Making the Jump from Amateur to Professional Theatre

Making the Jump from Amateur to Professional Theatre

So, you want to work in professional theatre? That’s a question that I have been asked many times but didn’t always know how to answer. And up until recently, was also something that I didn’t realize that I really wanted. Mostly because for me, doing theatre at any level besides community was just a pipe dream. I used to say that someday when I am working on Broadway but didn’t believe it.

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That "Nostalgic" Feeling

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

In the past I have written about time travel and the places theater can take you but this post is a little bit different. This is about the nostalgia of theater and how certain shows and experiences can make the theater feel more like home than any place does.

For me, the theater is nostalgic because it was the first place since college that I have actually felt like I belong. Getting reacquainted with the theater two years ago was seriously the best thing I ever did.  It gives me a place to go when I feel the urge to run. The shows themselves create new memories or bring back long forgotten ones, but the theater itself gives me a sense of belonging and that is not something that happens very often, and at times is the one thing I wish I had in a lot of other places.  

My first introduction to theater was when I was seven and my grandparents took me to see a local production of Annie. It was unlike anything I have ever seen and led me to being in my first show at my elementary school. Now this is not my favorite show or necessarily the best one I have seen but because of that night and the people that I saw it with, that show will always mean something to me.

 I've seen Jersey Boys twice but not with the person that would love it the most. Growing up that was my grandmother's kind of music and it’s a show she would've loved.  I had one of those moments after the first time I saw the show, both my mom and I looked at each other and said “Nana should be here.” There are many other shows I wish she was here to see with me. I know she would have loved to see An American in Paris and The King and I, but most importantly she would have wanted to see any show that I was involved with. We didn’t get to experience the theater much together before she passed, but that first memory of seeing Annie with her and my grandfather at age seven is one of those memories that I will never forget. 

Wicked brings that same feeling of nostalgia because it’s talks about the difference in people and how we can all connect on some level. This is also one of very few shows that both my mom and I can enjoying watching together. Most of our theater adventures are because she wants to support me and the things I love. 

I have seen many shows, and enjoyed some aspect of them all, but these are shows mentioned here are ones that will stick with me of the nostalgic feeling I get when I see them. Some people say certain shows are the best because of the amount of awards that they have won or because of the actors that are in them. But to me, the best shows are the ones that bring back the forgotten memories or remind me of the people that I saw them with.  

Photo: Greater Austin High School Musical Theatre Awards

 

Theatre & The Olympics

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

Watching the Olympics reminds me of being at the theater. Why is that you ask? It is because the Olympics along with Community Theater in general are some of the only places that I have seen true camaraderie.
   
While watching the Olympics I have seen high 5's everywhere and I also have seen an American swimming competitor take a selfie with swimmers from other countries in the warm up ready room. Then two gymnasts, one from North Korea and one from South Korea, took a picture together even though their country is divided. I have seen other examples of this during the gymnastics and throughout the entire competition. Most of the athletes wished each other luck or gave high fives and congratulatory hugs to those who have won the competition. As they say on TV, they do it “in true Olympic Spirit”.  Recently I saw the women’s 5000 meter track race, when two racers fell and helped each other up in order to finish the race. 

At the Olympics you are competing against others for that coveted gold medal, some from your own country and many from around the world.  Some just want to get on the podium to say that they are one of the best in the world at what they do. In theater it’s anywhere from getting a role in a show at the community level to the allusive Tony Award at the professional level and anything in between.  I have never worked on the professional level but I have worked at community theaters where things are so well run that the quality of the shows could be professional. So my experience comes from the community theater level when I talk about what I know. Working with theater I have seen actors tell each other to “break a leg” both before and after the audition process.

 In both the Olympics and Community Theater everyone you are with are after the same thing, the gold medal or the role in the show. But if you don't succeed, most are willing to admit that it’s because the other person, or people, were better on that night in that moment.

I must also note that there are cases of poor sportsmanship in both the Olympics and Community Theater. It’s not something that I have personally seen very often, but nonetheless, it does exist and I needed to mention that no one or nothing is perfect. People can easily become upset when they don’t advance to the finals, especially when they were expected to win gold. In theater it can happen when someone does not want to be a part of show, because even though they were offered a role it wasn’t the one that they wanted.

