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Say No to Nodes! Vocal Health on a Hectic Schedule

If you have any experience as a singer, actor, or a performer of nearly any type, you know how difficult it can be to get through rehearsals and shows while maintaining your vocal health.

So what do you do when you’re even busier than normal, or balancing multiple performance opportunities? Whether it’s an eight-show-a-week schedule in a Broadway-caliber play, a tour of a major musical, or overlapping short-term gigs, your vocal health needs to be an even-higher priority when you’re using your voice more often.

Here are 10 tips and tricks to ensure you stay in tip-top vocal shape on the go!

1. Your Voice Is a Body Part—Treat It Like One!
Your voice is more than sounds that comes out of you—it’s a product of careful collaboration between a plethora of body parts. So treat your voice like a body part, and treat your body like it is the physical mechanism of your voice (surprise, it is!). Develop and maintain healthy habits that you can take on-the-go: plan ahead for healthy snack and meal choices. Dress in clothes that are conducive to your practice and travel regimen to avoid overheating/chills (layers and a scarf are a safe bet). Don’t shout! And avoid loud environments that will instinctually make you talk louder.

Photo Credit: Tulane Public Relations via Creative Commons License.
Photo Credit: Tulane Public Relations via Creative Commons License.

2. Learn Proper Technique (for everything).
Ever hear the phrase “fall back on your training?” When you’re tired or sick (which will inevitably happen at some point in your career), a solid foundation of training will prove invaluable for both your vocal quality and confidence. By training healthfully in a variety of styles, you can confidently navigate any type of sound needed in any show without worrying about how being tired or under the weather might impact your sound.

3. Don’t stress!
Some stress can be good for us–but when stress starts to impact your body, mind, and voice, it can be a real problem. Stress on the vocal mechanisms themselves can lead to injury. Listen to your body, and rest or “mark” if you need to (a great skill worth working on). The stress of our minds (“I’ve never hit this note perfectly” or “How am I going to integrate all the director’s notes?”) can manifest in physical tension, including vocal tension. Even in a hectic schedule, make time to acknowledge these worries and allot time for practice and positive thinking.

4. Don’t Sing Sick!
No one expects an athlete to perform while sick or injured! If you are very sick or have a vocal injury (or an injury that impacts your singing, particularly anything in the chest or abdomen), don’t push to “sing through it.” If you can’t avoid it, work with a doctor or otolaryngologist (ear-nose-throat doctor) to make sure you can do so while maintaining vocal and physical health. Remember–your voice will last you your entire career if you take care of it. Don’t risk a lifetime of singing (and speaking healthfully!) for one opportunity.

Photo Credit: COM SALUD
Photo Credit: COM SALUD via Creative Commons License.

5. Avoid Making Long-Term -Bad-Habits Out of Short-Term Bad Circumstances.
As singers, we often work with teachers or directors who will make strong-handed or impossible demands of us and our voices. Recognize the difference between opportunities to grow and learn (which can make us uncomfortable, but can still be healthy) and being asked to create sound or perform in an unhealthy manner. As singers, we will often bend to produce what is asked of us; don’t make a habit of pushing too hard or straining beyond what is healthy just because someone applauded you for it.

6. Find Warm-Ups in Your Projects.
When facing a hectic schedule, you may not have time for your full warm-up or vocal exercise regimen. Look through the music you’re working on at any given time and find parts of the work that might make good warm-ups. Start with something comfortable, in your range, that you enjoy singing. Then find opportunities to stretch the voice like an athlete warms up their muscles. Look for passages that cross different “parts” of the voice (chest, head, mix, falsetto, etc.) and that utilize a variety of different vowels or consonants. Try singing passages only on vowels (or on one vowel) or warming up the articulators by over-enunciating lyrics.

7. SLEEP.
This is one of the most useful tips for vocal health anytime, but especially when you’re on the go. Avoid the temptation to let “down time” interfere with sleep. If you find yourself booked every hour, book “relaxation time” and “sleeping time” as a part of your schedule. You may have heard that it takes four hours of sleep for the voice to “reset.” Everyone’s body is different in how much sleep they need, but aim for a good night’s rest to let your voice (and the rest of you) off the hook for a while.

Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil, via Creative Commons License.
Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil, via Creative Commons License.

8. Get Support Staff.
Nothing is worse than trying to build a relationship with a voice doctor or teacher when you already have an injury. Take the time to find a team of experts when you’re healthy. Your team will better be able to work with you having seen and heard you healthy, and often times, being an “existing patient” will help give you more immediate access to medical professionals. These people can be a trusted doctor, voice teacher, musical mentor, or performance coach.

9. Don’t smoke. Anything.
We all know that smoking cigarettes and use of tobacco increases risk of disease. Recent studies have shown that “vaping,” as well as the direct inhalation of any smoke from any source, can have an impact on the body as well. Avoid the temptation to smoke to relax, or hanging out in environments that allow smoking. If you do smoke, talk to your doctor about exploring the many ways you can quit!

10. Find Liquids You Like (and keep drinking them).
While some singers swear by a water-only hydration plan, you may find that switching up liquid tastes or temperatures suits you and your voice. While caffeinated beverages (that act as diuretics) will dehydrate you over time, some singers need that pep (especially on a hectic schedule). Some singers love juices (aim for 100% juice, not sugary cocktail) as the sugars promote salivation and can help with dry-mouth. Some like carbonated beverages, some add lemon (to cut through phlegm) or honey (to lubricate), and some will just drink from the water fountain. Proper hydration is important to keep not only your body performing in tip-top shape, but the swallowing reflex also helps relax throat muscles. Invest in a few favorite water bottles––I like the insulated ones that keep hot things hot and cold things cold for extended periods of time!

As a singer or performer, your voice is not only your business, but your business partner—it gets you jobs, it keeps you in communication with the world, and of course, lets you perform. It’s important to keep your instrument healthy to support not only your performance goals, but also your everyday life.

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road curves

Hard to Say Goodbye: Leaving a Show on Good Terms

Hello, true believers (any of you that get that reference are awesome. And probably my age). As actors, we are taught to be humble and grateful for the work opportunities we are given. Though we will all likely encounter situations where humility and gratitude aren’t the first emotions that come to mind, for the most part, it’s a good idea to stay that way.

There’s no linear path to your career as an actor. You may be a college theatre student, perform in summer stock (Equity or non-Equity), graduate, work in regional theatre, go on tour, book a Broadway show, then lather/rinse/repeat the last three if you’re lucky. Or you may leave college before graduation for a Broadway show. Or you may work on Wall Street with your finance degree and decide at age 40, “Hey, I always liked acting, I think I’ll give that a try.” One person’s experience will not necessarily be someone else’s, a point I try to remember each time I sit down to write.

road curves

When actors are given a contract for most theatre jobs, they usually have finite terms, an “end date.” I would imagine that most contracts are honored by the actor, as work is hard enough to come by. But occasionally, we are lucky enough to have another company offer an opportunity before we have completed the terms of the current employer. Assuming we want to accept the offer, what do we do?

The first step is look at your current contract. What is the “out clause”? An out clause refers to the terms of terminating your employment. Sometimes these are as simple as providing ample notice of your intention to leave, it can be as little as two or four weeks. Be careful though, as there will occasionally be clauses in contracts that prohibit leaving during certain periods of the contract, such as during previews. Many regional theatre contracts are structured in such a way as to severely limit the opportunity for an actor to break their commitment. This may seem a bit unfair, but from a producer’s perspective, you are their choice for the job, and you agreed to the terms of the contract, so replacing you is certainly inconvenient and could possibly diminish the show, i.e., their product.

There are also contracts known as “run of show” agreements, whereupon the actor agrees to perform in the “run of the show” with no specific end date. These may sound restrictive, but can also be quite a benefit to an actor. My recent position as the standby for El Gallo/the Fathers in The Fantasticks was a run of show agreement, I could stay as long as I wanted, provided I was capable of doing the job I was hired to do and a good member of the company (meaning basically, not doing anything stupid to get myself fired).

