The Four Types of Community Theatre Actors

The Four Types of Community Theatre Actors

The beauty of community theatre is that you don’t have to have any experience or training: you can come as you are, show what you can do, and hopefully leave on a positive note. However, that means that all walks of life are mingled together on stage. From the woman who’s just there to pass the time after a long day at work, to the boy who’s fresh out of theatre school with dreams of Broadway, everyone can share the space. 

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School's Out for Summer

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Canada Columnist

High school, for me, was rough. I found solace in musical theatre – though I didn’t know it, yet. I loved to dance and my favourite classes were Creative Writing and Drama. We were given the opportunity to express ourselves on paper and in front of an audience (well, our classmates, anyway). In Drama we did mask work, Shakespeare, improv, we even got the chance to direct. For a class of 75, a school that invested even a little money into the arts was a blessing. But I abused those gifts. I didn’t care. I didn’t pay attention or retain any of the wonderful things my teacher taught me because I didn’t think I would be going into the arts. My graduating year, I knew I was going to be done with dance competitions and I wanted something to fill my time so I auditioned for my first show. I had never auditioned, I had never done a full scale production, and I had no experience in musical theatre beyond dance class. 

I walked in to an audition for Les Miserables singing a shaky rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” with no resume and no clue how to actually conduct myself in an audition. Looking back on it now, I’m embarrassed but proud that I had such a horrible first experience. It made me want to learn more. The next time I auditioned, I got a part in the ensemble and that was it. I was hooked. For all intents and purposes my theatrical career didn’t begin until after I graduated high school.

I deeply regret that I didn’t pay more attention in drama class because I now understand the value of getting as much experience as you can, as early as you can. 

Which brings me to today. I got the opportunity to speak with a few student involved with the SSIP or Student Summer Intensive Program at Storybook Theatre. As a few students described it: “[the] Intensive Program allows students aged 12-20 to taste the real work of actors and actresses outside of school, and gain experience.” – Lloyd Matthieu Caday, 18 

It’s “a Summer program which enables young artists to learn from local performance professionals while putting together a full scale production and developing unbreakable friendships. A program that facilitates hard work, passion and joy in every student.” – Victoria Clark, 17

For the last three years, Storybook has been working with students to create theatre magic. This 11 week program invited 50 young adults to work with professional artists, honing their talents and working to put together a full-scale production. This year it was “Grease”. In 2015, it was RENT, and in their first year, it was Les Miserable (School Edition). Next year, they’ll have the chance to perform in West Side Story.

It all starts with that first audition into the program. 

“…I felt sick to my stomach. My hands and knees couldn’t stop shaking. Even though I knew the words, the choreography and everything, I was still nervous because I wanted to impress my directors and the team and get that dream role I’ve always wanted.” – Lloyd Matthieu Caday

In other words: they get a taste of what it means to work in the theatre right from the start. Once they were accepted into the program, the students endured “terrifying and intimidating” workshops where they learned songs and dances with no casting. They became equals.

From there, rehearsals (with casting) began and they finally understood the meaning of “Intensive Program”. For four days a week, students rehearsed 4-10 hours per day, along with take home projects and character work to keep their brains running long after they left rehearsal. “We got plenty of laughs…but it was all hard work and focus…” These are incredibly dedicated students who are there because they want to learn from the best.

The best included a stellar team of acting coaches, musical directors, and choreographers who passed on their wisdom every rehearsal. 

“The teachers in this program are inspirations to me.” 

  • Eden Hilderband (Choreographer),
  • Amanda Iandolo (Acting Coach),
  • Tara Laberge (Music Director),
  • Leon Leontaridis (Vocal Coach),
  • Carly McKee (Acting Coach),
  • Jacqueline Strilchuk (Acting Coach),
  • JP Thibodeau (Director/Artistic Director),
  • Lauren Thompson (Choreographer) and,
  • Justine Westby (Acting Coach) are included in this incredible ensemble of teachers who bring their students’ passions to the surface. 

“They've shown me what it takes to thrive in this industry and how to approach characterization and acting as a whole.” – Carter Debusschere, 17

Spending the summer together inevitably created strong bonds through the cast and crew. They became a family of teenagers with similar personalities who connected over a lack of sleep and a love of theatre. They spent a lot of their free time together, seeing movies, attending parties, and making lasting memories. 

