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I Left My Heart in Summer Stock

I learned the greatest life lessons in summer stock theater. For five summers, deep in the redwoods, I bounced between the costume shop, wig shop, and backstage running two to three exhilarating shows a season. It tested my patience, challenged my body, and carved a hole in my heart no theater has been able to fill. I’m a better artist because of it, and a better person too.

Lessons in Patience

Summer stock tends to ask artists for immediate results. Time tables are tight; budgets are even tighter. The notion to rush is instilled on day one. But instead—pause, breathe. Good work takes time; fast work is not good, so find your middle ground. There is only one summer of these shows, these people, and (in my case) these costumes. Don’t rush through the moments just because time isn’t on your side. Be patient, the shows will open, and close long before you are ready. Don’t waste time. Take it all in, and know that whatever lesson the summer will teach you may not be apparent right away.

Photo via Good Free Photos
Photo via Good Free Photos

A Different Type of Design

I love repertory theatre, almost as much as I love outdoor theatre. It challenges the brain and body of actors and designers in a whole new way. Costumes are designed for the elements, long underwear becomes commonplace for cold nights, and outdoor-friendly shoes are your only design option. Clothing must read as regular and regal under the hot summer sun and evening stage lights. Scenic elements are designed for easy change-overs or usability in more than one production. Wigs and facial hair play a crucial role, helping actors transition from one Shakespeare role to another. All elements must stand alone as special, without overshadowing performances. Design is smarter, more versatile, and simple: the audience imagines the rest.

While actors frequently rehearse or learn lines for more than one show at a time, repertory theatre asked them to switch gears multiple times a day. While I’ve carried multiple backstage tracks in my head, for summer stock wardrobe crew, I cannot imagine the challenge of playing Iago in the afternoon and Puck in the evening. Factor in major temperature changes between shows, bugs, and seasonal allergies and outdoor theater becomes an Olympic event for actors.

Listening to Your Body

Whether you’re an intern, actor, or designer, summer stock can wreak havoc on your body. Hours on end sewing, building scenery, running crew, or rehearsing epic swordplay for The Three Musketeers challenges bodies in a way they aren’t used to. Eight shows a week feels like sixteen with morning rehearsals, evening shows, and post-show parties. Opportunities for rest are few and far between, and the fear of missing out can overshadow your body’s needs. Summer won’t last forever, and that’s a hard concept to manage. Just remember, summer stock is one of the many theatrical journeys you’ll enjoy in a career; make it count, but don’t forget to put yourself first.

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Matters of the Heart

My first day of my first season, the artistic director told the story of a couple who met years prior at that very theater. They had returned, still in love, still in theatre. This was the dream. But, what I didn’t know, is that summer stock is summer camp for adults. There are summer loves, but often that’s all they are—a fling under the starlight inspired by the romanticism of  Romeo and Juliet and the constant pressure of summer’s end is right around the corner. Years of this tested my heart. There was so much love to give, and love to receive in so little time. I grew to know I value the people over the art any day—the plays were just the vehicle that brought us together. I learned my love of the industry isn’t the work in costumes or hair, it’s the opportunity to interact with like minds as willing the open their hearts as I was.

No Task Is Too Large, No Task Is Too Small

When it comes to the truncated time and team spirit, summer stock taught me no task is beyond my reach. Whether it was simple swing tacks on costumes, crafting turbans for the first time, or helping the prop shop rig a dagger on a belt, I ended each summer with a handful of new skills, and practiced skills I’d nearly forgotten. There is no such thing as projects above or below a “pay grade,” instilling the humbling notion that I am valuable as an individual, but more importantly, I’m a part of the team.

My summers of outdoor theatre fueled my career faster than any class, seminar, or resume credit. I developed a breadth of skills in design, aesthetics, construction, hair, and makeup that I wouldn’t have experienced in college alone. But, most importantly it filled me heart with love and appreciation for every person and every step of the production process.

 

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YOUR MISSION

No Summer Gig…No Big Deal

When last we met, I was extolling the virtues of summer stock theatre, that magical place where you build your skills as a performer, meet fascinating (and not-so fascinating) people, and try very hard not to embarrass yourself at the closing night party. But what if you’re not doing stock, what if you’re in the City (or elsewhere) for the summer, not necessarily performing?

Time is gift given lightly and rarely appreciated. We (humans) are one of the few creatures on the planet with a system for measuring time, both spent wisely and wasted. We always think there’s more time, that the sun will rise tomorrow no matter what we do today, so why worry about how much we get done in a day? Procrastination is the enemy my friend, and while I don’t live my life by the clock, I’ve learned to recognize when time has been gifted to me, and how valuable it can be.

So you’re not doing stock. Maybe you were too afraid to audition, maybe it doesn’t pay enough to support your basic needs in life, maybe every summer theatre was doing The King and I and A Chorus Line, and you’re basically a Gordon MacRae clone (look him up, kids) and there is no job for you to have. Or maybe you chose to stay where you are and pursue other avenues. Stock is great, but there’s more to being an actor than chasing a job. There is more, right? Guys? Anybody?

