The other day, I got on the subway and overheard a young musical theatre actor say, “Oh no, I don’t know the work of Annie Baker. Honestly, I don’t really read plays.” It took all of my strength not to walk over to this young man, shake him, and scream, “THIS IS YOUR CRAFT!!! YOU HAVE TO EDUCATE YOURSELF OR YOU WILL BECOME IRRELEVANT.” But it was hot and I was tired — so I rolled my eyes, said a wee prayer for his career, and enjoyed my brief respite in the air conditioning.
However, the incident got me thinking about how, more and more, I am meeting performers and industry professionals who are not doing their homework — and it shows. Yes, school is starting for many theatre students all over the world in the next couple of weeks, but — in fact — the homework never stops. Homework should be an essential part of your life, throughout your career. There are a lot of people who believe that if they have gone to school and done well, then they are educated, have a leg up in the industry, and that their education can stop there.
These artists are not wrong to believe that a strong, solid education is mighty helpful in this industry. Taking the time to learn technique, make connections, and study the history of the industry is vital if you want to be a working professional. But I would argue that the most successful people, in all aspects of this industry, are the ones who are constantly asking questions and seeking the answers.
It is not enough to just know the works of Sondheim, Shakespeare, and Williams. These writers have created some beautifully challenging works — but the great work continues. Artists all over the world are writing, directing, producing, casting, choreographing, and designing new works every year. It is your job as a professional in this industry to know what is happening next.
Being an artist is a full-time job for which you must be willing to do the grunt work. That does not just mean showing up for auditions or spending eight hours a day at your office. It doesn’t even mean giving 100% during rehearsals, performance, or meetings. You must find a way to make industry research both a passion and a part of your routine.
Learn to pick up the New York Times, and actually read the reviews. Make a theatre news source your homepage. Read anything that you can get your hands on, and listen to everything you can find. Spend your days watching films and television shows and learn who the great working actors are right now — and who is among the next great generation of actors. Note: these people are most likely not famous, yet!
Research the people you respect, and learn from their career paths. Go to every reading to which you are invited. If you are invited to an industry party, put on your party clothes and leave your house! Take every meeting and ask anyone you know who might be just a bit smarter than you to give you their number one piece of life advice.
Make lists of anyone you admire, any theatre at which you might want to work, any casting director you want to meet, any class you should be taking, any writer who speaks to you, and any director who’s work you find challenging — then find ways to communicate with these people and places. Take as many classes as you can. Find agents and casting directors that you respect and take the classes that they teach — they know what they are talking about! They watch auditions all day for a living!
And, perhaps most importantly, READ and LISTEN.
Read all the plays. Plays your friends wrote, plays that were just published, plays that haven’t been produced in ages, and plays that just won the Pulitzer. Read everything on the Kilroys list. Musical theatre folks, read straight plays. Straight theatre folks, get acquainted with musicals. Listen to Original Broadway Cast Recordings that you have never heard. Sit in the park and listen to the buskers. When someone tells you a story or sings you a song — really listen to them with open ears.
Read a few synopses each day on StageAgent to help you figure out which scripts or cast recordings you want to prioritize. Read poetry. Read stories. Fundamentally, we’re storytellers – and the more material with which we are familiar, the better equipped we are to tackle every new project and the more attuned we will be to the opportunity to identify the next big thing. There is so much crossover in this industry. You are pigeon holing yourself and your future if you do not take the time for continual education. There are infinite opportunities for learning, and only a few of them cost money. You have no excuses.
Also, equally important is to find something that you are passionate about that has nothing to do with the industry and really invest in that, as well. Being a well-rounded human being with differing interests will make you far more castable and hirable. It will also connect you with people outside of the industry who can both broaden your worldview and your support system. As an artist, your craft is also a lifestyle that should constantly be changing and improving. When someone walks into a room and has thoughtful opinions about our industry, people want to work with them. People want them on their team. So, educate yourself and show up to get picked first.
If this advice seems pretty obvious to you, then good for you — you are doing the work, and that is awesome! High fives all around! If this is all new then open a book and get to it. Right this very second. Yes, stop reading this, and do your homework.
Who have you been reading recently? What classes have you found most useful for furthering your education? Let’s keep the conversation going below — leave a comment and share your wisdom!