“We [would] take prom pictures like back in the 1950s during intermission. We’d bring in our own camera, some of us even brought polaroids, and all of us would take pictures on social media.

Our head stage manager decided to rap our performance notes using Hamilton.

[They] decided to pump up our energy by learning the choreo to some of our songs and performing them for us! They added some inside jokes in some of the lyrics and actions…they also had us perform a gender swap version of Greased Lightning and Freddy my Love. It was a wonderful activity to get us energized for the show!”

One particular memory I’d like to share is one I heard from numerous people around the theatre because of how extraordinary these kids are. 

“A cast member received glasses that enabled him to see the colour green, he had been color blind his whole life. The day he received these special glasses we all wore green in celebration of him seeing this colour. It was beautiful to see his reaction. And recently during intermission of one of the shows there was a rainbow outside, something this cast mate had never seen. I was so glad to witness him seeing a rainbow for the first time, you could imagine there were many tears shed from many people from our cast.”

For the last two years, Storybook has been able to invite professional actors from Broadway to provide a workshop for the students and give them a once in a lifetime opportunity. In 2015, Adam Pascal arrived to give the students some advice on playing in RENT, and this past summer saw the arrival of Laura Osnes to show the students how to successfully dance their way through Grease. What a treat!

The beauty of this program is that any student from any walk of life can audition and join the program. Victoria Clark has been with the program since the beginning. She recently graduated from Archbishop Jordan Catholic High School and has had the opportunity to play Marty in Grease, Maureen in RENT, and Fantine in Les Miserables with SSIP.

“My mom was searching for summer camps for teens in Calgary and stumbled upon Les Miserables: School Edition and set up an audition immediately… [I joined] because it was a dream show for me to do. It was an opportunity I could not pass up.”

Carter Debusschere is in Grade 12 at Bishop Grandin High School and is joining the Ensemble for the very first time. A friend of his invited him to join the program and he auditioned because he was looking for more theatre opportunities outside of school. Now, he plans on returning next year because “this has been the most fulfilling experience of my life from the people and the skills I've developed.”

Lloyd Matthieu Caday is also a first time SSIP member, playing Sonny/Ensemble (it’s a double-cast show), having just graduated from Bishop O’Byrne High School. “In a span of 3 months of summer, I learned a lot from my mentors, coaches, director and also from my peers. Not just SSIP, but Storybook theatre itself runs in a very professional manner so it gave me an idea of what real actors do…what I need to work on as an actor.”

This program is helping to create rising stars and dedicated actors. I can’t wait to see what they do next year.

Of course high school-level theatre begins in high schools. 

Carter described his high school program as adequate but lacks musical theatre. And that’s a trending pattern I noticed. “The facilities are nice with talented staff who know how to put on a show and educate young actors.” He takes theatre arts for both acting and directing and he plans to “continue training and working in theatre wherever I can; whether I'm on cast or crew.”

Victoria loved her school’s theatre program. “[My school] had an incredible award winning drama program that reminds me of the SSIP in terms of the direction I received from my drama teacher. I was also part of the incredible award winning technical theatre program, in which we would design and construct the sets, costumes, props for the Drama 30 shows. We didn't have a very strong musical theatre [program] due to it being a new underfunded program at my school. [But] I was part of all the theatre programs. I was a costume designer in the technical theatre program for the majority of my high school career. I played the lead in many of the musical theatre and drama shows. I was in all 4 of the choir and ensembles.” 

Lloyd also enjoyed the benefits of his high school’s theatre program. “[It’s] advanced. I learned pretty decent acting techniques and skills but it never was enough…I was part of Drama class, Art in International Baccalaureate course, and Choir course. I joined choir to improve my singing skills and balance my voice when working with groups of people…I took Drama to hone my acting skills and learn different acting methods and I joined Art IB to engage my creative thinking around me.”

All in all, this is a fairly successful group of students who have embraced what theatre they have available to them. Oh, how I wish I’d been one of them. What we share in common, however, is a love of performing arts.

