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.


Warm-Up Round Table:
Warm-Ups for Different types of plays

Warm-up games are never a throw away activity. They can transition students from the outside world to rehearsal world. They can be used to make your group feel like a team, an ensemble. They can work on the technical skills.

Click the link at the bottom of this post for a 28 page Warm-Up Guide!

Whether you’re rehearsing Shakespeare or devising an original work, there’s a warm-up just for you.

So… what should you look for?

Devised Work

In an original devised play, everyone has to work together to create. And not everything they create is going to be successful the first time out. You want warm-ups where your students say “yes!” Pick warm-ups where students get used to making mistakes and celebrating those mistakes.


Warm-ups that create energy. You want your students awake and moving! Get students used to making exaggerated physical choices.

Ensemble-based Work

You want your ensemble to operate as one. As a team. Look for warm-ups that emphasize teamwork.

Absurd or Abstract

In the Absurd or Abstract play nothing is naturalistic or realistic. Look for warm-ups that explore this concept. Non-realistic plays can be hard for students to connect to.

Choose fun warm-ups to help break down the barrier.

Issue Based Drama

Warm-ups should create an environment of support. Issue-based dramas can open a can of worms for students. It’s important that your rehearsal environment is supportive when unexpected emotions flood to the surface.


Shakespeare is a mouthful, so prepare the mouth to move! Start rehearsals with warm-ups that focus on vocal articulation.


Look for active physical warm-ups that get students laughing. Get your students in the right frame of mind for the work to come.


Look for listening exercises. Get students used to listening and reacting so that when these moments come up in the drama they will present as genuine. The key to acting in a serious moment is to listen and react and not just say lines by rote.

Student Directors

Student directors need to create an environment of command. Even though they’re working with their peers, they’re still in charge. Look for warm-ups where the cast has to follow instructions. Get the cast used to listening and taking direction.

Click here for a 28 page guide with specific
warm-ups for each of these categories!



The conversation you can only hear

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!

The conversation you can only hear

You’re sitting on the bus or in a movie theatre and two people are in the middle of a conversation behind you. You can’t see them unless you turn around, but you can hear them loud and clear.

You can observe a lot in a conversation that you can can’t see but only hear.

  • Find a location with a lot of small group conversation – a mall food court, a school hallway, a cafeteria.
  • Sit down and start to listen. Find a conversation that you can hear easily.
  • Take notes on what you hear. Be subtle! Don’t laugh or look like you’re eavesdropping. What language is being used? A lot of slang and swear words? Do they cut each other off? Do they repeat a word or phrase (e.g. like, you know, so)
  • Based on what you hear, what can you deduce about the people in the conversation?
  • Write out a character description of one of the people in the conversation based solely on how they sound. How old are they? What do they look like? What is their home life like? What’s their dream job? Are they happy right now or miserable?
  • Alternative: Instead of looking for a complete conversation, look for someone talking on the phone. Observe one side of the conversation and then decide who that person is talking to. What are they talking about? What’s the relationship? How is the person on the other end of the phone responding?

Click here to download this exercise plus an Observation Sheet!



The Working Actor: Commercial Acting



What happens in the process of auditioning for and shooting a commercial? Actor Marty Moreau outlines the steps from the first call from your agent right up to the shoot. He shares the reason he got his first commercial (and it wasn’t his talent!) and the things you should never do on set.


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 113. You can find all the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode113.

Today, we start a 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 on a commercial set? Which leads nicely into this week’s focus – commercial acting.

Marty Moreau is a long-time dear friend of mine and Craig’s here at Theatrefolk and I had a lovely chat with him about the ins and outs of commercials. I just need to preface that, when I was recording this podcast, I was suffering from a mild case of consumption or a really bad cold. You may hear sniffing and coughing – all that fun stuff. I swear it’s not catching.

Lindsay: All right! I am here with a dear old friend, Marty Moreau.

Hello, Marty!

Marty: Hello, Lindsay darling. How are you?

Lindsay: I am fantastic.

For our Theatrefolk listeners out there, Marty and I go quite a ways back. Just to give some context, Marty actually was one of the first actors that I worked with when I was workshopping Theatrefolk scripts.

