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Acting in Plays, Singing/what it takes to make it on Broadway

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Hello, my name is Melissa Akamine. I have some questions about what skills I need to have to be a great Broadway actress. I'm 16, and have recently been thinking about going into musical theatre, but I have only been taking voice lessons for less than a year, have never been in a musical production (I've seen hundreds though), and don't take acting or dance classes. I've heard you have to be able to dance from some people, but from others, I've heard you just need to be able to move gracefully around the stage. Which is true? Also, about how long should I take acting and voice lessons lessons for? Any other tips or information you would like to share with me would be very helpful. Thanks!
-Melissa Akamine
Answer -
Dear Melissa,

You are really asking three things here - how to be an actress; how to be a great actress; and how to be a Broadway actress.  These are very different things and to achieve them are very different goals.

An actor studies acting, works at learning her skills and craft, practices, rehearses, gains experience and hopes to make a living working at her craft.  

A great actor is one who does the above but has great talent within them and great perseverence in pursuing her training and her art.  Most great actors don't really care that much about earning a living - they are artists and need to act like they need to breathe.  And it is that talent, that need, and that dedication to their art that makes them great.

A Broadway actor is one who works on Broadway.  There are very, very few of these.  Broadway is a very small community with very few jobs that thousands of actors want.  The way to become a Broadway actor - especially in musical theatre - is to:
1) work your tail off studying acting, voice and dance - only the very best get the chance to play Broadway;
2) work in lots of small professional and regional theatres outside NYC to earn your Equity card (Broadway does not hire non-Equity actors);
3) climb over everyone you know - Broadway is about business and status and prestige - it is a cutthroat business;
4) audition constantly - waiting all day for cattle calls were you get seen for 1 minute;
5) act in lots of unpaid NYC showcases in the hopes that you will be able to come to the attention of an agent who will want to represent you - most Broadway leads and supporting roles are cast by audition subnission by agents and are seldom available to unrepresented actors;
6) be prepared for years of rejection and disappointment - with thousands of actors auditioning for each role, many of which are precast anyway, the odds of getting cast are minimal and the more you are seen the better your chances;
7) network constantly all over NYC - getting cast in NYC is about who you know;
8) and be sure to find a good day job - living in NYC is very, very expensive and unless you are doing Broadway or Off-Broadway, most NYC theatre is unpaid or, at best, very minimally paid.

That said, be aware that Broadway is NOT the only place that theatre lives and pays.  There is good professional theatre all over the country, and the large majority of musical theatre shows are produced in touring companies, regional theatre, summer stock, and in some small professional theatres.

Acting, like any other profession - and more than most, requires in-depth training.  And if you want a career in musical theatre then you must study acting, singing and dance.  There was a time when a singer could take a lead in a Broadway musical, but more and more musicals require even the leads to be triple threats.  And even more so for those not the leads.  

And don't fool yourself.  No matter how good a singer you are, there are others better.  And these days big film and tv stars with big names that sell tickets are the ones who are getting the Broadway leads.  The shows are so expensive to produce, even ther road companies and regional theatre productions, that only a star with box-office draw in the lead roles will allow the producers to have even a chance to recoup their money, much less make a profit.  So most musical theatre actors (and there are far more of them than there are roles available) are playing supporting roles - and these almost always require acting, singing and dance.

If you are a professional, well-trained actor/singer it is possible to get musical roles without formal dance training, but you must be able to move well on stage - and that means more than just being able to walk gracefully.  It means that you can learn dance moves, that you are familiar with the basic dance steps, that you can look like you are doing more complicated moves without actually dancing.  But the more dance training you have, the more roles you will be eligible for.  And if all you want to do is musical theatre, then you better be sure that you can do any role they throw at you, or you will never earn enough to eat.  

Even actors who aim for all theatre, and film and tv as well, have no financial security.  Less than 2% of all professional union actors are making a living as an actor.  Most are working at day jobs while they pursue their acting career, and the unemployment rate in the acting community is over 95%!  So if you are going to limit yourself to just a tiny portion of the acting field - musical theatre - then you better be sure that you are exceptionally talented, exceptionally well-trained, and able to do every part of your craft.

As far as how long to take acting and voice lessons - the simple answer is, that if you want to do this as a career, you will be taking voice and acting classes all your life.  

