Sorry Theater Kids, It's Time to Start Working Out

Dock Street Theatre

Dock Street Theatre

  • Abby Lass

If you’re a theater kid, chances are that either you or someone you know has, at one point or another, made a joke about how nonathletic you are. Theater kids have long lived under the assumption-- self-imposed or otherwise-- that physical strength, stamina, and coordination have nothing to do with being a performer, and that many people who identify as performers simply don’t have those skills.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to many of you when I tell you that this assumption is simply not true. Whether you love performing in musicals or straight plays or ballets, so much of what we do requires more than a little athleticism. From dance breaks to stage combat sequences to simply running the same scene over and over and over again until everything looks just right, being a performer requires a lot more energy and endurance than people give us credit for.

So, say it with me, everybody: theater kids are athletes. We are physically and mentally strong, and we have the capacity to exhibit grace, tenacity, and grit-- and don’t you forget it.

Now, as exciting as this awakening may be, it also comes with a daunting imperative: we, as theater kids who are athletes, need to start working out.

Stick with me here. If you’re anything like me, you’ve likely been a part of productions where you’ve come out of the rehearsal process a lot stronger and more nimble than when you started. Our gains may not look like those of bodybuilders and Instagram models, but they are no less significant: being able to sing and dance your heart out in four back-to-back numbers without leaving the stage or breaking character takes incredible determination; learning to swing a broadsword safely and consistently, or even supporting yourself healthfully while playing a character with a distinctive physicality, is worthy of praise. Unfortunately, too many of us don’t start building up our strength until after we get cast, and once the process ends, we too often slip back into our everyday habits.

The “get there eventually model” may seem perfectly reasonable from an actor’s perspective, but it can make you look like a risky choice to a director. After all, which makes more sense: casting someone you know can dive right into combat and choreography on day one, or casting someone who is going to have to spend half the rehearsal process building up the stamina to deliver a reliable and entertaining performance? While some rehearsal processes do allow the time for you to build up your endurance as necessary, being able to show directors that you have the energy from the get-go will absolutely set you ahead of the pack.

So, if we’re going to try and consistently maintain a minimum level of athleticism, we need to start with the basics: finding a workout that makes sense for us. There are people out there who love nothing more than running five miles a day and bench pressing for hours on end, and then there are those of us who would consider that torture. If deadlifts and wind sprints don’t sound like a pleasant way for you to spend an evening, then don’t try and force yourself to do it. Too many of us have learned to hate working out because we’ve been trying to make ourselves do it in a way that we find boring, unmotivating, or painful.

In order to avoid making yourself miserable, it’s essential that you determine the types of workouts that you enjoy. For my fellow performers, I would encourage something choreography-focused-- think Jazzercise, Zumba, Kickboxing, and Pound. Activities like these are high-energy and aerobic; they have the fun of a dance rehearsal without the stress of achieving perfect form or getting all the steps right. Classes like these are more likely to include the parts of theater that you already love, and as a result, will feel more like a performance than a chore. Best of all, classes like these have the added benefit of training your mind along with your body.

I’ve been talking a lot about physical stamina, but mental stamina is just as essential for an efficient rehearsal process and a successful performance. As performers, we’re asked not only to take in huge amounts of information very quickly but to be able to rapidly and flawlessly reproduce it, as well. For many of us, this is why dance calls feel like a nightmare-- we’d be able to pick up the steps if only we were given more time.

Luckily, exercise classes like these can also help you become more confident and comfortable in your ability to replicate moves efficiently. Most of these classes follow a similar structure: they’ll spend a few eight-counts going through moves slowly, and then will gradually speed up the pace as you get more comfortable. They are specifically structured so that you can learn and then reproduce the moves at a fast pace-- almost like a more forgiving dance call. Classes like these can help you not only increase your physical endurance, but they will help you get a better sense of how to maximize your muscle memory and will hopefully leave you feeling more confident in your ability to pick up choreography rapidly. That new self-assurance, mixed with newfound stamina, will ease any audition and rehearsal process and will help make you a more versatile performer.

Not a fan of gyms? Never fear. There are so, so, so many awesome Youtube videos and channels that will give you the benefits of a workout class without having to pay for a gym membership or deal with the awkwardness of a gym environment. Do yourself a favor and spend some time figuring out which online resources best fit your interests and abilities; soon you’ll be able to work out as awkwardly or crazily as you want, all from the comfort of your own home.

Of course, workouts like these will only give you results if you commit to consistency. Setting specific goals can be difficult-- especially when it comes to classes that are not necessarily based around distances and weights-- but it’s crucial that you find ways to keep yourself motivated if you truly want to build up your stamina and confidence. Consciously make an effort to reserve time to exercise when planning your week so that it doesn’t become an afterthought. Get your friends involved, too-- if only to remind yourself that having fun is just as important as getting stronger. The theater is a team sport, and suffering through a workout can be a powerful bonding experience.

While I definitely believe that exercise can benefit all of us theater kids, I want to be clear: the endgame here is to establish sustained physical and mental health, both when you’re on and off stage. Your schedule and priorities will fluctuate, and sometimes working out will cause more stress than it’s worth; at times like these, don’t feel guilty for taking a step back. Similarly, pushing yourself too hard or shaming yourself because your body does not look or move a certain way is not conducive to creating that sense of well-being. If working out is making you miserable, try to understand why-- maybe the regimen just isn’t right for you, maybe your expectations of yourself were too high. Whatever it is, take the time to acknowledge your feelings and make choices accordingly.

At the end of the day, what matters most is that you feel confident and strong in your body. There is no single right way to get there, and achieving that sense of security will look different for different people. Be courageous enough to take the leap and try new things, but always remember to listen to your body and do what works best for you.