Things Your College Theatre Program Didn’t Tell You, Part 1

This spring, I graduated college with a BFA in Musical Theatre. I can sing, I can act, I can sort of dance. I grew so much as a person and an actor while I was at college and I wouldn’t trade the lessons I learned for anything. But there are a lot of lessons I didn’t learn and those are costing me a lot in the real world. I spoke with a few of my friends who also graduated within the last five years and discovered that many college theatre programs, whether it’s a well-known school or one that’s still waiting for an alum to make it famous, are lacking in some very important ways.

Most college theatre programs will, at some point, bring a successful alumni or famous actor to come chat with you. They’ll tell you briefly that they struggled in the beginning and then they’ll go on to tell you about their successes. What college programs should be doing, though, is bringing in alumni who are not currently booking work. Let them tell you exactly why they aren’t booking; it probably has nothing to do with their skill level. Ask your college to bring you talented, penniless alumni to tell you what it’s like out in the real world. The number of working actors is horrifyingly tiny when compared to the numbers who are actually employed in their chosen field. You’re about to jump into that ocean of unemployed actors; you should know what you’re getting into.

I’ve collected a few questions you should find the answers to while you’re at college so that you’re not left floundering when you enter the real world. I’ve found the answers, or partial answers, to some of them; more are to come in Part 2 of this series. But there’s still a lot I don’t know and wish I had learned while I was in school.

What is your type?

Being an actor is selling a product and that product is you. You have to be a savvy businessperson so that you can learn how to sell your product to the right audiences at the right time for the right price. So how do you know exactly how to package your product? You find out your type.

Now, there are lots of arguments about whether type matters anymore. I went to a school that broke type all the time, whether it was through gender-flipping or other types of non-traditional casting. But unfortunately the real world hasn’t entirely caught up to that yet. If you want to do commercial musical theatre – that is to say, big Broadway musical theatre – you need to know your type. Right now, like many people, I’m suffering a type identity crisis. Am I a quirky best friend? Am I an older sister? But I’m short, so I don’t look like the older sister! There’s a lot going on and because I didn’t know how to describe the parts I could play in the current world of musical theatre, my headshots are kind of vague. They’re great pictures of me and I love them. But they don’t scream, “Cast her in [specific role].” They’re generically me and that doesn’t necessarily help a casting director.

Another issue that a lot of people encountered is misleading college casting. It’s a fact of college life that you are going to play some roles you wouldn’t normally play. But being aware of the fact that you won’t actually be playing a sixty-year old on Broadway right out of college is a great thing. Many of my friends from colleges around the country lamented over the fact that they spent their college years playing mothers and wives – roles they won’t play for at least another ten years after they get out of college. But because their resumes were full of age-inappropriate roles, they were left uncertain about what roles they actually should be submitting for once they got out of college.

What is Equity?

A lot of schools gloss over the basics of what Equity is and how one goes about joining it. Sometimes you take a field trip to Equity and get some glossy brochures with the membership rates and a list of benefits. But Equity is a big complicated creature and choosing when and how to join can be even more confusing. Because there is no way to cover every aspect of Equity in a single blog post (or even in two), I recommend reading the AEA official “About Equity” handbook. Skim it, at the very least, to give yourself an idea of what joining a union could mean for you. Three basic pieces of information that you should know leaving college include:

  1. You do not have to be a member of Equity in order to attend Equity auditions (EPA/ECC). You are not guaranteed to be seen but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show up!
  2. Once you join Equity, you cannot participate in Non-Equity theatre without permission from AEA. So, if you are working consistently at paid, non-union gigs in community or regional theatre, you really need to consider whether it’s a good time for you to join a union.
  3. Joining Equity can supply you with health care, tax assistance, a bank, a 401k, and many assorted other services and benefits. This may seem obvious to some but many theatre students simply don’t know what the purpose of a union is and what a union can do for you.

How do you make money when you don’t have a paid gig?

Living in New York is expensive. Very expensive. And for people coming from schools in the South or the Midwest, it can be hard to even start to realize how much living costs in NYC. I recommend the book #SoBlessed: The Annoying Actor Friend’s Guide to Werking in Show Business by Twitter personality “Annoying Actor Friend.” Does that sound silly? Yes. But this book is actually a brilliant guide to NYC housing and survival jobs. It’s not the ultimate guide and you’ll still have to do a lot of Google research. But it was a really helpful starting place for me.

Everyone’s heard of the cliché of actors being waiters or working at Starbucks. Those are definitely great survival jobs. They tend to be flexible, or at least let you choose your shifts. That’s perfect for someone who is going to different auditions every week. Another job option is working for a ticket broker. TKTS is not the only company that sells discount tickets in New York City. For example, down the street on 8th avenue between 46th and 47th is Broadway on 8th, another excellent discount ticket broker. These places use street teams, or groups of people who stand outside and give information about Broadway shows. They try to convince people to buy tickets from them, and oftentimes they’re able to get better seats than TKTS. The fact is that TKTS works with leftover seats that the theatre hasn’t sold. Sometimes they’re awesome seats – I got a second row center seat to Spring Awakening a few weeks ago. But sometimes their tickets are partial view. These other agencies can offer seats that TKTS cannot; both options are legitimate, but tourists have only heard of TKTS. Joining a street team can be fantastic; they usually have pretty good pay and they are very flexible about the hours you work.

Another fantastic job opportunity is becoming an usher or merchandise sales associate. Working inside a theatre is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the process of putting a show together. Some perks of being an usher also include seeing the show for free! Some companies even offer completely free comp tickets during previews, allowing their staff to sit down and have a nice evening at no cost.

Two of my roommates, who are both actors, babysit and nanny for some extra income. If you’re good with kids, find a reputable nanny agency and sign up! You can essentially make your own schedule and if you connect with a family, you may end up with a long-term job!

Yet another option that I’ve heard from a lot of other actors is doing background work for TV, commercials, and films. If you can get in on this, it’s a great way to add to your resume while making some money. However, be aware that it’s a lot of long hours and waiting, so make sure you bring a book or some music! You can find these jobs through Actors Access, Backstage, and other online audition sites.

To be continued… (What’s the deal with agents, and can I get one at my showcase?)

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