10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Freshman Theatre Major

10 Things I Wish I Knew as a Freshman Theatre Major

While it's only been a couple of years, find myself already waxing nostalgically about my freshman year as a theatre major. That year was a great growing experience but also incredibly difficult, so this one is for all you baby theatre students wandering wide-eyed into the world of university theatre. 

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10 Must-Read Books for Theatre Actors

10 Must-Read Books for Theatre Actors

An actor’s work is never done. If you’re not onstage or in front of a camera, you might be found taking classes, doing research, or volunteering backstage. Sometimes, especially when actors run into dry spells between projects, it becomes essential to become your own teacher, and one great way to do this is by reading acting books. Regardless of your individual level of experience, it never hurts to explore what the greats have written on the subject. So, in no particular order, here are the ten acting books with a spot of honor on my bookshelf.

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Why Improv is a Legit Art Form

Why Improv is a Legit Art Form

Improv is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that is okay. Learning the basics of improv to prepare yourself for ad-libbing on stage or keeping your cool during cold reads is tremendously helpful for any actor, but no one should be forced to play improv games. However, the attitude that improv is a lesser art form than scripted drama only breeds division within the performing arts community. They are different performance forms; each has its strengths and most people have a preference, but both are legitimate. Improv is an art which deserves the same respect as a carefully rehearsed theatre show.

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The Actors and the Crew Should be Friends

The Actors and the Crew Should be Friends

While attending the Vancouver Web Fest this March, I discovered a brilliant web series called “Empty Space.” This comedic look at the inside world of theatre features a full-out fight between the actors and the technical crew, each blaming the other group for the play’s issues.

As a theatre artist, this moment was both hilariously extreme and bitingly realistic. Why does it so often seem like those in all black and those donning costumes stand at opposing sides of the stage?

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Community Theatres Just Want to Have Fun?

Tess Nakaishi

  • OnStage Washington State Columnist

Fun: it’s a word frequently thrown about in non-professional theatre circles. When I tell people I’m a theatre major, they say something along the lines of, “Oh, that sounds fun.” I ask a fellow performer about their experience during a show; “It was a lot of fun.” The word comes out of my own mouth as I awkwardly try to explain why I put so much time and energy into theatre. “It’s fun,” I mumble, knowing full well that word fails miserably to describe my feelings.

I don’t mean to sound like a party pooper here. Theatre is fun. Putting on a show is a magical experience like no other, and only those who truly enjoy the process should continue in the field. However, theatre is so much more than being fun for the performers, and constantly describing it in such terms has a trivializing effect on the craft. Amateur theatre artists always struggle to be recognized. As a theatre major, I realize many dismiss theatre as an easy study for people who don’t have the discipline or intelligence to major in some more profitable field. This is far from the truth; in reality, theatre majors are some of the most dedicated, hardworking people imaginable. It takes real commitment to stay up late rehearsing and then crank out pages of homework in the wee hours of the night. Yet, most non-theatre people see only the surface, and assume studying theatre only involves silly voices and frilly costumes.

Theatre should be hard work. There’s certainly no rule that you must feel miserable during the process, but artists should break a metaphorical sweat. The idea of theatre as being “fun” makes it sound like a hobby or a casual pastime. There are some who have no ambition to pursue theatre professionally and are purely in it for pleasure. That is perfectly fine, but many of us would do just about anything within our power to make a living doing what we love. It is wonderful that community theatre brings together people with various levels of experience, but it is hurtful to the whole production when cast/crew treat the show as something secondary which does not deserve their full attention. When people sign on to a show without fully committing, tensions rise as others struggle to fill the gaps they have left. Those just looking for something to do in the evenings must remember that the theatre demands our focus even when the process is stressful and brutal. 

Because community theatre cast and crew are unpaid, it is often viewed as inferior to professional theatre. The amount of money involved does not dictate the quality of any given production, and community theatres are certainly capable of producing shows on par with Broadway standards. What really separates the two is that professional theatre artists have more incentive to work hard while community theatre artists can much more easily get away with phoning it in. Thus, community theatre suffers when those involved see themselves as inherently inferior to professional theatre, thereby meaning there is no point in really trying. I have seen very few terrible community theatre shows, but a multitude of mediocre community theatre shows. These shows are not bad, but it is clear the company took the easy route and accepted producing a mildly entertaining show rather than shooting for a mind-blowing performance. They took no risks. Everything is as would be expected. People are working, yes, but not pushing themselves beyond the usual standard. 

In addition, thinking of theatre as fun for the performers can skew productions towards thinking more about the interests of the cast/crew rather than the audience. The audience members are the ones who pay for the show, who invest their time and attention to view the work we create. Without an audience, theatre is dead. And yet I have seen far too many productions which seem to forget the audience. Instead, the production turns inward, focusing on the selfish concerns of the performers as the company member’s egos battle for control. I particularly noticed this phenomenon occurring in academic settings when the company was almost entirely composed of young students. Sometimes the best decisions for a show go against a given performer’s personal preference, but there is a larger vision which needs to be served before anyone’s ego. In the end, does it really matter who had the most lines or the most flattering dress if the audience is happy? It hurts, but sometimes our personal desires must be sacrificed in order to put on a strong show. If such sacrifices are not allowed to happen when needed, the result is that the performers may have a blast but the audience does not get their fair share of enjoyment. 

Theatre is all about creativity, exploration, and play. It is exciting, enthralling, and, yes, very fun. However, theatre artists must remember that theatre is a cruel mistress who we must stand by even when everything appears to be falling apart. Prioritizing having fun skews performer’s priorities, harms the capacity of the show to progres from good to outstanding, and threatens to steal the fun away from the audience.