“[Theatre in high schools] gives students a safe place, a place where they feel accepted and able to fully express themselves and their emotions. It gives them confidence in themselves and can help them feel confident in public situations…[it] makes students work hard and feel proud of what they accomplished. 

Theatre has always been my home since I was 2. I grew up in the theatre. It’s the place where I’m most happy, despite difficult rehearsals. Under the stage lights is where I feel most alive. The sound of applause is something I live for. The community and family that is created in theatre is unparalleled to anything else. Theatre has made me into the person I am. It is a part of me.” 

– Victoria Clark

“High School Theatres are great and you’ll learn a lot of basic or advanced keys into musical theatre, but community theatre is you’ll begin your journey as an actor and experience real life theatre work. This is also where I started getting a bit serious about my acting career.

To me, Theatre is life. It focuses on ourselves and the world around us…We get to embrace a different part of ourselves. As an actor you’ll learn various problem solving and creative ideas that will flow through your mind. Theatre will lead you to think outside of the box and change your perspective as a person on a whole different level.” 

– Lloyd Matthieu Caday

Finding an outlet for your passion is so, incredibly important, and I’m glad that these students are supported in their future pursuits – whether a new, general plan to pursue the arts, or the decision to move across the country and study at a top school. 

I wish I’d started my theatre career earlier, I wish there’d been resources like SSIP when I was growing up. But I didn’t, and there wasn’t – at least none I took advantage of – so I can’t look to the past; only to a future of artists from all walks of life who started their careers at age 2, or 20, or 40. What matters is that they are creating and learning together. 

Finally, I asked the students to give advice to their classmates; what to do if they want to pursue theatre.

“Take any opportunity you can no matter how large or small, you can learn from everything you do in this line of work.” – Carter Debusschere

“Just audition, you won’t regret it. It will change your life for the better. You will never know what you're missing out on until you experience it yourself.  You don't have to be perfect to be part of a theatre show. Learning is the best part of the process.” – Victoria Clark

“The Theatre process/life is hard. It’ll constantly pull you down…but never let it get to you. In fact take those constant pull downs as an advantage…Practice every day. Practice makes perfect; fake it ‘till you make it, and never give up on learning.”

My advice is this: if you’re interested in theatre, go after it. Take in the resources available to you. Ask questions and never stop learning. If you’re in high school and you just think theatre is fun, take it all in. You never know where your life may lead you so be ready for it.

Photo: Interlochen Center for the Arts

Relationships with Your Character: Keeping it Fresh

Vicki Trask 

  • OnStage Canada Columnist

This story is about how I tried to keep things fresh when my relationship fell a little flat. That is: my relationship with my character. I’d been living with this creature for about four months before opening night and it took a lot of struggle to get to know her. She was larger than life and demanded every hour of attention but getting into those layers took work. By opening night I was exhausted but satisfied at the performance I was able to give. We were two peas in a pod, completely in love.

Long story short, due to popularity, the show got extended to twice the original run. What started as a standard, scheduled run suddenly became double; double the work, double the time with my character, double the pressure to create the same performance over and over again. 

Once the new run began, I was understandably excited to take the show and character to new heights. It was like the idea of a second first date: rediscovering what you love about each other, excited to just spend time together. But after the first week, I realized something wasn’t right. Jokes weren’t landing the same way, movement wasn’t fluid, it was just familiar – like we’d been on this date before. I was bored, no, I was too rehearsed. We’d spent so much time together, it meant an eventual lull in the relationship which I wasn’t expecting. After being with this character for months, nothing about her surprised me.

The quest then became how to make it new and fresh again. It wasn’t enough to do it all over again, I had to be proactive. I had to get that nervous energy back; that jittery excitement that comes from stepping on stage for the first time. 

The first step was to go back to the script. I found I had written out so many intentions, inflections, and beats that completely went out the window once I moved into the theatre. It was fascinating and humorous to see how far I’d come – for better or for worse – and the first thing I did was look at the intentions behind what I was saying and doing. Whether or not it made a difference in my performance, I suddenly became aware of the choices I was making. 

Step two was to move around. It’s one thing to think about what I’m doing, it’s another to just do. My character was very physical so I spent an afternoon – and I recommend this as a good exercise – just walking and exploring space through her skin. It involved a lot of crawling around and hip movement but at the end of the day it helped my confidence to be aware of every little movement, to feel the energy through my fingertips. Before I went on stage every night, I did one physical thing – one gesture or move – that was quintessential character. It helped me tune out all the backstage antics and focus on the task at hand. For me, it was a figure-eight hip roll. It’s all about the hips.

The third step was to try something new. 

Full disclosure: Never change a cue line or directed movement, but I think the moments in between are fair game. An extra flick of the wrist, emphasizing a different tone, it may fail horribly but at least it’s something. Thinking about the in between moments is an excellent way to keep your mind on your work. 

More often than not, I found myself thinking about something random while on stage; my to-do list, my grocery list, what so-and-so said at work today. I had to put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be attentive. Every day, I looked at the script and worked through the movement and I found something new. I found a different way she might say this line or present this action and it kept me focused on the show which is the number one thing. Focus.

The best advice I think I can give is something that’s been passed around as common knowledge: remember your audience. Even if this is your hundredth performance, the people in those seats are seeing this story unfold for the first time. Do what you have to do to keep it new for you but never forget who’s out there watching the show. Keep your relationship strong; for them

This is NOT Your Year

Vicki Trask

  • OnStage Canada Columnist

This year, after years of being in the ensemble, I was cast in my first leading role. Not only that, it was my dream role. Exciting stuff. All year, I endured friend after friend, good naturedly telling me: “This is your year.” Now, as the season ends, and auditions and callbacks begin for the next year, I find myself wondering what it means. What does it mean to have a year?

Why was this my year? A little while ago I was part of a show that was an enthusiastic success in every sense of the word. Why wasn’t that my year? My very first season where I discovered my love of theatre. Why wasn’t that my year? 

It comes back to that thing we all pretend we don’t talk about or believe in but do because we are actors with inevitable egos: paying your dues. Some – not all – actors have this notion that if you spend enough time in the theatre, and more correctly, spend enough time in the chorus, then you will earn a leading role. 

Now I’ve had this thought myself, even though the voice in my head tells me to stop thinking about it, but the time has come for all of us to grow up. 

Paying your dues is – pardon my French – bullshit. Theatre is not like other careers where if you put in enough time and effort you’ll get a promotion. Theatre, for actors, is one level: performing; being on stage in whatever capacity you’re in. 

I’m stealing this analogy from a director I recently worked with: actors are puzzle pieces. When it comes to casting, directors are trying to make a picture and your piece may fit into that picture. I know there are other factors that go into casting for better or worse, but what it comes down to is whether you work in a particular scenario. Sometimes you work in the ensemble, sometimes you work as a lead, and sometimes you don’t work at all. It has nothing to do with whether you’ve paid your dues.

You don’t have a “year”; you have years of success and making your way in your chosen career – or hobby. 

This isn’t meant in any way to belittle those who are – or have – taken on new and fantastic roles. Please be excited and proud of yourself. This is a wonderful time and a great opportunity to strut your stuff in a grand way. Just don’t think of it as “your year”. 

“Your year” implies that there will never be anything else and that’s just not true. There will always be shows, there will always be opportunities. Take them as they come and try to enjoy every experience.

Photo: CLOC Musical Theatre

 

Why I Hate Callbacks...

Vicki Trask

  • OnStage Canada Columnist

If I’m being honest this article should be called: “Why I Suck at Callbacks” because the process doesn’t suck, it’s about how I handle myself when I’m in that room. 

Now what I’m talking about is those big, group callbacks with hundreds of hopefuls vying for those precious few roles. The kind you see in movies and musicals about twelve hours of grueling dancing, singing, and acting, only to be sent on your way after an hour – or never getting to go up there after twelve hours of sitting around. 

These are the days that separate the professionals from the non-professionals. Because it’s not about training or an equity card, it’s about attitude. 

So. Callback day. I’ll paint you a picture:

One hundred and twenty eight hopefuls, eight hours of callbacks; two hours of dance, one hour of music, a one hour break, and then four hours of sides and solos. The dancing? Not a worry. The singing? Manageable. And then for three hours and fifty-five minutes I waited for my turn to go in there and show what I can do on my own. 

This is the part where I start sucking at callbacks. I’ve come to stop stressing – or stressing less – about what actually happens in the room. Once I’m in front of the panel, what will be will be. I do my best and walk away. It’s the four hours before that I wish I could do over. 

I sat around, talking with my friends, getting more frustrated by the hour that I wasn’t being called. I did exactly what directors tell you not to do: worry because you’re not being used the way you expected – worry that you’ve been forgotten in the chaos. 

You know what I could have been doing for four hours? Keeping my voice and body warm, familiarizing myself with a show I know very little about, practicing the songs we learnt earlier – no matter what materials were provided. Keeping myself involved in the process. 

After finally getting a chance to sing my 16 bars, I walked out of the room feeling content but not satisfied. I wish I had been more focused, and more prepared. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in your head when you have no idea how the day is going to go. 

My only word of caution is this: don’t overprepare. Don’t spend four hours preparing your sides and songs. Make new friends, take some time to keep relaxed. 

The key, I think, is balance: Knowing what you need to do to walk into your callback feeling confident. 

Which is why callbacks suck: they are the best and worst hours you’ll spend in a theatre because that’s when you learn the most about yourself as a performer. I learned that I need to be more focused; not just learn the material but actually work on it. These are free classes and also crucial to defining how my theatre season – or career – will go. The only way to make it through is to be prepared.

Who thought it was a good idea to put so much pressure into four hours?

 

Theatre to See in Calgary

Vicki Trask

  • OnStage Canada Columnist

Back at the end of February I posted about all the community theatre shows that were available in Calgary, Alberta from March to April 2016. Calgary is always producing more exciting and engaging theatre so of course I’m here to give you a rundown of the shows to look forward to between May and June 2016.  

First off, we have Urban Stories presenting I Ain’t So Tough at the Motel Theatre from May 3rd to 14th. Directed by Helen Young, this show tells the story of Jesse, facing her past in the form of a soldier she danced with 50 years ago. Admittedly I don’t know much about this show so I look forward to a new experience.

Next up is Inherit the Wind presented by Simply Theatre from May 20th to 28th at the Pumphouse Theatre. I am perpetually amazed at the quality this company produces so I’m very excited to see what director Dale Hirlehey has in store for us.

This one is a shameless plug on my part. From May 20th to June 4th Storybook Theatre will be presenting Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre. Tickets are scarce for this fairytale classic but it’s shaping up to be a hit (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a part of the cast). 

And then we have Scorpio Theatre presenting Love Song at the Pumphouse Theatre from May 27th to June 4th. This show involves a small group of actors presenting a dark comedy about the power of love in all its forms. Yet another show I’m not familiar with but will stay on the lookout.

Next up is Heathers the Musical by Cappuccino Musical Theatre from June 4th to 18th at Vertigo Theatre. This is a show near and dear to my heart (if you’re not familiar with the story, think Mean Girls with murder) so I will be keeping a close eye on director Carl Bishop and the incredible cast of actors preparing this “Beautiful” show.

Finally, South Pacific, presented by Front Row Centre Players will be playing at the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre from June 10th to 25th. This classic musical promises to be a nonstop ride for Beddington’s last show of the season.

All of these companies will have websites with ticket and location information so be sure to check them out.

Photo: Urban Stories

Thoughts from the Booth

Vicki Trask

I count myself among the many actors who should work backstage at least once but have never taken the opportunity. So when the chance arose to cover for a Follow Spot Operator at the last minute, I ran to the theatre and prepared for the worst.

I know what you’re going to say; “oh, it’s so easy, you’ll be fine.” To that I say “you clearly underestimate my ability to screw up the simplest of tasks.” 

Nevertheless, I climbed those stairs, put on my headset, and jumped right in. Sometimes the Stage Manager’s directions weren’t always clear because there is a very specific language used up in that mythical booth, but it was easy enough to get a handle on who was who and how to handle the equipment. Afterwards, I felt less like a dork for being so excited to work on another show – in even in a small way. 

The show itself was a very energetic one-act musical so as far as first times go, this was a good start. I got to listen to some really fun music and follow princesses and dragons around with a giant ball of light. I found myself amazed at the tiny moments that went wrong and were fixed without anyone visibly breaking a sweat. It sometimes astounds me, the people I get to work with. And suddenly any fear I had about my task was pushed aside in favor of observing, and admiring, and enjoying.

