One of my students who wants to pursue Musical Theatre as a career asked me to answer a series of questions for her college portfolio. I answered as a Music Theatre professional rather than a teacher. It was an extremely interesting exercise. The answers to these very simple career questions highlight how difficult and unusual this profession is.
1. What is your job title?
“Actor” – That title could and would usually be substituted to specify a role (ex: “Amalia” in She Loves Me) but those titles change frequently as I transition from show to show.
2. How did you choose this career?
Performing is that thing in life that fills me with fire, passion, and drive. I never want to stop working on it. I love every moment of the process of developing a show and I love working with fellow performers to find a connection for our characters. I choose this career to tell stories so that audiences walk away with a greater understanding of why my character made the choices she did.
3. What are your daily responsibilities?
Knowing/learning my materials (music/lines), developing my character, developing relationships with my scene partners, taking direction to apply changes.
4. What kind of skills do you need to perform your job? What was your major in college? did your major help you gain these skills?
I majored in Music Theatre in college (Bachelor of Music from Oklahoma City University). I was required to audition, take the necessary voice, dance and acting classes. I also developed skills of memorization, cooperation/teamwork, the ability to apply changes quickly, the ability to project words, songs, and emotions so people can understand them from a distance.
5. How much education or training is required/recommended for this occupation? What kind of degree would you recommend for someone going into this profession?
The best training for this vocation is experience. I recommend a music or performance degree from a program that give you lots of auditioning and performance experience (and/or allows you to work outside in community or professional theaters). You will need to develop your skills of singing, dancing, acting, auditioning, and skills of coping with rejection
6. How many hours do you work per week? Are you expected to do overtime?
The hours vary depending on the theatre company and the role. I am rarely required at the theatre more than 40 hours a week but your pay may not be enough to support you. You will likely have to have a second “survival” job in the beginning – meaning you will be working much more than 40 hours.
7. What kind of personality is best suited for this career?
Someone who works well with others, is creative, is empathetic, and is able to handle criticism.
8. What are the advantages and disadvantages of your job?
Advantages are that you will have an outlet for emotions and stress that leaves you energized and fulfilled at the end of the day. You will connect with a huge number of people. Your everyday tasks will be very fun – performing music, telling stories, wearing costumes and studying people. You will get to make hundreds of strangers feel and learn with you.
The disadvantages are the odd hours, the typically low pay, the lack of a guarantee for future employment, and the public scrutiny. Also, the fact that you, your body, is your tool for success – you will be required to constantly care for yourself physically and emotionally, to know yourself so that you can operate in the job safely, and to alter your lifestyle accordingly. You could see that as an advantage for your health but this high-level, high-stakes self-evaluation can be stressful.
9. Do you feel your salary compensates you appropriately for the amount of work you do?
It depends on the company you work for. You will be working on contract so unless you have an agent or become an Equity member, you will be responsible for negotiating your pay or deciding if a project is worth your time.
10. What can you tell me about advancement opportunities? Do you need to update your skills/education to ensure advancement?
There are many levels of theatre (from the community – low to no pay) to National Tours and Broadway. You will constantly be adding to your resume, updating the roles you’ve played. You will also need to continually take classes, lessons and practice to improve/maintain your voice, dance, and acting skills.
11. What do you see as the future outlook for this job? Are there going to be jobs available in this field for five years?
Anything in the arts is highly competitive but recreational to its patrons. The amount of work will go up and down for you, depending on the economy and luck but new opportunities will always arise.
12. What kind of work experience or volunteer experience would help me find out if I am interested in this profession?
Community theatre would be the best way to experience the environment. There are also other jobs that require similar skills (film, party characters, modeling) as well as teaching/directing. These would also be a good way to make connections and stack your resume.
I remember something a professor of mine would repeat continually while I was in college: “If you can do anything else in the world, do it.” A better thing to say might have been, “If you can do anything else, you will.” You will likely be doing other work even if you consider musical theatre your primary vocation in order to make enough money to pay the bills. I’m lucky because my “survival job,” teaching voice lessons, is still related to musical theatre so, through it, I am still learning and growing my skills. It is also a difficult lifestyle to lead while you’re trying to raise a family or save money because it’s time-consuming and you will work odd hours. It is hard on your psyche because you will need to access painful emotions and withstand criticism and rejection.
So why do we do it? Passion and hope. Every moment you spend in the theatre must be filled with passion and every moment outside of it must be filled with hope. There is plenty of room for people to still love musical theatre and do it only once in a while. I don’t mistake non-professional for apathetic. Only you can decide if your passion and hope are strong enough to see you through self-doubt, limited finances, and an uncertain future. You must accept, defend and be proud that you will not be living a normal life. Instead, you will be living an extraordinary one.