Robert Currier, artistic director and co-founder of Marin Shakespeare Company, in San Rafael, Calif., emphasizes that it's a summer theatre, not a summer stock theatre. The latter, he says, produces "light fare, has short rehearsal periods—10 days—and attracts mostly tourists. Here we have long rehearsal periods—up to four weeks—and do serious plays, two Shakespearean works and one non-Shakespearean piece, which may or may not be family-friendly, and two-thirds of our audience comes from the county. We are not tourist-driven."
Founded in 1989, Marin Shakespeare Company mounts productions in a 600-seat amphitheatre built in 1973 and set in the woods. Like the earlier Marin Shakespeare Festival, which first performed in the theatre, Marin Shakespeare Company is a mom-and-pop operation. Currier runs the theatre with his wife, Leslie, who is managing director. Jonathan Gonzalez is the education director.
"During the summer, our staff swells," Currier says. "We are a small-to-medium theatre and operate on a budget of $530,000, half of which comes from ticket sales, the other half from grants—from the NEA, the California Arts Council—and, of course, from private and individual donations."
This is significant because there is no shortage of competition: There are at least 300 performing arts groups in the Bay Area alone, he says. Still, Marin is respected by audiences and theatre insiders, and it now attracts the kind of talent that makes productions of Hamlet and Macbeth possible, two plays the company has mounted within the last five years.
Currier admits that in its early years, the theatre had to stick to comedies. This year, in contrast, it will tackle King Lear, which will run in repertory with Alice in Wonderland. The theatre will then shut down for a week and reopen with The Comedy of Errors. The summer season runs from early July through the end of September. Each production is performed for four to six weeks, four shows per week.
Marin operates under an Equity Letter of Agreement, based on the LORT (League of Resident Theatres) D contract, the D referring to the size of the theatre. "Fifty percent of our actors are Equity members, 25 percent are working towards Equity membership, and another 25 percent of the actors are local talent who act because they enjoy it but have no intention of becoming union members or professional actors," notes Currier.
On average, 300 actors audition and 40 are selected for each season; most actors—aside from the leads—playing more than one role in each production. Actors who want to audition should be prepared to do one three-minute classical monologue. "If I'm interested, I may ask for a second piece," Currier says. "The actor should be prepared to do another classical monologue. If the first one was serious, the second should be comic." He adds, "An actor's résumé is important to me. If an actor has experience and studied at RADA [London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], I like it."
Those hired are provided with housing if they're not locals, but transportation and food are the actors' responsibility. Classes and seminars are offered; many of Marin's actors and technical staff teach in the theatre's apprenticeship and internship program.
Currier warns that one of the biggest challenges an actor faces is vocal—the ability to be heard in an outdoor amphitheatre, "I don't use mikes, and they have to be able to project," he says. Nature is another challenge. "In our space, we have poison oaks, bees, and wasps," he notes. "It's very hot and the temperature can rise to 100 degrees. Actors should come with large hats and sunscreen." In addition the dressing rooms are in the woods, and actors should be prepared "to hike through the woods to get to the stage, and that can be rough. Some nights are hot; other nights are cold and windy and dusty."
That aside, Currier maintains, "There is nothing better than performing on a summer night beneath a starry sky in a space that everybody loves. We function as a clearinghouse, and we get calls for references. We supply names. Performing at Marin can be a steppingstone for a good actor, although many of our good actors come back year after year. Many actors call Marin 'summer camp.' We have tennis courts and lots of parties—at least five each season." In other words: Prima donnas, stay home!
Fight director Richard Lane, who has worked with Marin Shakespeare Company for 10 years, is a great champion of summer theatre in general and Marin Shakespeare in particular. "If it weren't for Shakespeare, fight directors wouldn't have much work," he quips. Lane choreographs the stage combat used in the theatre's productions and also trains actors in the form.
"Working in summer theatre is a blessing, especially in repertory theatres like Marin Shakespeare," he says. "You get to know the actors, their strengths and weaknesses. In addition, the actors—at least at Marin—are all taking classes with me. This is good training for them and it helps me choreograph for them. It's terrific."
Still, there are challenges in working at an outdoor theatre, starting with the heat and glare of the sun. "In the morning, it can be as hot as 100 degrees, which makes the surface of the stage very hot," says Lane who also advises actors to wear hats and sunscreen. "You often hear actors say, 'Let's wait till the sun goes down to do the fight scenes.' But we don't wait, and the actors rehearsing combat scenes have to be prepared to fall down on that hot stage....Actors doing stage combat must have long-sleeved shirts, soft-soled shoes, and kneepads. Everyone should be prepared to work and sweat a lot.
"Get yourself in physical shape even if you're not going to do stage combat," he continues. "And train your voice. You have to be able to project in a large open space without the aid of a mike. Marin does not use microphones. It's almost a lost art, speaking without a mike. If you're not in vocal shape, you can blow out your pipes."
