As the biggest names in American theatre wrapped up the 2016-2017 season, thousands of aspiring artists watched eagerly, soaking in the joy of theatre and dreaming of a day in the future when they would be a part of it all. We all look to those we admire for advice, guidance, or a pattern to follow. Unfortunately, theatre is notoriously unpredictable, with so many factors outside an individual artist’s control. One of the first realizations a theatre professional comes to is that there is no such thing as a sure thing; there is no one-size-fits-all path to a successful career.
But there is one piece of advice that seems to appear over and over again, from college professors to interviews with top-tier theatre professionals, and it’s the one thing that applies to every field, from actors to writers to technicians.
See as much theatre as you can.
I don’t just mean the high-end stuff. Of course, we’d all like to see every show that hits Broadway every season, or every tour that comes to our cities, but that’s just not realistic for the vast majority of aspiring artists. But you can learn from that little community theatre production of Legally Blonde or from that weird show at a off-beat downtown theatre or a world premiere regional production that might make it to Broadway but is equally likely to fizzle out. Each and every production has something that you can learn from, whether it’s how to craft a really great Act 1 curtain moment or the powerful way a great lighting scheme can elevate a story. And one of the best parts about smaller-scale theatre is that the people often tend to be more accessible and more willing to take the time to chat with up-and-comers. There are exceptions, of course, but many local theatre companies have outreach and education as part of their mission and take it seriously. Take advantage of these opportunities when they arise, and ask questions!
And I don’t just mean the good stuff, either. Seeing really bad theatre – aside from being highly entertaining, depending on your sense of humor – can be an incomparable learning experience. Try to set aside the urge to snark like a New York critic and instead try to think about why it’s bad. Why isn’t it effective in conveying what it meant to? Was the acting flat? What made it so? Was the story unclear? Did you not sympathize with the characters? Practice asking these questions, because those are the ones that you’ll be asking every day in the theatre. If you can figure out why something works or doesn’t, you’ll be ahead of the game already; the theory will be there, and the craft can be your primary focus.
If this sounds like a lot of work, then I have two things to tell you. First: you’re right, it is a lot of work. Going into a creative profession isn’t going to be easy or glamorous, especially at first. There are always twenty different things to pay attention to at once, while making it all seem effortless for audiences. Creativity isn’t for the faint of heart. But, second: this part of it actually isn’t as much work as it seems. Just being around theatre, absorbing it, letting it seep into your subconscious, can help you understand how it works, even if you’re not actively thinking about it. This is why, for instance, almost every musical has a song near the beginning in which the protagonist lays out their heart’s desire; if they don’t, audiences feel a disconnect but probably can’t put their finger on why. It’s because this is part of the language of musical theatre; we have been trained to expect this and to use it as a means of connecting to a character, so when it’s missing or weak, we feel the effect even if we can’t pinpoint the cause. Over time, these things become ingrained in your mind, helping create a foundation of understanding that can give you a leg up.
While seeing a lot of theatre is a simple step, it’s not financially simple for many. Those who read this are probably already aware, but it bears repeating: most theatre venues and companies have student rush policies (or even general rush), discounts for students and other groups, and other ways of accessing their shows. Larger-scale shows (i.e. Broadway, off-Broadway, and major national tours) often offer similar discounts, as well as available seats through any number of discount apps.
If you feel like you can’t get experience because you haven’t gotten cast, found a producer, or landed a backstage job yet, don’t lose hope. Every theatre space is your classroom: find it, use it, and enjoy it.
Amanda Prahl is a playwright, lyricist, dramaturg, and freelance writer. She is currently an MFA candidate and instructor at Arizona State University. Her play Forget Me Not was presented at the Pandora Festival of New Works in Phoenix, Arizona, and her play City of Ladies was a semifinalist for the 2017 Playwright of the Year award with the Bridge Initiative in Arizona. Her upcoming project is an original musical, Til Death, for which she wrote book and lyrics; it will be presented as a staged reading through Arizona State University’s Lyric Opera Theatre in March 2018. She blogs at thestoryologist.blogspot.com