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?
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.
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!!!!
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.
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.