Theatre People, It's Okay to be Competitive
I have recently been watching Smash by Theresa Rebeck with my girlfriend and it struck me in two ways. Firstly, Theresa Rebeck is a genius and one of my favorite writers out there. Second… Derek Wills is one of the most charming jerks I’ve ever loved on screen. Three. Three things, then – third being that Smash is one of the most brutally honest dramatizations of…drama. The sometimes cutthroat nature of auditions, the sore feelings afterward, and just how dumb everyone can be during the process because we’re a bunch of weirdos stuck in a single room together for hours.
So that being said I want to focus on one of the main storylines of the first season and why it ties into real theatre – the absolutely bloody rivalry between Ivy and Karen. More importantly, why is this a ‘good’ thing in real life theatre? To put it simply – art is better when it comes from pain. There’s more to it of course, but at the most base level actors and all artists work better when their work focuses on something they’ve been dealing with. What is the point of life without struggle, what is the point of theatre without attempting to hold a mirror up to that struggle and make us laugh at it? Or cry over it. Theatre has no place in our society if it can’t do that at some level. Being competitive in theatre is nominally part of the struggle that makes it so important in the first place.
However, if we’re examining competitiveness and how it will ultimately benefit you as a performer or technician… Then there’s got to be more to it than just making your art ‘more real’. It may be difficult to appreciate in the moment… But competition in theatre just makes more entertaining, more solid performances. Why? Because the person who ultimately gets on stage, freaking won that part. They probably didn’t have it land in their lap – they likely got up ridiculously early one morning to head into an audition to be judged by strangers. They rocked that audition room – song and monologue both – and then spent months honing their character. We all know that a show is similar to an iceberg in that the audience only ever sees the very tip of anything we do. It sometimes feels like we as Theatre people forget that on occasion when we don’t land a gig or job.
Getting a job in theatre is not easy. Those auditions come and go day-by-day at an alarming pace and you do your material for these strangers constantly. But it still requires work outside of the room. You still rehearse that monologue you’ve done fifty times this week when you get home in front of a mirror or a loved one. To iron out the kinks, to land the joke without looking like you’re trying to. To hammer down everything that works and toss everything that doesn’t, because you keep discovering things about it and the character you’ve assigned to it. theatre folk do not stop working. They may put something away for a few hours, sleep it off or chill out with friends swapping theatre Stories… But our work is always going to be just in the back of our head. We commit so much of our lives to this craft not to.
It is incredibly aggravating to hear fellow actors (usually the young ones) rant about someone else getting ‘their’ part. I recently went to a professional audition and met a friend – a fellow professional actor – who complained about a part that he didn’t get. Understandable, you fight for those parts really hard. But then he started grumbling about the person who did receive the part. To me, this is horrible. There are totally cases where someone might get cast out of favoritism or simply being miscast by the producers for whatever reason, don’t get me wrong. However, by and large, casting directors and teams know what they’re doing and looking for. It’s really insulting to them to say they didn’t know anything about who was perfect for the part.
So instead of getting upset about not getting a part, because that’s one unavoidable reaction – we are only human after all – take it in stride. Know that you will get the next part, and work harder. Remember that feeling, acknowledge it, but instead of dwelling on it use it for fuel to improve. Competition in theatre is going to be cutthroat and unfair sometimes, but we should always strive to use it rather than let it control us. That is the best reason that competition is needed. Without it, we would all just get along and… stagnate. We wouldn’t move forward with anything, because why bother? Competition – the way we get up in front of other thespians and fight for the same part – keeps us fresh.
And don’t think that anyone should be outwardly brutal about this approach. Sports teams and their fans get to do that because there’s a lot of them and they’re already in a ‘fight-heavy’ profession. Theatre people never should be nasty about their competition. Our sphere of professional work is way too small to make anyone around you uncomfortable. We as theatre folk have the bonus of being able to incredibly kind while also asserting ourselves in our pitch.
So in the end, I urge you to take these words and go kick butt in that audition today. Go sign up for another one and then rehearse the materials for it until you absolutely have to. Show up to them with a huge smile, shake hands with everyone, then nail the audition. If you don’t get it, do it again. Work hard for your work.
As always, we’re all rooting for you… While also rehearsing for it too. Break a leg!
Brad Pontius is a 23 year old actor and playwright from Cincinnati, OH living in NYC. He has performed in various stage productions and has graduated from Indiana University of South Bend with a BFA in Performance. He has also trained with the New York Theatre Intensives and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.