Let’s say you’ve identified the out clause, and you are within your legal rights to terminate your contract. Now what? This can get sticky, but you have a few options. The first is the direct and professional route. You contact the producer (and you can do this verbally but I would always suggest a written follow-up, so there is a record of what was said) and let them know your intentions. The timing can be flexible, of course it must be per the rules within your contract, but let’s look at this scenario. Let’s say you are doing a show that runs for two more months, but you have an offer that will require you to be gone before the last two weeks. The out clause is four weeks notice. Do you tell the producer as soon as you can, or do you wait for the last legal minute?

nevermind

The answer sadly is, “it depends.” If you have a good relationship with the company and want to give them as much time to prepare as possible, then this is your path. If you have an adversarial relationship with them, and fear potential retaliation (such as, they replace you sooner than you wish, leaving you with a gap in employment), then perhaps you wait until you reach your legal obligation. I’m not advocating or advising this option, but the truth is, the business can be really tough at times, and you may find yourself in this position, so there’s the information.

Now, let’s come back from the dark side of the force…

life is short

Any time you choose to leave a job, be it in theatre or “civilian life,” it’s optimal to leave on the best of terms. Your decision to move on has created more work for your employers and your coworkers, as they will likely have to participate in more rehearsal for your replacement. So try and make this easy on them. If you are being housed, make sure you leave that housing in AT LEAST the condition you found it in, and maybe even a little better. Your replacement may arrive before you leave, welcome them into the company and offer what you can—you may be refused for any number of reasons, but still make the offer.

Finally, remember that although this may be a tough decision and process, these are the kinds of problems you want to have, so don’t be too hard on yourself. At the same time, I wouldn’t make a habit of breaking contracts, whether you are legally capable or not, it’s not the reputation you want. Leaving a show, long-running or otherwise, is one thing, breaking a finite contract is another.

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packed suitcase-feat image

Life on the Road: A Few Thoughts on Touring

If you’re an actor who’s been reading Rob’s wonderful series on National Tours, you’re probably well-primed for getting out there and booking one. Once you have, congratulations! But whether you have five days or five months before you leave, there is a lot to think about.

Having just gotten off the road with my fourth big tour, I have some advice:

Photo Credit: anaa yoo
Photo Credit: anaa yoo

You will not need all those clothes.

Most actors on tour find themselves “trunk-shopping” or “suitcase-shopping,” when they stumble upon a shirt or a dress that’s spent the last four months wadded up hidden in the back, forgotten. On tour, you spend a lot of time in rehearsal or at the gym or traveling, and those clothes do get used a ton. But you do not need sixteen dresses or twelve pairs of pants. NO ONE WILL NOTICE you’re wearing the same thing you did last week. SERIOUSLY. You’ll be sending home a box of extra stuff before you know it, but then you’ll make room for something more essential, to wit:

A Nutribullet can be your best friend.

If you have room in your suitcase or trunk, (which you will, because you won’t overstuff it with clothes) bring something like this. You may not have a fridge and a microwave in every hotel room, but you can pick up ingredients to make protein smoothies without a lot of fuss, and it will save you time, money, and calories to whip up a shake for breakfast or before rehearsal. I also know people who traveled a George Forman grill, or a hot plate and a few pots and pans, but those are a lot easier to blow off. This one gets USED.

Your relationship will survive. Or it won’t.

Being on tour is a very difficult thing for people in relationships with someone at home. Your schedules may be opposite, you may be three time zones apart, you may only be able to schedule one visit in six months, and so on. You both will have to WORK on the relationship, much harder than usual. But it will survive, if it’s meant to. If not – it wasn’t TOUR that broke you up. It was an underlying issue: the demands of your career, fears of infidelity, wanting different things.

So have a frank discussion with your partner before you leave, and understand that both of you need to be extra communicative and considerate of this bizarre situation. And remember, you won’t be on tour forever.

Be wary of showmances.

For those who arrive on tour single and ready to mingle (or those whose relationships really weren’t meant to survive), there are often many opportunities to get a little lovin’ with someone at work. Full disclosure: I know a NUMBER of couples who have gotten married following their showmances!

