All This!… For How Much?

Walking into a theatre is always an exciting experience. There’s the anticipation of seeing something new, or if it’s a show we know, seeing a new interpretation. There’s a feeling of comfort, a willingness to be open and be on the receiving end of entertainment, enlightenment and to some degree a sense of awe for the spectacle we are about to see. That’s what is expected of us in the audience. But what of the artists, those who engage themselves and each other to answer our expectations.

First of all, we have to understand that those we see on the stage are not the only artists involved in presenting a show. Long before a single actor sees a script there is a team hard at work making the preparations necessary to bring a play alive on stage.

A writer may spend months, even years, sculpting a phrase so that it means exactly what he/she would like to say. Understanding the nuances of language, giving a character identity and creating a circumstance that will ignite imaginations is not a small task, certainly not one for the faint of heart. Writing is solitary and scary and often produces very little result other than mountains of rejection letters and the lingering questions from family, “when are you gonna get a real job?”

Should a script be selected, either a producer fell in love with the words, a director saw the dream, or a selection committee convinced each other that a piece would satisfy an audience. Whatever the process, a play moves into pre-production.

For that to happen, the producers assemble a creative team comprised of a director and various designers. Each in turn submits their individual vision and interpretation of a work back to the producer, who with the director begins to form the skeleton of the show. And unless the Director is also the producer and the original writer of the play, the melding of vision has already begun.

The collaboration that occurs is in many ways the epitome of the art of theatre. Individual visions bending and melding finally coalesce into a look and feel for the play that will set the stage so a production can be mounted.

Outside of all this offstage work, a cast has been assembled through a series of auditions and callbacks and second callbacks and then the first read through. Many actors, by the time they get to this first read through, have already done research, written their own back-stories and sought out and begun to learn special skills that may be required for a particular production.

Those studies are on top of the countless hours of acting exercises, movement classes, dance lessons, dialect work, sometimes even therapy just to understand a script. Then there are the rehearsals, which involve taking risks and trusting both the director and fellow actors to make the final product something all are proud to present to a paying public.

And still the rest of the creative team scurries and bustles to get the set and scenery right, to pick or build the right costumes, determine the color schemes and choose the music that will help to set just the right tone. Next, a small army goes about to build the set, paint the scenery, hang the lights and make sure that everything works together towards an opening night that can unreservedly entertain its very first audience.

Now this legion of artists, from writer to actor to director and everyone in-between has heard the same question that was posed to the writer: “when are you gonna get a real job?” But the truth is that for most people involved, this is the real job. Anything else they might do is to support this effort, the desire to creatively communicate profound ideas while engaging us with entertainment.

It is often said that acting is the only profession in the world in which the only requirement is to call yourself one. But the truth is that there is earnest study and effort extended by every person who helps produce a play. Because the work that is presented seems so much like the lives we lead, the talent and sacrifice that goes into a production is often ignored. And every person who has watched an actor believes that if they could learn the lines, they could do the job. Better, perhaps!

But the job is more: it is all of the education, it is the training, it is the ongoing study, and it is the willingness to be mocked and humiliated that allows for a dauntless courage and unending belief in the possibilities of what theatre can create.

Why is this important to know? Well, for one, understand that when you get up at the end of a play and rush to beat the crowd, you are dismissing the effort that all these people contributed. Even if you don’t like the result, they tried. So take the moment and applaud. Second, when next you go to get the cheap tickets, the special deal, the half price, know that for all of this effort, for all of this training, most everyone that worked on the show did so for next to nothing. In some cases, it was for nothing but the satisfaction of the work.

That, folks, is passion. It’s commitment and sacrifice, and it deserves more than we give back.  Support the theatre, support the artists and give them there due. Isn’t that what you would expect for yourself?

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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