Assisting a fight director is a starting point for those who think they might be interested in learning more about—perhaps even specializing in—stage combat, Lane says. And summer theatre is a great place to do it if a combat director is on board and the theatre offers apprenticeships or, more often, internships. If you get the chance to assist a fight director, he says, "The experience you'll have will largely depend on your own experiences in stage combat and the fight director you're working with. Your experience will also depend on whether or not you've been cast in the show."
On that subject, Lane is no fan of actors who offer to choreograph their own fight scenes: "It's a bad idea and it happens all the time. You can't really choreograph a fight and be in it. You're splitting your focus, and you're doing a disservice to the art form. It's also a mistake to believe that if you can do competitive fencing, you can do stage combat. They're very different. In competitive fencing, you don't know what your opponent will do. In stage combat, you do." An assistant working with Lane functions as a "punch dummy" as he choreographs the fights before the actors arrive. Apprentices may also contribute choreography, maintain the armory, and notate the fights after they've been choreographed.
Lane, who recently won a local honor, the Dean Goodman Choice Award, believes summer theatre is a terrific training ground for all areas of theatre, technical and nontechnical: "I think artists who work in summer theatres should expect nothing and be overjoyed by anything they get. In Marin, they take fabulous care of the artists."
Housed at Allan Hancock College, a community college in Santa Maria, Calif., Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) is both a professional producing entity and a two-year conservatory for actors and theatre technicians. It operates year-round and maintains its own small resident company. For the summer season, 25 to 30 additional members are brought into the company, in addition to 20 to 25 conservatory students.
There are two geographical divisions to PCPA. A production will open first in the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria and play for about two and a half weeks. Then it will transfer 30 miles south to the outdoor Festival Theatre in Solvang for a similar run. Meanwhile, the next new production will have opened at the Marian. The transfer of shows from one theatre to another is relatively easy because the two stages have identical floor plans, although the Marian is a 450-seat indoor space while the Festival is a 700-seat amphitheatre.
A spirit of apprenticeship is an important facet of PCPA: Members of the year-round resident company also teach in the conservatory. "We're with our students in the studio during the day, working on building their skills," says Mark Booher, the interim artistic director. "And then we're in rehearsal with them in the evening. We continue to grow as artists, with our students right alongside us. That mentorship model that has worked for ages is still at work here."
Nevertheless, conservatory students, as well as actors from outside the school, must audition for the summer season. The program operates under a University/Resident Theatre Association contract and includes a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors. Nonunion actors are compensated with a scholarship or stipend, averaging $250–$300 a week. Some assistance in finding housing is also offered to company members.
PCPA's repertoire is a mix of musicals and nonmusicals. Although it's likely that actors will find themselves in either a musical or nonmusical track, Booher says there is some overlap. A few actors this summer, for instance, may wind up in both Beauty and the Beast and Much Ado About Nothing.
Actors hired by the theatre can expect an "experience of intensity," he says. Though not based on the old two-week rehearsal model of traditional summer stock, PCPA works "very quickly, very deeply" on its productions. And the theatre has impressive credentials: Among those who have appeared on its stages are Mercedes Ruehl, Boyd Gaines, and Kathy Bates. However, Booher prefers to look to the future instead of the past. He hopes to find plays that speak more specifically to the diverse population of PCPA's coastal California community. He also hopes it will become more experimental in its selection of musical theatre offerings.
One of the biggest perks for actors working at PCPA is the natural beauty of the area. The theatres lie in close proximity to beaches suitable for surfing and to wineries.
Booher believes there are two more closely related benefits for young artists working in summer theatre. First, there's the value of "getting into first-person, moment-to-moment contact with people who have more experience in their own process and who help you grow as an artist." Second, doing summer theatre can help actors network and make professional connections. To emphasize networking may seem slightly "crass and commercial," Booher admits, "but every business in the world is a people business. That's not to say that you get to know people so that you don't have to be good at anything. You get to know people so that your excellence can be observed."
—Mark Dundas Wood
Michael La Fleur first built a career as an actor, singer, and dancer, then he segued into directing and choreographing. Working in summer theatre has been, and continues to be, an important facet of his career.
To La Fleur, though, a job is a job is a job. As a young performer back in 1979, he began working for Walt Disney World in Florida, performing as one of the "Kids of the Kingdom." He honed his craft in small—and long-defunct, he says—summer stock and dinner theatres throughout the Sunshine State. He now lives in Las Vegas, where he recently worked as the artistic coordinator for Celine Dion's act. Yet he followed up that assignment with a project at a 175-seat theatre in the Catskills.
"It wasn't a failure or a step backwards or anything that a lot of people with ego might say," La Fleur contends. "To me, it was no different from working for Celine, because it was about art and about the business, and it was about doing my craft."