But you must be very careful. If it does work out, you’re developing a relationship under scrutiny of a hundred pairs of eyes. And if things don’t work out, you have to see this person EVERY SINGLE DAY. A bad break up is not only your problem, it’s the entire company’s problem. If you do embark on an irresistible hookup, do so thoughtfully and with clear boundaries. Understand that tour life is lived under a microscope and is much more intense than “regular” life.

Explore!

Your schedule on tour can be grueling. I can’t tell you how many times we basically had 10-show weeks, with a full understudy run-through and a put-in rehearsal scheduled on top of our regular 8 shows. If you stay up late winding down after the show, and sleep in to get your rest, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for exploring. BUT DO IT ANYWAY. You’ve been given a gift of a paid trip around the country or the world. Make time to find a cool museum or brewery tour or farmer’s market or whale watch trip or baseball game or Buddhist Temple. Those excursions will be the biggest memories you’ll recollect down the line.

At the Sinso-ji Temple in Tokyo. Photo Credit: Annie Edgerton.
At the Sinso-ji Temple in Tokyo. Photo Credit: Annie Edgerton.

The importance of TEAM.

Make no bones about it, touring is HARD. You’re in a different city every week (or more, frequently)! You have to deal with allergies, and horrific travel days, and theatres with six flights of stairs to the dressing room, and the person IN the dressing room who is bugging you, and being away from family and friends, and the list goes on. The ONE thing that makes this all bearable is that you’re on a team of people all going through the same thing. So honor that.

Learn the names of your crew members. (I can’t believe I have to say that, but, sadly, I do.) Respect other people’s boundaries. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Make “dates” for a meal or excursion with someone you don’t know very well. Don’t give in to “bitch sessions.” (While venting is necessary, do it with someone you trust, outside of work, and to get over an issue, not to drag other people into your muck.) Try and stay positive when things go wrong. Your tour family is a family – you’re not going to love everybody, but treat them with respect.

If you lift up those around you, they’ll respond in kind. So help create an environment of TEAM.

Finally…

Get those points!

On many contracts, you are able to receive airline and hotel points, even if the company has paid for the ticket or the room. (Not all, so you’ll have to ask around.) Sign up for ALL those reward programs! When you check in for your flight, ask them to link your number. When you check in to your hotel, ditto. And it’s worth it getting a rewards credit card. There are numerous websites that compare rewards cards, so it’s easy to find one that fits your touring lifestyle.

Touring can be a magical and wonderful experience, whether you’re a replacement in the road company of Wicked, or launching a new tour like Bright Star. Be excited about it! And do what you can to make the most out of your road journey. Break legs!

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Look Ma! I'm a meme!

How to Keep a Long-Running Performance Fresh

I’m sure we all remember it, heck, we might even be living it right now. Those halcyon days of educational theatre, where we spend months rehearsing a show, only to perform it two or three times over the course of a weekend in May. All that preparation, all that work, only to get a couple of cracks at glory.

That’s a reference to a typical high school schedule, where you must work around numerous conflicts and extra-curricular activities. By the time we’re in college, rehearsal schedules tend to clock in at 5 to 6 weeks, and performances tally anywhere from the high single digits to maybe 20 to 24. Hardly enough time to get bored, or the performances to become stale or uninspired. But what happens when we grab that brass ring at last, the long-running contract? It could be a tour, or a Broadway show, even some regional theatres that operate continuous schedules, producing the same show(s) for years on end? We’ve finally been rewarded for all our efforts, and that reward is…to do the same thing 6 nights a week for the next 6 months, even a year, maybe even longer?

A quick glance at my IBDB page might reveal I’m not an expert on this subject (I have a strict rule about the shows I do in New York City—they must be unpopular, even if they are very good).

Look Ma! I'm a meme!
Look Ma! I’m a meme!

