It’s a little known fact that Theatrefolk’s own Craig Mason spent 15 years as a working actor. He has done it all from comedy, drama, musicals, commercials, TV and children’s theatre. We’re going to talk about his time touring Franklin the Turtle where he played Bear for the pre-school set. We’re also going to talk about why he left acting and has never looked back.


Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.

I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

Welcome to Episode 116! You can find all the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode116.

Today, we continue our Working Actor series on the podcast. What is it like to be a working actor? How did their choice of school help? What is it like to tour? What should you definitely not do?

And I am thrilled as always to welcome Theatrefolk’s own Craig Mason to the podcast. Hello!

Craig: Hello everybody!

Lindsay: So, it is a little known Theatrefolk fact that Craig actually spent fifteen years as a professional actor, a working actor, so that’s why you’re here.

Craig: I think that was a little known fact to the theatre community – not just the Theatrefolk podcast audience.

Lindsay: Okay. Well, that’s an interesting thing. We’ll get into that in a little bit. But, first, let’s talk about how you got started. What school did you go to?

Craig: I went to the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. It’s not a place that’s known for its theatre program. I went there for math and computer science because that’s where I thought my calling was and I was in the coop program there. I ended up taking a few electives in the theatre department.

In my very first semester and my very first year, I got cast in one of the theatre department shows and had a blast – I wasn’t having a blast in math and computer science – and gradually, halfway through, I did about two years, I guess? I guess two school years. It took me three years to get through those because, like, I took a year off doing math and computer science stuff and then I transferred into the drama department and that’s where I got my degree.

Lindsay: What kinds of things did you study? Like, in terms of what kind of school was in for drama? Was it a lot of theory? A lot of practical? What was the focus?

Craig: It’s a liberal arts school which means that you’re going to be taking a lot of academic courses, too. So, I had to take electives. I took electives in economics, in history, in French. I took an elective in Cold War relations between the US and Russia.

Lindsay: Oh, boy!

Craig: Yeah. Actually, that one was kind of fun.

Lindsay: Okay. And then, what about your theatre classes stood out to you?

Craig: Well, the cool thing that happened actually in my department while I was there is they were trying to transform the department into something more than what it was. And so, they had brought in an outside director by the name of Joel Greenberg and he was coming from more of a professional background so it was really cool because he taught our acting classes and he would take one thing per semester and really focus on it. So, in terms of acting, I got a semester on Commedia dell’arte, a semester on farce, a semester on auditions. So, it was really valuable theatre training even though that’s not what it set out to be.

Lindsay: So, you left school and you were like, “I’m going to try and be a professional actor.” What was your thought process at the end of your university degree?

Craig: At the end of my university degree, I thought I was kind of set because, before I finished university, I already had my first job lined up for once university was over – an actual acting job that paid. So, yes, that was definitely the goal.

After university, I moved to Toronto which is the big center for theatre in Canada. It’s basically Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal. Toronto has, I think, the bigger theatre community, or it did at the time. I thought I’d just started working away in Toronto at becoming an actor.

Lindsay: What was that first job? What was your first professional gig?

Craig: Well, this is cool because my first professional gig was a year before. I was still in university. I was in my third year of university. Because of this guy, Joel Greenberg, he was directing a show at a professional theatre which is actually a really well-respected professional theatre called Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton. He was directing You Can’t Take It with You There and he needed a few guys because there are some smaller roles.

At the end of the second act, if you know the show, when all the chaos erupts, there are these G-men who come in, these FBI agents. One of them has some lines, and one of them has two lines, and one of them has one line, I think, and I think I was the guy who had the one line. But he needed the non-equity and those are non-equity roles. Those are not roles you’re going to cast a full professional union member with so it was just a fantastic opportunity of being in the right place at the right time. The other guy who was in my program, we cast as one of the other G-man roles, he had a car and you needed a car to get to this job because it was not in the same town that our university was so it really was a fortunate lucky experience for me.

Lindsay: What did you learn from that? What was the difference to you from being on a professional theatre set than being in your class?

Craig: Oh. Well, it was wild because, when we walked in to the first day of rehearsal, if there were stairs in the show, there was a mock-up set of stairs on the rehearsal deck. If there were props needed for the show, there were, you know, maybe not the final props but there were rehearsal props there. You can’t take it with you. There are some cats I think. I think it was cats – the animal, cats, real live cats – and they had baby kittens there for the actors who were going to be interacting with the cats so they became good friends throughout the rehearsal process. We had kittens, too.

Lindsay: So, when you walked in and you saw all this, what was your thought about this is what professional theatre is like?

Craig: I thought it was awesome because, well, I’ll you why – because that show is a show about characters, you know? Everyone is really quirky. Everyone’s a real character actor so it was basically, oh, how big is that cast? It must be something like at least a dozen to fifteen people and it was so much fun because everyone was these quirky oddball people. I’m kind of a quirky oddball people myself so I really felt like I fit in and they really were very generous and kind.

There were people in that cast; there was one gentleman in the cast, I think he was fifty or sixty years deep into his professional theatre career. You know, these were not amateur performers. These were seasoned pros and they were kind and they were generous to us little guys and I felt very embraced and I felt like I could speak to anyone about anything. I never felt like, “Oh, don’t speak to Miss So-and-So because she’s having a bad day,” and I think that’s how Joel puts his companies together. I got to do another show with him later too and it was a very similar experience. Just great people and so it was a great introduction for me.

Lindsay: So, you went on and you lived in Toronto. What was the life of a Toronto working actor or trying to be a working actor? What was that like?

Craig: For a long time, it was a lot of fun because it was still back in the day where audition notices were posted on call boards and you actually had to go somewhere to get the audition notices. So, you know, I just kind of made a game out of it and I kind of systematized my approach to how I was doing it. I would make sure I would get up. I would always go to, I think there were two or three different places that you could go to for the audition notices. And so, I would go. I would get the audition notices, jot them down, and I would go right home and I would either call or mail my resume in. I wanted to look like I was, you know, on the ball and ready to go. I think that it was a really fun experience and it was nice getting out to those physical locations because I met other people like me, too. You’d always see the same people at these places. So, I felt like I was part of a community.

Lindsay: How long did it take you to get an agent?

Craig: Oh. That’s a good question. It was a couple of years. I tried really hard when I first got to Toronto and nothing came of that. And then, I think I maybe gave up for a year or two. I’m going to say it was at least two or three years in Toronto. Do you remember?

Lindsay: I don’t. Was that frustrating?

Craig: No, it wasn’t frustrating because I wanted to do theatre and I wasn’t a union member at the time so I was going out for non-equity stuff anyway and those auditions were really easy to get. So, to me, it wasn’t a huge deal that I didn’t have an agent because I didn’t feel that they would have that much to offer me anyway and, to be frank, I didn’t have that much to offer them. It always feels like the agent is hiring you but, really, it’s the other way around. You’re hiring the agent and their work is going to be easier if you’re an established performer. So, it’s a bit of a Catch-22 because it’s hard to get that experience but you kind of need that experience in order to make it worthwhile to form a team with an agent.

Lindsay: One of the things that you spent a long time doing was a children’s tour.

Craig: Yes.

Lindsay: And it was one show, right? That you did for a long time.

Craig: Yes, I auditioned for a lot of children’s companies but I always looked a bit older and they were usually casting people who looked like kids. I always looked older. So, yes, I did one big children’s tour. It was the very first live production of these beloved books called Franklin the Turtle – well, they were and they still are.

Lindsay: I know.

Craig: Yes. But, at that time, they were only a series of a few books. Now, it’s become a TV show and I think there’s a million books. But we were the first live people to go out and do the show. It was with a company called Touring Players of Canada and he was a great, great, great artistic director, Norbert Kondracki, because what he would do is he would go out, he would get his ear to the ground, and find out what the popular books were out there. He would talk to librarians, he would talk to schools, and so he would find out. Franklin the Turtle is becoming really popular in the libraries. He would contact the author, he would contact the publisher, and he would get permission to adapt their scripts into a show.

The other great thing he did was, even though he was hiring non-professional actors, he treated us like professionals.

Lindsay: Well, not non-professionals but non-equity.

Craig: Sorry, yes, non-equity. We weren’t union members. He wasn’t hiring union members but he treated us pretty darn close. I would say little difference between the way I was treated on that tour and the way I’d been treated in any other professional production.

Lindsay: Do you remember your audition for that?

Craig: I believe I did a… it was probably a monologue. You were always doing monologues. I auditioned for a lot of children’s theatre.

Lindsay: Do you have to prepare a different kind of monologue for a children’s show than if you’re doing a “regular” show? It seems the wrong word to use.

Craig: For sure. You’re not going to go into your audition doing your deep dramatic monologue from your Mamet, your Neil LaBute, or anything like that.

Lindsay: What do you think they’re looking for in a children’s theatre tour? Well, children’s theatre play.

Craig: That’s a good question. A lot of times, they actually ask you to go in and tell them a story. So, if it was a monologue, I would pick something that was more storytelling, something that was physical, something I could do something physical with. And then, of course, all of the other things you’re looking for in an audition – a clearly defined character, a beginning, a middle, an end, a change in the course of the character.

I guess I’m not auditioning anymore, I can say the monologue I used to do all the time. I used to do this all the time. It’s a great piece and it’s actually from Sunday in the Park with George and it’s a monologue that was actually cut from the show but, if you buy a copy of the script, it’s in there as an appendix. It was great for children’s theatre because it was about him, the artist, thinking back as a young person and how he would be fascinated with the light on the street and he would go out and he would run around the streets and trying to record everything that he saw. So, it was very active and it was very apropros, I thought, to children’s theatre which is all about energy and discovery.

Lindsay: It’s really interesting, I think, that, you know, particularly if you go away to school, that there’s all this time spent with the classics and with creating these in-depth characters. But I think quite a few young performers, they get out of school and children’s theatre is the thing that they do, you know? Why is that?

Craig: Because those are the roles that are available to us.

Lindsay: Yeah, true enough.

Craig: Certainly, when I was coming out of school, there was a lot of theatre for young audiences activity. I don’t think there’s quite as much now – the grants have dried up – but that was what was available to us and, as I mentioned before, they were often looking for…

Lindsay: Young performers.

Craig: They were often looking for people who could play kids and so you’re going to be looking for younger actors and they were also professional companies. They were paying salaries and so, you know, they also expected a certain level of skill. So, you know, a fresh university graduate was right up their alley.

Lindsay: Now, the role that you played in Franklin, you were a bear, right?

Craig: I was Franklin’s best friend.

Lindsay: Franklin’s best friend.

Craig: Bear.

Lindsay: Bear?

Craig: Yes.

Lindsay: And you guys all had to perform in full costume. You were the animals. You weren’t actors playing the animals. You were supposed to be the animals.

Craig: From my understanding, the agreement they had with the publisher was that we would look as much like the characters in the drawings as possible. It was basically like the costumes you would see at Disney World; it was just a full body costume. When I was Bear, it was fur mitts, fur on my feet, and a big huge full mask that went over my head which is great for Disney World but it was quite a challenge to act in because I think, when we first got the masks, they didn’t have any space for the mouth. There was no ability for the sound from our mouths to escape so we kind of sounded like this.

They eventually cut holes in there and I was lucky because I grew a beard for the show and my beard hair kind of looked similar to the costume so, unlike the other actors, I didn’t have to wear a chin strap. I think some people also had to wear a chin strap then once they opened up the mouths. It was really warm and they were uncomfortable. But it’s the type of thing you really kind of get used to after a while.

Lindsay: I was going to say, like, how do you act in it? Like, how do you communicate anything to an audience?

Craig: Well, you have to be big, you have to be larger than life, you have to be very physically expressive which is another reason that it was so warm in there because we were moving a lot and we were on-stage and we were under stage lights. And so, those challenges were there. I wouldn’t want to do it again today. But it was fine then. I didn’t really mind.

Lindsay: Were you mic’d?

Craig: Sometimes, we were mic’d. It depended on the theatre but, as a rule, no.