Marty: That’s right.

Lindsay: You read for The Canterbury Tales when we were workshopping that and also a play called Emotional Baggage which still gets done to this day and I’m not going to say how many years ago we did those. We did those quite a long time ago though, didn’t we?

Marty: Ah! Yes, we did!

Lindsay: And, Marty, you are an actor, yes?

Marty: Yes, indeed.

Lindsay: You actually went to a theatre school, yes?

Marty: Yes, I studied at the University of Windsor, a school of dramatic art, graduated in 1991. That’s where I met my wife, Tina, who, of course, you know.

Lindsay: Very nice.

Marty: And I’ve been a professional actor ever since.

Lindsay: Which is pretty wonderful, isn’t it, that you can say that? Not a lot of people can.

Marty: It is, and I think, for young actors, at least for me when I was starting out, I had a tough time wrapping my mind around calling myself a professional actor.

Lindsay: Oh, yeah? How come?

Marty: Well, initially, as with, I think, any trade or art that you get into, you might not have all the jobs that you want and, as an actor, you will always be looking ahead towards the next project. It felt as though, if I wasn’t working, I didn’t really feel like an actor.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Marty: I didn’t feel like I could say that. But, something that comes I think with age and with wisdom, now, when I speak to younger actors, I say, “Be proud of who you are. You’ve trained. You have a passion for it. You’re an actor. You might not be working at the moment but you can always work at it.”

Lindsay: Yes, of course. When you started out, did you have a vision for the kind of actor that you wanted to be? What were the things that you wanted to excel in or did you think “I’ll take anything”?

Marty: Well, because I studied at theatre school, initially, of course, stage is what I really thought of and the first production I ever saw that made me want to be an actor was A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and it was a professional production with Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Peter Gallagher. I just fell in love with it and I thought, “That’s what I want to do; I want to do something of that power.” So, initially, yes, it was all theatre and, back at theatre school, we didn’t really have too much of an in-depth television and film classwork that we were doing. We did have one or two classes that were devoted to it, but they really couldn’t get into the depth that I realized soon after that I needed.

Lindsay: That’s what you’ve done quite a lot of – commercials.

Marty: A lot of commercial work, yes, indeed.

Lindsay: And you were just telling me you just recently played Teddy Roosevelt.

Marty: Yes, Teddy Roosevelt, I won’t bore you with my imitation of Teddy Roosevelt but it was great fun to portray one of the greatest presidents, I think, of the United States.

Lindsay: So, let’s talk about commercials. You were starting out, you don’t have a lot of background in auditioning for commercials, was it sort of just a trial by fire that you just figured out practically, like, doing them how to actually audition for a commercial?

Marty: You do find out trial by fire and you tend to bring, especially if you’ve studied theatre and you’ve trained as a theatre actor, you tend to bring that sort of passion to what you’re doing into commercial.

If I may, I’d like to say something that might be of use to your students – your teachers and your students – that, when you come out of theatre school, and I’m going to say to you, probably about a year of time, you’ll thank me later on, embrace the commercial.

Embrace the commercial work because you might have a passion for Shakespeare but you will make far more money doing a Shake & Bake. What it does is it affords you to work in the theatre. Commercials are something that just put shoe leather on your children’s feet. There are many great actors out there, you hear their voices. They’re not doing that for fame; they’re doing it for a bit of fortune and, like I say, it will afford you an opportunity to do theatre because, sometimes, theatre doesn’t pay. You and I have both done theatre that did not pay. It was our passion.

Lindsay: Pennies, pennies, pennies. I think that’s a great attitude because you and I both know a number of actors who can get quite bitter about doing commercials and that they think commercials are beneath them.

Marty: Yes. Yes, and I’ve encountered plenty of those over the time. I don’t think I quite was bitter about doing commercials. I was sort of excited by the prospect.

The funny thing about a commercial is it is probably the one thing that your family members will all see you do.

Lindsay: Right.

Marty: That theatre piece that you worked on for five years that is now going to Broadway, your Aunt Bessie in Iowa is not going to probably get a chance to see it, but she will see you do the…

Lindsay: The Shake & Bake commercial.

