Everything Actors Need to Know About Summer Training

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Summer: The magical time of year when temperatures swelter and you may be lucky enough to have a gap in your regular schedule, perfect for some all-important training. If you’re a student of any age, or out of school altogether, this three-month span can be a highly valuable time for actors of all levels to get ahead—or, if misused, fall behind. To ensure you land firmly in the former category, here is the Backstage Guide to summer training.

Summer stock versus summer training programs: Which is for me?

While stipulations for neither are written in stone, generally, summer stock is for early-career actors who have finished their schooling (or are about to). Conversely, explicit summer training programs are intended mainly for high school or college students.

What is summer stock?

When it comes to summer’s performing arts opportunities, you basically have to start with stock. Maybe you’ve heard of summer stock or perhaps you’ve even seen some summer stock shows, as they are produced all over the country. “Summer stock” is shorthand for any theater that puts on shows exclusively in the summer, frequently staging multiple shows with the same actors, costumes, sets, and props throughout the season. Equity status and pay varying, summer stock is pretty universally regarded as a platform for emerging actors at the start of their career who are either just out of college, or still in college or high school, and it can ultimately serve as a crash course in professional theater.

“As valuable as working in summer theater can be, it also presents significant challenges,” says Mark Dundas Wood, a Backstage Expert. “The speed with which shows must be assembled is the primary difficulty. Some theaters still use the traditional summer-stock model, in which an ensemble performs one show by night while rehearsing an upcoming show by day. Some companies perform in true rotating-repertory format, with two or more shows alternating. But regardless of the model, time is of the essence.”

Though certainly a training institution all its own, it’s important to note that summer stock is professional theater (but again, what that means as far as pay and Equity status is subject to every individual theater).

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What are some well-known summer stock theaters?

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What are some other types of summer training programs?

Stock is of course not the only way for actors to hone their skills in the warmer months. For those in school, especially, you’re in the rare position to devote three months wholly—or partly—to your training. Whichever program you select, Backstage Expert and acting coach Tom Morin encourages you take the following eight steps to ensure you get as much as you can out of it:

1. Try everything.
You might be asked to try something in class that’s outside your comfort zone. You might be asked to volunteer for a cabaret. You might be asked to perform in a master class. Don't hold back. Don't wait to dive in. Don't be afraid to try something new. Don’t fight notes or adjustments given to you. Precollege summer programs are short, and the experience will be over before you know it, so say “Yes!” to every new learning and performance opportunity presented.

2. Get your audition book together before you start.
Work with an acting coach to select and prepare monologue material and/or a singing coach to select and prepare song material. Some programs will give you scenes or songs to work on in class, but you should have your book ready to go with material for master classes and cabarets.

If you’re at a precollege program that offers a chance to audition at the end of the summer, make sure you have selected and prepared the appropriate monologues and/or songs before you head off. You’re going to be incredibly busy and will have a hard time finding extra time to work on this material once you get there.

3. Turn off your phone for a few hours.
It might be hard for you to spend part of the summer away from your friends and family, but use this opportunity to make new friends and learn what it's like to live away from home. Of course, it’s important to update your family and let them know how you’re doing and what exciting (or challenging) new experiences you’re having, but try to limit the check-ins. (Note to parents: This might be hard at first, but it will make the transition to college much smoother and ensure that you are getting your money’s worth.

4. Don't complain, and stay positive!
JoBeth Moad, assistant dean of the Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University and director of the Performing Arts Academy and Summer Music Programs suggests, “Come with a willing attitude and a brave spirit! Leave your ego and expectations at home and don’t bring any negativity into the new experience. Use the experience to ‘practice,’ not complain!

“The ability to be a positive person who doesn’t spend their time complaining will be a valuable asset if you continue in the world of performance. It’s like a muscle you have to build...practice being positive! If other people are complaining, avoid their company and conversations—and realize that people may be avoiding you if you are engaging in negativity. Your positive attitude will enable you to learn and grow from new teachers and new situations.”

5. Follow the rules.
You want to be remembered by the faculty and staff for the right reasons. You’ll be asked to follow certain rules and guidelines for your safety and the safety of others, and while the newfound freedom you have by being away from home on a college campus might be exciting, leave the risk-taking for class.