La Fleur champions summer theatres and dinner theatres because they allow young artists to polish their skills in front of an audience. He's disturbed that such venues seem to be gradually disappearing. He recalls working at the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre and learning lessons there from established pros. Charles Nelson Reilly would be chatting informally with people about the business. Soon a small crowd would gather. "Before you knew it, it would be 4 o'clock in the morning," La Fleur remembers. "I couldn't have paid for classes like that!"
The actor-director encourages people in the business to attend and support not only summer stock but also community theatre and high school shows, where young people learn by doing. "If we don't have those experiences for people in this country, where is our next generation of stars coming from?" he ponders. "They can't all be Francis Ford Coppola's family."
At auditions, La Fleur sometimes encounters actors who show great potential but who seem to lack the poise and experience needed to put up a professional production within a limited rehearsal period. If these performers demonstrate the requisite passion, however, he'll sometimes take a chance and hire them: "They can certainly be in the chorus if I'm doing a Hello, Dolly! or a Mame or a Fiddler. I know that experience is going to launch them on their way to something great. That's what happened to me."
For those who wish to direct in summer theatres, La Fleur says building a solid reputation is essential. Very seldom, he contends, will directors be hired when they've merely submitted a cold, unsolicited résumé. Last summer La Fleur worked for the first time at PCPA, and word of mouth helped land him the gig: He was recommended by a musical director who had worked with him at another theatre. And this year he will return to direct Dames at Sea.
If you're looking for ways to build up your reputation and marketability, La Fleur says, you should seek out opportunities to stage shows for churches, charities, or schools. He recalls directing Li'l Abner at an elementary school and found the experience satisfying: "Learning how to finesse people, how to pull performances out of somebody, how to work with people that don't get along with one another, how to bring creative minds together at a table, how to get them to respect and communicate with one another—those are the skills that I think are the most important to develop."
—Mark Dundas Wood
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival has performed outdoor productions of the Bard in Boise, Idaho, for 28 years. Recently, however, the theatre expanded its repertory to include contemporary plays and musicals. The 2006 season will offer two modern tuners: The Spitfire Grill and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Also being offered this year: two Shakespeare productions, Love's Labor's Lost and Romeo and Juliet, and George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara.
"It's a lot of fun," says Artistic Director Charles Fee of the upcoming lineup. "And now I'm starting to cast—which I hadn't done originally—the musicals from within our Shakespeare company, so the same actors are doing [Shakespeare] and Forum in rep."
This is the kind of unique experience that working at a top-grade summer theatre can provide. Idaho Shakespeare, which mounts its shows in a new, well-equipped outdoor amphitheatre that takes full advantage of its picturesque natural surroundings—where even the sunset becomes essential to some shows—offers many such opportunities, including the chance to work with seasoned professionals who love the theatre enough to keep returning.
"You really form a very strong bond and family with artists that have a summer home together," says Fee, who has been artistic director for 14 years—half the life of the company. In that time, he has worked with many of its members for a decade or more. "It's really rewarding to know that every summer for four months you're going to basically have all of your friends in town."
It's also possible for someone new to get a foot in the door. At the beginning of every season, a third of the company is brand-new. In accordance with the theatre's Letter of Agreement with Actors' Equity, salaries for performers typically fall in the $600-per-week range. The company also offers internships. But Fee admits that when you work at a summer theatre in Idaho, the chance that you'll be enriching your craft is higher than the chance you'll be seen by a casting director who'll whisk you off to Broadway.
"Working all summer and acting all summer, the more you work the better you get, and the better you get, hopefully your career will move forward," he says. "Does it lead to a contract in New York? Well, rarely. If you're off in Boise performing all summer, you're not being seen by New York casting directors." But he notes that even that is beginning to change. Bartlett Sher, who directed Broadway's The Light in the Piazza, spent years directing at Idaho Shakespeare. "People grow up in the theatre together in these summer stock things, and as your careers expand, you go off and take people with you," Fee says.
In addition to offering the typical benefits—housing, travel, local transportation—a summer stock theatre should also help artists interact with the surrounding community, he asserts: "A company should make sure that you get them out in the town with board members and leaders of the community and get the company to feel like they're also part of [it], rather than just the freaks that have been brought in for the summer to be up on stage. You better learn and understand how to speak to the audience—the actual audience that you're performing in front of.
"We're creating a total experience that is unique and differentiates itself from the other forms of traditional entertainment," Fee concludes. "To go out to the theatre on a summer evening and have a bottle of wine and a picnic while you watch Shakespeare is just a fabulous thing. I think a lot of the festivals have done quite well through tough times. We certainly have in Boise."
Sara M. Bruner started as an intern at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival when she was 18. Nine seasons, many stage roles, and a few TV and film appearances later, her dedication to the company remains strong. "Through the years, I've had the opportunity to grow every year and up the ante as far as the roles I'm approaching and the sizes of the roles are concerned," she says. "I feel like I've been in a constant state of growth, and now that I have this relationship with the theatre, it would be hard for me to go somewhere else."
