01 April, 2009

Ask Al: Musical Theatre or Acting?

Hey Alexandra,

As a wannabe actress/whatever-the-hell-job-i-can-find-related-to-theatre I just wanted to say how much I enjoying reading your blog. I always find your posts insightful as to life in the theatre and if nothing else they can always give me a good giggle and I for one share your love of incredibly bad crime drama!

I just wondered if you would be so kind if I could pick your brain...

Correct me if I'm wrong but the course you trained on at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama was straight acting? Obviously the majority of your professional jobs have been in musical theatre and I wondered how ‘prepared’ your found yourself despite the course not being centered on this. Or if in any ways you felt that this benefited you more, the pros and cons etc. I am still undecided as to whether to audition for acting or musical theatre courses, I would prefer to apply for MT but while my voice and acting are strong, my dance is definitely the weakest area! So I’m unsure how far I would get.

Many thanks,

* * *

Hi Laura,

Any lover of badcrimedrama is already a friend of mine! How are you dealing with the depart of Grissom? I am, sadly, not coping well...(I have even taken to singing the theme tune "Who Are You?" with a note of derision specifically aimed at Lawrence Fishburn, which I intend to keep up for at least 2 more episodes until I am sufficiently readjusted). Grissom was the quintessence of CSI: Regular. I am lost, NO! THE CITY OF LAS VEGAS is lost, without our bug loving leader...

Now! To the topics at hand.

1. Ah, the classic question, what to study? I cannot tell you how often I get asked this question, so this is a perfect forum for me to extol the virtues of training. I want to start by stating that naturally, you are asking my personal opinion, and that is all that I represent here. I speak for no one but myself, and articulate only my own views and personal experiences.

My thoughts...

a. I believe, with every single fibre of me, that Musical Theatre is a genre of story telling. One. Single. Genre. As important and as legitimate as any other genre. (And believe me, I love it very, very much.) BUT. This being said. It is ONE genre of a very wide and expansive art form indeed, and I have never really understood fully why anyone would study a single genre for 3 or 4 years.

b. I suppose the theory is that you are technically studying three genres at once. That you are working three times as hard. And while I understand that Musical Theatre is a very technically demanding discipline, I deny that a person with a Musical Theatre degree is necessarily better armed for the world of Musical Theatre, let along a varied professional acting career. I would even go so far as to say that in some (certainly not all) instances, a mediocre (or poor) MT program actual does very little justice to truly honing one's abilities further than "polishing", it merely makes you competent, not excellent in three areas. There are, obviously, always exceptions to this, but I personally believe aiming to do one thing with true excellence, rather than many things with mediocrity. True excellence should always be your goal, not only in this highly competitive industry, but in life if you ask me.... and you are... (That is a snippet of a thought for an entirely different essay altogether, but you catch my drift).

c. My next point is this: I want you to think about all of the performing arts. Have you ever seen a dancer perform a technical feat of 20 pirouettes? It's impressive, it is like watching a contortionist or a high jumper at their best. But at The Ballet, you are meant to be telling a story, and I wager you, as an audience member, wouldn't care if the dancer performed only 5 pirouettes if their entire body and soul was laid bare for you to see whilst they danced for you?

Similarly, there is nothing like hearing an opera singer hit the high, big notes at the end of an aria. But if the aria is not sing with intelligence and passion, you are merely observing a technical feat, not an artistic one. A feat that can be measured with numbers, not measured with the heart.

Do you see where I am going with this? I studied straight acting for three years (plus two years multi-faceted training at Interlochen) because I knew that (get your pen ready) ACTING DRIVES EVERYTHING. One more time.... ACTING DRIVES EVERYTHING. If the story isn't being told, and told well, the odd voice crack here and there or 5 pirouettes instead of 20 will simply not matter. Believe me. This is not me giving licence to mediocrity, it is, in fact, the opposite argument. I believe that at the end of one's training, they should be very aware of the strengths they possess that can professionally deliver (on a scale of 1 to 10) between a 8 and 10, not the knowledge that they are "well rounded" and can deliver each discipline in the strong 4 to 7 range. Some people possess natural ability which accounts for a majority of their "delivery," but we're talking about training.

d. Take all three daughters cast in Fiddler on the Roof in London last year-- all of us classically trained (RSAMD and Bristol Old Vic). Lindsay chose us because he wanted to work with "actors," that is from the horse's mouth... not that Lindsay is a horse... he is really very nice and un-horse like.