Marty: The Shake & Bake commercial, and she’ll call your mom, and your mom will be so proud.

Lindsay: And then, you will go, “Four years of theatre school, four years of theatre school!”

Marty: Exactly. Exactly! But it’s a vital thing and it’s part of an actor’s toolkit and it’s a vital part of it.

Lindsay: Well, let’s talk about that, about what goes into the toolkit when you are auditioning for a commercial. What’s the first thing that happens when you get that audition?

Marty: Well, the first thing that happens when I get the audition, well, how the audition works, let’s start back there.

Lindsay: Yeah, go to.

Marty: The client, whoever has the product – it could be let’s say General Motors – has a commercial, has a set type of characters in it. It might have a mother and a father, a son, a daughter, you know, just loading up to go camping, let’s say. Well, they’ll send a breakdown to the various agencies. “We’re looking for this type of person.”

Lindsay: Ah! So, when they send out a breakdown, that’s the breakdown of characters?

Marty: Mm-hmm. They send out a breakdown to your agency. “We would like a cuddly kind of funny, goofy dad.” That would be sort of where I kind of fit in. And maybe another type, for the mother, very prim, proper. They play a little bit more with the kids; they might be precocious or studious or something. They’ll send a breakdown in. The agent will send back their list of choices from the agency, “This is who I think,” you know, there’ll be four or five guys from every agency. And then, the casting director will choose from there, “Oh, yes, let’s see Marty and let’s see Bob,” and so on. So, they will select you then your agent calls you and says, “You have an audition, this time tomorrow,” and it’s usually the day after – you don’t have a lot of time to prepare for these things. Sometimes, you don’t even get a script. But they’ll send you at least a breakdown to let you know the gist of the commercial.

Lindsay: Like a summary or something?

Marty: Yeah, a summary, but oftentimes a script. So, I will spend time and I will actually learn it because a commercial can be approached much the same way you would approach a piece of theatre or a television audition or a film audition. You look at it as a mini-story, a thirty-second story with a beginning, middle, and an end, or a fifteen-second story sometimes with a beginning, middle, and an end. Sometimes, you’re not a part of the entire story but you are instrumental in one part of it. You know, those commercials that start off sort of slow and maybe a little bit sad and then they end off in a high note. “Life is not good when you don’t have this.” This gets introduced.

Lindsay: Yeah, I’ve always, from my very, very limited knowledge is that the whole idea of you go in and it’s like, “This product is going to change your life and make it better.”

Marty: Yeah, or, “Life is good but this makes it better.” Exactly, and that is what it is, and it will be around for as long as people are buying things. So, commercials on television, I don’t think get as much airplay now – well, they do – but with Netflix and with DVR, people skip them quite a bit, but you see them all over the internet and that’s a new thing as well – commercials that run on the internet and I’ve had a few of those as well. But let me put it in perspective too for students. If you get a national commercial, particularly in the US, you could make it your year.

Lindsay: Really?

Marty: Yeah, that’s enough income to probably support you for a year, if it’s a US national.

Lindsay: But that’s a very rare thing, right? Because it also gets broken down into regions about you get paid depending on how many regions your commercial is shown in.

Marty: That’s right. But, occasionally, you get that beautiful golden goose.

Lindsay: You get the golden ticket.

Marty: You’re Charlie and you have a golden ticket. It’s a lovely thing and I don’t mean to lean so much on the money aspect of it. I don’t know too many actors that set out to do commercials.

Lindsay: Yeah, it’s nobody’s dream to be a commercial actor.

Marty: Yeah, it becomes so important, you don’t realize, and they can be a lot of fun.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Marty: And you also meet like-minded people on the set. We’re all actors out there. I have yet to not have a good time shooting. I’ve never been under duress during a commercial.

Lindsay: Okay. Let’s go back. We’re still at the audition. You’ve rehearsed and now you’re walking in the door. What happens when you walk in and you see all the other people? Are they a variety of people? Do they all kind of look like you? What’s happening in the room?

Marty: Okay. I’ll take you through it.

Lindsay: Please!

