Stage Work Top 10: Working with Celebrities
I will open this, as with many of my articles with a small disclaimer (because I know I am one Theatre Professional, I don’t know everything). I have recently been hired by an Off-Broadway show from behind the table as an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager if you’re a muggle). “The Show-Off” by George Kelly and starring the fabulous Annette O’Toole. It is by far one of the funniest shows I have seen in a long time by the way, so I highly recommend it, and it opens soon (shameless plug). But I have not worked with many big time names in the entertainment, just enough to write an article about the Do’s and Do Not’s of when working with a celebrity. Because there’s a pretty good chance you will if you work on Broadway – it’s one of the best ways to sell tickets; cast a star that people know.
So what to do when you get cast the first time alongside a ‘somebody’ when you’re a ‘nobody’?
1.) You’re Not a Nobody
Let’s get this out of the way first. You are not a nobody. They are not above and beyond you. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a reason they’re a big name and working as the star. But that doesn’t mean you have to dehumanize yourself in their presence. They are a human being too. Don’t treat them like a god, don’t resent them, just know that they are doing work that you want to do too. And take time to get to know them if you can! Or at the very least be polite and courteous. Pretty basic.
2.) Watch Their Technique
Again – there’s a reason they got this part. Hopefully it’s not just star power. If people know and acknowledge them as talented there’s probably a reason for it. Don’t gawk at them while they’re onstage (or, Dionysus-forbid, off stage) to mimic the way they perform… But you can learn a lot just from observation. Note how they prepare, watch how they get into and out of character before each scene. Don’t dwell, just note how they do their work and try to adapt it for you too.
3.) Don’t Be… Overly Friendly…
Okay so stepping back to point one. There is such a thing as being way too friendly to someone you don’t know. Being polite and cheerful around them is one thing, acting like their a dear old friend you haven’t seen in years and once had that time in Baha with is another. We as entertainers are generally a step removed from other normal people when it comes to divorcing the character from the person – if they play a jerk that doesn’t mean they’re a jerk, etc. But as people who are entertained we also have that fine line of remembering that we don’t know them from interviews and roles we’ve seen them in. Don’t act like you know them intimately when you don’t, and don’t fawn about how big a fan you are. It can make things awkward.
4.) But Don’t Be Overly Distant
You’ll notice that a lot of these that I’m saying are basically the same thing – don’t act abnormal around someone. But it really can make a difference in the process. If you’re going out for drinks with the cast afterwards, don’t be afraid to invite the celebrity too. They’re probably busy, but why not? Again, they’re human too. Asking if they want to get involved with the cast outside of rehearsal is not a bad thing. If you can’t be over-friendly, then you shouldn’t be mean or removed either. Worst thing is they say no, right?
5.) You Do Have To Judge How To Proceed Cautiously
All that being said, you have to know where you stand in their eyes. I don’t like to think that many celebrities that perform in theatre are mean or pompous. I feel that most actors are fairly easy going and understanding – if only because our work requires us to understand the motives of others. But that doesn’t mean they can never be an egomaniac. If a star goes out of their way to make it clear they want nothing to do with you, simply don’t talk to them offstage. There’s no reason to make things awkward. Be professional and adaptable.
6.) They Do Have Pull
So you remember when I said we’re all human including the celebrities. Yeah, well… It’s true, but the producers don’t necessarily see it that way every time. A star can be as polite as your best friend and sweet as a cupcake – but if they say they need something, they’ll probably get it. Because again, big names sell big tickets. If this changes something about your blocking, or the way you have to work and it’s negative then please say something. Once. Unless it’s a massive problem, it’s entirely possible that harping on it will end very badly. Hopefully not with you getting fired, but just keep in mind that the star has to be happy because they’re the biggest draw. Sadly, that’s just advertisement and business. American Theatre cannot survive alone by being ‘just for the art’, sadly.
7.) Dressing Room Debacles
Not all shows with celebrities will be big Broadway numbers. Off-Broadway Theatres don’t necessarily have the space to accommodate a one-person dressing room every time but that doesn’t mean they won’t hire a named-and-famed celebrity. It might mean you have to give up at least some of your personal space in the dressing rooms if the star needs a certain amount of area and silence. Be prepared for this, and as always, be flexible. After all, even if it has to be business you are doing what you do because you love it. There’s no reason you can’t get dressed quietly and quickly and then go do your own pre-show rituals elsewhere inside the Theatre.
8.) Opening Night Jitters
Okay, so for many of us, we can never get rid of the nerves that come with opening night. This is gonna define how the world sees you and your production and weeks of your hard work. Many a thespian have I seen submit to these nerves and then have a subtle breakdown before they finally get on the stage and rock it anyway. Nerves are apart of what we do. They can also be magnified when you suddenly realize that people are going to compare you to this magnificent actor, even thought you’ve been working with them through rehearsals. Now hopefully you’re used to this kind of nervousness and have ways to shake it off. As usually, do that and take a breath. You’re going to be great and you’ve been cast for a reason. Get out there and knock ‘em dead right next to the star. There’s no reason to get intimidated.
9.) After Opening Night
Congratulations, you made it through opening night and everyone is happy! Now you have, hopefully, a very long and successful run ahead of you. All the kinks are worked out and everything is going to be comin’ up roses… Right? Of course right. But just remember, nerves are still high. We all have the chance to go a little nutty during the run of a show. Maybe something went wrong the last night with the best scene in the show and the celebrity is pissed. Again – human. It’s not wrong for them to strive for their perfect performance; why shouldn’t you too? Just remember that starting drama off-stage will only hurt yourself and the production. No one wants to perform if you and the star got into a heated debate about where the cane was supposed to be placed – five centimeters to the right or left of the staircase. Again, take a breath, and know it’s nothing new. Theatre people are dramatic, that’s what we do. Just don’t escalate.
10.) Keep In Touch If You Can
It’s not always possible to be lifelong friends with a cast-mate. But also know that in the entertainment business… It really is all about who you know. If you’ve managed to get onto really good terms with the celebrity cast-mate, by all means stay in communication! The occasional post-card or email will never hurt. I say this with an immense amount of caution however. Do not take this advice as to say your one goal throughout the run of the show needs to be to brown-nose the star and get them to love you. It won’t work. They’ve been there, they’ve tried that, it sucks for everyone. Be genuine in your attempts and if it doesn’t work out then it doesn’t work out. But presenting the shining you that you know you are might just make them say “I like ‘em” and maybe one day that’ll pay off when your agent gets a call. It’s not the end-all-be-all but it certainly never hurts to be friends. I’d argue that extends to anyone you meet in Theatre.
So there you have it! My personal top ten snippets of advice of how to approach being in a show with a celebrity. If you’ve gotten the chance to work with one and have other opinions please let us know!