Theatre is not a hobby you can just drop anytime. It is a commitment. It is hard work. It is so much more than the word “fun.” Those who look down on theatre think all we do is party, primp, and mess around. Let’s prove them wrong. 

Photo: Anchorage Community Theatre

 

Clear Space Youth Repertory: Bringing Youth’s Voices to Lynden

Tess Nakaishi

  • OnStage Washington Columnist
  • @TessNakaishi

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For young theatre artists, it’s common to feel as if one lacks control. Are you forever fated to flit from audition to audition, hoping someone else sees something in you? Must your life be controlled by seasons picked by Boards of which you are not a part? Is there no way to address the theatrical issues you alone seem bothered by in your community?

Fortunately, there is hope for young artists having a more direct voice in their community, and Clear Space Youth Repertory is here to prove that. Located in the small town of Lynden, WA, Clear Space is the first ever youth led theatre in the town. Their first project is a festival featuring short plays written by both local and national playwrights. Auditions for the festival take place May 17th and 18th at 7:00pm and the performances themselves run June 23rd-25th at 7:00pm. Both events occur at Lynden’s Claire VG Thomas Theatre. 

I discussed Clear Space and the challenge of starting a new theatre company over coffee with Clear Space artistic director Mijo Buiskool-Price, a theatre student at Western Washington University. Clear Space has been remarkably fortunate in terms of the support they have had thus far. The idea began when Mijo and technical director Spenser Stumpf were talking backstage about how Lynden needed more theatre for young people. As Mijo put it, there was a “need in the community theatre world because we are retiring a lot of artists and there are not a lot of artists rising up to take their place in leadership.” After voicing this concern, the Lynden Performing Arts Guild agreed to sponsor the creation of Clear Space. It is a wonderful situation in which Clear Space is receiving monetary support and a rent-free theatre space while also retaining creative control. Mijo would like to extend great thanks to the Guild for their incredible support.

The goal of Clear Space is to encourage creative expression for young theatre artists and “develop Lynden and surrounding areas into a destination for theatre.” Mijo noticed aspects of theatre in her community she thought could be improved upon, such as tendency to “focus mostly on entertainment value instead of…wow, theatre can be used to evoke so many different feelings and ideas.” As someone who began theatre at the high school level, she also noticed athleticism being glorified while artistic kids often felt left out. Instead of prioritizing one over the other, Mijo would like to “foster this community where athleticism and the arts can be seen as equal in accomplishing in the end the same goal of being together in a community.” In short, Mijo and the other founders of Clear Space identified the problems with their theatrical community and made the bold decision to go do something about those issues.

When I asked Mijo about advice for other young artists looking to expand their opportunities, she said, “Networking is literally the most important thing.” If it weren’t for Mijo and Spenser’s involvement with the Lynden Performing Arts Guild, they would never have been offered this amazing opportunity. The connections you form with other artists are absolutely crucial to your success. Time management and professionalism are also key, particularly when you are young. The six weeks between Clear Space’s auditions and lights up on their first show are already meticulously planned out. This is an organized, intelligent group who not only know what needs to get done but how to accomplish it in an efficient fashion. 

Part of crafting a professional persona is bringing the right attitude to the table. Mijo says she likes to work with “people who realize that theatre is a gift instead of people who would use it for their own self gain. We want people who are interested in doing theatre for the sake of theatre rather than for the sake of puffing themselves up.” Community theatre truly is a labor of love, and egos should be checked at the door. Mijo added that she and Spenser are the first to admit they aren’t all-knowing, and they approach Clear Space as a “growing process.” No one can run a theatre company singlehandedly, and it is important to learn how to “delegate and trust other people.”

Clear Space Youth Repertory

Clear Space Youth Repertory

While Mijo originally wanted to be an actor, she soon realized directing is her real passion. In the future, she hopes to teach drama at the high school level. With that in mind, we discussed her goals as a director and future teacher. Her experience with high school drama was “mixed” and she wants to offer future generations of students an alternative experience by “taking the time to teach my students and making sure their voices are heard.” It is important to her as an artist that theatre remains a collaborative art and no one is silenced. As Mijo aptly put it, “You cannot hold onto your vision with such a clenched fist because you have to make sure it has room to live and to breathe and to grow, and that is forever important for actors and technicians.”

We also talked about some big picture issues regarding the theatrical world at large. Mijo expressed the idea that “there are some voices that are overused” (think Disney) while other voices, such as the LGBTQ community and female playwrights, don’t get enough opportunities to be heard. Mijo said, “We can’t ignore the things in our nation and in our world that are going wrong, and theatre has the power to address that.” Theatre truly is a powerful tool and, if wielded properly, has the potential to create more unity in a world sharply divided. 

The biggest challenge Clear Space is facing is “assuring people we are legitimate.” Clear Space may not be a professional company on Broadway and its members may be young, but their passion and commitment to the craft make this theatre every bit as deserving. Mijo described Clear Space’s importance by saying, “it’s an artistic project that will benefit the community because culture makes things beautiful.” If you are in the Lynden area, I strongly encourage you to support these hard working artists by attending auditions, workshops, or their festival.

But whoever you are, wherever you are, Clear Space serves as an inspiration to young artists everywhere who sometimes feel helpless. It may not be easy or guaranteed, but it is possible to take direct action to change your local theatre environment. Mijo concluded her interview with what could very well be a rousing battle cry for theatre artists everywhere: “See theatre!”