Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Career Lessons From the Theatre? Maybe...

I came across this short piece by Robbie Hyman. Ostensibly it's about lessons we can take into our jobs that the author learned from watching so much live theatre. While I agree with his larger applications, I find his observations about theatre itself more interesting.

His first observation, "Perform at every job...like a talent scout is watching," rings true to me for the most part, though I don't but so much work into honing my craft thinking of a talent scout. (Not that one is ever likely to show up where I do most of my plays anyway.) I do however put my best foot forward with every role thinking that a great audience is watching every time. As this blog has mentioned many times over the years, sometimes an audience isn't good, and sometimes it's almost non-existent. But if my advice over 8 years on this blog can be distilled into one or two things, one of them would certainly be to give of yourself as much as you can to whatever role you are playing in any given production.

I almost never use the cliche' for this truth, "There are no small parts...," though there is of course truth behind the statement. I confess being in small roles in poorly directed productions that are not well attended is difficult, on a good day. Laborious and tedious on the worst of days. But if my name is going to be attached to something, that something had better be worthy of my name.

Also the experience of a show is far more rewarding for each person, if all the other people are putting in maximum effort each night. I'd add that this is especially important in amateur productions when one isn't getting paid. I've often written about people who blow off rehearsals, or phone in their performances in amateur productions, and I do so with disdain each time. As the author of this article says, "...that's what you do when you're an actor. You act." That's what I strive to live up to.

Next, Hyman advises the read to "find something to love about your job." While I think one should of course do this, the examples he gives in the article to me point to something other than finding an aspect of your job to love.  

He mentions a highly paid, well-renowned television writer sweeping up the lobby of the tiny theatre that was performing his latest play. Even I was impressed by this fact, though not shocked. True dedication to the theatre means a desire for every aspect of a production to succeed. One of my favorite take-aways from my early days in theater back in college was this work ethic to serve the entire show. Almost always, minutes before a rehearsal would start, some one from the cast without being asked to do so was running the giant broom across the stage. Even on dress rehearsal nights you'd find people in costume undertaking this task. Not the best way to keep a costume clean, but it speaks to the ethic I picked up from college. 

Hyman points to this as an example of lousy things people do in order to have a chance to do the things they love about their job. Again, I agree with that sentiment, but the famous writer sweeping the floor to me speaks more to this notion that nobody should be too important to take on the necessary tasks of keeping a theatre ready for a show. Some things are going to be beyond any given person, of course, (I, for example, cannot now, nor have I ever been of much service to theatrical lighting issues.) But anyone can pick up a broom, throw away trash, keep the house clean, and so on. That's not what we are there for per se, but it should be a part of what we are all there for when in a show; making things easier and better for everyone involved.

Hyman's last point about theatre as it related to the workplace is, "Remember, there are lots of talented people out there." He goes on to marvel at the high caliber of acting he found in most "hole-in-the-wall" theaters his visited, and determines that it must be due to the actors (some of whom are famous) wanting to stay sharp, and keep the up and comers from replacing them.

This lesson I think misses the mark the most in Hyman's article. I very much agree that to remain good at acting, as with any craft, one must continue to work and practice said craft. And I can't deny that acting, like many field can be cut throat on the professional level, with younger, fresher faces literally waiting in the wings to replace the currently famous. But I don't think these are the main reasons Hyman and other can find terrific acting in tiny, obscure, poorly attending places. I think for most actors, the true reason the turn in great performances in such places is the same reason that writer swept the lobby floor; they are committed. Again, Hyman had it when he said, "...that's what you do when you're an actor. You act." 

I won't be naive and deny there is ever a career consideration when big-wigs enter the small venues, and I of course am not a par of the professional movie or theatre scene in Los Angeles. But I can say that good acting is no accident. People don't roll out of bed turning out a great performance. It does indeed take practice, and it may be aided by keeping one's self relevant. But in my estimation neither of those things alone can motivate the best art from a performer. Only a sincere love for the material and the work can produce that kind of awe-inspiring result night after night in the tiniest of forgotten venues. If Hyman finds actors of all fame-levels turning in such performances so often, it's probably because, like me and many of my colleagues, they love what they are doing, and respect it, and their reputation enough to not phone anything in.

By and large, though, Hyman's conclusions about live theatre, or in this case small live theatre are valid and affirming to someone who has been an actor for a while. If those lessons can be applied to one's non-theatre career, that's great, though only one of many facets of life that can be enhanced by taking in a show. Yet even if there were no career lessons to be taken from his attending the plays, I congratulate Hyman for bringing so much out of his experiences as an audience member in so many holes-in-the-wall over the years.

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