Maybe I’m optimistic, but this time is a gift. This post is certainly NYC-centric, but I encourage you to apply it to wherever you are.

The first and most obvious answer to “What do I do with all this time?” is STUDY. There are acting classes, dance classes, voice, yoga, personal training—all tied directly to the care and well-being of the actor’s instrument. So care for it! Years ago I was in a seminar with a now-retired agent who gave this plain, simple advice:

If there’s something you don’t like about yourself, change it. Need to lose ten pounds?  Need to gain it? Always wanted to be a blonde? Do you wish you were a better dancer?

Is it time for an acting class? Whatever it is that you feel is holding you back, you probably can change it. The only thing you’re really stuck with is your height.”

I’ll admit, the Frankenstein in me sunk a little at that last part.

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We currently live in a “love yourself” society, a society of “I am enough just as I am.” And believe me I am all for that, but you have to carry a bit of realism with you on that journey. Yes, you are enough sir, but if you want to play Superman in the next big summer blockbuster, you probably want to put down that donut. One of my favorite things to say to clients (in the personal training world) is this: June will eventually be September. Should we spend that time pursuing our goals, or spinning our wheels?

So study. Exercise. CARE for yourself; we forget that so easily. If you can’t afford certain classes or feel that what is offered currently isn’t for you, then read plays, movie scripts, great novels, whatever. Sing in your shower, dance in your living room. See movies—not just the blockbusters in the theatre, but the greats. Citizen Kane is typically hailed as one of the greatest films of all time. Ever wonder why? Maybe you should see it. And Casablanca, All About Eve, East of Eden, The Dirty Dozen. The word study has a wide, wide interpretation.

YOUR MISSION

CHALLENGE YOUR FRIENDS!

Form a group of peers…some kind of…peer group (I really hate myself sometimes). Meet once a month, bring your monologue or song you’ve always wanted to try, enlist the help of some better dancers to fix the hitch in your time step. (Is it obvious I can’t dance? I think so) Get everyone together and read a play aloud. Find ten friends and have a “great movie” party, then order pizza and talk about it!

In my early years in New York City I organized such a group, cleverly called…The Audition Group. We met once a month. I lived in a building in Manhattan that contained a studio with a baby grand piano, and I could reserve this room basically at my leisure. I would grab an accompanist friend (several, over the course of the year), and nine of my actor friends and I would each pay them $15 dollars to play for us for three hours. Our piano-playing pal would make $150 bucks for the night, and we would do our audition pieces for the group, and take suggestions, criticisms and occasionally even praise. It’s a great way to get your material up to snuff before you sign up for that casting director’s workshop.

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GO SEE STUFF!!

Do you have any idea how much free theatre there is in this city? Go to your magic Google machine and type in “Free theatre in NYC.” Seventeen million results come up. There are numerous free Shakespeare companies in the city, not just the really popular one in the park. Summer is the home season of the New York Musical Festival, The Fringe Festival, The Midtown International Festival for Crocodiles (okay I made that one up), but you get the idea. Not all of it is free but a vast majority is either free or super-cheap. And of course, some of it is…let’s say, variable in quality. But there’s always something to be learned.

And if you’re not already doing this, start playing the Broadway Lotteries. Hey, someone’s gotta win.

WORK. This one may not sound like much fun, but you might as well make some money. Summertime is big for the restaurant business, and if you’re a waiter it can be big for you too. Pick up the extra shifts, stash that money away so that you can breathe a little easier when you have to give your own shifts away just to make it through the Fall auditions.

PLAY. All this focus can wear anyone out. Sign up for a bowling or a softball league, go on dates, visit your family, go lie in Central Park and stare at the sky (not while it’s raining).

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New York is amazing in the summertime, people are out and about, sometimes they’re even happy. You see families having picnics, children playing in playgrounds, tourists staring at a billboard while we loyal residents silently curse their very existence…it really is a magical place.

Most of all, BREATHE. It doesn’t always feel like it, but we are lucky, lucky humans. Recharge your batteries, your spirit. You’re going to need them.

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red barn

An Ode to Summer Stock

What a feeling! You get that call on your cell phone (back in my day, we had answering services and we liked them…cough, cough, shakes fist at sky…), and you’ve got a job for the summer doing theatre. Someone is ACTUALLY PAYING you to do theatre! What a rush! What a high!

What the hell do you do now?

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This isn’t a nuts and bolts article about subletting your apartment and forwarding your mail, this is more of a “What to expect when you’re expecting to do summer stock” piece. First of all, for the uninitiated, what is summer stock? Stock theatre companies perform several shows over the course of…the summer (I hate myself sometimes). You learn a show, tech it, open it, and the day after you open, you rehearse the next one, while performing the previous one at night. So you are constantly working, either rehearsing, performing, sometimes helping with the stagecraft of it all, maybe even ushering or selling raffle tickets—you can literally do almost anything while you are employed as an “actor” in a summer stock company.  