Lindsay: What were those audiences like that you played for? What is a children’s theatre audience like aside from loud and crazy?

Craig: It was loud and crazy. No, they were okay, and it depended on the day and it depended on the size of the venue. What was great about this particular tour is that, for the most part, we weren’t performing in school gymnasiums which, if you’re doing a children’s tour, you’re usually performing in school gymnasiums. But he would rent out every theatre that he could get his hands on so I got a great opportunity to play, I performed in pretty much every theatre in the entire province of Ontario because of this show so it was a great experience.

How are the kids? They were fine. It’s a real adjustment to get used to from doing shows for adults because they are very immediate, they are very expressive. If they don’t like it, you’re going to know; if they’re loving it, you’re going to know; and both of those reactions are going to be loud.

But a great tip that was told to us in that show was that, if the kids start getting out of hand and if it starts getting really, really, really loud in there, you’ll never ever ever overspeak them. You’ll never be able to speak loud enough for them to hear you so, what you do is, you do the exact opposite. You just start talking quieter and quieter and quieter. Soon, the whole situation will start policing itself because people will want to hear so they’ll either shut up to listen or they’ll tell other people to be quiet. That was actually quite an effective technique. We used it many, many times.

Lindsay: A children’s theatre tour is not the same as performing a night show. What is a typical day like on tour?

Craig: Typical day for me for that tour, now, the nice thing is Toronto is very central. A lot of times, we were just performing within driving distance of Toronto so I’d usually have to get up at around 6:00 in the morning – yes, in the morning – and you’d have to take the subway to the meeting spot and then, from the meeting spot, you’d drive to the venue. And then, while you’re at the venue, you have to unload the van.

Lindsay: You have to unload the van, right? There’s nobody doing it for you.

Craig: There was no crew, no. We were the crew. We unload the van. We set up the set. And then, we actually had a tour manager slash stage manager. She was in-charge with coordinating the lighting with the venue and coordinating the sound. But, sometimes, I think you have to do that, depending on the type of tour. And then, you do the show and then you have, like, a half an hour break and then you do the show again and then you have a half an hour break and then you do the show again.

Lindsay: Oh, my god.

Craig: Yes, we were often often often doing three shows a day. And then, you’d pack the van up, drive back to the meeting spot, take the subway home, have some dinner, and pass out.

Lindsay: How long was the show?

Craig: The show was about 30? 40 minutes long?

Lindsay: Wow. So, that’s a full performing day.

Craig: Yes, we would often do 15-show weeks. Again, he was very fair because, if we did over a certain number – I think 12 – then he would pay us extra so we’d often make a lot more money than we were even promised.

Lindsay: Wow.

Craig: And, if we were on tour, if we were away from home, he would always put us up in a decent hotel. From my understanding, that is not what you always get. He stuck with one chain of hotel that was everywhere and it was a decent clean hotel. There were only two people to a room. There was five of us on tour – four actors and the tour manager. The tour manager got her own room and then the four actors split up – two in one room, two in the other – so we always got our own bed. When we needed to cool off from one another, there was always space. There was always a place to go.

Lindsay: Well, let’s talk about that for a second. If you go on tour, because you did this show not only all over Ontario, you went out to another province – you went out west.

Craig: Yes, we eventually went out and did a month in British Columbia.

Lindsay: So, what is tour relations like? What is it like to be in the same places with these same people in a very tight, tight confined space like a van or in a hotel room? What is that like?

Craig: First of all, this is in the time before cellphones, before iPods, before we could just completely zone out. As I understand it now from talking to people who have toured, everyone just gets in the van and gets on their phone or their iPod and just zones right out. We did not have that luxury because I’m old and those things didn’t exist then.

Lindsay: “What’s an iPod?”

Craig: Exactly! So, we kind of had to talk to each other.

Lindsay: Oh, my god, conversation?

Craig: And, you know, you get five people into a van together for four months, there were conflicts here and there, but we were always able to resolve them, I think.

Lindsay: Good. You know, this is the other thing I wanted to talk about with small confined spaces. I remember seeing this show and your set was pretty involved. The whole idea that that was able to break down and actually fit in a van always sort of surprised me. Was there, like, an IKEA floor plan that you had to learn how to pack a van?

Craig: No! See, that was part of rehearsal. So, towards the end of rehearsals, they brought the set, they brought the van and said, “Okay. Now, you’re going to practice loading up the van.” You know, there was no map on how to do it. So, for the first few weeks, it was really tight, you know? Barely got the door closed on the van. But, as you go along, and I have this brain, I love putting stuff in the fridge, I love packing the trunk of the car.

Lindsay: Yes, I do not pack the trunk of the car.

Craig: So, eventually, by the end of the tour, you could have fit a hot tub in the back of that van – we had so much space. But it’s just like, you know, you’re just doing it several times. You know, I said that we did three shows a day. Sometimes, those three shows would be in two different venues too. Sometimes, it would be two shows and then a lunch break and we’d drive to a different place and start up again. So, we got really good at packing that van. It became – I don’t know – it became a lot of fun. Some of the set pieces were heavy, but you kind of got used to, if you’re lifting up the same thing every day, it got easier.

Lindsay: Now, as we sort of end this, you had a really lovely run as an actor. Would you agree? Do you think so? Do you disagree?

Craig: I’m very proud of everything that I did in my entire career.

Lindsay: Perfect! Okay. But you don’t do it anymore.

Craig: No.

Lindsay: You walked away from being an actor.

Craig: Yes.

Lindsay: And, as far as I can tell, you’re pretty proud of that, too. You’re pretty happy with that decision.

Craig: What I’m happy about is that I love Theatrefolk and I love what we do and I love the people that we meet, and that has replaced the love of theatre that I had when I was acting. The great thing about Theatrefolk is I can do it every day; acting, I couldn’t. I didn’t have that game of acting. I didn’t have the drive that made me want to just continue contacting people and networking and connecting with people. That’s where I really fell apart as a performer with the business end, I guess.

Lindsay: And I think that’s really interesting because it’s very specific that I wanted to talk to you, to talk to Craig, as our sort of wrap up of our Working Actor series because each of the three actors who we’ve had beforehand – Marty Moreau and Steve Ross and Heather McGuigan – that’s what stood out to me above all else was that they like the game.

Craig: I remember there’s one actress in Toronto who I’d seen a few times and I never really thought that she was as special as she was to get the number of roles she did until I talked to someone who had worked with her and they said, “You know what? Every single break, every single lunch, she is working on the phone to her agent, to directors, to producers.” She is constantly working at getting roles and it suddenly made sense. That’s how you get roles. You’ve got to constantly work at it. Even when you already have a job, you have to be constantly working on the next job. That’s where I failed as a performer. I couldn’t do that.

Lindsay: Well, you don’t like it.

Craig: I can’t stand it. I can’t stand schmoozing.

Lindsay: It’s not necessarily a failure if you can look at it and you can acknowledge that you don’t like it and, if you don’t like it, you’re not going to do it and, if you’re not going to do it, then something has to be done. You have to make a choice.

Craig: You’re right. Steve, Marty, and Heather all talk about how much they love doing that stuff.

Lindsay: Steve really said this is a business where you’re selling yourself and I think, for anyone out there who’s listening to this, who is a beginning actor or has beginning actors; that is the thing that, above all else, you know, talent and ability are key. But, if you don’t have a drive to do that – to get the jobs yourself, to work yourself, to be your own sort of marketing agency – then you really have to think long and hard about this job, don’t you?

Craig: For sure. The mistake I think I see a lot of kids make is that it’s not that you want it. It’s not that you’re going to work hard at it. It’s that you are working hard at it. It’s that you are doing this and it is a 24/7 job. The successful people, the successful actors, the people you see on TV, they are working it hardcore 24/7. It’s an illusion when you see them at the Oscars. It’s an illusion when you see them at the Emmy’s. Those are not fun times for them. Those are hardcore working hours for them. When they’re on that red carpet, they are auditioning for their next roles. They are playing characters. Any time you see an actor who is working a lot, it is the result of a lot of drive on their part. Talent for sure, but also the work hustle. If you don’t have that, if you aren’t right now, if you’re in high school and thinking of becoming a professional performer and you’ve never contacted even your local community theatre, you haven’t contacted any local summer stock companies who might hire you over the summer to intern or to play a small role or to help out with props, if you haven’t done that then you’re already far behind because that’s what you need to be doing – even in high school. You need to get that habit of getting out there and just constantly being in people’s faces. That’s how you become a successful actor.

Lindsay: And it’s not even about it as a punishment, I think, and I have to tell you, the other three – Marty, Steve, and Heather – are they or are they not the three nicest people in the world? In the professional actors that we know.

Craig: They’re certainly among the three greatest people that I ever worked with and I would work with, I would do a show with the three of them in any time.

Lindsay: And so, it’s not about being – bitter is not the right word that I’m looking for; “hard” I guess is the word I’m looking for – it’s not about that, but it’s a part of the job. If you want to be a working actor, the business hustle is part of the job.

Craig: If you want to be an actor, I think you should take a business class or marketing class, actually, and consider yourself as a product and develop a business plan, a marketing plan for yourself.

Lindsay: My last question was going to be what do you think, if you want to be a young actor, the thing to do? And I think you’re right. I think that it’s not just the dancing, the singing, and the acting, and we’re talking about being professional. Like, if you want to get out there and make this your job, and that’s the other thing I think that a lot of beginning students mistake, that they have so much fun with being an actor in school that they miss that little thing where this is actually a job. If you want to make it your job, having a marketing class under your belt would be an excellent thing to do.

Craig: Yeah, how to write a cover letter, how to write a resume. Actually, that served me well because, when I was in coop in university, we had to take these classes each week on resumes, on cover letters, on interview skills, and that actually served me well when I began my career.

Lindsay: And then, if listening to this, you’re starting to think, “This isn’t my cup of tea,” I think it’s important to not think of it as a failure. Like, you said, “I failed that way as an actor,” I don’t think you need to think of it as a failure; you need to think of it as a choice, and making a choice to leave a profession like acting, people always see it as, “Oh, they couldn’t cut it,” and I’m not sure that’s right at all. I think it’s all about the choices that you make and I look at the choice that you made, Craig, and, from my outside perspective, and that’s always been a question that I’ve asked because, you know, quite frankly, when Theatrefolk, we moved in a new direction and that was one of the first things that happened – we moved away from the center where you could work. I always was like, “Is that going to be okay? Is that going to be okay?” and this choice that you made seemed to be okay with you.

Craig: But the hard part about leaving a profession like that is that I don’t feel like I ever really made a final “I’m gone.” I mean, there are no ties to sever. There’s no job to quit. If a director I had worked with previously called me and offered me something, I’d probably take him up on it. It’s not like leaving your job at IBM. You just don’t put yourself out there anymore. So, I guess I don’t want to say I’m on the fence, but I’m certainly more than satisfied with what we’re doing and, if I never step on a stage again, I’ll still be happy and have led a fruitful, fulfilled life.

Lindsay: Awesome. That’s what we want to hear.

Okay. So, as we wrap up here, just with our other podcasts this month, if you want in on the written reflection and listening quiz for this Working Actor podcast and this Working Actor series, make sure you join our email list. You can get the link in the show notes for this episode – theatrefolk.com/episode116.

So, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play! And I think it’s only right that we use the Theatrefolk news slot today to talk about a children’s play and one that Craig has written.

So, Craig adapted The Tempest into modern English. Craig, you and I actually toured this show in a former life because not only did you do children’s tours on your own, Theatrefolk used to be a production company and we used to tour very small but we did do some tours.

Craig: How do you feel about leaving the world of being a production company?

Lindsay: Being a production company? Oh, there was never a better decision I ever made in my whole entire life. Oh, my goodness. I was not meant to act and I was not meant to tour children’s theatre.

We did a Romeo and Juliet and as a shadow puppetry and we did The Tempest with a life-sized puppet for Caliban that we recycled. We did another children’s show called Joe Mufferaw and the Nipissing Fling and we turned that big puppet into Caliban.