But seriously folks, I do know a little bit about this. I’ve logged over 200 performances as Ravenal in Show Boat, heaven knows how many performances of the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde, and I just passed 100 as El Gallo in The Fantasticks. And I’m still going. And these minor feats aren’t even a blip on the radar to someone like Broadway star Howard McGillin, who totaled more than 10,000 performances as that creepy guy in the basement in The Phantom of the Opera.

Now, if that last paragraph of not-so humblebrag didn’t completely turn you off, stick around and let’s talk about how to keep your performances honest and true to the work, while the mileage keeps climbing.

As actors, we have certain responsibilities. We must stay true to the author’s and the director’s vision. We must keep our bodies and spirits in as good a condition as possible, so that we can access our own abilities. We are responsible to our fellow actors, to give them what they need to be successful as well. But how do we do this, when we’ve been doing the same thing, night after night, week after week, month after month? Ah, we have now arrived at one of my favorite theatrical bits of wisdom, one I couldn’t believe more strongly in if it were my own.

Okay it is my own. Don’t judge me.

sincere

As actors in a play, we are all kids in a sandbox on a playground. We can create whatever we want, build what we need, tear it down and start again. If I don’t like what’s happening in the center of the sandbox, I can go check out a corner for a while, and build something there. Maybe a friend will join me. Maybe everyone will come to this corner and we’ll all play together. Or maybe someone will drift to a different part of the sandbox and the whole process will start again. But there’s something none of us are ever allowed to do.

We can’t go play on the slide. Or the swings, or the merry-go-round. We all play in the same sandbox.

Do you follow me? We’re allowed to use different colors, as long as we’re all painting the same picture together. Some actors are comfortable giving the exact, same performance night after night. And that’s fine. Some actors are more comfortable listening and responding, and letting the performance flow more organically. Neither is wrong, both are viable, we just all should be striving for the same goal. Telling the same story, staying true to the direction and the text.

But what about the boredom? Doesn’t it get incredibly monotonous after a while? If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s time to move on to something else. I would argue that the show is never exactly the same from one night to the next. We are all humans, affected by the events of the day, and those events can (and probably should) have some impact on your performance. Sometimes you make the most amazing discoveries from the oddest of circumstance.

Not long ago in The Fantasticks, my fellow actors and I completely fell apart with laughter during one of the scenes (thankfully the scene is supposed to be funny). I can’t even remember what happened, I just know that we started to laugh and couldn’t get it back under control. The audience had a good time with us, and eventually we all got it together and proceeded with the show. The following scene is a simple, lovely monologue that I get to deliver, and I suppose it’s been fine enough. But this one day, after splitting our sides with laughter and tears rolling down our cheeks, I entered the speech practically exhausted. I was unable to do what I normally did, so I just said the words.

And the speech was never better than that one night, when I just got out of the way, and let the words do the work. The show has a handful of fans who see it quite often, and on this day our most loyal fan was there. We spoke after, and had to acknowledge the um…foolishness that happened on stage. But he offered up, the moments found after that were new, vibrant and alive, and I probably wouldn’t have found them otherwise.

So really, it’s not that hard to maintain a performance for a long period of time. Do your best to stay healthy, get along with all your fellow artists, listen and respond. Even if your performance is “by rote,” as long as you don’t shoehorn your work into the path of someone else’s, it can appear as fresh as opening night.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost half hour.

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Makeup

The Skinny on Skin Care for Actors

Photographer: Alexandra Studio ca. 1955
Photographer: Alexandra Studio ca. 1955

 

Skin is our largest organ, and for actors it’s their largest canvas. Unfortunately the canvas can take a real beating after six-week runs of eight-show weeks, months on tour, audition stress, and countless makeup applications.  So here’s the skinny on how to keep your canvas in tip-top shape.

Science of Skin

First, here’s a little scientific talk to help you understand the inner workings of your body’s coolest organ. Skin is composed of three layers, but the epidermis, the outermost layer, is the only one you pay much attention to. The dermis and subcutaneous tissue give your skin the bounce, texture, elasticity and resilience skin is so well know for. The epidermis, however, is responsible for skin’s water resistance.

