An Open Letter to the Community Theater Companies of the World

I’ve made some reference to this before, but it bears repeating that I got my earliest experience as a performer in community theater, with companies such as Olean Community Theatre, Olean Theatre Workshop, Bradford Little Theatre, and others. This experience was invaluable to me as a young, burgeoning artist, and I have some fond memories of my first shows.

It is so important for the training of the artists of the future that these organizations are preserved. Whether one is a young, aspiring professional or an adult who enjoys performing but does not feel called to a performing career, community theater can be an important part of one’s life.

Because this issue is so near and dear to my heart, and because, frankly, I’m seeing far too many community theater companies crumbling under the weight of dysfunction or limping on without any inspiration, I’m here to propose some ideas for how to turn the ship around, or some things to keep in mind when starting a community theater. Be warned, this is tough love.

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What I’ve Been Up To Lately

2019 has been a feverishly busy year for me professionally, and I wanted to give anyone who is following what I do an update as to how I’ve occupied my time over these three and a half months.

Part 1: Sarasota Opera

From January 2nd to March 25th of this year, I was an Apprentice Artist at Sarasota Opera, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I was quite busy during my time there and didn’t get much time to post on social media.

While in Sarasota, I sang in the chorus for three different operas: Puccini’s Turandot, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Verdi’s Nabucco. I also portrayed the First Slave in The Magic Flute and covered (understudied) Abdallo in Nabucco, and did go on as Abdallo in one performance! All told, we did a combined 30 performances of these operas from February 9th to March 24th, with staggered rehearsals in January and February. At one point, I was rehearsing for all three shows at once! Sometimes, all four shows in the winter season in Sarasota have choruses. Such is the case with next winter’s season.

Sarasota Opera is a company that does more for and demands more of its young artists than any company with whom I’ve worked. The musical standards there are as high as those of any company with whom I have worked. Perhaps the great lesson I’ve taken away from this program is connection to the text.

One great thing they do at Sarasota Opera are the libretto readings. They do all of their libretto readings using a libretto in the original language only. Each person translates the text of his/her character in front of the cast, the maestro, and all of the covers. It makes sure we really understand what we are singing. I would recommend this to any company who performs operas not in the country’s native language.

Another thing that I liked is that each member of the music staff was to be called “Maestro” inside the opera house, with or without the Maestro’s last name. Maestro is a unisex term, by the way. It brings a seriousness and formality to the proceedings that I found refreshing.

While we were there, all of the company’s singers, non-local orchestra, and stage management and design team (with some exceptions) stayed in the Steinwachs Artist Residences. Most of the apartments were 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartments with full kitchens, free WiFi and cable, and various other amenities. A keycard was required to enter the building, so the living experience was safe. My roommates, Sebastian Armendariz and Spencer Hamlin, both tenors, became such great friends of mine that I am certain we will be in contact for a long time, and our paths will certainly cross regularly.

Sarasota was a great experience. I learned a great deal about myself while I was there, made some great music and great new friends, and developed my voice a great deal, which is a huge benefit of the program. The six or more hours spent performing or rehearsing in a day is bound to make one’s voice a great deal stronger and more resilient. I recommend the program to anyone who is really serious about an opera career, and anyone with further questions can contact me.

Part 2: Carmen

I was a guest artist at one of my alma maters a little while ago, performing the role of Don José in a production of Georges Bizet’s seminal work, Carmen with the University of Tennessee Opera Theater. I didn’t get the call from James Marvel, my mentor, until a couple of weeks after I arrived in Sarasota. I accepted immediately, as I had wanted a chance to return to Knoxville, especially in a role debut as important as this one.

I left Sarasota and flew straight to Knoxville, having already learned and memorized the music while in Sarasota (which was no small task on top of my performance schedule). I stayed in a hotel near campus, and didn’t have much human contact outside of my rehearsals (only three hours a day), except for when I went out to get some food. That left me a little stir crazy but gave me plenty of time to practice and to get on the task of finding representation, which is going to become crucial in the next couple of years.

This production was so inspiring. Sets and props were minimal, costumes were mostly traditional, but James Marvel, our director (and the man I’ve come to call a mentor) put his signature on this production in the actions of the singers. It was a physical, challenging staging, but it was worth it. James is a genius, and I’m fortunate to understand his vocabulary as a director and as a teacher. This Carmen hit hard, and it was unrelenting, especially in the final act. It’s exactly the kind of tension you want at the end of a show like that.

I have never been prouder of one of my own performances. I wasn’t feeling great that day, but somehow I rose to the occasion and did some of the best singing I’ve ever done. Everything seemed to click onstage, even though I left a prop backstage at the end of the second act. No run is ever perfect.

But before Carmen went up, I took a quick jaunt to Maine.