Although Bruner views her time at Idaho Shakespeare as a wholly positive and enriching experience, she admits that the tightly wound, ever-changing nature of summer stock has its challenges. "One of the sort of obvious challenges is trying to give each [play] as much attention as you want to give it, but having a fairly limited amount of time to do it inside of the rehearsal hall. Sometimes it seems like you get cut a little short in summer stock because you're running all over the place, trying to perform three shows at once."
Yet if the chaotic nature of summer stock can be exhausting, Bruner says she wouldn't have it any other way: "You sort of get to know yourself as an actor because you're working so much. I think that's one of the complaints I have for the rest of the year: Not getting to work for three months in a row, it's hard to stay in practice. Summer stock allows you to stay in practice. You really feel like an actor-athlete in that way: You're on court every day practicing all your skills, and you can sharpen them and hone them in ways you can't do if you're doing one play every month."
In addition to allowing her to flex her acting muscles in a variety of roles (this year her roles will include Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and a chorus girl in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), the company's educational outreach program has given Bruner the chance to explore her directing talents as well. Called Shakesperience, it brings shortened productions of Shakespeare plays to schools around the state.
"I saw [that program] when I was in high school, when it came to my little rural town. It was my first taste of Shakespeare," Bruner says. "It gives [students] that taste of Shakespeare, and there's no way they'd normally see Shakespeare if they're living in Parma, Idaho, or whatever other tiny places there are in the state." Now a student at Boise State University, Bruner is pursuing a theatre arts degree with an emphasis in directing.
The opportunity to explore multiple artistic avenues is one of Idaho Shakespeare's most unique and admirable qualities, she says: "I don't know where else or how else I could have the opportunity to direct but in this educational outreach program. It's perfect if you're wanting to start directing, because it's a miniature version of working on a full show, and it's only because I've been in the company for so long that I'm able to even have that opportunity."
While it's generally true that seniority allows an actor to play bigger roles and take bigger chances, Bruner emphasizes that, as in most good summer stock theatres, every actor in the company can make a substantial difference: "If you're new and you're entering into a summer stock company…[it's important to know] how big of a difference you can make at the level at which you enter, and that good work, good actors, and people who are attentive and care about the theatre and about the work never, ever go unnoticed."
If you think you can only exercise your creative muscles to the accompaniment of a thumping urban beat, then Creede Repertory Theatre (CRT) is probably not the summer theatre for you. It sits in the two-block business district of Creede, Colo., a town of about 400 tucked in a valley in the San Juan Mountains, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
"We're in the middle of nowhere," says Executive/Artistic Director Maurice LaMée, who's headed the theatre for the last six years. "Mineral County is 96 percent public land. Our year-round population in the county is less than 1,000 people. It's pretty amazing that in the summertime we have a mainstage house of 243 and it fills up almost on a nightly basis. You sometimes wonder where all these people are coming from." A survey has shown that 60% of CRT's audience hails from Colorado, with most of the rest visiting from three adjoining states. During the summer months, the theatre is the county's largest employer, generating about 20% of its total economic activity.
But don't think that because you're in a quiet, remote town, you're going to be leading a sedentary existence. CRT presents its productions in rotating repertory, so you'll be doing a different show each night and rehearsing something else during the day. The theatre has offered as many as 13 performances in a single week.
Established in 1966 by 12 University of Kansas students, CRT has grown in size and scope, especially in recent years. The company employs about 60 people during the summer, including 16 members of the acting company. Rehearsals begin in May, with things winding down by September. In 2005, the theatre succeeded with its first off-season show, a version of A Christmas Carol. The acting company is a mix of union and nonunion performers. Members of Actors' Equity perform under a Guest Artist contract. The average compensation is about $250 a week, with housing provided in a relatively new complex near the theatre.
Comedies and musicals remain audience favorites, but LaMée is proud that in the last five years, 20% of CRT's plays have been original pieces, usually scripts with some kind of regional connection. Among the shows in the 2006 season are Enchanted April, Sweeney Todd, Crazy for You, and a new piece by Steven Cole Hughes called Cowboyily.
Most of the theatre's productions are performed in its mainstage proscenium theatre. An upstairs black-box space with 90 seats was added five years ago. Says LaMée, "We do a lot of new work up there, and some of the things that are maybe a little more adventuresome than what our basic family audience is interested in seeing."
The most famous performer in CRT's 40-year history is Mandy Patinkin, who spent some seasons performing there in the 1970s. Patinkin now owns property in the area, LaMée says, and is a great supporter and friend of the theatre. He has performed a benefit concert for the company, and LaMée hopes someday to convince him to return for a production.
Once actors have experienced the high of acting in Creede, they tend to want to come back again and again, says LaMée. But be forewarned: That high is not just figurative, it's literal. "We're at 9,000 feet," he explains. "A lot of times actors have a hard time catching their breath...for the first week or two of rehearsal, until they get acclimated."