6. Take your homework seriously.
Whether you take drama, choir, or dance classes, or go to a performing arts high school, in a fast-paced precollege summer program, you’ll be asked to complete college-level assignments much quicker than your high school assignments. By working hard and setting aside enough outside rehearsal time, you’ll be able to make the most progress on your technique over the course of the summer.

Of course, the faculty isn’t looking for perfection (if you already knew everything, then why would you have to continue your training in college?), but they are looking for you to maximize your potential and make the most progress you can over a short period of time.

7. Show up early to class.
This is a habit you want to get into right away. If you arrive 10 minutes early to class, you’ll have time to settle in, make sure you’re warmed up and ready to go, and make a great impression. If you’re late or “right on time,” you won't get the chance to settle in before class starts. The faculty will notice and this isn’t the impression you want to leave them, especially if you plan on auditioning for the BFA program.

8. Have fun!
You get a few weeks to enjoy doing what you’re most passionate about. You have the rest of the year to worry about grades, test scores, and college auditions. Enjoy this experience!

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How do I find the right summer training program?

Finding the right summer program can be intensive and time-consuming—but remember, even though summer training can be instrumental in your growth as an actor, it should still be fun! So don’t let the mere process of choosing a program drive you nuts. Instead, advises Jessica Rofé, founder of A Class Act NY and a Backstage Expert, do your research and then ask yourself the following four questions to narrow down your (or your kid’s) choices.

1. What’s a typical day like?
A quality theater intensive will offer an hour-by-hour breakdown of the day, with very little downtime or time spent on other activities. Make sure the program you select for your child actor has campers taking multiple workshops throughout the day with working actors, as well as rehearsals for the final camp showcase. Campers should be engaged from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave.

2. How large are classes? How old are the campers?
Some programs require an audition, but then they accept more than 70 campers of all ages in each session. Not only does this result in individual students not getting the attention they deserve, but they’re also trained alongside campers of all ages who may be at different stages in their training. Look for a program with small classes that are further split up by age. For your child to get the most out of any summer program, he or she should be in a small class of peers.

3. Who are the teachers?
You should be able to look up your child’s instructor’s credentials and past acting credits. It’s important that instructors are all currently working since show business is forever changing and your child actor should have the most up-to-date information from their instructors.

4. Will there be help with logistics?
A quality summer experience isn’t only about the instruction itself, but the experience for the parents and the family. Make sure the program you choose offers things like payment plans and help finding housing. Any worthwhile summer program will take reasonable steps to help performing arts families have the best experience possible.

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How do I apply to summer training programs?

Application processes vary for each program and theater, so what’s most important to bear in mind is timeliness when it comes to your research. Note the respective deadlines for each program, and what is actually needed of you. As a catch-all, though, it’s safe to assume you will need an updated headshot and résumé—and a well-crafted reel certainly never hurt anybody. See four examples of summer training programs that take last-minute applications, and what they require here. (And here, find guides for headshots, résumés, and reels.)

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What are the logistics of summer theater and programs?

Just like the application process, when it comes to logistics of the summer (meaning housing, meal plans, travel accommodations, etc.), everything will vary from case to case. However, you can rest assured that whether you are a part of an Equity summer stock production, or an on-location high school training program, amenities will not be super plush.

“Rarely will you have your own private housing, so you’re probably going to be sharing a living space with one or more people who could either be awesome or really suck,” says cheeky Backstage Expert, Annoying Actor Friend. “That is why the best part about summer stock is that it’s over fast. If the experience is a shit show, you won’t have to deal with it for very long. If you’re having an awesome time, luckily it will be over before monotony sets in. The important thing with summer stock is to accept it for whatever it is and find a way to leave a better actor than when you arrived—and by ‘better’ I mean ‘tanner.’ ”

How else can I work on my craft during the summer?

Don’t have the time or resources to devote your summer to stock or a training program? You can still use the extra daylight hours to hone your craft in other ways, including acting, yes, but also reading, writing, and beyond. In fact, JV Mercanti, a Backstage Expert and head of acting for the musical theater program at Pace School of Performing Arts, has compiled a whole list of ways to do just that, because “the summer goes so quickly, [so] take advantage of it.”

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Inspired? Check out Backstage’s theater audition listings!