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Tips for Community Theater Actors: Insights from an Actor-Turned-Director

Theater Love is delighted to welcome a new face to the team! Kathryn (name changed to protect the people she references) is a community theater actor who recently directed her first musical — see her tips for nailing musical theater auditions.  Today, she’s sharing the insights she gained from going behind the scenes in the community theater world. 

I’ve been acting in community theater for more than 15 years, and frankly, I thought I had the whole scene on lock. 

Then, I took on my first directing role, and everything changed.

My theater world blew wide open. In what seemed like an instant, the curtain was pulled back, and I got a glimpse at everything that really happens behind the scenes, far from the eyes of the actors.

Friends, it wasn’t all good, but it was all informative. The community theater world — or really, any small university or regional theater community — is a peculiar place. My experience in the director’s seat has completely changed how I approach community theater as an actor, from the way I audition to the way I behave during (and between!) shows.

Here are the most important lessons from my experience:

1. Directors Talk

The first thing I learned is that directors (and musical directors and board members and stage managers…) are not shy. They talk, openly and frequently, about the other people in the theater community.

Out of nowhere, I started getting feedback about specific actors. “She’s a pretty reliable performer, but she will bitch and bitch if she doesn’t get the role she wants.” “He misses rehearsals all the time, and always without notice.” “She can’t take direction at all.” “Actor #1 is having an affair with Actor #2. They’re both married and their spouses have no idea.” (These are real examples!)

Actors, please take this to heart! Your reputation follows you. A new director isn’t necessarily a fresh start — chances are, she’s already gotten an earful about you. How can you make sure it’s mostly positive words? Be kind! Be friendly! Be receptive to direction. Show up to rehearsals, on time and ready to work.

Because while directors love to share cautionary tales, they are also delighted to dish about the positive. If you’re a friendly, fun actor who’s dedicated and easy to work with, word will spread.

Been guilty of bad behavior in the past? It’s never too late to change things — I guarantee that directors will notice and tell other directors that you’re cleaning up your act.

2. The Worst Thing You Can be is a Flake

The performing arts community is full of creative, fun-loving people. Unfortunately, it’s also full of flakes. From the accompanist who backs out at the last minute to the actor that misses every other rehearsal, unreliable people come with the territory.

Take a moment for a brief self-inventory. Have you ever:

  • Missed rehearsal without letting the director know well in advance?
  • Skipped rehearsal just because?
  • Arrived late to a fitting or practice for no good reason?
  • Failed to be off book in time?
  • Failed to learn your music, particularly when it involves one or more other singers
  • Dropped out of a show after more than two rehearsals?

See a pattern? If you do these things, it’s safe to assume that every director and actor in the area knows it. They know they can’t trust you or depend on you, and this is a huge problem.

The most important thing you can do as a theater performer is to be reliable. Lest you think, “Well, I’m more talented than everyone else; they’ll put up with it,” think again! Every director I know will happily take a reliable, passable performer over a more talented flake.

Every. Single. One.

Putting on a show is stressful as it is — the extra stress just isn’t worth it.

3. The Actor Next to You Could be Directing Your Next Show

Community theater is a small, small world. Some theaters put out open calls for directors; others recruit from within. What does that mean for you? The person onstage next to you might be your next director.

Great! you think. He already knows how awesome I am!

Before you celebrate, take a moment to think back to your last musical. If that actor is your next director, what information will he take into the process? What did you reveal to the rest of the cast, especially when you were in the dressing room, hanging out between scenes at rehearsals, and backstage?

We’ve all seen actors doing the following things:

  • Being a diva
  • Complaining or gossiping about the director and/or other actors
  • Treating the stage crew dismissively
  • Admitting to slacking off or failing to practice between rehearsals
  • Lying to the director about why you were late or absent (but confessing the real reason to other actors)
  • Ditching set-painting days just because you didn’t wanna
  • Failing to be off book on schedule

If you’re guilty of any of these behaviors, it’s time to shape up. It might seem innocuous to flake on rehearsal and shamelessly admit it to another actor, but what happens when he’s directing the show? Even if he’s a good friend and you’re super talented, no director wants to cast someone who isn’t committed or who spreads negative energy through the cast.

How can you be better? Go into your next theater production with a sense of professionalism. Have fun, but always consider that your scene partner or ensemble buddy might also be your next director — and act accordingly.

The Moral(s) of the Story?

  • Be kind to everyone!
  • Have a positive attitude!
  • Be reliable!
  • Work hard!

Do these four things, and you will be community theater gold.