For the Aspiring Performer

My oldest son has a plan for his future. Which is good because he’s sixteen and finishing his sophomore year of high school. Two more years stand between now and graduation. Adulthood is creeping up on him quicker than the ghosts lurking over the shoulders of unsuspecting characters in one of the Conjuring movies. A plan is a great thing for a kid his age to possess.

Christian will be taking some construction arts classes next year and intends to focus on electrical engineering after completing high school. He knows electricians make good money and the career is fairly recession proof so he plans on doing his apprenticeship, working as a journeyman, then becoming a master electrician. If reality was a D&D game, electricians are wizards and he aims to max out his character’s stats.
image courtesy of vforvegard

However, if he was a D&D character in real life, there’s a bit of a bard deep inside his spirit, waiting for its time to shine. Last fall, Christian participated in competitive drama. He and his partner won second place in their district and fourth place in the state of Idaho. Much like I did when I was his age, he’s found freedom in the theatrical world. He feels he can most be himself by pretending to be someone else. In addition to his dreams of working as a master electrician, he also want to continue acting after he graduates high school. He added a new item on his bucket list - he wants a role in a major studio movie, even if it is as an extra.

Electrical work to make money. Theatrical work to bring him joy. If you ask me, it sounds like a good plan.

On a recent trip to Seattle, Christian and I had a couple hours to break away from the rest of the family and spend some time together, just the two of us. Our schedule wouldn’t allow us to drive up to Marysville for a tour of my hometown so I thought the next best thing would be an introduction to a former classmate of mine. As an added bonus, this old friend has been active in the Seattle theater scene for most of the past quarter century. I messaged Dan and asked if I could buy him a cup of coffee and let my son pick his brain. He enthusiastically agreed.

Dan is a great guy. I knew my son could learn a lot for him and I hoped to share a few laughs reminiscing about the times we shared in the MPHS drama club. What I got (and didn’t expect) was to hear him dispense advice for me as well as my son. We had a great conversation that lasted longer than I thought it would. While my 42 year old brain can’t remember everything we discussed, there are a few key bits of guidance Dan contributed which I found helpful, if not inspiring.

Much of what he shared came from the perspective of an experienced actor. However, his counsel is applicable in any artistic or performance industry. From musicians to photographers to writers, he provided personal anecdotes and recommendations worth consideration.

If you or your kids are performers - either as an amateur or a professional, take some time to absorb these highlights from the time Christian and I spent with Dan.

1. Don’t stop learning. Christian mentioned interest in studying karate and asked if it would be helpful. Dan said absolutely. He participated in competitive fencing and his experience there led to roles he might not have gotten without learning how to fence. He also talked about how being bilingual opens up opportunities nonexistent for English only speakers. Dan informed Christian any specialty skills gained make you more valuable to people who want to hire you.

2. Fail in a safe place. Everyone makes mistakes - especially when starting out as a performer. Find ways to hone your craft in a small space before going big. Join student or small community productions, film videos for YouTube or TikTok, livestream on Twitch, attend open mike nights, book shows at dive bars where the dozen in attendance are probably drunk and don’t care if you are terrible. Those places offer low stakes with minimal consequence for failure and give you the freedom to screw up and keep going. Successes in these small spaces build confidence you need to be great when greatness matters.

3. Get involved. As a student, Christian has plenty of chances to be involved with theater and arts programs through his school. Yet for those of us older than a teenager, there are still ways we can participate in our chosen crafts. For those wanting to act, Dan suggested community theaters are a great place to start. Writers have blogs, singers have YouTube. Involvement in civic organizations help you learn how things function behind the scenes, the etiquette, the traditions, all the things unseen by the audience. You don’t even need to be performing to be involved. Dan told Christian he should volunteer as a way to get his foot in the door.

4. Find a mentor. Mentors could be a teacher; Dan and I both had a phenomenal mentor in Mr K when we were at MPHS. Outside of school, there are coaches and trainers available to hire. If you’re involved in community organizations, it’s possible to find someone there who is older and wiser willing to usher you to bigger and better things.

5. Do the scary stuff. “As an actor,” Dan said, “if there’s something that scares me, it’s a good sign I should probably do it.” He wasn’t talking about the dangerous or potentially harmful king of scary - rather he was speaking of the roles and challenges that seem intimidating. He gave us the example of taking on comical parts after spending years considering himself as nothing more than dramatic actor. Doing things that seem daunting helps you grow and creates greater opportunities in the future.

6. Watch for red flags. Dan has learned to watch for troubling signs about producers and directors to avoid taking roles or participating in shows potentially problematic. For example, if they’re disorganized during an audition, the rehearsals and production will probably be disorganized too. If multiple friends and colleagues are warning you to not work with a particular person, there’s probably a valid reason for their words of caution. If people make too-good-to-be-true promises, it probably is too good to be true.

7. Learn when to say no. This was Dan’s answer when I asked him if there’s anything he would do differently. He talked about how not every opportunity is a good one. As a young or beginning creative worker, it’s easy to say yes to everything. You’re hungry for a gig and eager to prove yourself. Inevitably, everyone ends up working on projects they shouldn’t have accepted. Learning to say no helps reduce the number of times you look back in hindsight and regret doing this job or that gig.

8. Remember your power. In creative industries, there are people who think they possess all of the power as if they’re little demigods in the world of arts and entertainment. Agents, publishers, directors, producers. They act big and tough, presenting an image of unquestionable authority giving artists the only option to shut up and take whatever is offered. While it is true they have power, they don’t have it all. You have power too. They will research you before they offer you anything, you have the power to research them too. Study them, ask around for others who have worked with them to see what their experience was like. Look into the quality or other work they’ve done. Everyone has power and no one is more powerful than anyone else. If a director or a publisher uses their power in a way that is abusive or manipulative, you have the ultimate power to say no and decline working for or with them.

If you know Dan and have the chance to spend some time with him, I’d encourage you to do so. He’s filled with wit and wisdom. You will probably walk away from the conversation encouraged or motivated. Possibly both.

If you’re in the Seattle area, Dan will be a part of the cast for GreenStage’s return to live in-person performances with Shakespeare in the Park this summer. Please go see one of their shows and enjoy some of the culture the city has to offer.

Finally, regardless of where you live, please support your local arts community. Starving artists everywhere do what we do for people like you. After a year like 2020, your patronage is more important than ever.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this, Nic. Thanks for writing! All my best to your son - he's already a "success" in my book!! K