—Mark Dundas Wood
Vagabond actors often long to be part of a company where they can settle in and sit for a spell. Christy Brandt has been living that dream for more than three decades. To be precise, she has acted with Creede Repertory Theatre for 31 seasons.
It is not Brandt's first experience with summer theatre, however. While at the University of Kansas in the late 1960s, she spent a summer at Pennsylvania's Eaglesmeer Playhouse. She was slated to play Emily in Our Town and to help with costumes and publicity, but when she arrived she was told there might not be money for her. Then she was asked, Can you sew?
"I kind of got thrown into a lot of extra duties," Brandt recalls. "I was driving around, handing out publicity. I was collecting props. I was sewing. I was doing several roles. And I never got paid a cent. And it was really expensive to live there, because it's a tourist town on a little lake, and we weren't allowed to cook in our rooms." While grueling and generally disappointing, the Eaglesmeer experience prepared Brandt for the multiple chores she faced when she first came to Creede in 1973. The difference was that at CRT, everybody was expected to be a protean worker.
Nowadays CRT has an internship program that allows the actors to concentrate on acting, the designers on designing, and the stitchers on stitching. "It's lovely for people who are getting older, like me," she says, "because you don't kill yourself and stay up till 4 every morning," she says. "And yet...I'm sure glad I had a bunch of years where I did everything."
When she started at CRT, Brandt took on "lots and lots of ingénue roles," including five maids in one season. Next she went through her "leading lady" period, portraying Nora in A Doll's House and the title role in Hedda Gabler. Now she's playing mature character parts, which she says she enjoys most of all.
There's a high level of intensity involved in acting at CRT because the theatre presents shows in a "true" rotating repertory fashion. But there's a relaxed, informal side, too. After each performance, the actors greet and shake hands with audience members—something unimaginable in larger, big-city venues. "Lots of younger actors, and some of the older ones, hate to do that," Brandt notes. "I kind of love it because I recognize people. And people say, 'Oh, remember? I saw you in Once Upon a Mattress in 19-ought-7.' It's great."
Part of the reason Brandt has flourished in such a remote theatrical locale is that she's had the support of husband John Gary Brown, who functions as CRT's resident historian, journalist, photographer, and occasional performer. A painter, too, Brown maintains a studio above Creede's hardware store. The pair has a home in the town, where they live for half the year. They spend the winter months in Kansas.
Because of her commitment to CRT, Brandt has never felt the need to become an Equity member. Yet she says she's extremely happy where she is: "It's magical. It just seduces you, and it's really hard to ever get away. Obviously." She advises actors going into summer theatre experiences to remember they'll likely be working with some highly talented colleagues, along with some mediocre and less-than-mediocre ones: "You just have to do it with grace and style and hope that your next experience is better." And that, she notes, is a lesson that applies everywhere, "not just at a little rep company in the mountains."
—Mark Dundas Wood
The 375-seat Timber Lake Playhouse has presented live theatre to Midwestern audiences since 1962. It's just minutes from the Mississippi River, a short walk to Lake Carroll Resort—where the resident company swims and boats—and about two and a half hours from Chicago. Mt. Carroll, the closest small town, boasts that a visit "is like a step back in time. You're beckoned here by the lush rolling hills of a corner of Illinois never glaciated, where winding roads and rhythmic farmland contours show off the area's natural splendor." Not bad for a fully wired rural community, population 1,832.
Brad Lyons, who has been the theatre's producing artistic director for the past nine years, says he is currently gearing up for the summer. Auditions for the 2006 season—which will include productions of The Wizard of Oz, Urinetown, Ain't Misbehavin', The Philadelphia Story, and Tom, Dick & Harry, plus one show still to be announced—are being held Sat., Feb. 11, at 10 a.m. at the theatre. February, he adds, also entails "a full month of auditioning around the country. Some interviews are by phone, especially with technical staff I meet through people I've worked with."
In all, Timber Lake has a staff of about 27. The venue, which has been non-Equity from the beginning, works with Equity actors on a Guest Artist contract, and directors who are members of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers are brought in as well. But more than that, Lyons says, Timber Lake "is a training ground for college students, grad students, and younger performers," and, for those seeking internships, "It's pretty much the sky's the limit." Are you more of a backstage kind of artist? Working at Timber Lake is "a great opportunity for designers, too, because we have a large space and we are a full state-of-the-art theatre with a two-story proscenium and revolve stage." He adds, "A lot of the people we bring up from Chicago say, 'Gosh, I wish this place was in Chicago,' because it's so amazing."
A look at the theatre's alumni underscores Lyons' contention. The list includes actors Jennifer Garner, Michael Gross, Jayne Houdyshell, Mary Beth Hurt, and Saundra Santiago, and playwright Lee Blessing.
Lyons notes that when he says he auditions "around the country," that doesn't mean he comes to New York City or Los Angeles. Instead, he says, "I go to the MidWest Theatre Auditions," which are being held Feb. 24–26 this year in St. Louis, Mo. "Since we are an Illinois theatre. I do try to use as many Illinois artists as possible," he says.
