If you're going to make your living as an artist, you're going to have to pay for training.
Grad school is one option, though it seems expensive, it's the easiest because your competition has degrees and all the connections that come with it. Those folks have spent 2-3 years working on their craft 6 days a week, 8-10 hours a day while performing. In their final grad school years, they're meeting with all of the industry agents, managers and CD's, so that right after their New York showcase, they are picked up by agents and managers because all the Casting Directors and Network folks already know them. That's what you're up against and why it's so hard to even get seen without an MFA in NYC. The good news is becoming a working artist is not some mystery or sheer good luck. It's a business strategy. You need to have what your competition has, lots of training and performance experience and industry contacts. It's no different from becoming a lawyer or a doctor, you have to play the game as it exists. You can create a career in which you pinpoint which part of the industry you want to work in and then get teachers and mentors to coach you privately to develop the skill-set for your desired place in the industry. You're not accruing tons of student loan debt, but instead paying as you go to acquire specific skills. How long do you train with folks? Well, if your competition has 3 years of training on you, then you need to mirror that in your private training. The good news is that you can focus your private training on one area of the industry. (i.e. acting for film, classical theatre, acting for primetime TV). The second most important thing is to study with folks who can give you a solid technique, so that you show up with the same finely honed performance night after night or take after take. That requires training and technique. In order to figure out who to study with. Look at folks who are doing what you want to be doing in the industry right now. If you want to be doing all August Wilson plays and your teacher has never acted in an August Wilson play, then you're wasting your money. If you want to write, act and produce your own work and your teacher has not done that, they cannot help you get to where you want to be in the industry right now.This is uber important and the piece no one taught me in grad school because my teachers hadn't worked in the industry in 30 years. So they all told me to buy some hair, some nurse/maid outfits and go into auditions. Huh? Whereas, immediately after my showcase, I booked 3 jobs back to back with some silly extensions in my hair and each Casting Director and Director asked me to cut it and wear my hair my own little afro which is the way I had been wearing it since the first day of grad school. Nor did anyone have any idea of how to teach me how to use August Wilson's language or the camera in the audition room and the difference between single cam and multi cam. And these were all the places where black women in my type were building huge careers. Lesson: make sure your teacher knows what the hell is going on in the industry right now.Finally, the third step is if you think you can't afford teachers or grad school, then find master directors, actors, writers, producers and offer to work for them for free in return for on the job training. But guess what, you'll need to work for free for 3 years just like grad school. So you're going to pay money or time for the training, but I promise you, it won't be luck that keeps you working or lands you that first job. It will be time, hard work and effort. You will succeed. You can't put that much blood, sweat and tears into the universe without the love coming back to you. This is not luck, this is not a shot in the dark, this is a business that if you invest in yourself, the business will invest in you.
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""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson