Every June when I was younger, the same commercial for a summer learning program would appear on my TV. It featured a little boy who, over the course of his summer vacation, forgot almost everything he’d learned the previous year.
As aggravated as I was at the time about the implication that kids don’t deserve a break from school, I’ve since come to appreciate the grain of reality behind the commercial’s message: when we’re not keeping up good learning habits, we run the risk of stalling our progress. Unfortunately, the same holds true for performers-- if we’re not actively maintaining our skills, chances are that they’re going to be more than a little rusty the next time we try to use them.
During August, many young performers like yourself are facing a gap in their annual cycle of productions. Summer intensives are coming to an end, and the earliest fall programs don’t typically begin until September. While you should absolutely embrace this break and enjoy your free time, you also don’t have to stop your artistic pursuits cold-turkey. Take advantage of your newfound free time and use the following tips to ensure that you hit the ground running this fall.
Set goals for yourself-- and follow through.
Whether you’ve always wanted to learn how to tap or have recently felt your belting could use some work, now is the time to invest in some new skills. Decide where you want to go, and then make a plan for how to get there: schedule time into each week for practice, write down resources you can use for support, and then determine the steps you need to take to get where you want to be (a little research will probably help). At the end of this process, you’ll have built a masterclass that is tailored exactly to your hopes and needs.
Like with most things in life, this process is about managing expectations. To be honest, there’s only so much that you can improve over the course of a month, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re not doing Corbin Bleu-level pullbacks by your first day of classes this fall. With that said, you’ll be amazed at how much progress you can make if you engage in dedicated, focused practice. As you go, remember to be proud of how far you’ve come, and not disappointed that you didn’t get farther. Success is a process, not a result.
Become a focused, self-aware performer.
People say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, but committing time isn’t the only thing necessary for success. In order to ensure that you are actively improving, it’s essential that you become a concentrated, self-aware practitioner of your craft. This means knowing yourself and your habits well enough that you can spot issues and adjust even when no one is watching.
This month, work towards your goal, or re-evaluate older material from your book, to make sure that your delivery is as healthy and effective as possible. Keep in mind notes that you regularly receive-- not adequately supporting, speaking too fast, not planting your feet-- and make a point of checking in frequently to see if you’re falling into those habits. Having trouble identifying these issues? Try performing in front of a mirror, or filming yourself and then watching the footage from the perspective of a director giving notes.
It’s possible that watching yourself on camera might make you self-conscious, or that becoming aware of your idiosyncrasies and having to work to adjust them might be frustrating. I promise, those feelings are totally normal-- they’re something all performers have to address at some point in their career. Try as best as you can to keep a positive attitude; getting acquainted with yourself is difficult, but it will make you a stronger, healthier, more versatile performer. Working through this process now, when you don’t have an audition or performance looming over you, will help you clean up your material and establish good habits that will stick even when you get busy again.
Be your own producer.
If practicing for the sake of practicing just isn’t motivating for you, then set up a venue for you to show off all your hard work. It doesn’t need to be fancy-- just pick an evening, set up some chairs in your living room, and invite your friends and family over for a night of scenes and songs.
The beauty of an event like this is that it can be as involved or laid back as you want it to be. Schedule some rehearsals with your friends so you can all present pieces around a central theme, or just have people show up the night of with something they want to share. You can have an MC and programs, string lights and snacks, or just have people take turns performing. If you’re a writer or composer, nights like these are also an excellent time to showcase any new work that you’ve created in a stress-free and supportive environment.
Putting together a production may not be as glamorous as actually being onstage, but it’s an incredibly useful skill that will serve you well in college and beyond. Your friends will likely be excited to participate and showcase their own work-- and who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new love for producing and directing.
Watch, listen to, and read everything you can get your hands on.
This suggestion may seem like a bit of a digression from the other ideas mentioned above, but trust me when I tell you that informed performers are successful performers.
Expanding your horizons by listening to cast albums, watching filmed performances, and reading scripts and theatrical analysis is beneficial in so many ways. For one thing, it will help you find audition material that hasn’t been used to death. For another, it will allow you to develop a deeper understanding of productions that you see or are a part of-- for example, the story of Rent becomes so much richer when you understand its interactions with Puccini’s La Boème.
On a more fundamental level, though, exposing yourself to new types of content will give you a better appreciation for the types of work you are interested in, and for what theater can be more generally. Think Greek tragedy is out of touch? Read some Ellen McLaughlin and Charles Mee. Sick of seeing the same types of plays and structures over and over again? Check out Caryl Churchill or Martin Crimp. Wish you could find work that represents your specific identities? Fall in love with Wole Soyinka, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. Check out Great Performances on PBS, stop by your local community theater, find cast albums at the library-- whatever system works best for you. There are so many different types of theater; exposing yourself to more than the shows your program is able to put up will allow you to be more informed about what type of work is exciting to you.
Summer is a time for relaxing, but it’s also a time for reflection. Before the start of this new school year, take the time to think about what sort of performer you want to be, and take concrete steps to point yourself in that direction-- you, and your future directors, will notice the results.