A Love Letter to Small-Time Theatre

Erin Fossa

I don’t always feel very accomplished. Most days I feel like I haven’t even made a dent in what I want to do with my life. But one thing that always settles my anxious heart is looking at my resume. Now, I don’t want this to sound boastful, because I am a person who doesn’t believe you ever “arrive”. I value the quality of the work I do and its contribution to the world, not how it looks on my resume. Nevertheless, I am always proud to hand my resume to directors and casting agents. And I credit that feeling, not to myself, but to the programs I’ve been a part of.

A popular video trending among actors right now is Peter Dinklage’s commencement address to Bennington College in 2012. Aside from being hilarious and poignant and inspiring, it is also a testament to how amazing it is to be a part of a small theatre program. “Everyone you need is in this room. These are the shiny, more important people,” he says in that speech.  

Many young actors would give their left arms for the chance to play “the tree” in a Broadway production or to have one line in a show with a star-studded cast. But I have abandoned that desire altogether. It is because of my small college that I got to play Anita in West Side Story as a sophomore with very little acting experience. A state college would have NEVER allowed that. And it’s because of community theatre that I got to play lead roles like Grace in Annie and originate characters in shows by brand new playwrights. They gave me a chance before I had anything notable on my resume.  

If we truly love our art, it shouldn’t matter the venue. When we introduce ourselves to someone as an actor and get the inevitable response - “Oh, anything we would have seen?”, don’t let your heart sink because you can’t answer yes. Take the opportunity to educate the person about a whole world of artists doing art for art’s sake. Be proud of your work and don’t let people assume that because you don’t act on Broadway, you’ve failed. You don’t deserve that assumption and you shouldn’t accept it. As actors, we have to change this mentality if we ever want respect for what we do.  

For example, I am married to an amazing man with a wonderful job. But his job requires us to move every three to four years. And, spoiler alert, they will never send us to New York City. So chances are, wherever we move, I’ll be doing small time theatre. But does that mean I’m a failure as an artist? Of course not! It means I’ve had to truly embrace this attitude, that the story matters no matter how many people are seated in the audience.  

I have come to a place where, if I spend the rest of my life as a fairly accomplished fish in small ponds, I’m okay with that. Because it is the small ponds that have given me a chance, taught me everything I know about theatre, and given me the motivation to keep going in this industry that is ridden with rejection. I have professors I can call or email any time for any reason and directors who actually remember me by name. It has helped me build a resume, a network, and a following. To me, those things are more valuable than a giant paycheck. 

So if you’re like me, and you often find yourself waiting to “arrive”, don’t. There is no arrival in acting. There are only artists doing art for art’s sake in a world that assumes we must be millionaires to be happy. Let’s teach them what theatre is really about with our attitudes of gratefulness.   

Photo: Kearney Community Theatre