Friday, May 22, 2015

Life on the Road: Lessons to be learned from a Touring Artist

My tour of Washington included many murals.
I've been staying pretty busy with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I was cast in November, rehearsed all of January and opened in February. We started out with a few shows here and there but the pace has really picked up.

We left Seattle for the month of April to travel to Northern and Eastern Washington (and eventually a bit of Idaho)  on what Book-It calls an expansion tour. It was my first taste of life on the road as a job. We'd previously been making mostly day trips in the Seattle area, and a few over night trips on several of the islands. Now we were leaving home with our bags and not coming back for three weeks.

Three actors, one touring van, and a sizable set took off to see the state! I have to say that I really enjoyed it. Tour life agrees with me. Many of the schools we went to were full of children that had never seen a live production before, and several of them had booked tours with Book-It Rep in the past and were really looking forward to their one annual theatrical performance.

Children's Theatre is an incredibly rewarding experience in many ways, but I think my favorite is getting to introduce the performing arts to young creative minds. After every show (of which we did two a day) we held 'talk-backs' where the kids got to ask us questions. I had the lucky opportunity to run these talk backs and I got to facilitate the answering of all the questions.   Many of the children that hadn't seen theatre before were amazed at simple things like quick costume changes and remembering all the lines. Others wanted to know how long we'd been acting, how did we learn to do it, and was it too late to start?  My absolute favorite part was seeing kids faces light up when they fully understood that acting was our job, and that it could be their job too.

One great quote from a question and answer session came from a one building school house in a very rural part of Eastern Washington. There were about 40 kids in attendance and after the show a little girl (maybe first or second grade) asked me, "Why is the Queen of Heart's so mean?" I play the Queen in our production, and she can be a very intimidating character so I was prepared to field the question. "Do you ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed somedays?" I asked, like I usually do. "No," the little girl said--which totally stumped me. Then out of nowhere an older boy spoke up and very simply said, "It's just how she feels." To which the little girl nodded sagely. And we looked around and realized that everyone understood that explanation! So simple. So cute. And so wise.

We had several especially fun performances, one of which was a school of about 600 students who were celebrating facial hair day. We came out onstage, and I looked up to say my first line only to see 600 or so bearded and mustachioed children looking back at me (clearly having forgotten that they had all drawn on their faces in colored markers) expectantly. That was possibly the biggest challenge not to break I've faced.

I have to say that this tour has taught me a lot about the different kind of theatrical experiences you can have in your professional career.  Every show is different, and every company is different. But it's important to take lessons away from each production you do to help you on the winding path to success in this crazy business. Here are several lessons I learned:

Like getting a flat tire when you're supposed to perform in 30 minutes.
1. Doing a show without a stage manager is as fun as it is frustrating. We have no stage manager touring with us, which means that we're in charge of our own show. We run our tech, we make our own executive decisions about show adjustments, and we keep track of our own schedules. This can be very freeing, not having a person to answer to. However, I now know that I don't enjoy fixing my own props, sewing my torn costumes, or generally not having someone who is responsible for issues that arise. My 'mainstage' mentality has had to adjust to tour life quite a bit.

2. It's important to introduce children to live theatre not just so they can experience acting and storytelling, but also so they can learn audience etiquette. I'd never thought about what age children are when they learn how to be an audience member. Many students had to be told by the faculty that cheering was for sporting events and clapping was for when you enjoy something at the theatre. Other student audiences were so incredibly free with their laughter and vocal responses because they'd never been told they had to sit in silence respectfully--and that was a beautiful thing. Children's Theatre is definitely a lesson in audience engagement.

3. It's hard to be healthy on the road. Many hotels (surprisingly) don't have gyms or aren't in safe places to go for a run. Without a kitchen it can be difficult to make your own food, especially if you want it to be fresh food, not from a box. We were lucky enough to stay in a suite for a week that had a kitchen, but I know this isn't a normal accommodation for a touring actor.

4. SAVE. The whole point of touring is that you aren't paying for lodging, so you should be saving that rent money. If you're with a wonderful company who pays you per diem or a stipend for food you should be able to save most of that as well. Budget what you think you'll need for food before you leave. And get your fellow actors on the same page. My cast agreed to do mostly grocery shopping and very little eating out. I shopped before I left and barely bought anything while we were out. If you're smart about it, you can walk away with more money than you'd think. Also, just don't ever accept a touring job that doesn't pay for your food. That's cheap and you're worth more.

5. A positive attitude is a must in any professional work environment--but especially so in a small van or a shared hotel room. If you have something to vent about do it and then leave it behind. There's no room for an attitude.

6. Two shows a day for three weeks teaches you that water and a good warm up really are the most important tools an actor has at their disposal.

7. Take time to go out and enjoy your new surroundings. We visited parks, local hole in the wall restaurants, did some wine tasting, and even attended a guest lecture by Jared Diamond while on tour. The whole point of going on the road is to really experience all the places you're traveling too. That could mean walking in a corn field, checking out the mountain biking path, or going dancing at the nearest downtown hot spot. Take time away from the show to remember you like doing other things--you'll need the distance.

8. On the flip side of that, don't be afraid to stay in with your cast and watch Dirty Dancing and Boy Meets World. Relaxing is important too.

9. Do a tour. If you haven't done it and you think you'd like it--do it. And then get ready for all the other touring companies to call you and ask you to do theirs. They will because being a touring artist is a special skill. Not everyone enjoys it. Not everyone wants to be away from home for that long. But once you do one you can really set the bar for where your professional standards are. I lucked into a great one for my first touring gig. And I don't think I fully appreciated how great it was until I had other offers. You would be surprised at how many companies want you to travel 1,000+ miles a week for $300 or less. You'd be surprised at how many companies want to book you for an entire six months on the road with no vacation except your weekends. And you'd be surprised at how many give you pennies for a food stipend. Do your homework and be prepared to ask yourself some serious questions about what you think you'd enjoy. Not just what you can handle, but what you actually want to spend a significant amount of time putting yourself through.

10. Figure out the direction you want to take in your career. This is something I'm still juggling (obviously. And aren't we all?). Once you do Children's Theatre you have an in with a lot of companies. They'll see it on your resume and know that they can use you and your experience to help them get all that educational grant money they want. As they should! Educational theatre is incredibly important for the next generation of artists and theatre goers alike! But do you want a career of Children's Theatre? Do you want to tour for a significant amount of time? Do you think other companies looking for their next Shakespearean ingenue will skip over you for an audition because they see your last few credits are for kids? Do you want the money you can save by going on tour more than the opportunity to play a role that reviewers will write about even if you have to give 3/4 of your paycheck to your landlord for rent?  Really put your business hat on and realize that Children's Theatre and being a touring artist will open new doors for you--and it's your responsibility to keep all the doors you're interested in open.

It's been a crazy 4 1/2 months of theatre for me.  I've learned a lot. More than I think I usually do purely because this is the longest contract I've ever taken. By the end of this run I will have done 70+ performances of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. One more month to go!

But as usual, I'm enjoying this crazy theatrical life--and already looking ahead. I have some fun big announcements coming your way as soon as I'm clear to reveal all!

I can dunk in an elementary school gym!

The best BBQ in all of Eastern Washington is in the tiny town of Republic. GO THERE.