What does it take to do theater? When we first try stepping on a stage, we arrive with an expectation that is much, much different from what we’ll encounter. It’s easy to think that ours will be a smooth journey, that our sheer talent (of which, naturally, we’ve got heaps) will be more than enough to make it unscathed.
Unfortunately, that is never the case. And you already know that; if you’re reading this you’ve already had your share of rough anecdotes. And you have also realized that more often than not, the entire difference lies in the crew you’re working with, in having a good theater team that will support you and to which you too can contribute something.
I have been in two different theater groups, and the experiences with them have been radically opposed. And more than the skills for stage work, what I have learned during my time with them has been a real lesson in human nature and what it’s truly needed for our craft to shine.
I was in middle school when I joined the first one. I fought to get in, for joining was restricted to the high school kids only (my school went from kindergarten to high school). And sure, there were some amazing moments; since ours was a very liberal school, we got to do projects that would have been immediately censored in any other academic system and I really appreciated that opportunity, but the atmosphere that was breathed backstage and even on the stage was one of the most difficult, most toxic I have ever faced.
Because of our age, kids between 14 and 18 years old, teachers were more accepting of having parents around backstage to help out. This was a serious, serious mistake. On one memorable occasion during our season of Cats, a woman refused to lend me an eyeliner, because she’d brought the makeup ‘only for her daughter’. Cliques were formed that would target other cliques or specific individuals within the same group, and people whined about one another to the group director. The fight to perform on the first Saturday of the season or the closing day, which were always the two best dates to be on, was a bloodbath.
It was actually so bad that once I graduated and began college I took three semesters off from theater to heal, despite the fact that my university offers one of the most professional theater groups.
When I was finally ready, I auditioned and I was taken in with open arms. It obviously took me a while to get completely accustomed to the change, but I assure you I have never found a more loving, more caring, crazier group of people. It is here where I have found brothers and sisters. Safe space! Identity! Community! All those in words have a meaning here as we develop the aspirations that each of us has, both as performers and outside the stage. Many have gone on to take a second degree on Theater or some other scenic art after graduating from this, a ‘normal’ college. We go together (pun intended), and that is what makes us so strong.
This all brings us to realize just how important it is to find a group or company where people know exactly what they are doing and what their goals are.
To find a theater group with a healthy dynamic undoubtedly means to find a second home. There is great vulnerability in baring everything that you are each time you step on stage, and if you don’t have the adequate support, the experience can become horrifying. But once you know you’re with the right crew, the atmosphere and therefore the quality if the entire work instantly moves up infinite levels.
But going through such a process takes inhuman amounts of trust. These people will see you like no one else has before, they’ll see you at your best and at your worst, know what you’re absolutely the best at and what terrifies you the most. Personal space? There is no such thing. The physical intimacy you develop with your team goes beyond conventional boundaries. And we know we’re not talking about anything romantic or sexual here (though no one is denying that it might eventually happen), but merely the fact that we have shared rehearsal sweat, helped each other warm up for exercises, fought, loved, yelled at each other during improvisations and run-throughs.
We spend our entire lives trying to shape the perfect persona to show the world. When doing theater, you don’t have that option at all. It is you out there, and no one else but you.
But isn’t that actually why we do it?
Looking back, I realize that one of the main differences that influenced the attitudes in each company was the goals that people had set for themselves. In the case of that high school company, it was quite obvious how everybody worked for themselves and to get their own shine, which did enormous harm to the pieces we presented. On the other side, the group I’m working with now that I’m in college is devoted in body and soul to the craft of theater, and it shows.
The full commitment has also meant having more and better performance opportunities: the chance to present outside the usual theater, to take the work to different kinds of audience and experience a whole new way of making theater. Being with a company that is more professional in every sense – more adult, more centered, more grounded, also produces more professional results.
Not every company or theater group we get into will be a Cinderella slipper. Don’t be afraid to move around until you find the right fit for you, the place that suits your needs and where you can give the most to. After all, that’s how we get to have a ball.
Photo: Whittier Community Theatre