Craig: Okay!

Lindsay: That’s where Caliban came from! So, we’re going to read a little bit from The Tempest where we first meet Caliban.

PROSPERO: I thought I told Caliban to come fetch us some word. Caliban! Caliban, I say!

CALIBAN: Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.

PROSPERO: Caliban, come out here this instant! You know we’re out of wood.

CALIBAN: There’s wood enough!

PROSPERO: There’s no wood at all. I see none.

CALIBAN: A southwest wind blow on ye and blister you all o’er!

MIRANDA: Now, Caliban, be nice.

CALIBAN: I must eat my dinner. This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother. You took this island from me! When you came here, you were nice to me. You gave me water with berries in it and taught me the names of the stars and so I like you and showered you with all the secrets of the island. But then, you made me your servant. All the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bat, light on you!

MIRANDA: Oh, you know that’s not true. You were just a monster when we came here and could not even talk. Why, Caliban, I did spend many hours with you teaching you how to speak. You were taught all the words for everything.

CALIBAN: Yes, you taught me how to speak and I thank you. Now, I can say this to you, “The red plague rid you for learning me your language!”

PROSPERO: Get us some firewood.


PROSPERO: If you do not do what I command, I’ll rack you with old cramps, fill all your bones with aches, and make you roar that lions will be afraid of the noise.

CALIBAN: He speaks the truth. I must do what he says. Prospero is much more powerful than I. Grumble. Grumble. Grrr and grumble again.

Lindsay: So, that’s The Tempest and I will put a link to that in the show notes. Literally, I’m sitting here… Now, Craig and I used to do these shows…

Craig: Speaking of professional, do I get paid for this?

Lindsay: I’m literally sitting here going, “Okay, there were two of us, there were three people in that scene, and you played Prospero. Where were you on-stage?”

Craig: I know. How did we do that?

Lindsay: I don’t know! Now, I know we used a lot of puppets. Like, later on…

Craig: But Caliban wasn’t a puppet, or he was a puppet but he was life-sized.

Lindsay: But you had to get into him and I played Trinculo and Stephano, and I did those as two different puppets. Well, I think that’s just going to have to be a mystery of the past.

So, that’s The Tempest.

And now, finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? Where can you direct students to find this podcast? We post new episodes every Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Thank you, Craig.

Craig: Take care.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.


Dealing with Rehearsal Rut

It’s easy to get caught in a rhythm during the rehearsal process. Lines must be memorized, blocking must be learned, it’s the same rhythm over and over again. Before you know it, it’s opening night and you’re asking yourself,

“Where did the time go? What did we do?”

Sometimes you find yourself late in the rehearsal period with students who have lost their passion and energy for the piece. Maybe you’ve lost your passion and energy for the piece. You’ve become stuck in rehearsal rut.

Rut: A habit or pattern that becomes dull but is hard to change.

Shake up your rehearsal to keep students engaged in the process. Break away from the script with some character development. Do an out-of-context line exercise. Have a Q&A session. Have some fun!

These exercises not only break the rhythm, they also show your actors (and you) what they know and what needs work. Provide a focus and a drive as you head toward opening night.

Change Your Warm-Ups

There is something comforting about doing the same warm-ups repeatedly. It provides structure: this is how rehearsals start. Structure can give you a valuable transition from the “outside” world to rehearsal world. But a great way to shake up rehearsals is to change the warm-up. Instead of warming up as actors, have your students warm-up in character.

  • Students are spread around the room. Explain that they are now in character and that every choice they make for this warm-up should be in character. Think about how your character acts, reacts, moves and speaks differently than you do.
  • Emphasize these differences by directing students to stretch in character. Reach up as your character, think about how old you are, how far you can stretch your arms. Reach out to the side, always staying in character. Do the ragdoll (reach up and then flop forward from the waist) and roll up vertebrae by vertebrae, continually coaching students to stay in character.
  • Direct students to move about the room in character. Think about your character’s pace and speed. Do they walk always in a straight line? Do they wobble? Do they make a lot of sudden changes in direction? Stay focused, stay in character. If you make eye contact with anyone, you can say hello – in character. If your character doesn’t like another character, make it clear.
  • Have students come to a halt. Coach them to stand so that they are not making eye contact with anyone else. Make sure everyone stands as their character would. How does your character stand? Remember, you are different than your character. Make your stance different. Where do you hold your hands? Where are your shoulders? Make this pose the most defined and expressive stance for your character.
  • Direct students to think about the problems their characters face in the play. What are your problems? Think about the issues that make you really tense. Where do you (the characters, not the actors) hold tension? Is it in the shoulders? Do you get stomachaches? Headaches? Exaggerate the tension you feel right now. Hold on to the area where you feel that tension.
  • Direct students to walk around the room, maintaining the tension in their bodies. Think about the tension you feel right now. Think about what problems you have to face. Make that tension so intense you can barely walk. It’s so bad you have to come up with a way to get rid of it. How do you get rid of that tension? What do you do to get that tension out? Do you sing? Jump up and down? Run around the room? Do you scream? Come up with an action and a sound that you, the character, does to get rid of tension. Make it big and make it loud – that’s the only way to get rid of the tension.
  • Direct students that on the count of three everyone is going to do their sound and their action at the same time. Coach them to release that tension. Reiterate that they should make it big and loud. One, two, three go!
  • Direct students now to move about the space tension-free, in character. You’ve got rid of the tension and you’re feeling good about yourself. How do you walk? How do your shoulders move? Do you bounce? Are you grounded?
  • Once the students are moving with purpose about the space, tell them they are going to start greeting the other characters in the play. Pretend you’re walking down the street. When I say, “Go,” greet the first person you come in eye contact with, in character. Make sure you’re reacting to them based on your relationship in the play. Are you close? Friends? Enemies? Maybe you don’t know them, that’s ok. Talk to this person. Tell them where you’re going and why you’re walking down the street. Go!
  • Coach students to leave that first person and find another person to greet.
  • Once they’ve completed three sets of greetings, coach students to come to a neutral standing position and shake the character out of them. Coach them to exaggerate the shake.

Out of Context Line Exercises

Learning lines comes easy to some, and not so easy to others. A common problem student actors have is they learn their lines solely within the context of the play – they associate each line with a specific piece of blocking. They get into a specific rhythm with the line because they’ve learnt it by rote. They get into a line rut.

But what if another actor blanks? Or changes the blocking? Or says the wrong line from three pages ahead? Dependence on a certain rhythm or with everything going perfectly is a recipe for disaster.

Use these exercises to get actors out of their line ruts.

  1. Speed Round: Students spread out around the space. Ask them to close their eyes and think about their lines. On the count of three, have everyone start at the top of the play and say their lines, all at the same time. Coach them to keep their eyes closed, so no one can see them and they can’t see anyone. Coach them to say their lines as fast as they can without stopping. They don’t have to act the lines, just say them. After a couple of minutes, call out stop. Question the actors about the exercise:
    • Did anyone have trouble saying the lines without acting? Ask them to reflect on why that happened. What are they relying on to help them with their lines?
    • Did anyone get stuck? Where did they get stuck? Have those actors pull out their scripts and circle the lines – this is where they need to do some homework.
  2. Shout Out Game: Go through the script and pull out ten individual lines. Take them from the middle of monologues, from the beginning of the play, from the end. Create a list of these ten lines. Make sure the list is not in chronological order. Gather the cast and call out each line one at a time. Who knows where the line comes from? Who says it? What’s the next line? What’s the previous line? Coach your students to shout out the answers! This will give you a clear indication of who really knows the play.
  3. The Situation: Go through each scene in the play and ask your students to write a one sentence description of what happens. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the scene or not – what happens in scene 2? Then have everyone write a one sentence on why each scene is important. What’s going on? Why is it important? Everyone on stage should know what’s supposed to happen and why. That way they can help each other when things go wrong.
  4. All dried up: Students need to learn what to do when a scene goes off the rails. More often than not, if a line is missed, or someone speaks out of place, students will look around for someone else to solve the problem. Run through a scene with your actors. Tell them that at some point, one person in the scene has been given the directive to “dry up.” They’re going to forget a line on purpose. (You can do this by handing out slips of paper to the actors and if they get a slip of paper with an X on it, they’re the one who dries.) When that happens everyone else must carry on. They have move the scene forward, in the correct direction, in character. No one can call out “line,” no one can break character, and the person who has “dried up” is not allowed to help.
  5. What line defines you? This exercise allows the actors to think about the lines outside the world of the play. Each actor should know his or her lines well enough that they can choose the one line which defines their character. They should know their character well enough to be able to experiment and explore their lines outside their context. NOTE: Make sure actors don’t choose a full monologue or a long chunk of dialogue. It should be one or two sentences. Ask your students the following:
    • What is the most important line for your character in the play?
    • Why does that line define you?

    If you have actors without lines or they don’t have any character-driven lines, ask them to pick the moment in the play rather than a line. Have these students write out this moment in one sentence. That will be their “line” for the purposes of this exercise.
    Ask students to say the line out loud. All at the same time. Ask them to say the line with different styles and emotions: Say it slow. Say it fast. Yell it. Whisper it. Laugh it. Be angry with the line. Be depressed with it.

    Ask the actors to walk around the room. When they make eye contact with someone, they will say their line to each other. Coach students to say the line in a specific way – it could be in the style or emotion they use in the play, but it doesn’t have to be. Have students repeat this with three other people.

    Ask students to pause and get in their own space. Direct them to say the line aloud again. Students are now going to come up with a physical action for their line. If you couldn’t speak, what physical action would define this line? Be creative – do you roll into a ball? Do you skip? Do you flail? Do you reach up to the sky? Do yoga? Kick? Remind students this is not just some random action, this is an action that represents this line which defines their character. Is the emotion of your line coming out in the action?

    Direct students to do their action with their line. Everyone does this at the same time. Have them repeat this three times. Then, have students complete the action without the line. Just the action, no sound. Repeat the action three times.

    Now, instead of saying the line, instead of saying words, come up with a sound. Again, choose  a sound that represents the line which defines the character. Is it a yell? A note? A hum? A grunt? A groan? Coach students not to use any words with this sound. It is a noise. Ask students: What’s the emotional quality of the line? What sound matches that emotional quality? Say the line again. Now do just the sound. No action. Do it again.

    Direct students to do the sound and action together. Coach students: Put your heart into it. Commit to it. This is the line or the moment that defines you. Bring that line to life through this sound and action.

    Ask for a couple of volunteers to present their sound and action to the group. See if the rest of the group can figure out what line is represented with the sound and action.

    Finally, ask students to reflect on the connection between the line, the sound and the action. Why did they choose that specific sound or action? If you’re doing this play as a class project have students write it down in their journals. If it’s a production, have students write this reflection in their script. This way, they can refer to it later. And ask them to do just that – Think about that sound and that action that defines you. How can you incorporate that into a moment on stage?

Character Profiles

The more an actor knows about their character, the more depth they can play. It’s important for actors to think about their characters outside of the confines of the story. It’s so easy to get caught up in lines and blocking that character development goes by the wayside. This exercise is a great way to get out of a rut and to bring character development to the forefront.

A Character Profile is made up of any number of details. Characters come to life in the details. This exercise will also help your actors with small roles flesh out their characters.

You’ll find a short Character Profile at the end of this guide. Give the actors a maximum of 15 minutes to answer these questions – make it an instinct exercise. Use it to shake up your rehearsal, but don’t let it be a time suck.

Here are some guidelines:

Full Name: If the character’s full name isn’t given (or if they have no name at all) the actor should come up with it. What’s their middle name?

Family: What is the character’s family situation? Does the character come from a large or small family? Does the character live with both parents? Is the family situation happy? Tense?

What makes you laugh / angry: Pretty self-explanatory. Once actors define this, identify parts in the script that trigger these emotions. When does the character laugh in the play? When does the character express anger?

Favourite / Least Favourite Food: Everyone has likes and dislikes. So should your character.

Childhood memory: Many people are defined by childhood events. What does your character remember from childhood?

Describe Your Bedroom: Is it neat? Messy? Designed? Plain? Does your character hide secrets in their room? What does the room say about the character?

Character Questions

In addition to the Character Profile, provide a character-specific question for your actors. Each character gets their own question, which only they can answer. It takes some effort on your part, but it’s a worthwhile exercise. First, it’s something specific for every actor and that makes them feel important. Second, the right question can allow actors to think about their characters in a way they might not have previously.

For example, here are a number of questions I came up for the actors rehearsing my play The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note.

  • JAKE: Why has your friendship with Ken lasted? How long have you and Karen been dating?
  • KAREN: You say, “I believe in marriage.” Do you believe you have a future with Jake? Is this a secret, or something you’ve talked about with Jake?
  • JOAN: You don’t treat Ken ‘funny’ after his revelation. Why? What is your relationship with Ken?
  • BEE BEE: Why is it so important to you to present the persona of “flaky Beebee” to your friends? Does it bother you that Karen, Lisa and Joan don’t know where you work? Why? How long have you known them?
  • DENNIS: You talk about what your dad is like. What is your mom like? Describe your relationship with her.

As you can see, the questions are VERY specific! Small, specific work like this takes characters (and your rehearsals) to the next level.

What can students do with these questions? In my Bright Blue example, the actress playing Karen was really excited by her question. She decided that Karen was definitely the type of character who thought about being married. She went so far as to say that Karen was one of those girls who had planned their wedding from the time she was a little girl. In the play, Karen finds her boyfriend pushing her away. The actress came up with a moment where she held her hands as if holding flowers in the traditional wedding pose. As Jake turns away from her, she dropped her hands, as if dropping the flowers.

You can present these questions as part of the Character Profile or present them as part of an Interview Hot Seat Exercise.

Interview Hot Seat: Each actor sits in front of the group and answers questions in character. It could be the questions you’ve come up with, or you can ask everyone in the cast to write down a question for the character. This is a great opportunity for you to see what your characters think about the other characters in the show.

Scene Study

Shake up your rehearsal rut by going through one scene in detail. Invite everyone who’s not in the scene to participate in this scene study. There’s a lot you can learn by watching specific scene work.

Line by Line

Start by running through the scene normally once.

Then go through the scene line by line. Ask actors questions about the content of the scene. Ask about why their character makes any decisions or why they say a certain line. Ask them about background information that comes up in the scene. Are they clear about the relationships in the scene? Answering “I don’t know” is a red flag.

Play Time

After the line reading, go through the scene again and play with it. Give students alternative blocking. Place the scene in a different location entirely. If the scene is a drama, run it as a comedy or viceversa. You’re trying to break your cast out of a rut, so change things up.

For example, when I had the students rehearsing Bright Blue do this scene study I chose a scene where all the characters read a suicide note for the first time. In the play, the characters aren’t sure if the note is real or fake. I had them do the scene and play “keep away” with the note. This brought an energy and a game atmosphere to the scene that wasn’t there before.

Why’d you move?

Next, run through the scene but stop every time someone moves. Ask that actor “Why’d you move?” There should be a character-driven reason for every move. “Because you told me to” is not an acceptable answer. Push your students to come up with a reason why their character decided to sit or stand or move across the room. What is their subtext? Are they uncomfortable and want to get away from someone? Are they interested and want to get close to someone?

You can get rid of Rehearsal Rut!

Sometimes there isn’t enough time to get your production to its best possible performance level. But there should always be time to incorporate even one of these exercises into your rehearsals. Your students will be more aware of their characters, more confident with their lines, and they’ll maintain that vital connection to their passion. We can’t ask for anything more for our students, can we?

Character Profile


Character Name:


What makes you laugh?

What makes you angry?

Favourite / Least Favourite Food?

Describe a childhood memory.

Describe Your Bedroom.


Observation: What the What?

Observation: What the What?!

October is Observation Month here at Theatrefolk! That means we’ve got a month of Observation prompts for your Saturday exercise.

Observation is my number one tool for finding play ideas. When you observe, you’re not just looking around, skimming the world around you. Observation is the specific looking at people, places and things. You’re looking at the world like a writer. And when you look at the world like a writer, everything becomes a play idea.

What the What?!

Sometimes Observation is all about the “weird” factor. The thing you see, the line you overhear that has no explanation.

Could be a Coke can placed precisely on a stump. Could be an out-of-the-ordinary piece of clothing. Could be a weird piece of graffiti. Could be a dog wearing booties. Could be a fragment of conversation that you just catch – “and that’s how I was banned from Sliders.”

If you’re out in the world paying attention, these “What the What” moments will almost fling themselves at you. You’ll find them everywhere. They are the perfect example of the adage, “The truth is stranger than fiction.”

Exercise: Spend a day simply observing. Look up when others look down. Look under things. Listen to every snippet of conversation that comes across your world view. Observe what people are wearing, what they’re doing. How they act in their relationships. Be aware and see if a “what the what” moment comes your way. Don’t force it, just see what happens. If it does, write it down immediately!

Afterward reflect on the experience. If you don’t get a “what the what” moment, reflect on why – were you too self-conscious to really observe people? Were you tired and didn’t feel like committing fully?

If you’ve been completing these exercises with your students now is the time to reflect on the process. In this week’s download I’ve included a Reflection Sheet. How did it feel to observe like a writer? Did the process become easier? Why or why not? Can you see using your observations in your writing? Why or why not?

Click here to download this exercise and Reflection Sheet!

Observation Exercise- “What the What-!”-page-001


Heather McGuigan is a musical theatre performer by trade and is just about to start her fifth production of Mary Poppins.

She’s toured the show across North America and talks about how this is one show she never tires of. Heather also talks about what it’s like to play every single role in the musical theatre canon: swing, understudy, ensemble and principle.

She shares the ups and downs of each role and the one thing you should never do as an understudy.


Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.

I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

Welcome to Episode 115! You can find all the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode115.

And we continue on with our Working Actor series. What’s it like to be a working actor? How did a choice of school help? What is it like to tour? What is something you should definitely not do as an understudy in rehearsals?

This week’s focus is musical theatre. Heather McGuigan has done it all from swing to principle and every role in-between. This is a great primer to life as a musical theatre performer.

And I just need to preface that, as I was recording this podcast, I was suffering from a very mild case of consumption – a lovely cold, or a smoker’s cough, one or the other. Ah, but I’m sniffling and coughing and all that fun stuff.

Lindsay: All right. Hello everybody! I am here today with Heather McGuigan.

Hello, Heather!

Heather: Hello!

Lindsay: So, tell everyone, where are you in the world right now? Where are you sitting?

Heather: Currently, I am living in Stratford, in-between gigs throughout the year. My boyfriend is a company member here so I tend to come back here when I’m not working.

Lindsay: So, the Stratford Festival is what we’re talking about?

Heather: Yes, the Stratford Festival. He’s in his third season in the musicals and he is in one musical and swings the other. So, this year, he is in Man of La Mancha and he swings Crazy for You.

Lindsay: That’s a word that we’re going to get into in a little bit. But you yourself are a working actress. You are a musical theatre performer, yes?

Heather: I am.

Lindsay: Yes, and what’s your next job going to be?

Heather: I just finished a production of Mary Poppins and I’m now heading to another production of Mary Poppins. This one is going to be at Theatre Aquarius. I will be playing the role of Winifred Banks and understudying Mary. This is actually my third production this year.

Lindsay: Your third production. Have you done more than three?

Heather: I have done five. I started on the first national tour as an ensemble and a Mary understudy. A year later, I joined the second national tour where I did basically my similar track but on the other foot. And then, I covered Winifred and then a production at Neptune where I played Mary and a production at the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope where I played Mary.

Lindsay: Okay. So, there’s a ton of things I want to ask you about this whole thing. The first is, what’s it like to do a show, not once, not twice, but five times? When you’re going into it for this fifth time, what’s going through your mind?

Heather: I think this was a show, actually, it’s one of my favorite stories. This show, well, the books, you know, I have been a fan of basically my whole life. I have the fabric-bound copies that were printed in ’64.

Lindsay: I have one of those myself.

Heather: Yeah, I’ve got all of them. They were passed down. They were gifts from my great grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to me. So, it’s been a story that I read for a very long time. The movie is probably the only thing that I would watch – besides Star Wars – as a kid. So, the songs have been kind of in my heart for a very long time.

When the musical came out, I remember I was in my little basement apartment in Toronto, singing full blast, you know? And I called my boyfriend, I said – you know, statement – “I am going to be in this show. I think I’m meant to do this. This was written for what I do. I am going to be in this someday,” and it took, I think, three more years, four more years, to actually get on the tour, and now it’s come around and now it’s here and it’s a brilliant piece of work. I think anybody who gets to tackle such a well-rounded, well-constructed piece of musical theatre is lucky to tackle it this many times.

I actually love doing it with this many different people. It allows you to make new choices. It allows you to be challenged by so many different people and different ideas, different choreo, different staging, especially when I get to play Mary and with Winifred as well. You work with kids. The whole time, their perspective on it is so completely different and it’s fun to have the relationship of being open to brand new things, but also bring in an incredible amount of knowledge which can help technically in terms of people going, “How does the bag work?” you know, “Well, if you do this, this, this, this and this, it’ll work perfectly.” “Ah! Perfect. Thank you so much!” You know, there’s little things that you can bring in to help the production along as you know the secrets – the Disney Magic.

Lindsay: And then, here’s something else which I think will be of great interest to our teachers who have young musical performers. Of course, when they’re in high school, they have this, “I’m going to get the big parts and I’m going to be on Broadway.” They have big, big thoughts and what you’ve said with this particular show, you have played an understudy and you’ve also played Mary, the big part, but now you’re going in to play a little smaller part and I think your attitude sort of has to be “take everything,” isn’t it?

Heather: Power to anybody and bless their hearts for thinking they’re going to play leads their whole life.

Lindsay: Why not, right?

Heather: Hey! Why not? You know, I love a big dream. I love a big goal. You have to have a big one to keep at it. I think that’s the same in any business though. That’s somebody who, you know, from high school says, “I’m going to be a brain surgeon at every major hospital in the world and I’m not going to do any of the ground work. I’m just going to go to school and then I’m going to be the top brain surgeon in the world,” which is great – and enthusiasm is great – but so does everybody else, you know? Everybody wants the lead and in this country and in the States, the talent is remarkable. That’s a great place to be because of what you can learn, what you can bring, and the people that you get to work with. But that’s not going to happen.

Lindsay: It’s not the reality, is it?

Heather: No, it’s not the reality of any business, I think, that people go from zero to management, and I also don’t think it’s healthy. The things that I have learned and taken from being in the ensemble to middle parts to big parts to understudy to swing – that all plays into part. I don’t think you can do one without the other and I think having a wide variety of experience within a company gives you great perspective on the whole show and what your part is in it.

Lindsay: How long have you been a musical theatre performer?

Heather: Fourteen years.

Lindsay: So, let’s go back to the beginning. Here in Canada, we call it university but, in the States, everyone knows it as college. So, where did you decide to go?

Heather: I went to the Sheridan College performance program. I auditioned for a number of different places. Sheridan was, I think, the right fit for me in terms of what they were focusing on. I’m a small town girl at heart. I was seventeen at the time, so moving to downtown Toronto, I wasn’t quite ready for that, but the idea of going to Oakville and living in an apartment across the street but still being not quite in the big city was a perfect match for me.

Lindsay: A lot of our listeners will have students who are thinking about going into a program. What did you look for? What were those specific things that made Sheridan a fit for you aside from being the small town girl and the programs itself?

Heather: Yeah, at the time that I had attended Sheridan – and things do morph over the years – the time that I was there, there was a huge focus on vocal performance and that’s what I do. That’s what makes my heart soar – is to sing. I mean, the program was wonderful. You know, the dance classes were fantastic. It really is a triple threat program. But they trained singers and that was ideal for me.

At the other times, there were other schools that focused primarily on a dancer – I guess a straight play, a non-musical. It’s hard to say “focus on actors” because we’re all actors.

