A Professor’s Guide to a Better (Theatre) World

  • Matthew Teague Miller

Ten keys to becoming a strong member of and contributor to the theatre community

1) If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

Theatre is a living, breathing thing and history has proven that the need to evolve drives our ability to survive.  Commitment to personal growth and improvement is an obligation to our craft and our industry.  The minute that we think that we know all that there is to know, we have fallen behind.  The moment that we think we have gotten as strong as we are going to get, we have grown a bit weaker.  As artists it is our responsibility to be fueled by the growth-mindset, so that we are constantly looking for ways to improve, ways to innovate and ways to grow.

2) Never get the same note twice.

Every time a director stops to write down a note, they are missing a section of the play or focusing their energy on your performance or design rather than the rest of the company’s.  Thus, when a director gives you a note multiple times other collaborators are missing their opportunity to receive valuable feedback.  Directors will understandably get frustrated when they have to give the same note multiple times and sometimes it is even interpreted as a sign of disrespect.  Do you want to be seen as a strong member of the theatre community? Take a note the first time it is given.

3) Leave the drama on the stage and allow other people to define their own character.

There are some people who are more comfortable when things are uncomfortable and seek out drama, gossip and negativity.  Sometimes, people are so drawn to drama they create it, and even pour gasoline on other people’s fires.  Sometimes, it is created by criticizing other people’s choices.  Focus on your own character and strive to be the best version of yourself that you can be.

4) Know your job and do it without telling others how to do theirs.

Leave “giving notes” to the directors and stage managers.  Directors, inspire your team with concepts, ideas and conversations… let them do the actual designing.

5) We are on the same team and you are not the umpire.  

It seems we are living in one of the most divided times in our cultural history.  But in theatre we are all on the same team, working tirelessly on an art that we love and hungry to share with others.  Theatre companies in the same area are not in competition with one another but rather working with one another to cultivate an active theatre-going community.  Theatre students at the same school should not think of other students as competition, but rather as other people who they can learn from.  In the theatre community, we are all on the same team and in each mini-theatre community it is especially important to prop each other up rather than try to tear each other down.  There are enough competing factors trying to destroy the theatre (competing “free” entertainment, cuts in our donor bases and a general decrease in interest in our craft).  We don’t need to add to our uphill battle by compounding the negativity ourselves.  Let’s let other people judge as opposed to judging each other.

6) Always say “thank you” and when people ask for help...show up.

Actors, when a wardrobe person helps you with a quick change say “thank you.”  When a crew member pages a curtain, thank them, too.  Directors, when a designer brings in a great idea, a “thanks” is in order.  Yes, we all have jobs and expectations in the theatre, but that doesn’t mean that a good old-fashioned “thank you” doesn’t feel good when you are busting your hump.  Also, union rules notwithstanding, if your collaborator and teammate puts out a desperate call for a last-minute paint session because they have fallen behind, be there to help.  If someone needs help with a scene change, be the first person to volunteer.  People who say “thank you” and help when others are in need are the bedrock of the theatre community.

7) Being early is actually “on time.”

This is not an expression I can take credit for (and I don’t know how to site my source).  If a production meeting is scheduled to start at 1 PM, that is when it starts.  Not when you have finished filling up your coffee, gotten out your script or finished updating the app on your phone.  If choreography rehearsal starts at 10 AM, that is not when the “warm up” begins.  Do not waste other people’s time by asking them to wait for you to get ready.

8) Be the most positive energy in the room and have the courage to stand-up to toxicity.

The world is steeped in toxicity.  Do you want to be a strong contributor to the theatre community?  Walk in to every conversation with the goal of being positive.  Be kind to the people with whom you interact.  Be the person who learns other people’s names and say “hi” and wave when you see them.  Contribute to the theatre community by having an open heart.  Even more difficult, when you are faced with someone who is being negative or talking-trash about people not in the room, have the strength to speak up.  Tell them, “I’m not comfortable with what you are saying.”  Or at the very least, walk away.  The time to stand-up to bullies and stop the bad-mouthing is now. 

9) Run towards the fear, not away from it.

If a creative project scares you, it is exactly the creative project you should accept.  One way to have the growth-mindset and be committed to constant improvement is by taking on the creative project that frightens you the most.

10) The theatre is a safe place where all are welcome.

This is it, I am throwing down the gauntlet.  The Theatre is, and always has been, a place where everyone is welcome.  It does not matter your race, sexuality, religion, gender-identity, gender-expression, age, education, disability or any other matter… you are welcome in our community.  The only people who are not welcome are those who make others feel unwelcome.  We are one family/one tribe, and anyone who makes others feel unsafe in our house will be asked to leave.  To do good work, we need a safe non-judgmental space.  Regardless of bad breakups or missteps.  Regardless of who you plan on voting for in the next election.  Theaters are places of love.  Sometimes we fight.  Sometimes we disagree.  But we are allowed to apologize and move forward as one. 

We may challenge our audiences and, God forbid, even do bad work from time to time, but we give each other the benefit of the doubt and heal.  We embrace the things that make us different because it is those differences that provide us with the perspectives to tell incredible stories and touch our audience’s hearts.