Since when did the word “competition” become verboten in the Tulsa theatre vocabulary? Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard some very concerning things about everyone stepping up their game in the community. And while, yes this is community theatre, which means it is made up of amateur actors/directors/et al. of varying skill levels, that does not mean that we need to rest on our laurels. Competition drives our actors to continue developing their skills, and theatre companies to continue developing challenging material (for both actors and audiences).
I have a couple of discouraged performer-friends who are frustrated by their inability to break-free from the ensemble. And while we are all ego-driven (otherwise, we wouldn’t be performing on a stage; we’d be sitting around reading scripts with other actors) and want to be the lead every time, that just isn’t feasible. Nor is it very interesting to audiences. But, understanding your role in the creative process is paramount to your success. As performers, we have certain skills that fall along a continuum: actors, singers, dancers, actors-who-sing, singers-who-act, dancers-who-sing, actors-who-move, etc. No one skill-set is more important than the other, though each set of talents may be better suited for a particular type of role. The actor-who-sings may find themselves more comfortable in a character-type role, while a singer-who-acts may be more apt for a leading-lady/man role; and the triple-threats (who are rare, but when they exist…) tend to get relegated to the ensemble where all of their skills can shine. We need all of these combinations, for just as in the real-world, these characters and the worlds they inhabit are diverse.
If you find yourself constantly relegated to roles that you feel don’t suit you, there are options. Find out who your competition is and dissect their skill-set. If you feel that they are a more of an actor-who-sings and you are more of an actor-who-moves, and you want to be legitimate competition for those desired roles, then you’ll need to concentrate on expanding or improving your skill-set. There are a few ways to do this:
One option is to take classes focusing on the particular skill that you’d like to build, and both private and group classes or workshops are a great tool. I know an actor-who-sings who is looking to expand his skill-set by taking dance classes; and I myself take vocal-lessons because I’d like to continue improving my voice to put in competition for more roles as well. If money is a concern, you can always find other actors who might be willing to do a skill-swap. For example, if your skill is dance and you have a trusted theatre friend who is more vocally-oriented, you might be able to teach them some tap while they teach you about proper vocal support.
Another option is to continue getting experience in the ensemble. A lot of actors get flustered about the commitment to ensemble-work, but it is one of the best ways to pick up skills and find out who your competition is. I constantly watch other actors and say “Yeah, I like that” or “No, that choice was not successful” and learn what works on stage and what doesn’t. Then, next time I’m in an audition scenario against that actor, I am prepared with choices that I know are different than what my competition will present. Additionally, ensemble-work is a great opportunity to “prove” to the director that you know what you are doing, by showing off your skills. Perhaps the director doesn’t have any idea what you could do at the audition, but they WILL notice and WILL keep you in mind for future play selection and casting decisions.
Ultimately, there are two ways of looking at your competition. One choice is to throw your hands up and throw in the talent. And I guarantee, if you give up and stop auditioning, you will not get your moment to shine. The other choice is to keep going, keep improving yourself, and keep growing as a performer.
Another source of contention I am hearing lately is about competition between theatre companies. For one thing, the focus of our various companies are very different at this stage of the game. The material being produced by Nightingale Theatre and Theatre Tulsa are as different as the material being produced by Heller Theatre and American Theatre Company. Even when there is cross-over, the approach to the material and production are worlds-apart. So, let’s cut it out with the nasty premise that company X is out to destroy company Y.
Now, what I HAVE seen is company X stepping up its game and company Y stepping up its game too. And that’s a thing to celebrate, not admonish! Theatre Tulsa has been producing some top-notch musical theatre (which no one other than American Theatre Company has offered for years — and even they have minimized their musical theatre options); Theatre Pops is expanding their reach of material, and stepping out of their “comfort-zone” of edgier-mainstream shows. If Theatre Pops encourages Theatre Tulsa to continue improving, and vice-versa; or Heller Theatre encourages ATC to improve, and vice-versa; or Tulsa Community College encourages The University of Tulsa… then that’s a good thing for actors and audiences. It means higher-quality productions, with higher-quality material, with higher-quality actors (who have improved from higher-quality education and higher-quality experiences).
Those who have been around have experienced the malaise that the Tulsa theatre community can lend itself to at times. Those were dark times — with falling attendance, repetitive material (I enjoy a good farce, but even I was getting bored of Neil Simon), and increasing budget deficits in our theatres. It was a time when I could get by on just-doing-the-same-old-thing at every audition, and it’s a time that I saw several actors arrested in development. But, since the environment has become more competitive, the audiences have increased (can you recall the last time the Williams had been at capacity during the previous era?) and the actors turning out for auditions have been top-notch. And, that in turn has forced me to continue growing as a performer; and I hope it encourages you as actors and you as theatres as well.
I have rambled enough for now, and delved into enough tangents for one post. But, as a summation, I implore you to accept the challenges posed by the increasing competition as a fantastic opportunity to evaluate yourselves and your craft. And may we see each other on stage again soon!