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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Swigart


by Jill Charles, Editor. "Summer Theatre Directory" DRAMATICS. February, 1992.

There are really only two things you need to do to have a great summer of learning and theatre experience in summer stock. First, find the place that's right for you, and the, work hard to squeeze as much as you can out of the summer.

There are a lot of summer theatres out there. To make things a little less confusing, let's categorize them, and look at opportunities for high school in each category.

Professional summer theatres -

Professional summer theatres generally produce anywhere from three to eight different plays in an eight- to twelve-week season. The shows are usually produced sequentially; that means show A rehearses for two weeks, then opens and runs two weeks while show B is rehearsing, then B opens and runs while C is rehearsing, and so forth. The turnover period between shows is usually extremely intense because you have to strike one show and put up the other, with tech and dress rehearsals, all in a very short period (usually two to five days).

The four kind of professional theatres that you are likely to encounter are:

Equity companies. An Equity company operates under an agreement with Actors' Equity Association, the actors' union. Because these theatres are required to cast a large percentage of each show with union members, the opportunities to perform on the mainstage are few for non-union actors. However, most Equity companies offer an apprentice program, which might include the chance to perform in other venues, like children's theatre. Some programs offer formal classes in acting skills taught by the professional actors from the company or seminars on auditioning and career development.

If you understudy mainstage roles you can begin to earn points toward an Equity card. But don't expect a salary if you spend your summer with an Equity company; in face, you may be expected to cover your own room and board and perhaps tuition as well if classes are offered. Do expect a lot of technical work. The greatest benefit of working in this kind of program is the opportunity to watch solid professionals do their jobs. In the best Equity companies you'll have access to many rehearsals, work closely with the stage manager and crew chiefs, and get to know the professionals, either in formal seminars or in informal situations that will allow you to ask them questions about their craft and their careers.

Non-Equity professional companies. Non-Equity professional companies pay actors salaries, but the performers are not members of the Equity. These companies frequently do the bulk of their casting in the spring at regional combined auditions around the country.

Since union rules don't apply in these companies, your chances of getting a mainstage role are better, but you still must compete against college students and professional actors who don't yet have their union card. Most of these companies do musicals, so you would have a fairly good chance of performing in the chorus. Here too, expect a lot of technical work. Many of these companies also offer apprentice programs or children's theatre, but no points toward Equity membership. You may receive free room and/or board, perhaps even a small stipend, but probably not a real salary.

College- or university-connect companies. These may be either Equity or non-Equity, or may be non-Equity with a few Equity guest artists in leading roles. The experience is similar to Equity and non-Equity professional companies, but the company is operated by a theatre department at a college or university and uses their facilities. In many cases, students enrolled in the school's theatre department will take part in the summer program; college credit is usually available to participants, sometimes with tuition discounted or waived as part of a stipend.

The directors and staff of these theatres are usually connected with the college year-around, so you are working with college teachers (some of whom may also have a professional career). Some of these companies hire professionals for the leads and use students for supporting and minor roles, while others use almost exclusively student actors. Housing is usually readily available in dorms or in student houses, and that may be a part of your stipend, if one is offered. When they are fully supported by the institution, college- and university-connected theatres tend to pay fairly well by summer stock standards. But when budget cuts hit, the theatre programs may suffer -- or disappear entirely -- as has happened to several long-standing summer theatres operating within colleges in the last few seasons.

Package houses. There used to be a lot of package houses -- theatres that operated on the "straw hat circuit." This is how they work: a show is produced at one theatre, usually with a "name" in the starring role, and then tours a series of theatres. At each theatre there is a crew to put up the set and run the show, but there aren't usually any acting roles available because the whole cast tours with the show. There are fewer of these theatres around now than twenty years ago and many that do still exist also produce concerts with big name entertainers. These are probably the least interesting opportunities for students, since the only work available is setting up and taking down the set and lights.

Outdoor dramas -

Outdoor dramas are largely non-Equity but may use Equity guest artists in leading roles. Most of them are located in the South and Midwest, with Ohio and North Carolina boasting the highest number. The outdoor drama experience can be very different from other kinds of summer theatre, mainly because you are usually only performing one historical play (although some companies do a second show in rotating repertory.)