Lindsay: Yes.

Heather: But, yeah, that was the right fit that I was looking for.

Lindsay: What was your first show out of Sheridan?

Heather: My first show was a new Canadian musical. That was in my second year of school. It was called Race Day. And then, in the same summer, I did two Canadian musicals with most of the same company. One was Race Day and another was called Jasper Station. Music was written by Steve Thomas and the book was written by Norm Foster.

Lindsay: Craig Mason, with Theatrefolk, was in Jasper Station with Heather McGuigan!

Heather: I know! That’s my first show!

Lindsay: Well, okay. So, you were out of school and you’re dealing with the school world and then you get plunked into professional world. How did that change? How did things change for you?

Heather: For the better, I think, in a million ways. I think there are some schools that encourage students not to work over the summer – to continue with training, to focus until the school and you feel that you are completely prepared to go out into a professional world. For me, the experience of going out was so wonderful, but I was going into a show – you know, not a show of 25, not a giant mega-musical in the city. I was going into a very small company of incredibly kind, incredibly wonderful actors – you really couldn’t have asked for a better first experience – who all sort of, you know, I think. at some point went, “You’re eighteen? Okay!” But, like, really took me in and were so kind and, you know, the ability to watch rehearsal, to watch how people worked, to watch what questions are people actually asking, what demands are really coming up, what are the million things that I am completely prepared for that is so great that I’m here at this point, and what are the million things that I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

Lindsay: Right.

Heather: Yeah.

Lindsay: You have performed The Gambit, right? In terms of musical theatre performer, you have been in the ensemble, you’ve been a swing, you’ve been an understudy, you’ve been on tour, you’ve been the lead, and I think that I’d really like to go through each one of those and just sort of get out there what they are because I think a lot of our young performers, they might not know what a swing is, for example.

Heather: Absolutely.

Lindsay: Yeah! So, let’s start with what’s it like to be in the ensemble of a big musical? What are things that you really need to focus on?

Heather: There’s a wonderful, wonderful quote by a director that I heard when I did an ensemble and she said, “The ensemble creates the world that the leads play in. If you don’t create that world, then the story is not important for the storytellers.” So, that was an amazing thing because sometimes you can feel, “Oh, I’m in the crowd. I do the dance scenes. I sing the songs. I move some sets. I’m not really contributing to the show.” But, actually, you know, the ensemble is vital.

So, things you need to know about the ensemble, you know, music is a big thing. You’re going to learn it fast. Those notes are going to come out quickly. That’s going to be homework. It’s mostly going to be you play it out, you sing through, and you go home and you come back the next day off-book. That’s the plan because, as soon as you learn the music, you have to add steps and choreo to that. So, you know, you have to come in the next day completely prepared. You’re not going to get the same amount of rehearsal time with the music. Then, you add in choreo. It completely depends on the choreographer and what their process is. But, for the most part, it’s pretty darn fast!

So, you know, you’ve been hired for the job. There’s nothing wrong with really going up to your choreographer or your dance captain and go, “I didn’t get that. I didn’t get it. I stood in the back. I have no idea what that is. Can you please break this down for me?” But, inevitably, you come back the next day and you know it. The learning curve is very fast and actually changing choreo on the fly during tech, during previews, you know, that’s going to happen so things are going to change remarkably fast and you have to be very adaptable.

Lindsay: What’s the most number of parts that you’ve played as an ensemble member?

Heather: In a show? I mean, one, two, three, four, five… I guess six?

Lindsay: That, too! Part of being on the ensemble is that you’re, you know, townsperson, you’re shopkeeper, and you’ve got to keep all that in your head too with the singing and the dancing and being part of making that world.

Heather: Absolutely, yes! Your backstage traffic, your quick changes, your makeup changes, your wig changes – those have to be done with incredible specificity but, yes, once you’re on-stage, you have completely embody an entirely new person. I mean, I think Mary’s one of the widest groups where, you know, you play a London lady then you’re a girl dancer then you’re what they call the chatterbox and super cow so you’re a person who doesn’t speak, who expresses all of their communications through movement, then you’re a chimneysweep, then I was a doll, then a lady, then a chimneysweep. You know, you jump back and forth so much.

Lindsay: Does it ever get jumbled in your head? Do you ever go, “I do not know which part I’m supposed to do next…” or is it just so focused and regimented that you can just go from one to the other?

Heather: It’s pretty much there. I mean, the costume can really, all you have to do is look down.

Lindsay: Yes, chimneysweep, excellent!

Heather: If that ever happened, you kind of go, “Oh, okay! Perfect! This part.” If not, make a list. There’s nothing wrong with having a list on your mirror of the order of what things go through if that’s something that isn’t coming naturally to you.

Lindsay: Cool. Okay. So, let’s move on to a swing. What is a swing in a musical?

Heather: A swing is, I believe, the – the easiest way to say it – is an understudy for the ensemble. A swing is hired. They generally do not appear in the production every night. Their job is to know every single track of each of the ensemble members. And so, you memorize, you make incredible notes, you develop whatever your own system is. Your job is to have a handle on, I believe, in Canada the rule is nine – you can have up to nine roles.

Lindsay: Wow!

Heather: You know, in and out. So, you will get a call. It could be at 11 o’clock in the morning. It could be at 3:00. It could be at 5:00. It could be at the half. It could be 20 minutes into the show.

Lindsay: Really?

Heather: Oh, yeah! And they say, “Get dressed. You’re going on.”

Lindsay: So, you’re at home? Are you in the theatre?

Heather: Nope, you’re in the theatre. As a swing, you’re at the theatre all the time. Often, a swing is also the dance captain of the show. The dance captain is somebody who keeps track of choreography, making sure that things are clean, they’re in the right place, and everybody is working at the highest level of their capacity. Often, you do both because you’re able to be outside of the show and you can watch and take notes. So, that can end up being a situation where you know 27 tracks – which I’ve done.

Lindsay: As a swing, is it really hard to sit in the theatre and know that you may go on, you may not go on? Like, the tension and the energy level must be very hard to maintain.

Heather: Yes, it’s an incredibly difficult position. It is an incredible challenge to play that many roles, to take on whatever skill set, you know, whatever those people have, whatever tricks they can do, you need to do, or some semblance of those. You know, the vocal requirement, generally, you’re going to learn three different harmonies. So, you’re going to be learning, you know, you’re going to know every single vocal line of the show so your range either has to be great or you have the ability to make it expansive as you sing from the top note to the bottom in the show.

It can be amazingly rewarding. I was a swing on Les Miz which was great. So, I had eight female covers and a principle cover and then I was actually made assistant dance captain so I did learn every single track in the show. But that was a situation of joy because I got to sing the whole score.

Lindsay: You knew everything!

Heather: I knew everything and I played all the parts which was amazing, you know, because you can think, “Man, I could just sing, ‘At the end of the day, she’s the one who began it,’” and that’s it every day in every show. I got to play every role. I got to fulfil every single one of those dreams when you dream of being in Les Miz – if that is a big one for you, and it’s a big one for most of us. So, the chance to tackle each one of those parts is a real joy.

Lindsay: Yeah, you went on as Fantine in Les Miz as well?

Heather: That was my cover, yes.

Lindsay: Was that as a swing or as an understudy?

Heather: That would be as an understudy.

Lindsay: Okay.

Heather: Yeah, which was great.

Lindsay: So, let’s talk about that. What’s it like to be an understudy? How much time did you get? How much notice and prep time did you get to know you were going on as Fantine?

Heather: The first time, I had about three hours. I guess I was in rehearsal. I was actually in my understudy rehearsal. I had done my scenes and I came off the deck and my stage manager was there and said, “How did that feel?” and I said, “I feel great.” He said, “Great because you’re going to do it tonight!” So I screamed for joy and I ended up doing all sorts of leaps because I was quite excited. You know, I got on the phone immediately to anybody who I know to go and get a ticket because that was actually my first time in the show.

Lindsay: Oh, man.

Heather: It was actually doing that role. I think I did half a track. I did half a track of somebody’s. Someone got halfway through the show and I went but that was, I think, actually my very first full performance.

As an understudy, it’s a huge amount of work on your own. Hopefully you get some music time – and I did, which was wonderful, with our incredible music director. You’re given about an hour with them. Then, you go on-stage to rehearse your material. It’s basically kind of once. If you have fights, you start at the fights so you have – I don’t know – maybe two goes at the fights. Then, you go through your blocking for safety and spacing. And then, you have a go to give it your all, and that’s about it. And then, you do the understudy run. You’re in costume and you do a full show. So, in a sense, you have three times.

Lindsay: When you’re an understudy, are you able to bring any of your own flavour to a role? Or is it your job to present what the actor playing a role has put out there?

Heather: It’s very different per show. It depends on who the producers are, who the directors are, and whether they are looking for something very similar or whether they are open to having you do different choices. Generally, what I tend to stick is, well, I mean, you also have to know your other actors because that’s the first thing. Are the other actors on-stage? Are they going to be ready for me if I try something completely different or are they going to be annoyed if I try something completely different? Because they are the principle performers; you are stepping in to a part that is not yours.

So, you know, you have to respect the people that are doing it every night and the show that they’re creating. You don’t want to trip them up strictly for the sake of making your own choices. So, that’s something that you talk about with them. Inevitably, you’re going to be different. You’re a different person. You know, you’re not doing an imitation.

Lindsay: It’s you.

Heather: You’re not doing a copy. It is you and you have to make that real. The second that you try to just copy what they’re doing, it’s going to fail and it won’t be satisfying for you as you are up there performing as somebody else in your own head which is tricky.

Lindsay: When you get an understudy role, are you usually just understudying one part? Or two or three? What do you get?

Heather: It can be two or three. It depends on who else is in the company. It depends on the nature of the show. Oh, I had two. I’ve had two principle understudies.

Lindsay: For what show?

Heather: For Charlie Brown at Stratford.

Lindsay: Right.

Heather: So, I covered Sally and Lucy in the show so that’s two principle roles. I was the dance captain as well on that. So, actually, you will end up knowing all eight. It’s a very common thread to swing or understudy and to dance captain. It often goes hand in hand.

Lindsay: When you are in rehearsals, as an understudy, what do you do? Like, do you get time on-stage? Do you just basically have to take a lot of notes? How is that understudy role? How do you take it on in a rehearsal?

Heather: Within a rehearsal setting, the idea is to learn what you need to learn. Be present. But you want to be as discreet and as respectful as possible to the directors and to the person playing the role. They are in a creative process. They are working things out. They are discovering making mistakes, trying new things, so it can be very distracting if there’s someone in the corner writing down everything that you do while you’re still figuring it out as that role. So, it depends.

I mean, in Canada, you are at least, and I know from here, you are very welcome to watch all of the rehearsals, but be in the corner and be quiet and don’t move around too much or anything that makes you too distractive. Really just try to blend in and just sort of be a pair of eyes and take what you can learn. But it’s great to hear the direction. It’s great to hear the reasons why you’re doing these things.

It’s a huge chance to watch the other actor, your scene partner. What did they do? How did they react? So that, when I get up there, what can I expect from them? You’re as much watching your scene partner as you are watching the person that you are understudying.

In music rehearsal, you know, you can record them. Don’t let them know. Don’t sing along. Don’t ever speak along or dance along on the side to their work. Those are things that are going either annoy the room, create an energy of competition in terms of there’s somebody doing your stuff right beside you, They’re ready. They’re ready, you know, they want to go on. They want to play your part. You really need to be as humble as possible while still getting the information that you need. But, if your lead hates you, you’re never going on.

Lindsay: They’re never getting sick – ever ever ever.

Heather: Yeah, I mean, that’s the kind of thing. You know, you have to play that game a little bit because, if they go, “Oh, god, she just drove me nuts! You know what? I am never going off.” That’s not to say anything. I mean, anybody can be competitive in their own work.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Heather: This is a competitive business.

Lindsay: It’s exactly as you say. It’s the game that you’ve got to play and you’ve got to balance it out, right?

