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Theatre professionals give their advice to drama students

By Enobong Ukpong, February 25 2022—

Although drama students are passionate about what they do, this passion is often dampened by fears of not getting a good job after they graduate. Many are plagued by popular images of the “starving artist.” The Gauntlet sat down for a virtual interview and talked to professionals currently working in the theatre industry on the best advice for drama students hoping to be successful.

Rebeca Dumitru and Chelsea Chica became undergraduate drama majors through different paths. Dumitru has been acting consistently for ten years, only taking a break when the pandemic made live theatre difficult. Chica is a psychology major and took an introductory drama class. She ended up loving it so much that she put in an application for her drama minor. Chica’s not entirely sure what her future in theatre will be, Dumitru seems to see herself with sharp clarity but they’re both incredibly passionate about it. They both passed their auditions into the intermediate acting class next semester.

They’re also a little nervous about trying to make a career in professional theatre.

“It’s a lot to make a living on an artist’s job,” Dumitru said. “I’d really want to educate myself on how to do that, how to make this a feasible thing and not just some weird dream.” 

But it’s a path that’s been trodden before. Searching for a guide, I asked five theatre professionals working in Calgary for their advice. How do you make a career for yourself in the theatre industry?

“You can’t just do one thing. Very few people do one thing. We’re all multitaskers,” said Jane MacFarlane, a drama professor at the University of Calgary. 

She’s also the resident voice coach at Theatre Calgary. She said many people focus on one thing initially and end up venturing into other paths as they grow and mature. That may come as an early relief there’s never just one path to success. 

So, what should students be doing right now to maximize their odds of potential success in theatre? One word: experience. 

“You just need experience. You need the time to apply your craft,” said Trevor Rueger, playwrighte’s unit director of Alberta Theatre Projects and executive director of the Alberta Playwright Network. 

Experience may certainly mean finding a job, but Rueger recommends taking the time to try and produce your own work, as does Andrew G. Cooper, producer at Ghost River Theatre who is also an actor, choreographer and puppeteer.

“Find people you really want to work with, put on a show together and just keep doing that because you will learn so much. You have to develop these skills somehow and by doing it yourself, you’re going to be learning so much about every aspect of theatre,” said Cooper.

Cooper has personal experience with this. When he graduated he had difficulty finding professional work so he decided to make his own, teaching himself whatever he needed and asking other professionals for advice whenever he could. 

Make sure to go out of your way to watch the theatre. 

“See as many plays as you can,” said Brownyn Steinberg, artistic director of Lunchbox Theatre. “In my opinion, you can’t live like you’re in the academic theatre world and the professional world is out there. You need to start getting out there and seeing things.”

This is a view that MacFarlane agrees with. 

“Get out of the university, go downtown [and] see plays. You’ll start to look at it differently and see how the theatre is created, the work that is involved, how it changes and what different theatre companies do,” she said.

Rueger recommends paying attention to the world around you because it’s “full of a million stories and a million characters that you can draw upon.” He also encourages students to read as widely as they can. 

This is information that is valuable to know when auditioning for roles or interviewing for jobs. General life experience helps and you can get that by learning new skills, whether it be dancing or public speaking.

“Someone once told me you should learn a new skill every year,” said Haysam Kadri, artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects. “And I’ve taken that to heart.” 

This year, that skill is budgeting — a vital one for an artistic director to master. 

“Never stay static, always try to be dynamic, always try to continue to learn,” said Kadri.

If you want a career in theatre, it’s essential to know where theatre is headed. When asked about the current trends in the theatre industry, every person mentioned social justice. 

It’s not hard to see why — between the massive protests incited by the murder of George Floyd a couple of yeara ago, the Indigenous children in Canada found in mass graves on residential school sites and the smoky skies from BC wildfires this week last year — it’s not a topic you can ignore anymore. 

“Canadian theatre artists were just too busy making the next show to think about the larger picture of who watches theatre, who is it for and who is it about,” said Steinberg about theatre before the pandemic hit. Having the time to pause and think has led to conversations that she believes will inform productions in the future.

Theatres are generally putting more effort into representing different ethnicities and highlighting the stories of those traditionally underrepresented in theatre, such as the stories of Indigenous communities.

“Right now, pretty much every theatre in Alberta — and I would also suggest nationally — is undergoing a process of work towards equity, diversion, inclusion and accessibility,” said Rueger.

But he thinks post-pandemic theatres will stick to lighter content for some time to encourage audiences to return to the theatre. This is a view that Steinberg shares as well. 

“I’m not super interested right now in the heavy kind of content,” she laughs. “I just want people to have a good time when they get back to the theatre.”

Moreover, Cooper says he thinks there will be a shift towards sustainability in theatre. The props, costumes and set pieces are usually thrown out in a typical regional theatre after a show is done. If they’re touring, a lot of carbon is emitted through trucking around or flying.

 “The theatre industry is not very sustainable right now,” said Cooper, “and because the climate crisis is accelerating so quickly, there’s this movement in the professional theatre world, saying, ‘Okay, we need to stop what we’re doing and create sustainable change so we can keep doing theatre this way or in new ways in the next ten or twenty years before we destroy the planet with climate change.’”

A last note — when asked about the projects they felt contributed the most value, a common thread between some answers was that projects tended to be collaborative, as theatre usually is but they also all had altruistic motives.

Rueger mentioned how proud he felt helping a playwright get their professional premiere that was fourteen years in the making. Steinberg said she started an organization to give independent artists in Ottawa the resources to do bigger shows. 

“If I need these things, there’s probably other artists that do too.” 

Kadri said that he loved projects that challenged audiences and made them question their beliefs. 

If these are the projects that bring the most satisfaction and value, then maybe going out of your way to collaborate with your fellow artists, fulfill a need in your community or educate your audience could bring a successful and satisfying career.

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