Traveling daily meant getting comfortable with a swing-seat rotation, bus beds, and the rest of the company. The sense of community we developed turned a potentially miserable six-hour roadside breakdown into a pizza party. And yes, it can be a pizza party. Little Caesar's in Utah can and will deliver to your highway GPS location.
A positive attitude is important in the casting process as well. Bob Cline, casting director for such tour producers as NETworks and Winwood Theatricals, says, "I look for people that are patient and kind. It's more about the kind of person that you are. By the time the callbacks are through, I feel that I know most of the people that I'm casting. I feel I know whether or not I'd put them on a bus with a friend of mine. I watch how the actors treat the others in the audition room. I watch how they treat the accompanist. I want to know if they have what it takes to do this. If they are always late, if they are not kind, that's not good for a tour. You need people who love what they do."
Laura Cable has been performing on the road for the last four years with such shows as "Cats," "Damn Yankees!," and "The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley." She has adjusted so well she's earned the nickname "Stable Cable." Her approach to touring is simple: "Once that contract is signed, you accept that your bus seat is your sanctuary. Your cast mates, crew, and musicians are your best friends, your support system, and your family. The hotel you check into for the night is home."
Cable also keeps a "gratitude journal" while she's on the road. "I recall simple pleasures, acts of kindness, and moments of beauty throughout the day," she says. "I write down 10 things every night before I go to bed. Whatever you see whizzing past you on the highway is gone in the blink of an eye. So treasure it."
Keeping Excited While Cooling Off
What went whizzing by my window included Florida's Everglades, Idaho's national forests, and a lot of farmland. Walter Milani has seen those, but touring has also taken him to more exotic locations, such as Moscow and Taiwan. As a company manager, Milani has overseen almost a thousand actors with 22 tours on three continents. After the initial excitement of the road, Milani says most actors find "there is a cooling-off period when they realize it's not all as glamorous as they thought." Milani sees the happiest actors as the ones who can live in the moment. He describes them as "those who really revel in the travel, meeting new people and believing they are experiencing something special that will change their lives." That includes himself.
After embracing the adventure, there's still a show to do. In a lot of ways, it's the easy part. Touring means everything is refreshed daily, and every night is an opening night.
I loved the newness of each theater. Some older venues meant my dressing room was a fifth-floor walkup (Rialto Square Theater, Joliet, Ill.), and converted music halls offered wings as one giant sightline (Luther College, Decorah, Iowa). There were also the occasional venues with no fly space (Turlock Community Theatre, Turlock, Calif.), which can turn your show into what our cast called the "concert edition."
One show where fly space is nonnegotiable is "Peter Pan." Carly Bracco got her first tour and her Equity card when she joined the cast of the current edition, starring Cathy Rigby. Every night (ideally) she ends the show in the air as Jane, the grown-up Wendy's daughter, who flies off with Peter to Never Never Land. She says, "We are never allowed to 'mark' the show. It is always real. It is always life and death."
Flying Into the Unknown
Even with technical precision, anything can happen in theater. "When doing a show over and over again, you forget that things can and do go wrong," Bracco says. This includes the night she was told right before the final scene that her rigging was down and she would definitely not be airborne. Bracco says, "When it does [go wrong], it is OK. It taught me how to think on the fly -- no pun intended -- and just make it happen under any circumstance."
In the end, touring is about learning as you go. Coping mechanisms vary. Retail therapy at a lunchtime mall stop is a popular one; so is the hotel bar after a show. I found time alone with my Bible and some Starbucks to be the most centering (realistically McCafé was more accessible, but the results were the same).
The challenge of being away from friends and family is constant, but it's eased by Skype and stairwell phone calls. New York City native Joey Elrose has had to part from his family and his career's epicenter to tour ("Rock of Ages," "Grease"), but what he's learned has been invaluable. Elrose says of his family, "Every time I'm home, they see me grow up a little bit more."
As a swing in "Rock of Ages," he covers five roles and two ensemble tracks. Though he's gained wisdom as a performer, the lessons of the road have gone deeper. Elrose says, "Entering into a theater is like walking into someone else's home. We step into their lives. So I have learned to be more respectful ... It has given me a better appreciation for people's hospitality. I have become a more gracious person because of it."
After a tour, you can expect to be different, to be better. Days of sickness and homesickness are inevitable, but so are inside jokes, standing ovations, and new precious friendships. When teachers tell you to be fully present and in the moment in acting class, they're giving you advice that changes your performance and your perspective.
Hit the road confident that despite bumps along the way, you're changing your life for the better. Laura Cable simplifies it by saying, "You sign your contract and say bring it on." And you can guarantee that the tour will bring it, in the toughest, best, silliest, most memorable ways.
Angelica Richie is an actor based in New York City. She is a recent graduate of the Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program at UCLA and an online contributor to ESPN.
Additional reporting by David Sheward.