Heather: Absolutely, yeah.

Lindsay: Okay. Now, you’ve been on a couple of tours. What tours have you been on?

Heather: I’ve been on five.

Lindsay: Five tours? Where have you…?

Heather: I took Anne of Green Gables one year down to Connecticut. That was a Charlottetown Festival production. I have done two tours with Drayton Entertainment. We produced a full Canadian company show. We ran it in Ontario and then took it on a US – actually, well, North American. We hit a lot of Canadian cities – North American tours. The first one was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where I played Christine Colgate and the second one was Camelot where I was Lady, well, Lady something.

Lindsay: Yeah, you know, Lady quote-unquote.

Heather: Lady something. That’s not great for the people where I just talked about you need to be completely involved as an ensemble member. I named myself.

Lindsay: You did. Of course, you did.

Heather: I’m sure I did. And then, two Mary Poppins tours.

Lindsay: So, what is it like to go on tour? Is there a number of rituals that you have to do to keep yourself healthy? What’s it like to go on a long tour?

Heather: They’re amazing. I am not attached to surroundings. I am not attached to my things. I am not attached to my kitchen. I don’t have pets or children. So, things are set up.

Lindsay: Touring works for you, yeah?

Heather: Touring works for me. I love the adventure of it. I love a new city. I love new food. I’m a big, big, big outdoor adventure person so the opportunity to cross the country and hike and climb. I like to white water raft but I think, if my stage managers knew I had done that, they would have been…

Lindsay: A little annoyed.

Heather: A little wary. But we did it at the end of the tour. We did it in the last week. So, for me, that adventure, and to be paid to travel, it doesn’t get much better than that, particularly with a musical. I had wonderful casts of people. Luckily, two out of those tours, I’ve done with Galen, and that’s a major thing. To leave your partner for that length of time, to be traveling, to have service, phone service, to not have phone service, to be in hotels where the internet is not great, to be in different time zones, you know, for weeks on end can be very difficult. To be away, that is certainly something that is not for everyone and that’s okay to admit that’s not for everyone. I did six months on the Mary tour and it was a long time. I think the last six weeks were on the west coast so I had a four-hour time difference.

Lindsay: That’s a lot.

Heather: It’s a lot.

Lindsay: What’s it like to go into a new theatre every day? Again, do you find that exciting just to have that challenge of, “Okay, this wing is completely different!”?

Heather: Yeah, I love it, particularly on the Drayton tours on Camelot and Dirty Rotten, we were going from 3,000-seat theatres to 500-seat theatres so there were days when we have a list of what set can we have today and what can’t fit in the building – great! So, you know, those are things that are fun if you are, in some senses, an adrenaline junkie and I think that’s why I actually enjoy being a swing and an understudy. I like the change. I like the challenge. I like things going on the fly. I like having new people out there. I like being the new person out there. But, again, that’s not for everyone and that’s okay to know that that’s not for everyone.

Lindsay: Absolutely. You’ve got to know where you perform best, right?

Heather: Yeah, because inevitably it’s your life. I mean, whatever the show may be, you want to make the best experience out of your life. If that is not stepping on-stage in a role that you’ve never done and you’re terrified and it’s stressful, don’t do that for the sake of a job.

Lindsay: Yeah. How do you keep care of your voice when you’re on a tour? Is it challenging or are you just one of those “I’ll just go with it”?

Heather: Not at all. On a tour, it’s very tricky. Hotels are very dry by nature – so are theatres. I travel with a tiny, tiny humidifier. How big is it? It’s about the size of maybe a lunch container. You plug a water bottle into it so that’s something that I turn on the minute I get into a hotel room.

I don’t go out that much. I mean, that’s the really big killer is honestly drinking and yelling in bars. That’s what kills you, I think, more than anything else. So, you learn, I mean, if you’re a principle, if you forget it on a tour, you know, you’re not seeing anything. You’re going home and you’re going to bed.

If you’re in an ensemble where the vocal demands are not as strong, you can enjoy your time. But, for me, personally, anything less than 100 percent every single show is not good enough. So, I hold myself at an extremely high standard. Those are my own goals. You know, when it’s a birthday party or a huge night-out, if I have a matinee the next day, I’m not going – flat out. I just don’t. But other people have the iron lung as they call it.

On tour, you have to drink, any time you’re in a show, you have to drink an enormous amount of water. But, when you’re on planes and buses and hotels, it’s five liters a day.

Lindsay: Wow.

Heather: Yeah, usually, like in Ontario, I usually sit at three, three and a half, four just to stay there. But, you know, you have to get in that extra little bit whenever you travel that much.

Lindsay: For sure. Okay. So, as we end up here, the last question I want to ask you is about being a triple threat. As a musical theatre performer, that’s the buzzword now, right? Act, sing, and dance. How necessary is it to be a working actor, as a musical theatre performer, to have all three?

Heather: In some senses, have to; in some senses, it’s not even a discussion – have to. Actor being first.

Lindsay: Okay, yeah.

Heather: 100 percent.

Lindsay: Why?

Heather: Because lots of people can kick their faces, lots of people can turn, you know, can do seven pirouettes, lots of people can do that. But, if your face is dead and you aren’t present in the moment, no one’s watching you anyway. So, it’s acting first because that leads into everything else. You can sing a high C but who cares if it’s not motivated? So, it’s actor first.

I think every single person – musical theatre or straight plays – you have to be able to dance in some way. If you are in a Shakespeare, if you are in Shaw, if you are doing Chekhov, you’re going to waltz – have to – or you’re going to do some sense of movement on-stage. You have to be able to know your right from left. You have to have at least some sense of your body movement. So, that’s a must.

I actually think we are now in a quadruple threat decade. I think playing an instrument now is quite required. I think that’s a huge thing and I think, if you can tumble on top of that, that’s part of it too.

Lindsay: Wow. All right. There you go. Now you must be the quadruple threat.

Heather: Yeah.

Lindsay: Why not?

Heather: Playing an instrument has become very common. It’s very common to have them on-stage. It’s very common for people to want to play orchestra and be in the show. That’s pretty common now.

Lindsay: Cool. Okay. Well, there you go, everyone listening. Go pick up an instrument as well.

Heather, thank you so much for talking to us today. It was lovely to just sort of get some insight into that musical theatre life. Thank you so much!

Heather: Thank you! I really appreciate it.

Thank you so much, Heather!

I have been loving these talks. We had our first talk in Episode 113 with Marty Moreau on commercial acting. Last week, 114 with Steve Ross about going to school and that kind of choice. And here, 115, musical theatre with Heather.

You can check Heather out on her website – heathermcguigan.com – which I’ve also included in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode115.

And, if you want in on the written reflection and listening quiz for this Working Actor series, you’ve got to join our email list. That’s the only place you can find these all written up and ready for you. You can get the link in the show notes for this episode – theatrefolk.com/episode115.

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

So, this past month, on our blog, you know, I just threw out some really interesting resources there with our written reflection and listening quiz. We’ve got more for you! On our blog, we’ve been putting out some great rehearsal resources – how to have an effective table read, different warm-ups that you can apply to different types of plays. You know, what warm-up would you use for a devised show? A Shakespeare show? An absurd piece?

Yesterday, we just put up ten questions to ask during rehearsal. Get your student actors thinking in-depth about their characters and their place in the play.

You want to find all these great resources? Go to our website. Get on our blog. Or you can go to our show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode115.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? Where can you direct students to find this podcast? We post new episodes every Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”

That’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.


10 Questions to Ask During Rehearsal

Questions are important in the theatre. They’re more important than answers. Rehearsing is all about exploration – at no part in the process should the exploration stop.

My favourite directors to work with are the ones who are always pushing you to explore the script more deeply. They know how to ask questions. They don’t necessarily expect answers to the questions, they expect the actor to explore the role based on the question. I’ve made some amazing discoveries about my character because of questions like these.

Here are ten of the most memorable questions I’ve been given in rehearsal.

Start rehearsal by posing one of these questions to your cast. Ask your cast members to individually think about the question during rehearsal. Be clear that this isn’t a test and their answers aren’t being graded. There is no “right” answer. There is no “wrong” answer.

  1. If the playwright showed up today and started mercilessly cutting the script, what is the one line your character says that you would fight for? If your character has no lines, what moment would you fight for?
  2. Think about the quietest moment in the play. Would an audience member sitting in the back row of the balcony be able to understand what you’re saying? What your character wants? What your character is doing? If not, what can you adjust to reach them?
  3. Choose one of your lines and say it with the opposite intention. (e.g. Say “I really want that rose” with the subtext “Get that rose away from me. I never want to see it again.”) Did it work? If not, why?  Is there another line that an opposite intention would work for?
  4. What part of your own physicality do you use for your character? Can you change it to something unique to the character?
  5. Is there anywhere else your character would rather be? Is there a place they dream of going?
  6. What lies does your character tell? Which lines are lies but not obvious ones?
  7. Choose one physical move your character makes. Why does your character move that way at that time and in that direction? (n.b. You should be able to answer these questions for every single move your character makes.)
  8. What one action could you make as an actor to make something easier on a fellow cast member?
  9. What one action could your character take to make something more difficult for another character? Are there times your character lets them win too easily?
  10. Choose a pivotal moment for your character. What would happen if they made the opposite choice in that moment?

Processing the Questions

There are three approaches to processing these questions at the end of rehearsal. How you choose to process them will depend on your circumstances and the amount of time you have available.

  • Informal.  Leave the questions for the actors to consider on their own. If they find it helpful for their process, fine. If not, that’s ok too. I don’t recommend this for student actors because they’re going to want to share their discoveries with you.
  • Semiformal. As part of your rehearsal wrap-up, hold a short discussion with the cast about the question. This can be a great team-building activity. The cast will reveal things about the script that you never even considered.
  • Formal. If the play is being done as a class project, the questions are great for journal entries. Have students complete a written reflection for each question.


October is Observation Month here at Theatrefolk! That means we’ve got a month of Observation prompts for your Saturday exercise.

Observation is my number one tool for finding play ideas. When you observe, you’re not just looking around, skimming the world around you. Observation is the specific looking at people, places and things. You’re looking at the world like a writer. And when you look at the world like a writer, everything becomes a play idea.

This month there will be four different Observation prompts – one for each Saturday.

Complete these exercises with your students. Have them collect their observations in their drama journals. Or you can click below to download the exercise and Observation sheet to print and hand out to your students to fill in.

At the end of the month, have students reflect on the process. How did it feel to observe a writer? Look for our reflection sheet on October 25th!


There are many different types of relationships around you:

  • family
  • friends
  • love relationships

Take a school week and for each day focus on observing one type of relationship.

How does your family interact with one another? Do you eat dinner together or apart? What do you like about your friends? Observe groups of friends who aren’t in your circle. How do they interact with each other? What do they have in common? Watch different couples at school – how do they stand when they are talking to each other? What signals do they show off that let everyone know they’re a couple? Do they look happy or not at all?

At the end of the week write a two person, one location scene that focuses on a specific relationship.

Click here to download this exercise plus an Observation Sheet!


Episode 114: The Working Actor: Back to School


Actor Steve Ross has spent 11 years at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and has performed for many years across Canada. He talks about the first step in his acting career – going to the National Theatre School. What stays with him about that time? Why did he choose that school? Why did he almost leave? Did it prepare him for a career as a working actor? Listen in and find out.



Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.

I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

Welcome to Episode 114. You can find all the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode114.

Today, we continue our Working Actor series on the podcast. What is it like to be a working actor? How did a choice of school help? What is it like to tour? What’s something you should definitely not do?

The focus for this week is “back to school.” How does theatre school help prepare a working actor?

Today, I talk to actor Steve Ross who is just finishing up his eleventh year of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and he started his journey at Canada’s National Theatre School and I just need to preface that, when I was recording this podcast, I was suffering from a mild case of consumption – better known as a cold – I’m sniffling and coughing, all that fun stuff. I apologize greatly.

Lindsay: Hello everyone! I’m here with Steve Ross. Hello Steve!