Marty: The moment you get in, you sign in with your name, your union number if you’re SAG or AFTRA or even if you’re non-union, but you sign in, you mark down the role you’re being considered for, the time you are to audition. And then, they’ll usually have a second sheet that you have to fill out, a breakdown sheet, provides your agent’s

number, your contact number, your wardrobe sizes, hair color, weight, all of that, and one thing everybody has to know, this has to be up-to-date and they can’t be vain.

Lindsay: Aha!

Marty: Oh, yeah, you have to be honest because, when you do get the job, the wardrobe has to fit you so there’s nothing more annoying to a wardrobe mistress or master than to walk in there and…

Lindsay: If the person’s twenty or fifteen pounds higher than they said.

Marty: Exactly, 36-inch waist when you’re actually a 38 and none of the pants they’ve brought fit you and they have a room full of producers that are waiting to see you in your wardrobe. We don’t have what you need. So, be honest. They like you. They’re looking at you. They like you. They want you for the job. Just be honest about this.

Anyway, once this sheet is filled out, you hand it to the casting assistant, you wait for them to call you, they take your picture, they attach it to this sheet of paper and it goes in with you when the casting agent brings you into the audition.

Now, what I’m going to tell you now is the most important thing you do for a commercial audition. Once you get there, you find a quiet place and go over the script aloud as many times as possible before you are called in. A lot of people walk into the room and, “Oh, hey! There’s Bob! There’s Brenda!” They want to chat. “Let’s catch up.” What you do is you see Bob and Brenda, you go, “Hey guys! Let’s catch up. Got time for a coffee after the audition?” Because you want to concentrate on your work – that’s what you’re there for. You can love your friends and you can spend time later catching up all you want – if you’re a commercial actor, you’ll have a lot of time during the day to do that because, if you’re successful at it, you won’t have to worry. But make socializing a second priority because, while you’re there, you have to do your job and, if you’re not doing your job, you’ll be wondering why no one ever wants to cast you.

The funny thing is I see actors my age socializing rather than going over their scripts and it kind of surprises me that they haven’t picked up this basic thing by now. So, there’s a very important thing for your students to know or for anyone listening to know. Just keep your eye on the script and go over it.

Where it’s particularly important is voice-over which I haven’t even gotten into, but I tend to do a bit of voice work as well being an announcer or a character in a commercial spot. Sometimes, I’ll go in, the guys are just chatting away, but I’ll get that script and you always get the script on the spot. You never get it ahead of time and you take that script, you look at it, you read it as quickly as you can for sense. What is the writer trying to say? How are we selling this? Sometimes, it’s a real mouthful. You’re trying to pronounce the product and the worst thing you can do is go in there and say the product name wrong. It doesn’t make a good impression. So, really, read it for

sense then, afterwards, fold in character because, with voice work, you really are your own director. No one’s in that at the other side of the booth is going to give you a lot of information. You’ll go in. They might give you a little bit of direction, but not too much. So, you really have to know your material because, when you go in that booth, the only way that you can even connect is with your voice and, if you don’t know the material, it will show.

Lindsay: I think that’s the same thing with voice work and with commercial work. You’ve got to know the stuff and you have to build your own character, right? You have to be the one to bring something to the table.

Marty: That’s right. If you don’t care about this product, how do you expect anyone to care about it?

Lindsay: All right. So, you’ve walked in the door. Who’s watching your audition?

Marty: Well, that’s an interesting thing because many times you’ll walk in and there’s just one man operating a camera.

Lindsay: So, you don’t ever even meet the director.

Marty: We’re talking the initial launch.

Lindsay: Yeah.

Marty: Yeah, you don’t meet the director. You go through the scenario. Okay, you’re driving your car, you’re dropping your child off at school, you say goodbye. That’s it. You might have a kid in there with you and they’ll have a little bit of repartee. You’ll improvise something. The child will leave and you drive off which usually means you’re sitting on a block holding your hands up like an idiot.

Lindsay: In the 10 and 2 position.

Marty: In the 10 and 2 position, or is it now 3 and 9? I can’t remember, they’ve changed it, yeah.

Lindsay: So, the guy behind the camera, all he’s doing is operating the camera. He doesn’t have anything really to do with the commercial.