Practically speaking, most really good actors these days go to college and get their BA in theatre, then often get their MFA in acting, musical theatre and the like.  

It is possible to learn the skills and techniques you will need in a conservatory or by taking separate acting, voice and dance classes, but I really do recommend university training for aspiring actors.  The college experience can only enhance an actors abilities.  An actor needs to know about history, psychology, sociology, literature, and more, aside from acting skills.  You need to understand people to portray them, to understand history to live in the worlds that your roles will bring you to.  You need to have life experience to be able to draw upon it to create and live in your characters.  The focused art training that you get in a conservatory or acting classes simply don't give you the depth of experience that you need to learn all the skills you will need.

One last thing to keep in mind, Melissa.  Acting is one of the most difficult professions there is.  But you don't have to be a theatre professional to have a wonderful time acting and singing in your favorite shows.  Many, many talented actors and singers who want a more financially stable professional and family life than an acting career affords, choose another profession and then exercise their creative talents by doing community theatre.   There are some wonderful, very professional community theatres out there, and it has all the fun of acting with none of the stresses of professional theatre.

You say you have no experience at all yet.  I strongly suggest that you keep taking your voice lessons, take some acting classes, and audition for some school and community shows.  Without having any experience with performing in a musical, with rehearsals and the discipline and hard work that entails, with the kind of cooperation and collaboration and taking direction that acting requires, there is no way that you could possibly know whether you would actually like being an actress.  Acting looks alot easier than it is.  Acting looks like fun.  It is, in fact, a lot of hard work, boring tedium and repetition, frustration and more.  Professional acting seems like fame and fortune and glamour.  For 99.99% of actors it is none of these.  Try it before you make up your mind.  

Hope some of this helps, Melissa.  If you have any other questions, I'd be happy to try to answer them for you.

Best,
Arlene (MsDirector)

Thanks for replying back. I wanted to take drama and beginning dance at my school, but there is no way to fit it into my schedule next year. I would take some classes outside of school, but I'm on the swim team and water polo team, and have practices and games after school. I would quit water polo, but I really love it and have potential to play in college, so my parents don't really want me to. My dad also told me that polo is preparing me for dance and theatre because I learn to work with other people and I have a lot of physical strength from all our early morning practices and weight room sessions. He said physical strength is really important in the theatre buisness. Both my dad and one of my college friends who lives for music theatre suggested to me to focus on developing my voice now, and then go to a community college where I can develope my acting and dance skills, then transfer to a major university and major in theatre there. That way, at the community college if I decide what my other major will be (I will probably double major so I can have a good job while I audition for musicals). Or, if I decide I don't want to do theatre anymore, I can decide what I want to do. Do you think this would be a good plan?
-Melissa
Oh, and I'm auditioning for my school musical this year and for the school jazz choir.
Answer -
Hi Melissa,

I think you have a very smart dad!

Certainly, if you really like water polo you should not quit.  It will strengthen your body - and, yes, an actor/singer/dancer needs alot of physical strength and fitness, so it will be an asset to your in an acting career.

If musical theatre is your goal, then, yes, developing your voice is the most important thing, and what you should concentrate on now.  That will allow you to continue your other activities and still work on your musical theatre training.

And auditioning for your school musicals is exactly what you should be doing.  Experience on stage and working through rehearsals will give you a taste of what it is like to work as an actress, and school and community settings give you a chance to learn without major pressure and still have fun with it.  And jazz choir will be a great opportunity for you to learn to sing with others, something that many actors have a lot of trouble doing when they have learned totally solo.  It is a skill that is absolutely necessary to sing in musicals!

Community colleges can have really good acting and dance classes (that's where I took my first classes and they were wonderful).  And then transfering to a major college once you have gotten the community college experience and foundation is the best idea.  It is usually easier to get in if you already have good grades at a college level - transfers are easier than freshman admissions.  