You see, the theater is my home and is something that I love to be a part of. What I have recently realized is that both the Olympics and the theater are unique experiences to be included in. And although I have never been to the Olympics, I can tell just by watching them, that like theater, no matter what you do or how far you make it, it’s a special place to be. Those who are involved both know and admit how special an opportunity it is. The way that the athletes feel about the Olympics is the same way that I feel about theater and that to me makes them one in the same.  

Balancing Theatre & Dance

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

I have been involved with both theater and dance since I was young, but rarely at the same time, until now. I had a part in my elementary school play, did dance in middle school and focused on theater in high school. I went off to college hoping to be involved with theater but wound up in dance and have been in a dance class at least once a week ever since. 

Then about two years ago, I realized how much I missed theater and wanted to be involved again. Since then I have been balancing rehearsals, competitions, and performances, sometimes having to figure out how to be in two places at once. 

However, for me, there is something about having to be in two places at once. Something about the rush of leaving dance and running to the theater, or being late for dance because you got stuck at the theater, it fills me with adrenaline and pride. Pride in that I get to spend my days and nights doing what I love. Which is weird for me because I am someone who highly dislikes being late. 

Yet, I don’t mind having to balance both dance and theater as well as a couple of part time jobs. Don’t get me wrong though, that feeling of pride comes with a really high stress level at times and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the help of my dance friends and theater production team members. Occasionally things work out and theater and dance rehearsals fall on opposite nights. That just means I am hardly ever home and feel like I am living at the theater and the studio. This has taught me balance in a different way. To make sure that I am eating right and getting enough rest to keep my energy up, in order to make it to all of the rehearsals and performances. 

No worries though, I would not change what I am doing for the world. I am at a point in my life that I have been working towards for a while now, and doing things that I thought were impossible. You see though, the thing about having both theater and dance in my life is that they both give me the opportunity to learn new things, opportunities to be creative, and most importantly, they are the places where I feel like I finally fit in somewhere. 

The studio and the theater are my home away from home, a lot of the time, and as stressful as it can be, I would rather have to figure out how to be in two places at once then to live a life of “What Ifs” like I did two years ago.  

It All Started on a Napkin

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

As we think about everything going on in the world right now, it really goes to show that tomorrow is never promised. As I sit here, I write this and think about how my life is going to change. Something that I have had every Friday for 3 years is coming to an end.  Change they say is good, and in order to move forward, you must make a change. 

I have been struggling for the past two years trying to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. I volunteered and interned in several different places and everything I did there came back to me writing. I discovered that putting pen to paper made me happy and feel the most complete.  

Within the past year, I discovered that I was hardly close to where I wanted to be and I had to make changes in order to propel my life forward. You know the phrase: “The straw that broke the camel’s back”.  Yes, I had one of those moments.  I had finished working at a particular work place and knew when it was time to move on. I did not know where I wanted to go but I knew that I couldn’t stay where I had been. The moment occurred about 6 months after I had been re-acquainted with theater and became involved again.  It was then when I felt happy there and that the theater was my home away from home. 

People will often ask me “When did you become a writer” and I respond with “I have always been a writer.” It’s in my blood and part of who I am. From creating stories as a child, to winning awards in college, I really blossomed when I started getting involved with theater, which lead to me writing this blog. I feel lucky with every word that I write and am fortunate that it leads to pieces of mine that get posted online. Writing for this blog allows me to combine the two things that make me the happiest. Writing gives me a sense of peace when I feel like the world is turning upside down and theater gives me a place to go when I think the world is spinning out of control. 

The only unfortunate thing is that it doesn’t supply me with an income. Yet I write because I want to get better at it and because I feel the need to. Gloria Steinem once stated it best when she said “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else” and that describes completely how I feel about writing.  Although I still need to find a day job to help pay the bills, I have come to realize that money isn’t everything. It is hard sometimes because I know I should be writing cover letters but want to write these blog posts about theater instead. 

Believe it or not, the first draft of this post was written on a napkin. That goes to show that writing is in my blood and that both theater and blog post ideas may pop into my head at any random moment. Lucky for me I have the opportunity to write for places such as this blog and doing the publicity for my local community theater. 

