Yes, you will defintely have this experience. You will be in a show at some point that is TERRIBLE. The director may be incompetent; the script may be insipid (look it up); the company may have less than no talent or experience; huge chunks of the script are being ignored; leads never do learn their lines; there is a revolving door of quitting cast; all of the above or more. It sucks. You don’t want to go to rehearsal. If you weren’t so professional, you’d walk right out the door. This experience is not worth your time and sacrifices. You don’t want ANYONE you know to see this show.
Yup. It happens to everyone sometimes.
It is very tempting to go out on stage, do exactly what you have been told to do while expending the minimum of artistic energy, and get the heck home until the nightmare is over. It is normal to want the audience to see just how bad a show it is, and make sure they put the blame wherever it is that you think it is deserved. And you may be absolutely right about that blame.
Here are a few things that it is very important to keep in mind when you are in this bog:
- No one owes you a good experience. Read your contract, if you have one. There will be no clause in it that states that you will have a magical time, meet amazing people, learn new skills, and be inspired by the artists around you. That is not your right, and you are not entitled to it. The fact that that is exactly what happens in the majority of productions is nothing but a miracle of the Art Gods. However, the reality is, it’s not a guarantee.
- You DO owe the audience your best. They bought a ticket. They did not buy a ticket so that you can go out there, use your performance as a way to lay blame and gain their sympathy. They spent time and money to sit in that seat and be entertained to the best of your ability. Some of these people are at the theatre for the very first time- make sure that they have the best experience you can give them, so they come back. Returning audience is butts in seats. Butts in seats means jobs for actors. Like you. You need to give them your best on both an artistic and a practical level.
- You have more power than you think you do. I’m actually going to expand greatly on this. Scroll down.
You have the power to change the experience for everyone.
This does NOT mean that you can take over and re-direct the show, change the production into what you think it should be, or in any way go outside what you have been directed to do.
What it DOES mean is that you can create your own magic, and spread it through the cast. When you go out on stage, you have a duty, a sacred responsibility to tell that story to the ends of the earth. LOOK at your fellow characters, create strong relationships on that stage. You are a powerful storyteller, and that is what you owe to the audience and to the others in your cast.
You will have been having the conversations backstage and in the dressing rooms about the show and its problems. You have been complaining together, or you have been suffering in isolation. Either way, there is poison in the air. You all get together each day with no hope, with anger, resentment, and righteous indignation over what you are being asked (or not asked) to do. YOU MUST REVERSE THIS. Start cleansing the poison and uniting the cast. How? So glad you asked. You ask some of the best questions.
- Start handing out compliments. Especially if you have a director who does not- or worse, only hands out reprimands. Artists live on approval, and will die (figuratively, but sometimes literally) without it. It costs you nothing, and will not upset any apple-carts to tell people something good. With no qualifiers. Tell someone they look good that day. Compliment them on their shoes. Then start to really watch your castmates in rehearsal- rather than watching for the next fiasco or missed opportunity. Tell people how they did something really great onstage. Even if it’s not really great, find one thing to gush about. A look, a vocal inflection, just a moment. The more you look for things, the more you willl see.
- Start gathering the cast. Before every rehearsal, gather everyone together. Do warmups together. Start a ritual of encouragement and building each other up, with shout outs and compliments, with thanks and excitement. You can do little to change the things that are going wrong; but you can start to build things that are right. Remind the cast of this story you are here to tell, and vow with each other to tell it really, really well. You may not be able to get everyone on board, but get whoever you can, and make sure that everyone is always invited and welcome.
- Change what you can. If there is someone who is not learning their lines, help them. Run lines with them every chance you can. Drill people on dances. If you are the one who needs help, get it. Do whatever you have to- don’t wait for it to be handed to you. If someone is always late because of a quick change they are not making, see if there is anything you can do to help. The same with set changes that are taking forever- if you are not Equity, you can offer to help on a set change. Look at what can be helped, and see if you can be part of it.
- Shut down the negativity. There will still be cast members (and crew even) who want to continue bashing the show and grumbling. When you are right, and everything around you is wrong, it can sometimes seem like the only way to feel better is to go over all the wrongs and reassert the fact that you are right and in a bad situation. But that cannot ever move you forward. When people start those conversations, you have some choices.
- You can just move away, and keep yourself away from the cloud of poison. This is totally valid, and not cowardly, especially when the people doing it are very strong, and older than you are.
- If this person is older and more experienced, remind them that you are looking up to them. You can be innocent about it. Ask them if it’s always like this (even if you already know better). Ask them what they think of your work. (Its sounds lilke fishing for compliments, and it is, but for their sake and not yours.) Tell them how much you look up to them, and even give specific examples of things you admire about them. In general, get them talking and acting like a mentor, and they usually start becoming one. You’re so sneaky.
- Be direct. Tell them that the negativity is getting to you, and you want to focus more on positive things in the production. You can be silly about it- point out how great the paint is in a specific square inch of the set. Tell them that you love how their left sock works for their character. Sometimes getting someone laughing is the best way to start to change an attitude.
Bonding in a fabulous production is a very special experience. But bonding and creating something beautiful, magical, and intense for your audience and each other in the face of a thousand poor circumstances is beyond special. It is an effort you will remember forever. And the more you and your castmates decide to be great storytellers, you will become more invested in the story. And you will want to tell it. And you will want people to come and see it. Poor direction, ridiculous set changes, awful pacing, abysmal script, pedestrian choreography, even unbelievable miscasting and slacking by poor actors, all of these may remain, but you can walk away knowing that you did everything you could, rather than walking away still blaming and grumbling and angry.
You’ll have to trust me here. Even the worst shows can become wonderful experiences, but it will take way more effort. And you’re just the artist to do it. Don’t give up.