Artists, moreover, are hired for the season and housed by the company. All facilities are located on the surrounding campgrounds, including shops, the rehearsal hall, and housing. And everyone is fed. The resident company also gets to perform and teach youngsters through Timber Lake's Magic Owl Children's Theatre.
Even interns, Lyons says, "get paid $150 a week plus room and board. Designers make about $350 a week, which is good for college-age designers. A director can make over $1,000 for a two-week commitment." Non-Equity actors make $150 a week plus room and board; Equity actors on Guest Artist contracts receive $290–$490 weekly, depending on the number of performances being given.
As a multidisciplinary multitasker, Lyons, who directs during the winter and also works as a designer, offers straightforward advice: "Anyone young, if you really want to be in more theatre and be employed, know as much as possible. Some people say, 'Study theatre and get a background in business,' or whatever. I studied theatre but I had a background in more theatre. I started out as an actor but had a minor in dancing and playwriting, so I learned those elements. When you know all the different elements, you never have to be out of work. If you're just an actor, it's a little bit harder to stay employed."
James Beaudry—an actor, choreographer, director, and stage manager—seems to have taken Lyons' advice to heart. While he has often acted at Timber Lake, he has also danced, choreographed, and directed there and elsewhere. He is what you might call a Timber Lake true believer, having worked at the theatre every season from 2001 through 2004 and again for the first half of 2005. Among the productions he was involved in: Grease, 42nd Street, Some Like It Hot, and Footloose (which he choreographed, along with Hair). Plus he directed and choreographed Cats and set the original choreography from the film Singin' in the Rain for the stage. And he extols the virtues of his work experience there:
"I started as a performer for three seasons, then I moved up to resident choreographer. My third season I was also resident choreographer and I directed. Then I went back to direct and choreograph Cats, which, for a 24-year-old director-choreographer, that's a huge break. I ran into some people last night—alums—and I don't know anybody who doesn't want to go back. [Timber Lake is] doing Urinetown this summer, and I don't know anybody who doesn't want to do one or both shows. I know that if it was doable, everyone would go back, even to be in the ensemble, because it's that great a place to work."
When asked about the challenges of doing summer stock, Beaudry says, "Mostly the short rehearsal schedule. Putting a show up in 12 days!" But he adds, "Just like Brad [Lyons] says, 'If you can do summer stock, you can do anything,' and I think that's totally true. He's very into making the production his own, and so many summer stock [theatres] are focused on doing some shabby knockoff of a Broadway production. Brad really encourages individual creativity, starting from scratch. He works much more like a regional-theatre director…. In that sense, it actually works in favor of the short schedule, because you know how much time you have, you know what you can accomplish, and if you can't accomplish it, then maybe you can come up with a brand-new idea. So you never get over your head, because he's got a really good system and he understands time constraints and all of those schedules and practical things that go into creating a show."
Then there are those post–Timber Lake benefits. Says Beaudry, "It's gotten me three other jobs through networking. Lyons really builds a community there, and I know [that] when he hires people, he takes into consideration personalities and how people will work living together for three or four months. My best friends in the world are mostly from that experience. I've gotten work as a director, as a stage manager, as a choreographer, and as a performer, all through people that I know in New York who have worked there. It's been excellent, actually."
"I can't say there are a heck of a lot of lows," says Little Theatre on the Square's executive director, Leonard Anderson, when asked about the challenges of summer stock. "It's always exciting. You're always doing a different play, so it's not like standing in an assembly line, punching a piece of metal 800 times. It's about awakening the soul of humanity to all that is good."
Located in the heart of the Midwest—in Sullivan, Ill., away from major cities, auditions, and agents—this small nonprofit theatre nonetheless manages to draw a lot of national attention. USA Today ranked it among the Top 10 summer theatres in July 2005. Visitors from St. Louis and Chicago often travel to Sullivan to watch lavish productions of recognizable musicals that might be touring the area. This is how the Little Theatre earned the slogan "Broadway in the Cornfields," Anderson says.
With a 49-year history, this theatre also boasts an array of distinguished alumni. Veteran actor Alan Alda, former first daughter Margaret Truman, film great Pat O'Brien, and Broadway performer Deidre Goodwin have all performed on its stage. They belonged to a pack of New York and Hollywood actors who came to summer stock for a few weeks each year, exercising their acting skills as critics took notice.
"The theatre used to be part of the old straw-hat circuit," Anderson notes. "So people like Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller, Ann Sothern…they all came. But we haven't used star personalities since the theatre was a commercial theatre, back in 1978. It was dark in 1980, and then in '81 a nonprofit group formed and it has operated that way since."