I have finally accepted that fact that I may be a struggling artist for the rest of my life and that I may never get a “day job” and that is okay too. However, whatever happens and no matter what tomorrow brings, there is one thing I know for sure. That whatever path I take, pen, paper, and Community Theater will be with me as I travel.  Right now I am at a good jumping off point in my life and it can only get better from here. 

 

My Theatre Bucket List

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

When asked, “Why you are traveling so far for this show” most would respond “because it is a bucket list show/ role”.   I am sure most actors have that, a theatrical bucket list, a role or a show they would travel for.  The one where you eat dinner in the car while sitting in traffic so you are not late for the rehearsal kind of travel.  For me that bucket list looks a little bit different.  Sure I have a small acting list too, and by small I mean, a piece of paper with Wendy in Peter Pan written on it. That is a major acting role that I would love to have. I had the opportunity to dance the role once but never have had the opportunity to have a speaking part in the play. 

However, at the suggestion of a friend, I tried to create a longer theatrical bucket list.

Although the more I thought about it, the more I realized that shows I have both worked on and have attended, have inspired me to travel around the world.  That is a different kind of theatrical bucket list but nonetheless, one that I have. 

The list includes seeing London and Paris in real time, and also meeting the stars of who put this show together.  I had the opportunity to meet most of the cast of Finding Neverland when it played a Pre-Broadway run, including stars Carolee Carmello, Laura Michelle Kelley, Jeremy Jordan and Thayne Jasperson, as well as many others in the ensemble.  People who are on my “I would love to meet” list include Kelli O’Hara, Sierra Boggess, Christian Borle, Anthony Rapp and, like most people, Lin-Manual Miranda (or anyone from the Hamilton cast.)  A little something to add would be that if the time period didn’t matter, lunch with William Shakespeare would be high on my list. 

My most recent obsession has been to find a way to get to London. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am a major fan of J.M Barrie and the story of Peter Pan. I have loved the story for such a long time and seeing Finding Neverland when it was in its Pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. It only added to that fandom.  I just want to get to Europe and see in real time, all of the iconic places that I have only had the chance to see onstage. I want to someday stand next to Big Ben and go for a walk in the Kensington Gardens, perhaps meet a member of the Royal Family and of course, like most theater nerds, see a show in London's West End.

Take Phantom of the Opera as another example. Since I first saw that show I have only dreamed of going and seeing a show at the Paris Opera House.  It immediately became a life goal of mine to not only visit Paris but to see all of Europe. The Sound of Music lead me to have the interest in seeing Salzburg, Austria and the Vienna Opera House too.

Thanks to musical theater and other recent experiences I now have so much more that I want to do and see in life. These shows take me on an adventure and inspire me to see what is out there in the world and explore more than just my home town and country.

 

The Real Struggle of the Audition Process....Part 2

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

If you were to ask some of the people that I am currently working with about the contemplation that I went through when I was deciding whether or not to audition for the fall play, Tennessee Williams “The Glass Menagerie.”  They would tell you how anxious I was when it came to making the decision. 

To audition for this show would have been my first audition in about a year, and I was torn about what to do. It’s a well-known show that most people have heard of-some might even call it a classic. I knew that because of that reason and many others that I was going to be up against some stiff competition. I had debated over and over again in my head about what to do. I would continuously as myself “Can I really do this?” and “Am I ready?” 

This went on for about 2 weeks until the producer of the show asked me why I had not submitted my audition stuff yet. It was in that moment I said without hesitation “put me down for the Sunday time slot.” I did not know if I was ready to say yes but I knew in that moment that I wanted a chance at this opportunity. I wanted a turn to be up on the stage. I didn’t know if I would ready but as Lemony Snicket once said “If we wait until we are ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives” 

That is when I decided I was going to do this and give it my all. Since I had time to rehearse and prepare for this opportunity I thought that maybe with time, I would be ready.   

In the weeks leading up to the audition, I did all that I could to prepare. I met with someone who had been on the stage that I wanted to be on and ran lines with them. I also read the script multiple times and met with someone the hour prior to the audition. Just to talk things over about the character and what direction I wanted to take the role in. I had started stressing out that morning about my readiness for the audition. Had I done enough to prepare for this role and for this audition. You may remember reading in part 1 of this article, that my biggest fear was having to be the first person to read at the audition and that fear had been at the forefront of my mind since before I even officially signed up to audition for the show. 