Part 2a: Candide and the Bangor Symphony

I was hired by the Bangor Symphony (literally on my way to Sarasota on January 2nd) for a performance of highlights from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, singing the arias “My Love” and “Bon Voyage”, as well as a verse of “What’s the Use” as Police Prefect, and the Governor’s part of the bombastic finale “Make Our Garden Grow”.

I had done this same concert with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in 2013 as a grad student, under the baton of Maestro Lucas Richman, who also conducted the Maine performance. Only one performance, but it was really quite magical. I had a great cast of singing actors around me, who were thoroughly professional in their preparations. It was a lovely time at a particularly beautiful time of year in Maine!

Upcoming Things

I can’t really divulge most of what is coming up for me as it hasn’t been finalized yet. I will be performing the role of Gastone in La Traviata with Nickel City Opera in Buffalo on May 24th and 26th at Villa Maria College! Those of you who are local to me will be able to see me there. It is a semi-staged concert production, so while the sets are minimal, we will all look elegant in our evening wear!

You can find more info on that production here.

That’s it for now! Follow me on Facebook and Instagram for more updates as everything progresses.

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On Motivation: A Personal Statement

I’ve mostly used this blog as a professional venture, giving information to any aspiring or seasoned performer on how to do better, but the question that I’ve rarely, if ever answered is Why? The how is still important, but everything has to start with why we do what we do.

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How to Be a Serious Performing Artist

This weekend, I am performing with an extremely talented group of singer-actors, and it has brought to mind the question of what makes a true artist.

You don’t have to be a professional to be a serious artist and go the extra mile that connects good to great. Most of what makes a great artist requires no talent at all, though talent certainly ties it all together.

Here are a few things that you can do immediately to become a better artist. These rules can apply to any performing art, in comedy and in tragedy. There is no particular order here, and I believe these guidelines are of equal importance. I just know that everyone likes these Buzzfeed-style numbered lists.

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On Concert Etiquette

Have you ever gone to a professional classical music concert, opera, or musical, to hear a cell phone go off, or a tiny distracting noise in the middle of a tender moment?

Here are some rules that you can observe and pass along which help make the evening as enjoyable as possible.

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How to Be a Good Colleague: Part I—Actors

A good colleague, in the theatrical world, is broadly defined as an employee who does nothing to disrupt the smooth flow of the process of putting on a show.

As a performer, I understand how frustrating certain behaviors can be from other actors and directors. These guidelines are based on my limited experience, but through these tried and true rules, you, too, can be an absolute pleasure with whom to collaborate. Some of these rules I learned by breaking them myself and paying the penalty for it, so if I speak plainly here, it is only for your own good.

These rules stem from personal experience as well as some anecdotes I have heard about unprofessional behavior. It may seem ridiculous, but every rule on this list is broken frequently.

1) Show up on time. Out of every rule I’m going to list here, this might be the most important. Don’t show up late, ever. And definitely don’t show up late with food or coffee in your hand, because then everyone will know why you are late.

Think about it this way: if you’re in a show with 20 other actors and you show up 5 minutes late, you have collectively wasted 100 minutes–over an hour and a half–of the time of other people who did show up on time. Be ready to begin at the call time, which means you should arrive long enough before the call time to get your materials in place. It’s amazing that this has to be explained even to adults, but you’d be surprised at how frequently people show up late to things.

If you do arrive late, do not disrupt the rehearsal while it is in progress. Set your stuff down, and get to your spot. No “Sorry, sorry…”, no “I’m late because X.” Don’t be any more of a distraction than you already are by being late in the first place. Just get to your spot and apologize later.

2) Don’t double book. Honor the commitment you make first, or back out of that first commitment as soon as possible if you get a better offer. Just like a good Camembert, you are at your best when you aren’t spread too thin (thanks to Frasier for that one). Definitely do not leave people hanging at the last minute wondering if you will come through.

The most important word in the English language for any performer is “No.” You don’t need to take part in absolutely every opportunity under the sun. Theater is not just something to do to kill time in your evenings. It’s an artistic experience that people pay money to see.

3) Meet deadlines. If you have a set deadline for memorization, be memorized by that deadline. Otherwise, you slow down the progression of the show.

If you have a deadline from your producer to send a bio, a headshot, or anything else, meet that deadline. It goes a long way to building a reputation of dependability. Don’t forget, in the professional world, it’s the producer who hires you.

4) Treat your colleagues with respect. Your colleagues are anyone who is a part of putting on the show you’re doing, from the producer, to the director, to your cast mates, to the stage manager, to the janitor cleaning the theater every night.

You never know who will one day run a theater company for which you are auditioning, or who might be able to give an opinion about you to an administrator. Karma has a way of straightening things out in the long run, so make sure you treat people well. Remember, these people are collaborating with you to create art.

And for the love of God, don’t cause drama! That is the quickest route to being blacklisted. If you’re toxic, or even seen as toxic, no one will want to work with you, no matter how talented you are. Petty interpersonal disputes have no place in theater.