This is good and bad news for actors. Non-Equity performers earn points toward an Equity card in addition to a paycheck of roughly $200 a week (Equity members earn $400 a week), but the big names rarely appear here anymore. Still, some recent Little Theatre actors have made it big: Anna McNeely appeared in Cats and Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, and a former intern, Jenny Fellner, played one of the leads in Mamma Mia! for a year. So if the theatre offers few amenities, Anderson says the long-term rewards may ultimately outweigh the perks.
"It's very hard work, but that's a reward because you can totally immerse yourself into the process," he says. "You can come out with a very good product, with a role you can be proud of. You have little time to make that happen and you're really tested to get the best work done in the least amount of time." Anderson adds that college credit from the University of South Dakota sometimes entices younger actors to make their way to Sullivan. He attributes the theatre's longevity to loyal musical-theatre-loving patrons who return year after year. A few, he says, have been coming since the theatre first opened in 1957.
Anderson recommends the summer theatre experience to all actors, both veterans and newcomers: "Try to be open to work in all facets of theatre. Learn what happens behind the scenes, as well as what's on stage. It will make you a better performer if you understand the entire craft. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. That's what summer stock is all about."
At 23, actor Ian Liberto is in the early stages of his career. A recent graduate of Milliken University with a B.F.A. in musical theatre performance, he came to summer stock wide-eyed and optimistic. It was to be his launching pad from college, an introduction to the world of fast-paced rehearsals and tight schedules.
He first learned of the Little Theatre on the Square through his alma mater. "One of my dance instructors was a choreographer at the theatre," Liberto says. "I had no intention of participating in summer stock until I auditioned for the MidWest Theatre Auditions." A second callback persuaded him to take the job, even though he didn't know much about rural Sullivan, Ill., and would begin his first summer stock experience with some hesitation. He had heard horror stories about theatres forcing young actors into "indentured servitude," requiring them to do everything from mopping the stage to serving drinks after hours.
Still, the Little Theatre treated him well—well enough for Liberto to come back for a second, then a third, summer season. "You're paid fairly well there," he explains. "And all we had to do workwise was change sets in between shows. We didn't have to wait tables or host." He also found that—especially for a small Midwestern summer stock theatre—the connections he made were invaluable. "People from New York came in all the time. So many of the leads were played by well-known Equity actors—seasoned professionals with a great work ethic. It was a good learning experience for me."
Liberto has also emerged from summer stock with several jobs. Most recently, Troika Entertainment hired him for a national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie: He'll be dancing in the chorus and understudying the lead role of Jimmy Smith. Dave Clemmons Casting, a New York–based casting office, noticed him performing at the Little Theatre.
That's why he has considered doing yet another season of summer stock. More generally, though, he recommends summer stock for any actor, particularly those just landing on their feet: "I would encourage college students, and especially recent graduates, to pursue it. It gives you a chance to build your résumé with several shows, and it allows you to play certain roles that you wouldn't normally get to play." He adds that what seemed so scary during his first season—putting on a large-scale musical in 11 days, for instance—eventually became a snap. It trains you to think on your feet and to learn more quickly, and, he says, you become a better actor and dancer because of it.
Dancing in summer stock "trains you to be quick on your toes and to pick up the choreography quickly by truly listening to the music," he says. "It really helped me to get bigger jobs."
And while Liberto understands that summer stock doesn't necessarily guarantee a bright career, he feels it doesn't have much of a downside either. After all, actors are getting paid to hone their craft, which beats college tuition bills and pricey acting classes. The intensity of his experience reminds him of why he went into acting in the first place: "Any job you're happy doing furthers your career, because you've learned something from it. But there is also a lot to be gained from a hard summer of training."
"Living with your cast and crew is fun. It's like summer camp for adults, and you get to do shows you won't see in a lot of places," says John Tissue, who recently entered his fourth week as theatre manager at the Mountainside Theater. His duties are largely technical and administrative: He runs the box office and assists in hiring production staff, among other duties. The theatre casts primarily through the Institute of Outdoor Drama, which is affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Auditions are set for Sat., March 18 (the deadline to apply is March 9).
The 55-year-old, 2,800-seat theatre is located in Cherokee, N.C., and run by the Cherokee Historical Association, a nonprofit group that promotes Cherokee culture. The organization also maintains Oconaluftee Village, where the buildings are as they would have been several centuries ago.
Unto These Hills is the sole production at the Mountainside Theater. It debuted on July 1, 1950, and, according to the production's website, more than 5 million people have seen this version of the story of the Cherokee. With a cast of 130, it begins with the arrival of the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540 and climaxes with the exile of the Cherokee, a 1,200-mile trek from North Carolina to Oklahoma that became known as the Trail of Tears. And the show is currently being rewritten.
"One show was written in the '50s, and the Cherokee tribe wanted to update it," Tissue says. "The newer version of Unto These Hills will tell the story from a Cherokee perspective."