On audition day I arrived promptly at the theater with my anxiety in full gear. There were a number of people who had arrived before I did but because this one was an audition where you signed up in advance, how early you show up has no effect on what happens in the audition room. You never know what the director and producer are thinking or what will happen behind those closed doors. 

Once we entered the audition room. We took a seat and heard from the director, producer, and stage manager. At this point I am literality shaking in my shoes. I just want to know if I am going to have to go first. Luckily that did not happen. Actually, I went near the end of the group. I was thrilled with how everything went and I believed that I did well. However, I was not fully convinced that I was the best one there. I still held out hope though because I wanted this chance badly. So badly that I still can’t find the right words to describe it. We were then asked to wait in the hallway while the producer and director made decisions about who was to stay for callbacks. A few minutes later, I found out that I was not on the short list for callbacks. I figured at the point that I was not going to be cast but held out hope until I received the official rejection email the next day. I was disappointed, not because I didn’t get cast but for the personal reasons and things that won’t happen because I did not get cast in the show. It is not a complete loss though, I still get to be a part of the production team and will do all the publicity for the show. 

It has now been almost two weeks since the audition. When I look back at that day, I can’t say that I was ever ready when it came time to audition. But, I can say this: that in end I am glad that I went ahead and auditioned. I now know that I would have regretted it had I not gone and that you never know unless you try.  

 

My Trip to See 'If/Then'

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

Different shows stick with you for various reasons. Some may call this your list of favorites.

Audiences go to shows every night and each person has some motivation or reason for going. Each Audience  usually have opinions that range from “I am just here to use the ticket so it doesn’t go to waste” to “I am completely obsessed with the show and can recite all the lyrics before the curtain goes up”. 

This past week I had an opportunity to see the national tour of “If/Then” at PPAC in Providence RI.  I was familiar with all the music for the show prior to the curtain going up, and the basic plot of the show. The story is about Elizabeth and which road she should take after moving back to New York. It intertwines 2 stories together where she is Beth in one and Liz in the other and where her life goes on each of the different paths. 

As usual, and more often than not, my mother came with me to see the show. I have to say, theater just isn’t her thing. She would be okay with going to see a show if I were in it but wanting to support and spend time with me, she buys the show tickets, gets all dressed up and we head to the theater. 

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast Photo by Joan Marcus

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast Photo by Joan Marcus

I had spent the weeks previous to the ticket purchase explaining the show to her and telling her that I can’t guarantee that she would like it. It’s not like anything I have taken her to see before. Up until this point the only other show she really seemed to enjoy was “Wicked.” I told her that it is a modern day story that takes place in modern day New York. The clothing they wear are modern and the dancing is that way too. I even warned her that there was a song in the show that had a swear word in the title.  She said okay to going, but ahead of time, I really had no Idea whether she would enjoy it or not.

I could hear her laughing at the jokes during Act 1 and by the end of the show her response to my question of “How was it?” was “That was good”.  The statement really surprised me because she didn’t just say that it was good, she meant it.

I don’t think that there are any words that can describe how much that meant to me. We even discussed the show the whole car ride back to Boston.  A discussion that included “did you see that” or “it was funny when…”

I personally really enjoyed the music and Jackie Burns can belt out the big numbers of the show, which included “Always Starting Over” as well as Idina Menzel. The story was a little tough to process at times as it switched between Beth and Liz pretty quickly at times. I didn’t observe the show too much as a theater techie would because I was trying to stay on top of the story as it moved along. The show had a talented ensemble and I enjoyed the dancing. I even may have geeked out a little when Anthony Rapp appeared on the stage. 

To sum it up, I really enjoy musicals. I go for the music, the actors, and the stories. Depending on how much I like the show, those reasons determine if the show makes it onto my favorite list or not.  However ‘If/Then” is being added to my favorite list for a different reason altogether. The fact that I was able to enjoy the show with my mother, which doesn’t happen very often, is the reason this show has made it onto my favorite list. 

Let the Story Be Told

Jenn Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

A number of things stood out to me while watching the Tony Awards on Sunday evening.  But what stood out for me the most was something that Thomas Kail said as part of his acceptance speech for Best Director of “Hamilton”.  