Marty: Quite often, he’s the casting associate.

Lindsay: Oh, okay.

Marty: …that skill and then he’ll put something together. They’ll take that initial audition and, if they like you or they determine that what you did with it is in line with what they’re looking for, they will take that and then send that to the client and then they

will select people to come back for a recall. You get a recall. You show up. There may or may not be a group of people in the room. Sometimes, it’s just the director and a camera person and they’ll bring you through the scenario again – try it a few different ways. But, often – and this is something that people may not realize – often, even on a first audition, there is somebody watching you in another room. They might have three or four clients in there. They want to perhaps forego having to go through the whole recall process because what happens – at least in Canada, at the very least – for every time they bring you in for a recall, they have to pay each actor they bring in $50 which pretty much just covers your parking and your travel and your time off and whatnot. But sometimes they like to forego that.

So, at any given point, when you’re on camera, there could be a whole room of people watching at that very moment which brings up another interesting point. You should never make fun of the product.

Lindsay: Right.

Marty: Sometimes, you’re nervous and you’re making jokes and things. You never know who’s listening. You go into a room and that’s a good thing for just actors to know in general. I’ve never been one to cut up people or make fun of products or things. But I’ve seen it happen and I’ve seen it bite people in the butt because they think they’re being clever. Really, it just means you have a big X beside your name because that young woman who was walking across as you’re slagging the product in the room is not another actor. She actually turns out to be one of the producers of the spot. She just happens to be there, and it happens quite often.

Lindsay: So, there’s two really big important things – a couple of really important things. Be with your script. Don’t socialize. When you’re in there, it’s really all about you and the camera. As opposed to you and being alive in the room, it’s you and the camera, isn’t it?

Marty: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Lindsay. The story is told through the camera. That’s your medium. You have to be constantly aware of what you’re showing the camera – not the people on the other side of the table.

Lindsay: Was that hard to figure out, coming from a theatre background, about how to communicate through a camera?

Marty: I think it is, a little bit. It would be helpful if everybody sort of sat behind the camera so that you play to them because you want to. It’s our instinct and there’s nothing more gratifying for an any actor than to get a response and, usually, in a commercial room, they’ll be responding to you on the screen, not you in person. They’re not really looking at you. They’re looking at you on-screen and how you look on television which brings another interesting point.

I remember doing a commercial once for Campbell’s soup and the last two recalls, there was one

audition, a recall, and then they had two subsequent recalls. The last two were just to see how you looked when you ate. It’s insane! Yes, they wanted to make sure you don’t look like a slob when you’re eating their soup because that visual will put people off. You could be the greatest actor in the world, if you’ve got soup dribbling down your chin or you slurp or what-have-you, you won’t get that spot.

Lindsay: It’s all about the product.

Marty: It’s all about the product and – oh, gosh – I work in a studio, Technicolor Creative Services as my full-time job. See? I have another job; no shame in that, actors. It’s okay to have one of those. I see very prominent actors doing commercial work, voice work. Bryan Cranston when he was in town was doing spots for Burger King and I’m sure he’s not ashamed of that.

Lindsay: Yeah, I think that’s something, really, that young actors need to know. Just as you said, there’s no shame in this. It’s all about being a working actor. How do you be a working actor?

Marty: Absolutely. Colm Feore, a Canadian actor, I don’t know how many of your listeners know who he is but greatly respected actor. Right now, he’s performing King Lear at the Stratford Festival. I would see him come into my studio doing voice work and I think he did a voiceover for something like Goldbot and I was chatting with him.

I was just at the desk and making small talk and he asked me what I was doing which was a nice surprise, and I told him, you know, “Well, I just did a voiceover for this, Mr. Feore.” He said, “Oh, never be ashamed of doing a commercial.” He goes, “When I hear a commercial that I’ve done on the television, all I can think of is, “Well, you know, there’s a few more lessons for my kids. There’s a nice dinner out and a few bills paid,” and that’s really what it comes down to, and it can be a heck of a lot of fun.

Lindsay: Well, let’s get into that then. Okay. So, you have got a commercial. What happens next once you’ve got the call from your agent? What happens next?