But I’m still the stressed out actor who wants everything to be perfect and therefore worries about following an actor with a spotlight. So as I sat up in the booth and tried not to watch the show, I went through a few different emotions.

Now I present to you: 

Random Thoughts of the Overly-Anxious Actress with No Hand-Eye Coordination Running a Spotlight for the First Time

•    Alright I'm super cool, I've got a headset and everything
•    Wait, who is that?
•    Don't be nervous, you'll shake
•    Headsets are heavy
•    Don't watch the show, don't watch the show
•    Too high
•    Why is everyone so calm, there is a prop on the stage!
•    Oh
•    Stop moving, stop moving
•    It's so hot in here. Why is it so hot?
•    Damn this song is catchy
•    Nope. Mustn't dance
•    Oh, this is easy
•    Oops
•    Crap
•    My legs are so stiff
•    It’s over already?

In all honesty I did enjoy myself and I got to add another skill to my mental resume.

If anything, this only solidified my opinion that actors should work backstage in some capacity at least once in their career – preferably early on. You hear the damndest things and realize how much patience and problem-solving goes on behind the scenes. 

I need to thank my stage manager more often. And my assistant stage managers. And my running crew. And my spot ops – just generally all the awesome people who work backstage. I have friends who will never let me forget that for the two hours I’m in rehearsal, they’re spending six making sure everything runs smoothly. But sometimes it does bear repeating. 

Be kind, be smart, and maybe don’t worry so much when you’re thrust into an unknown situation. Worrying definitely makes it harder.

Theatre To See In Calgary

Vicki Trask

The number one thing I hear from my non-theatre friends is “I didn't know that was happening.” My solution is simple: I'm writing this for everyone who says they want to support their local theatre but just don't know where to look. These are my recommendations for community theatre productions that are happening in Calgary, Alberta from March to April. By no means are these the only shows going on in the next two months so if you keep exploring, so will I. Ready?

Photo: She Kills Monsters by Simply Theatre

Photo: She Kills Monsters by Simply Theatre

First up is She Kills Monsters by Simply Theatre, running from February 26th to March 5th. Presented at Pumphouse Theatre, this dramedy tells the story of Agnes Evans on a quest to learn more about her recently deceased sister through a Dungeons and Dragons notebook. With a cast of truly talented actors and a kickass director, She Kills Monsters will undoubtedly be an edge-of-your-seat performance, provided no one loses their sword.

And just next door is Proof, presented by Workshop Theatre from March 4th to 12th. This family drama follows Catherine in the wake of her father’s death as she goes through his things and discovers the thin line between genius and madness. You can catch David Auburn’s drama across the hall from She Kills Monsters at the Pumphouse Theatre.

Although this isn't a full blown production, the Front Row Centre Announcement Gala: “It's Good to Be Bad” always promises to be an evening of entertainment. This year, the Front Row Centre Players are announcing their upcoming season on March 12th at the Mamdani Opera Centre. With performances by award-winning actors - and a pretty awesome performance featuring yours truly - if you want to get a jump start on the 2016/2017 season, this is the place to be.

Following the gala, FRC will be presenting Catch Me If You Can at the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre from March 25th to April 9th. Based on the hit film of the same name, and featuring some stellar talent on both sides of the table, this show is a must-see in the coming months.

If you've got kids, nieces, nephews, or cousins you need to entertain, then Goodnight Moon is definitely a show to check out. Presented by Storybook Theatre from April 22nd to May 7th, this tale draws inspiration from the classic children's book to delight kids of all ages at the Beddington Heights Community Arts Centre. Don't Miss Out. Storybook has a reputation for selling out fast.

Last but certainly not least, Sullivan and Gilbert hits the Pumphouse Theatre from April 29th to May 14th. Morpheus Theatre loves the G&S musicals so it comes as no surprise that they would choose the jukebox musical that looks at the famous composers in a fictional 1890s England. If you're a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan or just want a taste of their music, this is your show.

All of these companies have their own websites where tickets are available but don't wait too long to pick your date. These shows are not to be missed.