Outdoor drama companies typically rehearse at the beginning of the summer, and then run the show for four to eight weeks. They have large casts, so you will probably have opportunities to perform. Many offer battle scenes with horses and pyrotechnics: songs and folk dancing are also popular elements. Once the show opens, you'll probably be free during the day unless you're rehearsing a second show or the company offers classes or workshops. Salaries vary, and most provide housing. Since there's only one show to build (and sometimes the set and costumes are carried over from year to year) there's not as much tech work, though you should expect to be on a running crew during the performance.

The performance benefits here are to be found, as in the professional theatre companies, in watching the leads do their stuff, and also in experiencing a relatively long run, perhaps as many as seventy-five performances, usually to a large crowd. And working outdoors provides some excitement too -- in the form of thunderstorms, crickets, and other critters.

Theme parks and Renaissance faires -

Disney World has recently negotiated a contract with Equity, but for the most part theme parks use non-Equity talent, although their pay scale can approach Equity salaries. Most require that you be eighteen to audition. You're most likely to be hired if you have significant skills and training in singing and dance, and if you're a good comic and improvisational actor. You will be performing in as many as seven short shows a day, perhaps as a character performer -- Big Bird, Little Red Riding Hood, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle -- or as "atmosphere" in an historical or ethnic costume, wandering around interacting with visitors. Generally all positions with theme parks are salaried and the pay is good for summer theatre. However, you will probably have to supply your own housing and transportation.

If you join a Renaissance faire you'll likely learn some stage combat, period dance, and dialect, and perhaps perform in a Shakespeare play. Special skills like juggling, playing a musical instrument and acrobatics are a plus for getting a job in these places. Most Renaissance faires operate only on weekends, so it's sometimes possible to get a second job in the area, which you many Ned, since they don't pay as well as theme parks.

Now that you understand what your options are you can begin to figure out what you want to do. First, you have to ask yourself a very important question: can you afford not to make any money this summer? If the answer is categorically "no!" then you should focus on theme parks or, if you live near a professional theatre, find a "real" job with short enough hours so you can put in t significant amount of time with the theatre on a volunteer basis. That's a great way to get your foot in the door and become irreplaceable, so next year they'll hire you.

If you can afford to break even on living expenses over the summer -- or maybe even wind up poorer in September than you were in June -- then try to attend on of the regional auditions (usually in March) or write to the summer programs that interest you and set up your own audition.

Don't be disappointed of your only offers are for apprenticeships -- remember, offers you're competing with a large crowd of college students and grads. Once you have a summer of experience under your belt, the opportunities will improve for you next year. And don't underestimate the value of an apprenticeship. It can teach you more about the realities of creating theatre in one summer than you'll learn in sex semesters of school.

For the sake of argument, we'll suppose you have landed an apprenticeship with a good Equity company. They're doing five plays with two-week rehearsal periods and two-week runs. They offer seminars, understudying, and the chance to perform in a children's show. You're paying your own way, but they've found you and affordable room in a house shared by six other apprentices. How do you know for certain that this will be a good summer experience that is worth passing up the family vacation to Cape Cod and better than staying home with your buddies and earning some money?

Here are ten points of advice -- some of which I mentioned above -- that may help you answer this question, based on observing hundreds of student apprentices over the course of twenty years in summer stock:

Technical work may not be your first love but you will be doing a lot of it, so learn to enjoy it and work hard at becoming skilled. A theatre's technical staff members usually don't mind teaching basic skills, as long as they sense a willingness to learn and a real effort to work efficiently and accurately. They get very cranky with Whiners. lazy workers, and those who obviously believe that tech work is beneath them because they are Actors. If you're not pulling your weight, your fellow apprentices will get cranky too because they'll have to compensate for you. Another good reason to bear down on tech work: the harder you work and the more skills you acquire, the more interesting your assignments will become. If you're still sweeping floors at summer's end while your roommate who knew no more than you on arrival is doing advanced scene painting, don't look any farther than the end of the broom handle for someone to blame.