Water resistance is a key to healthy skin. The combination of humectants (water molecules) and emollients (oil molecules) create the super-strong barrier that keeps bad stuff out and good stuff in. An imbalance of these two molecules is often the beginning of skin problems.

Too Dry

For many actors, cleansing their skin to remove makeup after each performance, or traveling to varying climates, dry skin becomes a real nuisance. The problem escalates if you’re in a production of Shrek or The Lion King, removing large amounts of grease paint or prosthetics.  Here are some of the first things to consider with your skin care regimen.

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda
Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Proper makeup remover: Every variety of makeup has a remover designed for its chemical makeup. Soap will never remove alcohol-based makeup, because surfactants don’t disturb alcohol. Alcohol won’t remove silicone wig adhesive alone, it has to be combined with a bunch of polycarbon chains. Leave the science of these solutions to the pros, at places like Kryolan  for prosthetic and alcohol-based makeup and Lancome for street makeup. Sure, they can be expensive, but so much cheaper than dealing with cracked skin, dermatitis, or really any irritation. Why risk weakening your body’s largest organ?

Rebalancing moisture:  Moisturizer may not be enough. Many moisturizers are heavier in humectants than emollients, meaning they are putting more water and less oil back in your skin. If you’re using makeup that needs alcohol for removal, you’ll want to focus on replenishing oil just as much as water. Try a classic cold cream like the Ponds your grandma uses , or heavy-duty overnight moisturizer.  If your makeup is removed with an oil-based remover—many of the best street and stage makeup removers contain oils to glom onto the oil in the makeup pulling it away from your face—this is less important, just make sure you’ve picked a moisturizer that is hypoallergenic, and your skin will like whether you’re covering your face in makeup or not.

Too Oily

Oily skin can become a problem for anyone whether they have naturally oily skin or not. The key is don’t remove too much oilSebum, the natural oil of our skin, is good. It protects us from all the foreign elements that want to invade our bodies. Sure, it’s shiny and greasy, but it’s important to work with it, not against it.

Choosing the right makeup: If you have oily skin—sheen around the nose, cheeks, and forehead—don’t use a liquid makeup. Cream, mousse, and liquid makeups are heavier in emollients, allowing the pigment to slide along the face with ease. On oily skin these cosmetic oils ball up with your natural oils, causing makeup to run. Stick to powdered or water-based makeups that dry like Kryolan’s Aquacolor.

Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda
Photo Credit: Amy Bobeda

Keep the oil:  Removing excess oil sounds like the right thing to do, but by removing oil, your skin will only produce more. That’s its job! Instead of stripping the oil with tons of toner, remover, blotting papers, etc., try this: In the morning if you have oil deposits in the center of your face—nose, cheeks, forehead, try massaging the oil out to the rest of your face. You don’t want to lose the oil, you just want to redistribute it.

Irritation

Allergic reaction, over drying, and too much exfoliation are all culprits when it come to irritated skin. Here are some quick tips to keep skin calm onstage and off.

Create a barrier: If your natural barrier isn’t enough, try a barrier cream  under your makeup. This invisible glove will keep your skin’s chemistry balanced, and keep makeup on your face. It’s well worth the extra cost and step.

Identify the cause: When irritation arrises, consider all the causes. Everything your skin is exposed to is a chemical compound, which reacts to other chemical compounds, so usually the problem isn’t just between the makeup and your face. Did you switch laundry detergents? How about daily face wash? Are you over exfoliating? Have you neglected SPF on your day off and have a mild burn? Any and all of these factors can lead to irritation.

Give things a break: On your day off, simplify your routine. Use a gentle cleanser, preferably a cleansing milk (they have fewer drying surfactants). Moisturize with SPF. Don’t poke and prod your face. Don’t tone it, or exfoliate. Just let it try to rebalance its natural homeostasis.

When in doubt, consult a pro. Whether it’s a dermatologist, your go-to theatrical makeup company, or your theater’s makeup supervisor, there’s a good chance someone will have a clue when it comes to keeping your integumentary system in tip-top shape, and you looking your best. Just don’t forget, it’s the only skin you’ll ever be in, so be gentle, it will thank you in the short and the long run.

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