Or, take my very good friend (since we were 16!) Santino Fontana. An incredible actor who trained classically at The Guthrie Theatre's BFA program in Minneapolis. He is an incredibly gifted musician as well, and he was not only in the original Revival Cast of The Fantasticks, but also in the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Sunday in the Park with George and is now starring in Billy Elliot. Oh, and I should probably mention that he...you know....whatever... played the title role in Hamlet at The Guthrie Theatre in a highly acclaimed performance, and is the youngest actor is EVER play Hamlet in a professional production... so... that is fine... he is sort of talented....This is what he had to say about his training at The University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program:

"I'm proud to say I have a visceral knowledge of the classics, specifically Shakespeare, and my passion for making those stories engaging, creative and dynamic was nurtured here over the last four years. My training has prepared me for a life as not just an actor, but an artist—aware of the world around me and informing how I choose to communicate a story to an audience. Moreover, my training has prepared me for life as a person—fully aware, curious, passionate, articulate, open and, above all, present."

And finally, look at the incredible performance of the beautiful late Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles. A woman with no Musical Theatre training, using her natural singing voice and dancing in her underwear; giving a soul baring performance of a lifetime, and the woman won and deserved that TONY. I know. I saw it. Her performance was one of the reasons I decided to study acting. (May she rest in peace, she was an inspiration to so many...)

e. Your voice isn't going anywhere. As a friend once said (actually I think it was Santino, oddly enough in response to this very question) "it's not going to fly away like a bird!" If you work on it (and I trained myself all the time in between classes at RSAMD), it will grow and improve like any technical skill. Take extra curricular dance classes if you like. Push yourself outside of school, take it at your own pace. If you are an accomplished singer than you take private singing lessons or work on your own. If your dancing sucks get a private teacher or sign up for beginner tap. Challenge yourself and move at your own pace in those "technical skill" areas. The art is in the expression. That is what I think.

f. When I was offered The Woman in White, I was told that without question the reason I was playing the role was because I was such a strong actress. My voice was "very good", but I was told there were "so many people with good voices." I was informed that I was to play Laura because my acting had "won it." And that cannot be due to natural ability alone. I owe a great deal to RSAMD, thank you thank you.

g. Finally, the technical discipline and thorough understanding of all genres, not simply musical theatre, is integral to a complete understanding of the theatre and it's scope. I spent my entire first year working on Naturalism alone! It took that long for me to fully understand it and I am still constantly reworking my skills.

There you go. That is my advice. If you are serious about being a professional, if pursuing a career is not merely a whim, but a very serious goal, than that is the best advice I can offer you. Study Acting. Study acting and do it at the highest level you can. It is the beating epicentre of it all.

*I just want to add as a footnote, that I have met, worked with, and tremendously respect a great many performers who have trained in Musical Theatre (D being one of many who have thoroughly enjoyed not only their training but a varied and colourful career. There is always room for second opinions! I highly recommend asking for them!)

I really hope you find that helpful and I wish you the best of luck! Let me know how you get on.

All the best,
Al x


  1. Thanks again for the wonderful advice. :)

  2. Brilliant!!

  3. Personal announcement!

    My Poetry:


    My Philosophy:


    - Peter Ingestad, Sweden

  4. I was struggling with the same exact problem... you have also answered my question. Thank you so much.

  5. Acting tips:

    Know your type.

    Read acting books.

    Get an Equity card.

    Keep track of your contacts.

    Get advice from other actors.

    Audit acting classes before signing up.

    Sign with a talent agent and a manager.

    Attend acting classes, workshops and showcases.

    Keep casting directors up to date with your work.

    Have a lawyer look over contracts prior to signing.

    Hand out your business cards to valuable contacts.

    Build your resume and showreel with unpaid work.

    Have a game plan based on milestones, not a calender.

    Network. It's all about who you know and who knows you.

    Work as an extra on different types of film and television sets.

    Volunteer at casting offices, film productions and film festivals.

    Be available for discovery. Go to plays, movies and industry parties.

    Send thank you notes to agents, casting directors, producers and directors.

    Self-submit for auditions; send out headshot, resume, cover letter and showreel.

    The formula to success: Beauty, talent, charisma, confidence, hard work and persistence.

    Attend acting conventions by Surviving Actors and stay on top of news and events from Equity.



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