Watching professional actors work in rehearsal and performance is great training. Sit in on as many rehearsals as your schedule will allow and observe not only the mechanics of rehearsals, but also their dynamics -- who wants what from whom and how they go about getting it. Pay attention to how tightly or loosely the director works' study his or her concept of the play and how well it is communicated to the actors. Watch how the director blocks the actors or observe them block themselves' try to understand the where, when and why of each move the characters make. Volunteer to "cue" the actors, or sit on book while they're working on lines outside of rehearsals. Getting involved with the company's productions will help you to develop a relationship with the actors and enable you to ask them about their characters, their method of working, and how they're approaching the part.

Jump at any opportunity to assist the stage manager. Not only will that get you involved with all or most of the rehearsals, but it can give you a stage manager's perspective of the process as well. In addition to dealing with the actors and director, the stage manager is the liaison between the technical and artistic aspects of the production once it moves into the theatre -- this is the person who pulls together all the threads of a production at tech rehearsals and turns it into a working show.

Taking on as much responsibility as you can handle is a good course of action in summer stock. So is jumping into the breech when you see a need for it. The apprentice who always responds "Sure, I'll do that" will have a much more interesting summer than the one who always seems to be taking a break when crew assignments are handed out. The theatre staff will be looking for the apprentices who aren't afraid to help out wherever help is needed; those are the ones who will worked their way up out of the grunt work and into positions of more responsibility. The also will become better known to actors, designers, and directors -- people they'll come to for references or future work.

If your theatre offers classes, try to give them as much effort as you would in school. It's very easy to blow off classes when you're fully involved in a production. An extra hour of sleep in the morning is much more appealing than an hour of voice work when you've been hanging lights until two o'clock in the morning. But you should push yourself to take full advantage of what the program offers, including performance opportunities as an understudy or in children's theatre. Make the most of what you get, even if it's not on mainstage. You are still practicing you craft and working with directors and stage managers who may crop up again in your professional life.

One area in which summer stock ca take you further than almost any school is career preparation. You should learn (from asking, watching and doing) about pictures and resumes, auditioning, agents, casting, and answering services, among other things. Take time to soak up all the information you can about the real work if making a living in theatre. You'll find most actors more than willing to talk to pre-professionals about their experience, since they remember very clearly being in your shoes.

Getting along with everyone, all the time should be one of your goals for the summer. While you may not be entirely successful, the smoother your working relationships are, the more pleasant your summer will be and the more likely you are to make helpful connections. Try to avoid blowups. In the heat of the moment you may say or do something you will regret for the rest of the summer, or beyond. One never knows when the difficult stage manager from two summers ago may be the director facing you across the casting table. Whining, backstabbing, and gossiping are unpleasant in any social situation, but under the pressures of summer stock they can create a hell on earth.

If you have problems, talk about them with the person who can really help. If you're in over your head with a role, talk to the director -- not other actors. If you're unhappy about a crew assignment, talk to the tech director -- don't complain to the other apprentices. Most problems can be solved once they are recognized as problems; if they can't be solved, you can at least have the comfort of knowing why. Complaining about a situation won't get it fixed; it will only earn you a reputation as a kvetcher.

Find a way to relieve tension, because there will be lots of it, especially during tech week. Everyone reacts differently to stress, but the pressure cooker of those last few days before opening can be a real challenge even for the calmest person. Take a walk, go for a swim, or just walk away for a minute and count to ten when you feel yourself reaching the limits of your tolerance. Staying clam and keeping a healthy perspective on things will keep you sane through September. A good sense of humor can be a great help. Keep in mind those watchwords handed down from ancient Greek thespians: "Lighten up, folks, this ain't cancer research."

Networking is not exclusively for corporate hotshots. Your debut summer in stock is also your first opportunity to begin developing a network of professional contact which eventually will have a tremendous impact on your career. Talk to people about their experiences and interests and ask their advice (you don't have to take it, but they'll be flattered you asked). If you're not given a program contact sheet, make one for yourself and get addresses and phone numbers from everyone before you leave so you can keep track of people afterwards. Ask pertinent staff people if you can use their names as references for future work and keep in touch with people after the summer, especially those whose home-base city may become yours one day.

Finally, don't forget to have a good time. Enjoy the sun, the friendships, and the living, breathing, eating, and talking theatre twenty-four hours a day. Have a great summer.

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