Marty: Well, first, they’ll set you up for a wardrobe call so be honest with your sizes, people! They’ll call you in for one day – not a full day. Usually it’s about an hour or two, depending on what sort of costume they’re going to put you in and you will try on various bits of wardrobe and go and show it to someone. They’ll take a picture of you. They’ll decide on what you’re going to wear on the day. You will sign a little contract saying that you were there that day and they’ll send you off. You’ll get – usually the night before – a phone call saying, “This is where the commercial’s shooting.” Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they’ll offer to pick you up and drive you there. A lot of the times, you’ll be driving yourself there, but most of the times they like to pick you up just to make sure you’re there.

That’s another very important thing. The worst possible thing you can do, and it’s with

any medium – theatre, film, television – is to be late. But on a commercial or television or film shoot, you’re not just holding up your cast, you’re holding up potentially a couple of hundred people who are there waiting for you. If you want to keep working in the business, get there a half hour early. Always plan to get there a half hour early. That’s the best piece of advice I can give as far as that.

But, on the day of, you show up. You look for a lady or a gentleman with a headset on because, a lot of the times, it’s overwhelming if it’s your first commercial. “Where do I go? I see these trailers parked everywhere. I don’t know where to go.” Look for someone with a headset on. Introduce yourself. Always be friendly and just say hi. “Hi. I’m Marty. I’m a talent for this commercial. Could you please direct me where I am supposed to go?” and they’ll usually send you to wardrobe, try on your clothes. Sometimes, your clothes will be in a trailer waiting for you. Then, they’ll put you through to makeup, get you ready. Then, you go back to your trailer or wherever it is. Put your clothes on and you wait.

Lindsay: It’s a waiting game, isn’t it?

Marty: It’s a waiting game. You sit there. You try not to crease your clothing. Definitely do not eat or drink anything that could spill and damage your clothing. They might have a stunt wardrobe for you, but it’s highly doubtful. Bring something you can put over the top of your clothes to keep them clean – that’s just a little bit of practical advice. And so, you will wait. Try not to drink too much coffee. Coffee makes you sweat. It’s a weird thing but it really does. It melts your makeup so stick with water. Stay calm. Get ready to do your thing. And then, finally, they’ll call you to set and they’ll run through the spot with you and you’ll usually have a board off to a side that you can see that shows you what you’ll be doing shot by shot.

Lindsay: Like a storyboard?

Marty: Like a storyboard – very detailed because, you know, you’re looking at a thirty-second spot and sometimes there can be sixty little bubbles with cartoons drawn in them and you’re like, “What? How can there be so much?” But that’s what they’re shooting for so you’ll know pretty much what they’re doing.

A lot of the times, if you’re doing what they want you to do, there’s not going to be a lot of chat. You’re not going to have a relationship with your director. It’s not like in the movies. If you’re doing your job right, it’ll be like, “Hi. This is Marty.” “Hi.” You’ll do your job. At the end of the day, they’ll give you some applause and you go off and head home and have a good night’s sleep.

Lindsay: How long do commercials usually take?

Marty: It depends on where you’re at in the commercial. Some of them, if you’re featured, like I did one years ago which was a Bingo commercial and I was in a car. You guys, I don’t know if you guys remember this but I was in a car with my wife, Kimwun, some friend of mine who was my wife in the spot, and we’re playing scratch tickets while we’re going through the Bingo and I hit the power window on my car as we’re going through because I’d just won and the window goes down and then the spray comes into the car and literally fills up the car with water while we’re trying to stop the spray from coming in and then we get to the other side of it and we open the door and the water comes out at our feet.

Lindsay: I remember that.

Marty: That was probably about a ten-hour day because there were so many different setups. We had to literally fill up a car with water. Open the door and step out of it. We had to the going through the carwash so many times. It was very detailed work and it was the most fun because I kept getting sprayed with this water before Kim did and she kept wondering how cold the water was going to be and I kept telling her it was freezing and I kept her going on at this for about two hours until she finally got hit with the water and it was really nice and toasty warm and she started hitting me because she was anticipating this terrible icy cold water when, in fact, it was rather pleasant. And they had to have, I think for each of us, eight changes of wardrobe.

