I have kids, and many of their friends are in a number of team sports with travel teams. These are hard-core activities with try outs, large fees to be on the team and travel with the team, long practice hours, and plenty of heartbreak when someone loses the big game, rides the bench or doesn’t make the team at all. By contrast, the theatre kids are viewed as kind of coddled, like it’s a pretty cushy activity. I don’t know about you, but anyone who thinks theatre is cushy has never seen the shaking that happens in the theatre lobby prior to an audition. And while you expect it from someone who is auditioning for the first or second time, the GROWN, EXPERIENCED adults are just as shaky. Hard core, I tell you. And read all the way to the end to hear my idea for a theatre “farm team” — I think it’s gold.
But first, let’s discuss theatre and sports in today’s society. Theatre and music programs in schools receive nowhere near the amount of attention, respect and funding sports programs receive, despite the fact they teach all those same, great teamwork and overcoming disappointment life lessons. All of these activities make our kids better, more accomplished, more resilient people. But I’m going to argue that actors are the most hard core of the bunch. Here are seven ways our student actors have it just as hard — or even harder — than elite student athletes.
1) It’s subjective. When success (in the audition room or on stage) cannot be concretely measured, the heartache of disappointments is amplified. If I’m out-raced or out scored it’s pretty explicit — you know you worked hard, but someone simply out performed you on the playing field that day. It hurts, but then you get back to work. In theatre, however, there are SO MANY factors that go into casting that it’s not good enough to be “best”, you must also look right, be the “right” race, be taller, be shorter, more confident, more vulnerable, older, younger, more or less attractive and a million other things. Hard work can’t fix a lot of those things.
2) Program competitiveness. Trying to get into one of those top musical theatre schools? 10% acceptance rates are the norm (with many schools far lower — some accept only 10 students per year from THOUSANDS of applicants), and the schools require a lengthy audition process. Girls are told to apply to at least 15–20 programs, boys to 10–15 programs, each with a few less prestigious fall-back schools in order to get in somewhere. And unlike with an elite athlete, if you are an extraordinary talent, there is probably NOT a full ride scholarship to entice you to sign. You are just lucky to be here.
3) Rivalries. Forget who will be quarterback this season, the competition for who will get the lead roles is always super tough. My formal college career included no leads at all, as the lead female role (for both straight plays and musicals in our tiny program) was the same person for just about every show done there in my 3.5 year span there. And remember those “coach’s kids” who got a lot of playing time? Yeah, they are everywhere in every level of theatre. Kids, spouses, best friends, etc. and just like the coach’s kids, they get better faster because of the early opportunities and experiences they get.
4) Long hours. You know how they recently had to pass a law here in California to keep middle and high school from starting at the crack of dawn? Starting so early is terrible for teens and their development, anxiety and academic success. So who pushed for these early school start times (and got them?) — coaches. They need that early afternoon time for practices. It’s one of the ways sports is favored in this country, and it’s totally normal for long afternoon practices to take over a kids schedule with games and travel on the weekend. But God forbid a theatre rehearsal runs late into the evening — parents are up in arms! Like sports, good theatre demands long hours of practice. 5–6 days a week for several hours a day is totally normal. This typically lasts a “season” (one show or 2–3 months) and then you get a break. But theatre kids try out for multiple shows a year, so they are typically “in season” ALL YEAR LONG.
5) Lack of “divisions”. Didn’t make Varsity at your school? Here, you can do these other two levels of competitive play (junior varsity or freshman levels). Build your skills there, then try again next time for the A team. Unfortunately, schools do not have a “junior varsity cast” doing the show too, there is just ONE CAST. You get it (and all the experience that comes with it) or not. There are children’s theatres where you are guaranteed an ensemble spot for the small participation fee of ~$500, but at EVERY LEVEL from children’s, to community, to local professional, regional and the Broadway stage, the competition for featured and lead roles is going to be cutthroat.
6) The team matters. Like with sports, success does not happen alone. You need ALL those talented people to come together as a team to reach your goal. Just like athletes want to be on the winning team (and why private schools are often a magnet for elite athletes), these actors want to be on the best team possible when honing their skills. And while there are a few arts magnet schools in the Bay Area, there is certainly a lot less options than a kid looking for a strong soccer or basketball team. And guess what? In theatre, the team CHANGES EVERY TIME. Sometimes there are the same folks from show to show, but you get a large group of new folks with every new project.
7) The threat of injury. This hangs over the head of athletes who wonder whether one false step will end their career. This is also true for actors (particularly those who dance, and also the fear of vocal injury for our singers). But there is an added component to this aspect of theatre. I call it “rejection injury”. I have heard SO MANY TIMES how talented people are so wounded and hurt by the near constant rejection they just can’t try any more. Just like athletes, we are told by coaches to be “mentally tough” and to just shrug it off and move onto the next, but it is HARD.
So while musicals seem more popular than ever with kids, I worry that it is SO intimidating to get started that we make it nearly impossible for newbies to get experience and grow. What can we do to make it a little easier for kids to build their skills and learn the ropes of musical theatre? I like double casting and understudying (which is pretty common for kids roles). It provides some risk protection, because let’s face it, young people catch EVERYTHING, as well as helping those newer or less experienced kids build those skills. I also LOVE the idea of a “newcomers” cast or show in a season. You can’t get in it if you’ve done more than say, 5 shows or 2 speaking roles. This should not be just your “youth show” because we know that is probably led by a ringer who has done Annie four times. I think this could be a youth, all age OR adults-only cast, but there is an explicit requirement that you are new to the craft. It’s the FARM TEAM! And to those of you who think ticket sales will suffer, I beg to differ. It’s the friends and family of the cast that fills your seats in community theatre. Us regulars have friends who get burnt out on seeing us in show after show. Someone newer to theatre is going to bring a BUSLOAD of new people. Get on this, theatre people. It’s a goldmine and builds the talent pipeline you need.