Nor is that the only change this non-Equity theatre is undergoing. A native of West Virginia who has worked in the industry for 12 years, Tissue says because other forms of entertainment are now generally more appealing to the public, summer stock is facing major competition for audiences: "The outdoor dramas have seen a significant decrease. We're competing with iPods, video-on-demand, Internet shows. Getting people to enjoy theatre is sometimes a challenge." But, he says, "We're starting to climb out the hole. We're half of what the theatre used to see in the '50s, but we still had more people coming out last year than in recent years."
For actors, doing this kind of outdoor historical theatre has many advantages and challenges. For example, dance classes in the Cherokee Indian style are offered for members of the cast, Tissue says, and the theatre is thinking about adding more classes and increasing actors' pay, currently set at $500–$600 per week for principals. The theatre is also considering becoming an Equity house. All actors are offered housing, in local dorms and cottages as well as an apartment building the theatre has access to.
Overall, Tissue recommends summer stock for recent college graduates and aspiring actors with a genuine interest in theatre: "It's a way for someone starting out to gain practical experience. It gives people a real insight into the art and how a professional theatre operates." He adds, "For an actor, summer stock is a taste of 'Let's have fun this summer and get paid,' " while also re-creating a little history.
Buddy Wilson, the Mountainside Theater's producer, is part Native American—his maternal grandmother is half Cherokee—so it made sense for him to work at a theatre that focuses on Cherokee culture.
Born in La Jolla, Calif., in 1954, Wilson moved to Tulsa, Okla., at age 5. He realized he had a passion for technical theatre while in junior high school, and he attended the University of Oklahoma to study the craft. He left college after three years to work in professional theatre, and one of the first venues he worked for was the Santa Fe Opera. Since then, he admits, he hasn't done much summer theatre—until coming to the Mountainside Theater, that is. Native American playwright Hanay Geiogamah introduced him to the venue when the two worked together with the American Indian Dance Theatre, a company Wilson has been affiliated with since the late 1980s. When Geiogamah asked him to come to the Mountainside Theater as a producer, he accepted the offer.
Wilson says his experience working on Unto These Hills has been well worth his time: "It's valuable because it's the first time you work someplace that has a bigger budget and that gives you the opportunity to observe and learn."
Wilson's responsibilities as a producer include assisting with casting and keeping track of the theatre's far-flung staff. The company's current choreographer is located in San Diego, for example, its production designer lives in New York City, and its composer lives in upstate New York. Wilson implements the theatre's budget, which is overseen by the Cherokee Historical Association. He hires the bulk of the administrative staff and says that one of the theatre's objectives is to hire more Native Americans. During the summer the show is performed six times a week, so a typical workday can be eight hours, often more.
The theatre's uniqueness, he says, pulled him in like a magnet. "It's an unusual situation. We are [overseen] by the Cherokees, and the theatre is up in the mountains, so you can imagine the view." Despite the hard work in pulling the show together, Wilson says he would definitely work there again in the future: "The overall goal is to produce three more shows to continue to tell history, and that's what I want to be a part of."
Conventional wisdom has it that history repeats itself. But Theatre West Virginia, founded in 1955 as the West Virginia Historical Drama Association, goes beyond conventional wisdom. It has been producing the same two historical plays about West Virginia every summer for more than 30 years.
According to General Manager Gayle Bowling, "The theatre's early founders wanted to present West Virginia's unique culture to as wide an audience as possible. And this we've done. Beginning in 1961, we produced Honey in the Rock, the nation's oldest Civil War drama, that depicts how West Virginia was born out of the anguish of the Civil War. [It] recounts, through a spectacular combination of dance and imagery, the frightening experience Indians encountered when [Europeans] first settled the land and discovered its strange natural gas wells, which they called 'honey in the rock.' " The venue's second West Virginia–oriented drama, Hatfields and McCoys, was first produced in 1971. Since 1984 the theatre has added a musical to its annual summer repertory. This year's choice is Beauty and the Beast.
Tera Grasser, Theatre West Virginia's marketing director, says proudly the theatre's cliff-side amphitheatre, within view of the New River Gorge, "has provided more than 1 million visitors with the excitement of outdoor musical drama."
But, she points out, the theatre is more than just a summer stock house. In 1972 it formed an acting company to tour local communities and schools, and it remains the only professional touring and historical outdoor drama company in the state. In 1975 a marionette company was created, and combined the touring companies play more than 400 engagements annually.
In 1998 the theatre established a professional training academy. "Our goal is to offer performing arts training in our community, with a fall and spring session lasting 10 weeks each," Grasser explains. "We have classes ranging from pre-acting—for the little folks—to acting I, II, and advanced, and musical theatre, stage combat, costuming, and makeup."
Theatre West Virginia always holds local auditions for its summer productions and it also participates actively in regional auditions to attract out-of-towners. "Many of our actors come back every year, but we always are seeking new talent," Grasser says. Presently the theatre doesn't provide a dormitory or low-cost housing for actors, which may change in the future.
—Claudia M. Caruana