Lindsay: I was going to say, like, how many clothes did you have to go through?

Marty: We went through, well, eight changes and there was constantly something in the dryer.

Lindsay: Oh, man.

Marty: And you have to, like in the theatre, there’s not a lot of modesty. You’re basically getting changed in the parking lot. “Put this on.” “Okay.” You know? There’s no room at a carwash for you to go and change in, unfortunately.

Lindsay: Have you eating done an eating commercial?

Marty: Yeah, I did the Campbell’s.

Lindsay: Yes, of course, you did.

Marty: Campbell’s chunky soup.

Lindsay: Okay. So, do you eat the product when you’re doing a food commercial?

Marty: Oh, that’s funny! I’ve never had to go through the chocolate. Apparently, chocolate is a terrible thing to have to go through.

Lindsay: Oh, you mean, like, to eat a piece of chocolate?

Marty: Yeah. I don’t know if I should be mentioning product name. You know Mark right?

Lindsay: Yes.

Marty: Mark had to do the M&M’s spot and it was running in some of the theatres, I think, until quite recently where he’s sitting there with the two little M&M characters and he’s having M&M’s in his popcorn and they’re at a horror movie and, of course, the little M&M guy’s reacting in horror to him eating a handful of popcorn mixed with M&M’s like he’s some sort of crazy cannibal. So, he had to go through that and he had to eat those over and over again. What they’ll usually do – forgive me, and you probably can guess – they usually keep a bucket beside you so can just put it in your mouth, chew it, spit it out, because otherwise, you will definitely get sick after eating handfuls of M&M’s. Like, it’s more than you would eat at normal movie – even more than I would eat a normal movie.

Lindsay: I can imagine a ten-hour day where all you’re doing is eating, eating, eating. It’s like, at some point, you’re going to be like, “Yup. I’m going to just spit this out right now.”

Marty: That’s right, and sometimes you’re just waiting for them to make the product look beautiful. Like the soup. I remember there was a lady with a brush who would sort of just brush little bits of pepper around and make sure that the nice noodles were at the top. They can’t change the product.

A long time ago, there was this terrible thing that happened I think with a breakfast cereal where they would put ball bearings in the bottom of the bowl so that, when the cereal was in there and they added milk, it didn’t sink as cereal does. Because of that, there were laws built into advertising that stated you could not have anything except the real product as it would be. So, they find that real product and they make it as pretty as possible. But, sometimes, you’re sitting off to the side, waiting for them to, you know. The product is more important than you are and you always have to know that. That’s your job.

Lindsay: Do you remember your first commercial?

Marty: I do remember my first commercial. It was for – I’m going to say the name – DuPont Chemical and I got it because I fit a costume.

Lindsay: Ah!

Marty: The actor who was supposed to do this commercial – remember Dean? Dean and Tory. Well, Dean, who was a Toronto boy, was here and he was working at Seiflow’s. I knew him as an actor. We both started out at the same time. He was the first choice for this commercial. But, unfortunately, Dean, at that point, was

having some terrible migraine headaches and one just happened upon him the day of the shoot so I got a panicked call at 7:00 a.m. saying, “Can you be ready in an hour?” and I’m like, “Yes, I can,” and by dint of good fortune and the fact that I was a little bit more fit at that time, I fit his costume so I got to do his spot.

So, my very first spot was because I fit somebody else’s costume.

Lindsay: And because it came at the last minute, there was no time to be nervous, was there? Or even think about it. You just had to show up and do it.

Marty: Yeah, I showed up and did it. It was great. I got to waltz with a very pretty girl on a porch and drive around in a vintage pick-up truck. We were at the Anne of Green Gables house. It was used in all the films. So, that’s the one we got to shoot that commercial in.

Lindsay: Wow. What a great way to start.

Marty: It was a terrific way to start. Absolutely! Funny enough, the last commercial I did which was a couple of weeks ago was for DuPont and I haven’t done anything in interceding years for them – sort of bookend. I hope that doesn’t mean my commercial career is ending.

Lindsay: No, no, don’t say that. Don’t say bookend.

Marty: Oh, god forbid, I’m knocking on wood. Sorry. Sorry, listeners! I’m drumming, but yeah, that’s how that started.