Steve: Hello! How are you?

Lindsay: I’m wonderful. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Steve: Pleasure.

Lindsay: All right. So, first of all, where in the world are you right now?

Steve: I am in Stratford. I am in my eleventh season at the Stratford Festival.

Lindsay: Is that lovely to have a long-term job? Do you look forward to it every year?

Steve: It’s fantastic.

Lindsay: Yeah?

Steve: Not only is it nice to have an eight-month gig in general but it’s also just a really fantastic place to work. I have loved it since I got here. I didn’t intend to ever get here.

Lindsay: No?

Steve: No, I didn’t ever think I would, actually. It was sort of assumed when I went to the National Theatre School. It’s kind of a pipeline and people just immediately head to Stratford, but I didn’t because I wanted to really look at musicals. When I graduated, it was the time of the big, big musicals and multiple musicals running in Toronto and I wanted to focus on that.

So, I moved to Toronto right away instead of pursuing Stratford and I was there for seven years before they called me to come in to audition and I finally did get my head around, “Yeah, we could do both; we can do musicals and classical stuff here,” and I have since fallen deeply in love with the place.

Lindsay: Isn’t that interesting? I think sometimes actors get into their head that they can only be one kind of actor, do one kind of thing.

Steve: Yeah.

Lindsay: Is that something that you went through when you were a younger actor?

Steve: Well, I think I imposed it on myself, weirdly. There I was at a really wonderful classical school that was giving you wonderful classical training and all I wanted was to do musicals and I guess I was too narrow-minded. That’s all I wanted to do and I actually almost quit NTS.

Lindsay: Wow.

Steve: Because I thought, “You know what? If I’m going to do this, I should focus more on musical theatre,” and, as I was on my way to quit, our singing teacher at NTS walked by me in the hall – and he was a great guy – and he said, “Oh, where are you going?” I said, “I think I’m going to quit and go to Sheraton for musical theatre,” and, completely innocently, he went, “Oh, that’s weird. You don’t have that good a voice.” It wasn’t said meanly; it was just said as a comment and I literally turned around and went back to class, and I’m sure one would hope that others would have tried to talk me out of quitting as well, but it certainly didn’t get that far. I sort of went, “Oh, I guess I’ll stay then.”

Lindsay: It’s amazing how one comment can just sort of turn everything around.

Steve: Completely changed, yeah, and I told him that story years later and he laughed and, of course, didn’t remember saying it and laughed and laughed. But, yeah, I’m so happy with the training that I got from that place and then I just sort of played catch up when I got to Toronto after I graduated with the musical theatre stuff so it sort of was an on-going process for me.

Lindsay: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about National Theatre School. A lot of the folks who listen to this podcast have students who are looking at going on and becoming and going into some training and going into programs past high school. So, let’s start with, when you were in high school, why did you pursue National Theatre School? For those of us and, also, for those listening who are in America, National Theatre School is sort of Canada’s National, it is what it is, right? It’s National Theatre School.

Steve: It is, yeah.

Lindsay: There’s nothing else to say about it. So, what made you decide to go there?

Steve: Well, it was a bit of a longer process for me. I didn’t really act in high school. Again, I was told I couldn’t sing in high school.

Lindsay: Isn’t that funny, huh?

Steve: And I really don’t think I could in high school. I didn’t have any sort of an ear and I was really pitchy. And so, I was in band and all sorts of stuff like that so I didn’t do – I think I did one play in high school and I liked it, but it didn’t really occur to me that it was a career so I went into sports medicine and I was at the University of Western in London and it wasn’t really specific enough – the course – and I wanted to do something even more specific so I got accepted to another school that I was going to go to and then just sort of decided not to and just sort of decided to take a year off and I fell into a summer acting course which was really fantastic. So, I got the bug a bit there, but I just still wasn’t positive if I was going to do it for real.

So, I went to a university that my father worked at and I could go for free. But I didn’t want to spend any more money or any more of his hard-earned money until I knew what I wanted to do. So, I went for a year at this university in their theatre program and it was a great program but, again, a university program, I find, is very different than a conservatory program in that there’s all sorts of other things that go towards getting a degree and I absolutely understand the value of that. But it still wasn’t exactly what I was looking for so I asked around and the National Theatre School was suggested to me. I didn’t realize that 700 people apply every year and ten they’ll accept which was great – ignorance is bliss.

Lindsay: Absolutely.

Steve: And I didn’t get in this first year but they asked me to come back the next year. So, I went back for a second year at this university and then auditioned and finally got in. And so, it ended up being a year at Western, two years at this other university, and then yet another three years at the National Theatre School.

Lindsay: So, by the time you got there, you were ready to take on this career, kind of?

Steve: Yeah, I think I knew at that point and, interestingly, everyone in my class – except for one – had done the same thing. Every single one of us had been to some sort of post-secondary. There was one guy right out of high school, but all the rest of us had been around for a bit. They’re very good at NTS at figuring out a dynamic for a class and we all sort of came with the real fire of “Yup, we’ve been around for a bit, we do know what we want now,” and I think it really made for a good class dynamic.

Lindsay: Well, it also makes for you really take things seriously.

Steve: I agree. I agree, and you have to at that school. Well, you can faff around as much as you want, but you’ll really not be taking advantage of the twelve hours a day that they offer you at NTS. So, yeah, it was good that we were all ready.

One acting teacher who came in for a six-week course with us called us the “basketball team” all the time because, she said, “You guys don’t seem to do anything socially but, when you get in the class, all you want to do is compete with each other and be better than each other,” and I thought it was a really good way to describe us because we really, really, all we ever wanted to do was get on-stage and play. We weren’t really interested in going for drinks and knowing how everyone was. I mean, it’s not like we hated each other but we really just wanted to be better and play the game better with each other so I always loved that dynamic.

Lindsay: You’ve used the school for what it’s for – to learn and to prepare yourself.

Steve: Yeah, everybody was there to learn and really take advantage of it. I was always amazed because you would watch the dynamics of the other years as you were there and they had a very different but really clear dynamic in their classes too and I was always amazed at how, as an audition panel, you would find people with that same dynamic. It was very interesting to me.

Lindsay: What was the most valuable thing about going to a theatre school?

Steve: I loved how much stuff they throw at you in that theatre school. I mean, getting there at 10:00 in the morning and leaving at 8:00 at night, you would do the core stuff – the voice and the movement and all that sort of stuff – every morning and the singing and the improv stuff. And then, in the afternoon, there would be six-week blocks and you would do everything under the sun. You would do scene study or you would do contact improv or you would do stage combat and, you know, there would be people coming up from New York or people coming up from Toronto. The great thing was it was always working artists who would come in as guest teachers and that’s what I loved – you had a wonderful core of teachers who were there and you also had people coming in from the business who are working and they were as interested in talking to you about how the business works and being a functioning person in that business when you graduate as they were with the project we were working on. So, I’ve always appreciated that.

Lindsay: I’ve talked to other actors and one thing that they talk about sometimes is how their schooling didn’t prepare them for the real world and about how, if you’re talking to working actors, you get a sense of what it means to take on that mantle, right?

Steve: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve been asked that question before whether I felt prepared when I got out and I had friends – well, I was in first year, they were in first year in a Toronto school and so, we would go through our programs at the same time and we would compare notes kind of thing – and, when they were in their third year, in their final year, and they were doing their performance year, they were very aware of what agent was coming to the show and what person and what thing like that, and we weren’t in Montreal. We were in this kind of beautiful cocoon which, I guess, didn’t help with the business side of it, but what it did do was I felt like we got five true performances. We did five shows in my third year and it was never about the critics. It was never about, “Oh, my god, there’s an agent coming. Please, I have to get representation.” We sort of were blissfully allowed to just do the shows and wildly succeed or wildly fail. We did a show that was so bad but it was a real learning experience, too.

And then, it did mean you had to play a bit of catch up when you came to Toronto and you had to get used to, “Okay, this is how an audition call works and this is who an agency call works,” but I don’t know, I don’t know enough about other theatre schools and I don’t know whether even NTS does this now – I think they do – but I’ve always wondered if there’s a way to start to prepare people for literally the business side – how to write a cover letter, what kind of a headshot you should have, audition etiquette, that kind of stuff. I’ve always thought that that would be really valuable.

Lindsay: Yeah, it’s kind of a Catch-22, isn’t it? Because it’s really necessary to have the kind of experience that you had where it’s pure performance and also pure failure about that you not worry about whether an agent is going to come and see you and see you do something poorly.

Steve: Yeah.

Lindsay: But then, on the other side, if you’re going to be a working actor, you do need to know the basics and the basics are, yeah, how to audition.

Steve: Yeah, you really need that skill set and that toolbox. I have a feeling that NTS started to bring an agent in and do sort of a weekend workshop, and I don’t know that it would need much more than about a week, or even if these guest artists were there, if the director of the schools or whatever intentionally said, “Hey, while you’re there, do alert people to how this is going to work and stuff,” because I just feel like, even if you put it in a class context, I don’t know that that would be as worthwhile as just sort of sitting around and going, “Okay. Well, this is what works for me and this is what didn’t work for me,” and that’s why I think it’s so valuable too when they will bring back guest actors.

I went back one time to NTS about four years after I graduated and did a show with them. You know, I know Soulpepper. I think Soulpepper in Toronto has an affiliation with one of the theatre schools there. And so, you actually get to do a show with working actors, and not only do you learn about the resumes and all that – the agents and that kind of stuff – you also just learn how to conduct yourself in rehearsals and that kind of thing which is invaluable.

So, yeah, the integration part of it, I think, is so valuable. And, regardless of whether that’s there or not, you learn pretty quickly or you simply don’t progress.

Lindsay: So, what are the things that you think that you caught onto quite quickly when you moved to Toronto and you started your professional career? What did you see you needed to know?

Steve: It was interesting, the transition from high school to university, in that no one mollycoddles you in post-secondary, no one cares if you show up for class, no one cares if you fail a class, the way that people were always on you in high school. So, that was an interesting dynamic.

Similarly, you have to be so self-motivated because you literally are self-employed. You are selling your own product and I had to learn very quickly that, if you weren’t constantly keeping an eye out for yourself and looking for jobs and looking for the next gig and looking for the next what class to improve yourself and stuff, no one else was going to do it for you. I found that’s something that you very quickly had to get on that train or, again, you just didn’t work, and it’s hard enough to get work right out of theatre school anyway that, if you don’t start to be pro-active right away, I think you just don’t get into that rhythm and I feel lucky that I came very quickly to really like the business side of things.

Lindsay: Oh, yeah? In what way?

Steve: I really dug the chase of things. It made me feel really empowered? And I still, to this day, I love the period from about March of the calendar year to about May when all the theatres around the country announce their seasons and it’s like I get to pick and choose, and I get to say, “Hey, this theatre, I’d like to play this role, what do you think about that for me?” It’s not like every one of them goes, “Yes, please, Steve. Come and work for us.” Wouldn’t that be nice? But at least it’s a period where I am completely in control of a career that you don’t have a ton of control over in a lot of aspects and I always felt like really empowered in it so I love that time when you go, “Oh, that’s a show I’d love to do! I’ll write to him or I’ll write to her.” And so, yeah, I really dig that kind of a thing.

Lindsay: That’s a great attitude to have because it is a career that does have so little control and it’s so easy to get overwhelmed by rejection, isn’t it?

Steve: It really is. It really is. That’s a really good point.

I just did a talkback after a show the other night and a woman said, “Well, my daughter is going into the theatre and, statistically, it’s very difficult.” I said, “Listen. We are not pretending that it’s a difficult profession, but it’s a fantastic profession, and why would I ever quell someone’s want to be in that profession?” But you do have to very quickly come to terms with the fact that, yes, you are going to get rejected a lot.

