Updated: May 25, 2019
My current directing project is The Addams Family: A New Musical which opened a few days ago and is sold out for the rest of the weekend. I've been doing some reflecting on this experience and in doing so, realized I learn a specific lesson through every show I've performed in or directed. And, since I've been doing this directing thing since the 90's, the number of lessons have really begun to add up.
What lessons? Well, during Our Town I learned the power of great writing. With Millie that I could conduct the orchestra if I really had to. In Midsummer Night's Dream to not fear Shakespeare. Through Fiddler I learned I only truly enjoy directing actors who are open to learning. Shrek taught me the thrill of strong collaboration. Into the Woods impressed upon me how minor roles can make incredibly magical moments if the actors are willing to "go for it". Les Mis taught me a lot, but one thing was how to make something so grand fit into somewhere so small. Godspell taught me the power of ensemble, and Hello, Dolly! reminded me how a strong lead can set the stage for a solid show. With The Addams Family the lesson has been how critical solid, strong, committed acting is to a great show.
So many folks are sharing their college prep advice encouraging high school students to "take voice lessons" or "get thee to a dance class", but let's talk for a minute about the acting. The reality is, if you're a great dancer, you can make it as a dancer or you can work hard, take classes, and become better at dancing. If you're a great singer, you can go be a singer or work hard, take lessons and become a better singer. But, a really solid musical theatre performer MUST be able to act. Their dancing and singing, as an extension of the emotion the character is feeling, requires acting. Micah is hearing this through her dance teachers in college and I'm forever pounding the "acting" into my student's heads and hearts. It's the thing one must have to not just "make it", but to be a truly engaging performer anywhere and everywhere.
Being a great actor means being able to:
bring something to the table
create a character, often times, with little guidance or help from the script
be honest onstage
make bold choices
think before you speak or move
connect your heart with your mind
get out of your head
get beyond the lines and blocking
connect with others
When the amazing actors Wesley Taylor and Eric Petersen each worked with my casts, they both made a huge case for being able to act. Both shared their own version of, "New York is full of great singers, but the ones who are able to act are the ones that make it." I don't know that I ever underestimated this, as I've always preferred casting the solid actor over the solid singer, but this truth has really hit home recently.
But how does one "get better" at acting? How will you master it? Saying yes to as many theatrical opportunities as possible is an excellent start. This includes productions, classes, improv, scene work, reading and seeing plays, studying acting theories, and creating your own theatre with fellow human beings. Are you doing those crazy acting exercises in your Drama class with utter abandon? If not, you must get there. Are you only participating in musical events at Thespians and avoiding the straight acting events? Yeah, I did that too, BIG regrets. Do you perform in straight plays? If not, you should. That's where the real acting happens. Acting coaches can help, but it's the work with fellow actors that really counts and provides breakthroughs.
I'm surprised how many students interested in musical theatre neglect training as an actor or just assume it somehow develops naturally. I feel confident these skills can be developed and refined. Why? Because I am fortunate to work with some of the same students repeatedly and "in repertory", so I get to see them grow, expand and develop. As actors.