Lindsay: So, as we wrap up here, what would you say are the most important keys to commercial auditioning? What are some things that you’ve learned over the years that have stood you in good stead?

Marty: Well, I think it holds true with anyone. The casting agent is your friend. The casting agent wants you to be amazing and win the role. The casting agent is not your adversary. I think a lot of people go in and feel a sense of judgment and, yeah, they are sort of looking at you to determine if you’re right for something. But the fact that you’ve gotten an audition means there’s faith shown in you. They think that you can do it. They want you to. How easy would their job be if you came in and just blew everyone away and got the role? It makes them look really good. So, when you’re preparing, you’re not only doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for them and they will thank you for it.

If you go in and deliver every time – hey, it’s not, like I say, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s not Albee; you’re not going in there to really move someone in that way. But, if you prepare and you take it seriously and show that you care about your work, then you ultimately show that you care about their work and they will remember you for that, and this casting agent might not just be doing commercials eventually. This casting agent might not, you know, this director who’s directing in a commercial will eventually be doing films. So, you always have to keep that in mind. They’re growing as you grow.

And the other important thing is to always be kind to everyone you’re with. It’s just a good way to live your life. But, secondly, these people are people you’re going to know twenty years down the road. I’m now in rooms with guys that are my age. We come in, we’re always happy to see each other. We always shake hands and, at this stage, it’s, “Well, whoever gets it, best of luck to one of us,” because we know, we’ve been in it that long, it’s going to happen for one of us and we’re just happy to be there and still be considered.

Lindsay: What better attitude to have than to walk in and be competitive or to walk in and be, “Well, I’m the best looking so, obviously, I’m going to get it.” Attitude really is a big part of acting and acting in anything, isn’t it?

Marty: Yes. Well, you’d know about great attitude. You and Craig have always had a great attitude in all the years I’ve known you. As an actor, it cuts out so much static that you don’t need to deal with. If you just are happy to be somewhere, it helps, you know, to know that these are your friends, not your adversaries. You will go into an audition, some of you, and you will eventually be able to see the person who’s trying to throw you off your game. They exist. I hate to say it, but they exist. They’re in your face. They’re chatting with you all the time. They’re making things uncomfortable and it just happens. It doesn’t really help them but it certainly doesn’t help anyone else. So, there are troublemakers out there, but they don’t tend to last very long.

Lindsay: Right. Absolutely.

Marty: The guys I’m with now, you know, like I say, we’re veterans.

Lindsay: You’re kind veterans.

Marty: We’re kind veterans, exactly.

Lindsay: Oh, Marty, this has been a lovely chat. Thank you so much for taking the time out and just sharing this particular path in your acting life. It’s been great.

Marty: Well, thank you so much for letting me share, Lindsay. I really appreciate you asking me to talk about my experience and I really truly hope that it helps someone out there and, if there’s anything else to elaborate on, you can put them in touch with me. I’d be more than happy.

Lindsay: Awesome.

Thank you so much, Marty.

Marty and I haven’t seen each other in a few years but it really felt like no time had passed at all. He is an absolute doll and I really, really, really, really thank him for sitting down and talking to me.

So, this series would make a great reflection topic for your students. What were their preconceived notions of commercial auditions and how have they changed? You could also create a listening quiz for them or you could keep listening to find out how to get a listening quiz or you could keep listening to find out how to get a listening quiz already done up for this podcast series.

On that note, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

First off, I want to mention the other actors and topics for the Working Actors podcast series. So, Steve Ross is next and he has just spent the past eleven years at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; Heather MacGuigan has toured North America with Mary Poppins; and our very own Craig Mason, he spent fifteen years as a working actor and he’s going to share his children’s theatre experience.

Just a moment ago, I mentioned a listening quiz. If you are signed up for our Theatrefolk email list, this week, you got a listening quiz, an answer key, and a written reflection for this week’s podcast. I’m going to include one of these for each podcast in our series. What if you are not signed up for our email list? Sign up now! Go to the show notes for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode113.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? Where can you direct students to find this podcast? We post new episodes every Tuesday now 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.

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