I feel very lucky also that one of my first “Joe jobs” was as a receptionist at a theatre company in Toronto and I also got to be the assistant to the casting director, kind of his gopher while we were there. So, I got to be in a lot of auditions where I was on the other side of the table very early on and I learned very quickly that rejection isn’t always, doesn’t always mean that you are the failure. There are so many factors in what goes into casting someone that it kind of took a lot of pressure off so I felt lucky that very quickly I went, “Oh, okay, I can keep going,” because I know I’ve watched friends leave the business because they just went, “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be said no to one more time,” and you think, “No, no, no, it’s not always your talent.” It’s that there are so many factors to getting cast in a show that I felt lucky that I could watch that process at an early time in my career.

Lindsay: Well, it just must have made you see a lot of mistakes too that happen at auditions.

Steve: Oh, boy, yeah.

Lindsay: Okay. So, what are some of the big ones?

Steve: Apologizing for your work.

Lindsay: Oh!

Steve: I’ve been a reader a lot for auditions so, you know, I’m the one who sits there and comes in and reads the scene with the actors. It is so fascinating the number of people who, the first thing out of their mouth is, “Yeah, I’m not feeling well today,” or, “Yeah, I just got these yesterday. I just got this scene yesterday,” and you think, “Well, nobody’s interested in that.” So, if you’re sick, and if you are genuinely sick, sure, they’re going to know you’re sick. No one’s kidding themselves in the room. But to apologize for the work? Or to say “I didn’t get this until yesterday,” well, probably no one got this until yesterday so suck it up, buttercup.

I found it fascinating that the people that would immediately cut themselves off at the knees and apologize for their work and I realize that, if you just dive in, that’s the best way to do and then hopefully, if the director wants to see you again, if you’re right for it, they will just go, “Great! So, that was good. Let’s try it this way,” and, you know, onward you’d go.

But, yeah, it’s amazing to me the number of people or the number of people who really won’t be open to the director’s changes in an audition. It’s always interesting to me that people will come in with a very clear idea of what they want to do and then the director will go, “Yeah, great, can you just try it like this,” and they’ll do it exactly the same way as they did the first time.

Lindsay: That’s a big problem with very young actors, with high school actors.

Steve: Do you?

Lindsay: Yes, that concept just doesn’t resonate with them, that it’s okay – well, and it’s all about failure. It’s all that notion of failure where, in school, you’re told that, if they fail at something, that they get a bad mark and to change is equal to failure in some of their minds.

Steve: I know. It’s so hard, eh? We have students a lot at chats and the first thing they say often is, “What would you do differently if you went back to theatre school?” and my answer is always, “I would be more fearless,” and, at NTS, you are blessed with there are no marks at NTS. You have an interview at the end of every term and you either get asked to leave or you get asked to stay, and you have a pretty good idea if you’re going to be asked to leave anyway. It’s not like it just comes out of nowhere. But you don’t have the marks thing but I still wish that I had been more fearless. I wish I’d taken more chances.

I spent so much time trying to do what I thought the teachers wanted and they even told me that. They told me that at one of my interviews. They said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s really good. It’s all there. You’ve just got to have more fun,” and the penny didn’t really drop. I mean, I still feel like I learned a lot at school, but I wish I’d been more fearless.

Lindsay: So, now, after years of being in the profession, do you feel that you have carried with you from your experience at NTS? What still has stayed with you from being at a theatre school, if anything?

Steve: There’s a lot. I think a lot about stuff. I think about specifics. I think about what different teachers say.

We had a clown teacher from Toronto; I really, really liked that six weeks and she taught us the concept of stillness in auditions and stillness in rehearsal and how valuable less is more and those kind of things and those are concepts that are really hard as a student I find to really, really embrace and trust. But, as you go on, it all gets in by osmosis and it’s all in the hard drive swimming around, but it never really clarifies itself until it needs to which is weird. I don’t know if that makes sense. But I constantly think about people.

I think about one of our acting teachers from the first year who was in from the HB Studios in New York who said some of the best things, but boy did they not make sense to me when I was in the class. But then, the penny will drop in a very specific situation and you go, “Oh, that’s what they meant! Oh, well then, I’ll try that now,” and now there’s no worry about, “Oh, my god, what does the teacher think?” You can just do it.

Just a couple of weeks ago, because these are long runs here at Stratford and I was thinking, “Yeah, how do I freshen this scene up?” and one of my acting teachers popped in. I had to come on laughing in a scene and he used to say, “It’s not working. Do you know any really dirty jokes?” I said, “I know a couple.” He said, “Tell yourself one of your really dirtiest jokes before you come on,” and I did it in a show the other day and it really freshened the scene up for me. So, I guess you need to be open enough to receive all of the information even if you’re not going to use it immediately so that it’s kicking around in your hard drive. But I appreciate that they did tell us that, too. They said, “We’re throwing a lot of stuff at you guys and we don’t expect you to process it all. We just want you to experience it all.”

So, I guess that’s the value. They let us experience a ton of different stuff and then it was up to us to go, “Yeah, that worked for me,” or “No, that was really not helpful for me but that’s okay that it wasn’t helpful.” No experience goes completely wasted.

Lindsay: No, no, and I think that’s important to have that sort of file cabinet, eh? Where things just kind of go in and then you pull it out. That must be very useful for you when you have to do these long runs. As you just said, if you want to freshen up a scene, you pull out something that you learned in the past.

Steve: Yeah.

Lindsay: As we wrap up here, I think that it’d be really useful for our listeners just to talk a bit about what it’s like to be in a really long run because Stratford, you guys run from April to October, something like that.

Steve: We do, yeah.

Lindsay: What’s it like to play the same character for months at a time?

Steve: Well, again, especially, I love it because we do two or three shows so it’s rep. So, for one thing, you’re never doing more than four a week which is fantastic. It keeps it that much fresher. I have learned over the years being here that, because it’s a long run, that the more I can dig in in rehearsals and really find stuff that works for me and stuff that resonates for me, that will only help me long term because I’ve done enough shows that get rehearsed in – gosh, I once had to do a show…

Lindsay: Two weeks? One week?

Steve: Well, I did nine days one time.

Lindsay: Oh, my gosh!

Steve: Nine days from first rehearsal to first preview, and I was playing triplets in it. Boy was it a hard show. It was a fantastic experience but you sometimes rehearse things so fast that you realize about three weeks into the run, “Oh, yeah, we never really dug into this moment and now I have no idea what it is,” and then it’s gone.

What this place has taught me and what the other long runs that I’ve done in Toronto have taught me is that, the more I can dig in in rehearsal and make real real sense of stuff, the more I can continue to come back to that and be able to go, “Yeah, no, this is what we did in rehearsal and this is what this moment was. Now, how can we shift that slightly if we need to?” but at least there’s a cornerstone.

Occasionally, I find – and it’s my fault – that I didn’t do enough homework in rehearsals and I didn’t dig in enough and so the moments didn’t make sense and then I was sort of left adrift by myself second and third week into the run.

So, yeah, I think, for me, the more I key in in rehearsals, the more I can do the long run.

And then, there’s the logistic thing of folks, now in September, paid exactly the same amount of money and are coming to see the show that I opened back in May, and it’s really important to remember that it doesn’t matter if you’re having a lousy day or something. This is their one chance and they spend a lot of money to come to this and you get to go out there and play and, come on, is there a better job? We could be digging ditches.

Lindsay: We could be coal mining. I always go back to that. I am not coal mining.

Steve: Exactly. I’m putting clothes on and I’m being a jerk for two hours in front of people. Come on! There’s really worse things. That gets me into gear, too.

And I also continually try to get better at just listening to the other person on-stage and I find that that is absolutely everything for a long run. If the other person is in the same boat and they just want to listen to you and you just listen to them, it just takes you back into the story of it as opposed to thinking, “Oh, my god, this is the sixtieth show,” or, “What am I going to make for dinner? I have a show tonight,” and all that kind of stuff.

Lindsay: And then, it becomes two people in a conversation as opposed to “Here’s my line, now it’s your line, now it’s someone else’s line.”

Steve: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, you’re just marking time as opposed to just really getting out there and doing it.

Lindsay: And, lastly, what’s one piece of advice you would give to a young high school student? They’ve got the stars in their eyes. They’re like, “I want to be an actor. This is what I want more than anything else.” What’s the piece of advice that you would give them as they think about that career?

Steve: I would firstly make sure you know why you want to be an actor.

A couple of people, when I was in the university theatre school course, we went around in a circle and they said, “Why do you want to be an actor?” and two of them said, “I want to be a star.” I thought, “Ooh. That’s not a…”

So, really, I would think really, really think about whether you like acting or whether you like the business of it, and know that it’s tough. It’s not a walk in the park and, I mean, it’s easy to say when I get to work at Stratford that, “Oh, no, really think about what you’re doing,” but I feel like, if you really, really want to do it and you have loved the process and the meat and potatoes, bones of the acting that you’d done in high school, then go for it. But know that, if it’s just something you see on TV and you think, “I want to be that star,” that’s fantastic, too. I mean, why not swing for the fences? I’ve always just loved putting on other people’s skins and getting into their heads and doing those roles, and that’s why I like doing it. But it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of dedication and there’s easier jobs, I guess, is the bottom-line. And, if you’re not ready for the work that it entails, maybe think about something else. But I never want to dissuade people at the same time. I hate when I hear people say, “Oh, no, don’t do it just because it’s hard.” Well, everything’s hard. To do everything well is hard.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Steve: To be a crafts person and make a chair is hard, but to make a good chair, that’s a beautiful accomplishment. But, yeah, I guess, if you’re prepared to do it, then go for it, I guess, would be the advice. Hmm. That doesn’t sound like great advice.

Lindsay: Aww. It’s a wonderful.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Steve: My pleasure, Linds.

Thank you so much, Steve.

So, Steve and Craig worked together on a show a number of years ago and the general consensus is that there is not a nicer or a more generous person and actor than Steve Ross, and I am thrilled and honored that he made time for us today. It’s great.

So, if you want in on the written reflection and listening quiz for your students for this Working Actor series, make sure you join our email list. You can get the link in the show notes for this episode – theatrefolk.com/episode114.

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play! And I’m going old school on this one. We go back to the beginning of Theatrefolk. Among Friends and Clutter is one of my very first plays. I didn’t have a lot of experience writing plays. I didn’t even have a lot of experience acting in plays, but this one came from the heart and I think that’s what shows, mostly because this play is over twenty years old and it still gets done to this day which really blows my mind, actually. It amazes me.

So, this play is divided into three sections – Friends, Family, and Love – and it looks at the different relationships in all of those areas. The characters start out as children. They grow. They succeed. And sometimes they fail and they fail big time. There’s a lot of clutter in our lives and in the lives of these characters

So, here’s a monologue for one of the characters, Joanne, from the Family section. She is sitting with her comatosed father in the garden.

JOANNE: There we are. Don’t want to catch a cold. But I don’t think you’ll have to worry today. The sun is so warm – not hot, just warm. A perfect day. The tulips look great, Dad. The colours are so beautiful. Mom said to planted them last year. She thought the frost might have damaged them but they look fine. Mom looks tired – more tired than usual. I came as quick as I could. I went for a walk this morning, down by the river. Everything has changed so much. Would you believe it? I ran into a girl I went to high school with. She’s never left town. Helen… funny I can’t remember her last name. Anyway, she had the most beautiful child – a baby boy with red cheeks and the curliest blond hair you have ever seen.

The house looks a little sad. I think I’m going to go down to the paint store and pick up something for the shutters. You always said that good-looking shutters can hide a thousand flaws. Mom told me you’ve been like this for a while now, although she swears you said her name last week. Your face is warm. Are you feeling the sun somewhere in there? Are you in there somewhere? Can you see me? This afternoon, we’ll go to the park and we’ll watch the kids play on the swings – as long as it doesn’t rain – would you like that? Would you like to go to the park? Please, say something, Daddy. Anything? Please.

That’s Among Friends and Clutter. Go to the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode114 – and read more sample pages from Among Friends and Clutter.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? Where can you direct students to find this podcast? We post new episodes every Tuesday ast theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk and you can find us on the Stitcher app and you can also subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word “Theatrefolk.”

That’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.