5) Shut up in rehearsals. Unless you have a question for the director that is relevant to the work you are currently doing, unless you are speaking lines or singing, shut your mouth.

Some people like to speak up to give advice to less experienced actors, but don’t do this in the middle of rehearsal, and definitely don’t pontificate to one person in front of the whole cast. Doing so makes you come off as conceited and rude. Yes, even you.

I understand that when you’re young, your attention span is about as long as did you see what she posted on Facebook??? Your professionalism in this regard not only makes the rest of the people in the room happy, but it creates a better working environment…

…which brings me to my final point on this topic. Theater is not a social hour. There is serious work involved in putting on a show that is even halfway decent. If you’re in this for something to do with your friends, you’re in it for the wrong reason.

6) Respect the rehearsal/performance space. Clean up after yourself, and throw out your trash. Custodians are there for maintenance, not to clean up every single bit of food and trash that you bring in. Sometimes there isn’t a custodian, and the stage manager ends up cleaning up after you.

Also, do not wear wet shoes onto the floor where you are rehearsing. This not only damages the floor, but can create slip hazards for others on the floor. Non-marking soles, please.

7) Respect the stage manager. Really, this should be rule number 1, but my number 1 would be the number 1 on every stage manager’s list of rules for actors.

If the show doesn’t have a stage manager (which every show should, by the way…more on that in my rules for directors), then apply this rule to whomever performs the stage manager’s duties, which is most often the director in a smaller setting. Listen to literally everything they say and do what they ask, and do it with a smile on your face. Period.

8) Put your phone away. Your phone has no place in rehearsal or performance, unless it is a prop. Even in that case, a phone is probably provided for your use.

Phones are much more of a distraction than anyone younger than 35 thinks. People miss entrances, they don’t hear pertinent information, etc. Just do yourself a favor and turn your phone off before you start, and don’t turn it on until you have a break or the rehearsal ends.

9) Act like you want to be there. Even with the most unprofessional cast mates I’ve ever had, if they showed up with enthusiasm for what they were doing, their breaking of other rules bothered me a little less.

Bottom line: if you don’t make it a chore to show up to rehearsals and do the work, I won’t feel like it’s a chore to work with you. Real enthusiasm is a true shot in the arm for everyone else.

10) Leave your day at the door. If you have personal issues, they have no place in rehearsals or performances. Your bad day should not be everyone else’s problem.

11) Don’t try to impress everyone in rehearsals. Yes, we get it. You’re a very talented singer/actor/dancer and you want everyone to know it. Well, stop it.

Most people in any level of theater can recognize talent without being beaten over the head by it, so it’s not that you want us to know you’re talented…you obviously want us to tell you how talented you are.

I understand the need for validation, but you need to understand your place in the creation of art. Your need for attention does not take priority over the success of the show. You are not the driver of the dogsled, but one of the dogs pulling it. So MUSH!

12) Respect the music and text. This means that you must perform the music and text as written, or only with traditional additions or changes. Those changes and additions are typically determined by the composer/writer, not by whoever did the role first on Broadway.

Only in solo music is there any room whatsoever for interpretation, and it must always start with exactly what is on the page, for the sake of the conductor and orchestra.

13) Respect the show’s vision, or leave. If you can’t respect what the director wants, make suggestions for alternatives (privately, of course).

If you don’t get to a mutually agreeable outcome, then leave the show. Don’t sabotage, don’t protest, just leave. That way it will show that you are leaving because of artistic differences rather than to satisfy your ego.

14) Show up prepared. Have all of your materials with you for every rehearsal. Have your script/score, appropriate footwear, and whatever else you need to have with you. This makes the transition to tech week much easier.

Also, when you are working out of a script or score, please make sure it is a hard copy. Don’t be that person who has to use a cell phone or tablet.

15) Treat anything that is not yours with extreme care. Always know where your props are, don’t eat in costume, don’t smoke in costume (or at all, for that matter), and remember the Golden Rule. Would you like it if someone borrowed something from you and tossed it carelessly on the floor after rehearsals?

Conclusion

Good rehearsal etiquette is more important than talent in putting together a good show. Art is nothing without dedication, focus, and deep respect for art and your fellow artists. Any artist who is “great to work with” follows these rules pretty much constantly, and it makes a real difference in the environment around you.

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Vocal Protection and You

Many singers, particularly aging singers, find the task of protecting their voices to be both confusing and frustrating, due to many factors: conflicting advice from expert and non-expert sources, a lack of understanding that vocal protection is a long-term strategy, a lack of knowledge of one’s own voice and its individual characteristics, sudden vocal maturity, and many other factors. I hope to demystify this process with some general advice and small tips to help you on your way. My assessment is by no means complete, but I hope to give you a good place to begin. Continue reading

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