I mean no disrespect by using quotation marks around our beloved profession, it’s just that we often aren’t asked to do anything other than act. Certainly if you are a union member, you perform, and that’s all that can be required of you. But if you are young and new to the business, there’s nothing wrong with learning as much as you can about what it takes to really run a theatre company. You should know how to hang a light, paint a flat, manage a box office, empty the garbage, press some laundry—these are good life skills! Don’t bemoan them too much if they fall your way; learn from them and take these skills with you wherever you go. And of course you develop such an appreciation for the design team, the tech crew, the management staff, all the people who share the same goal as you—producing the highest-quality theatre you can.

So—what to expect. Let’s start with your arrival at the company. Generally speaking, housing is provided for you, but if you are a non-union actor (and we all were at some point) your living conditions may be…less than ideal. You could (uh, will) have a roommate; you may have two, or even three. You will be sharing a bathroom with a lot of people, which will cause you to wake at ungodly hours of the morning to ensure you have hot water for your shower, or you will make the choice to share your smell with your new friends. If it’s a non-union company, you probably won’t have air conditioning (and maybe not in a union company either). So it’s probably going to be a little less than comfortable.  

Don’t bring everything you own. Keep it as travel-friendly as possible, avoiding any arguments over spatial issues with your new friends. You will be crowded; that’s just how it goes. You’ll need one nice outfit for parties, but beyond that you just need casual and rehearsal clothes. Think like a minimalist; it makes life easier in a communal living environment.

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You’ve shown up, unpacked, and you’re ready to begin rehearsal. In many cases you already know what roles you are playing throughout the summer, but sometimes you don’t. Sometimes producers need to see more of what you can do before they offer you Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street. You may have gotten the job though the Strawhat or Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) combined auditions, and they may only have spent twenty minutes or so with you prior to offering you a job. Occasionally there will be large roles yet to be cast in a big summer stock season, and you have a period of time available to show your best work. Do that.

In a non-union company, rehearsals can be long, but generally speaking most companies adhere to a standard 8- or 9-hour day, at least until tech begins. Many companies, even if non-union, adhere to the union guidelines for breaks and meals (5-minute break every 55 minutes or 10 minutes every 80; 1 hour for lunch, 90 minutes or more for dinner). And they often adopt the union rules leading into a performance, which can vary a little but generally mandate a specific period of time before the half hour evening call, to allow for meals, rest, and preparation.

You learn the first show, go through that baptism of fire known as tech, have an opening night party and you are rewarded with…another show to learn.  

In the beginning of the stock season, this will be so exciting. You CANNOT WAIT to get to the next show, do something different, show your wide range as a performer. But you never know how it’s all going to turn out—maybe the new director doesn’t notice how wonderful you are. Or maybe you’re allergic to the mold in the house and you’ve now got the bubonic plague that will last 3 months. Or maybe you don’t do very much in the new show. Maybe you hate the choreography. Maybe you’ve been overlooked for a good role…again…but you trudge honorably to the next show, and the next.

And then comes summer stock’s dirty little secret—CHILDREN’S THEATRE!!!!

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With all due respect to children’s theatre, it’s not why anyone came to work for any stock company. It is however, an absolute necessity to the health and vitality of the theatre, and for the cultivation of future audiences and performers. This kind of theatre is very inexpensive, entirely profitable, and the lifeblood of many stock companies. Unfortunately, it’s also the annoying uncle who won’t go home. You rehearse it around the mainstage schedule (meaning on your limited off time, usually after a mainstage performance). As if you weren’t exhausted enough, you have this to contend with. But contend you must. These may be your largest roles all summer, you’d better try to enjoy them. And at the end of the day, you’re going to be making lots of children laugh and scream, and as a parent, I’ll tell you there’s nothing better.

So you endure, because that’s the job. There’s good stuff coming down the pike, you can feel it. West Side Story is only two shows away, and you know they’re going to cast you as Anita. You just know it! All you have to do is finish the run of the show you don’t really like, then get through the next show that you truly can’t stand and won’t be doing very much in, and take out the garbage and paint the scenery and settle the disputes in your cast house (because you have been elected House Mom), and your reward awaits!

Hopefully. The truth is, who really knows? You just keep grinding away. You fall in love with someone, or maybe even a couple of someones, you get your heart broken, you break one in return. You don’t really learn to be an actor, but you can learn to be a professional. You serve the theatre, your friends, your employers, the Gods above. And then one day, likely in August, it ends, and you each go your separate ways. Some of the people you’ve met, you’ll never see again, and that will be okay. Some you will remember fondly. A few will become your lifelong friends.

embrace the moment

Stock is hard. Some actors do it once and never pursue it again. But it can also be so, so rewarding. My closest friends in life, I met through stock. I went through major life changes, including the loss of a parent, while working in summer stock. Those people were there for me, and I love them all to this day. I met my wife there. We’ve been married for nearly sixteen years and have two amazing children. There’s a perfect tree in this town where we worked, the kind of tree you’d see drawn in a children’s book. I think about it all the time. I don’t really know why, but I imagine my ashes scattered there when I’m gone, a tribute to the place and the people that helped me grow up, helped me find my way.  

I hope the same experience for you.

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