During his speech, he said,

‘So let’s continue to tell stories. What I have seen this season is that there are still stories to be told, and there are people who want to hear them.  Keep telling the stories.”

I can relate so well to this. It got me thinking about the very reason why I became involved with theater and wanted to start writing. I wanted to be a part of something bigger and more than anything I wanted to help tell a story. 

Each show that I have worked on has told a different story in a different way. I have created props such as Luisa’s mask for “The Fantasticks” and the TV remote that William Gillette used in “The Games Afoot”. The details had to be just right in order for the story to come to life, in both the way that it was written and the way that the director had envisioned it to be. I have learned that telling the story is more than just the big picture itself. Minor details are just as important in telling the story as the big picture is. You can’t just build the set; you need the props, costumes, lighting and sound to bring it all together. 

On Broadway each show tells a story. Some characters tell a story of themselves while other characters tell stories from a different viewpoint. Audiences that attend shows have specifically come to hear the story that is being told. They want to hear the next joke, they want to know what happens to the main character and they want to find out how the story will end. 

I discovered that a story can be found anywhere and that sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find one. For example, inside my vest that I wear for my day job, there is a printed story about the people who started the company many years ago and inside each person’s vest there is a different story. 

Mark Twain once said “The two most important days of your life, are the day you were born and the day you find out why”.  I recently discovered why I was put here on earth. I was born to tell stories. Some I tell with written words, and some I tell by bringing scenes to life on the stage.  All I know is that around every corner there is another story waiting to be told and when I find the next one, I will tell it.

Overcoming Challenges in Theatre

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Columnist 

When working on theater productions, I find that there are many challenges one can end up facing.

My initial challenge was to get up enough nerve to contact the theater company to inquire if I could be a part of the next productionby helping in some way.

The next challenge I faced was gaining the confidence to talk to people that I had never met before. My nature is to be shy and I would shake in my shoes at the thought of having to introduce myself to a stranger. I wanted to make sure I did everything right so that I did not cause anyone to be upset with me. I would always get anxious when I entered a room full of people that I did not know. It was so hard to gain the courage to talk to those people but I knew that I had to do it.  A production team member, whom I have worked with on a lot of my shows, challenged me to talk to at least one new person, at an opening night reception or cast party.  A year and half ago when she offered me this challenge, I honestly was questioning why she was making me do this, but I am grateful she did because now, I can actually do it without getting too nervous.  My social skills have improved so much over time because of what she had me do, instead of me trying to hide in a corner. Today I am still quite shy but I am less likely to respond with ‘What did I do wrong?” when someone asks if they can talk to me.

However, many of my show related challenges came into play when I became a prop designer. It was something I had never done before.  It all started when the producer asked me if I was interested in working on props and I said “sure” with a smile, but in my head I started wondering what I had gotten myself into.  Some of the prop challenges I have faced have included making a fabric fire, removing the glass from a mirror, making a remote control device from 1936 and finding period appropriate weapons.  But I would say the biggest prop challenge was having to create a giant hypodermic needle out of PVC pipe for a production of the “Rocky Horror Show” that I worked on last fall.

My current challenge is choreographing a Tango for 6 actors in a rehearsal space that is smaller than our performance space!  It’s hard to figure out timing and space when you only have a rough idea of where the furniture will be placed on the set and how many steps it will take to get the actors to end up where you want them to be for the scene.

Each challenge I have faced has been a little different, but I have taken on each one determined to succeed. I accomplished those challenges by asking the right questions about what the director wanted for results and seeking out advice from those who had been designers before.

With every challenge completed I feel I have become a stronger person. The more challenges that I accept and successfully complete, the more willing I am to take on new challenges and opportunities that come my way. Working with theater has helped me to develop my self- confidence, whether I am venturing out to work with a new theater company or using the skills I have acquired to apply for a job in the real world.

With everything I have learned from my theater experience, I have come to realize that a challenge in real life is not necessarily a bad thing. Although I still get anxious when trying to figure out how I will complete some of the challenges that I face, I can deal with it better now having had numerous successful experiences in the field of theater. I don’t know what upcoming challenges I will face, but with the support of friends I have made at the theater and the lessons that I have learned from it, I feel like I can take on the world!