. Here are some common examples:
    • Any weird talents or special skills?
    • Are you comfortable with stage kissing/sex/violence? Are you comfortable kissing someone of the same gender?
    • Can you walk in heels? (For men!)
    • Do you play any musical instruments?
    • Are you comfortable flying?

Remember to thank the audition team and especially your accompanist afterward. Sending a “thanks for seeing me” message or email to the team or director later is also a good habit to get into!

Part Five: Aftermath

What happens next will vary wildly. You might be told then and there you’re getting a callback, or callbacks may not be scheduled. You might be done at this point.

Preparing for Callbacks

If callbacks are scheduled, it’s important to continue to practice a little daily. Keep your voice warm. Callbacks may be as soon as the next day or a week or more away. Be prepared!

  • Review any provided material thoroughly. Know it just as well, if not better, than your audition material. This is your final chance to prove you are right for the character: now is the time to nail down your character interpretation and sell it! Reviewing the script or source material now can be a good way to refresh.
  • Sometimes directors will give you a callback date before providing the materials you are to review. Instead of waiting the day or two (or more) it takes for them to send out those materials, it is beneficial to review the show’s book and music and familiarize yourself with any of the possibilities. This way you waste no time and can get a leg up on those less educated on the show.
  • When called back for multiple roles, many are inclined to only focus their energy on the one they want more. While prioritizing is a good habit, phoning in the other character’s callback can make you seem lazy, unprepared, and ungrateful for the opportunity. Never do less than your best!

It’s out of my Hands. Now What?

If this is the end of the road— either you’ve not received a callback or there will not be any, or you’ve finished your callback— now the waiting begins.

  • Remember, even if you didn’t receive a callback, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be cast, or that you’re not in the running for any parts.
  • Don’t get bogged down with the Would I/Could I/Should I questions. If you’ve prepared as well as you could for this audition/callback, you’ve done all you can!
  • Waiting for the cast list is grueling. Keep yourself busy!
    • Scheduling activities in the days after auditions/callbacks before waiting begins is a good way to keep yourself active.
    • It’s easy to get bogged down in the melancholy of waiting. Friends are useful for redirecting your thoughts and energy elsewhere!

The Cast List

Once the roles are offered, 

  • Remember casting is never a personal slight, and all roles afford opportunity for growth, connections, and fun.
  • Remember that how you handle casting tells directors a lot about your work ethic (especially if you don’t receive the part you wanted). If you create a name for yourself as someone who quits shows every time you land ensemble, you may soon find yourself without the opportunity. 
  • Young actors especially: Never discuss casting choices in a negative light on social media. Posts have a habit of getting back to the person they’re about, or getting back to your director. Directors don’t cast snobs, and many will happily rescind a part from someone who smears their choices online.
  • Remember to follow any rules regarding the discussion of casting. You may be asked not to announce your role until all roles have been accepted, or asked to wait for legal reasons not to divulge details of the show until a certain date. Be sure to follow any guidelines the director and team lay out!
  • It’s easy to lose steam at this point, especially if rehearsals don’t follow for some time. Take time to actively relax and recoup, so you don’t lose steam later. Once the process begins, be ready to hit the ground running!

Finally, never assume the outcome of one audition will effect the outcome of the rest. Even if you’ve gotten the lead you wanted this time, you will have to work just as hard for all the rest. Feel free to review this post when your next audition process begins.

Final Thoughts

Congratulations! You’ve auditioned! Maybe you weren’t cast, maybe you were. Maybe you got the role of your dreams. Maybe you didn’t even make it to callbacks. The important thing is that you put yourself out there!

Whether you reached your goals or not, auditioning is a valuable learning opportunity. Post-auditions, take some time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Acting means you’re accepting the reality of a cycle of pre-audition jitters and post-audition panic indefinitely. Learn to enjoy it and learn to learn from it– you owe yourself that much!