Double majoring is an excellent idea.  My daughter double majored in theatre and psychology.  When she graduated she got a "day job" as an administrative assistant (secretary) and worked as an assistant stage manager at a local small professional theatre to earn her Equity card (which she admits she got way too soon!).  But she found that roles available for her "type" in her area were few and far between at the moment and her interest in child psychology was increasing (working with children has been a goal of hers since she was your age).  So she took a break from theatre to go for her MA in child development.  She will graduate in December and plans to work with the state government and Social Services to improve the Foster Care policy in Massachusetts.  Once she is set in a job, she will then go back to auditioning in the hopes of continuing her stage career as well.  It was only double majoring that is allowing her to pursue to careers that she loves equally while still enjoying her family (she and her husband are expecting a son in October).  

So yes, I think this is a wonderful plan, and I commend you on your patience and your thinking and planning ahead.  So many young people want to jump right into professional theatre without having the slightest idea what they are doing.  They are always disappointed, get hurt in the process and may be seriously damaged by the experience.  Yours is definitely the best way, and the path that will allow you to become the best actor that you can.  I wish you all the luck in the world!

Best,
Arlene (MsDirector)

Sorry, but one last question. What is and Equity card, what is it for and what do I need to do to earn it (Do I have to get it working in New York, or is it a national thing where I can get it anywhere?)? Also, how long does it take to earn it?
-Melissa

Answer
No need to apologize, Melissa.  Asking questions is how you learn, and I'm happy to help.

Actors Equity is the union for professional actors (and stage managers) in the United States (other countries have similar related unions such as British Equity and the like).  The union protects members from bad working conditions and from producers who don't want to pay an equitable salary.  It also provides contracts for its members, as well as a pension and health care system.  Membership in Equity is earned in a number of different ways - either by working as an actor or stage manager for 50 weeks (not necessarily consecutively) in Equity theatres (this is the Equity Membership Candidate's program and is the way that most actors earn their Equity card), by getting hired for an show that's being done under and Equity contract (if you are hired for a lead in an Equity show, you must accept Equity membership or you can't take the part), or having membership in one of their sister unions such as Screen Actors Guild (SAG), or AFTRA.  Once you have completed your membership requirements then you pay a one time fee of $1100 and then annual dues of, currently, $118 per year plus working dues of 2.25% of your income earned under Equity contract.  Check out their website at http://www.actorsequity.org/AboutEquity/membership.html

You can be a professional actor without membership in Actor's Equity - that is in the sense that a professional is someone who is paid for their work, and there are many professional theatres around the country that are not Equity theatres (that is, they do not work under an Equity contract).  But only Equity members can work at Equity theatres (they do cast a certain number of non-Equity members who are working toward their membership, but usually not in major roles), and all Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Regional theatres are Equity theatres, along with many Small Professional theatres, summer stock theatres, dinner theatres and more.  Equity membership guarantees that you will be paid at or above certain established minimums by the theatres you work with, and that you have redress should your contract be broken. And membership in Actor's Equity is considered by most to be the measure of a professional actor.  

However, there is a caution here, as my daughter found out.  Once you have your Equity membership, you will be competing with the best of the best.  Many young, aspiring actors gain a tremendous amount of experience working at community theatres, non-Equity professional theatres, and other theatres at a less professional level than Equity theatres, where they can compete for roles with actors at their own level.  This is a really good experience and one the you should not move past too soon.  If you get your Equity card too soon, you may find that your opportunities to work are severely diminished, and an actor needs to continue to work at something continuously, even if it is non-paying or non-professional jobs, in order to continue to practice her craft.  However, Equity is a union, and once you have your Equity membership you MAY NOT work in any theatre which is NOT under an Equity contract.  If you attempt to do so and are found out, there are severe penalties including major fines, and even suspension from the union.  So, once you get your Equity card you can no longer work in community theatre, non-professional theatre, or a number of summer stock and dinner theatres.  Which means that if you can't get roles in the limited number of Equity theatres in your area or around the country, or doing non-paying Equity showcases, then you have no way to work at all.  

Many young actors rush to get Equity membership, thinking that that will make them a professional actor and that then they can act on Broadway.  But there are thousands of actors and only a handful of roles.  If you don't get cast, then you don't work, and you have eliminated a huge number of theatres at which you *could* have worked if you hadn't gone union yet.

So the trick is to get all the experience and training you can get before you get your Equity card.  And when, and only when, you feel that you are capable of competing with the best, getting cast in Equity productions, and are ready, both personally and professionally, to work at a professional level, then get your Equity membership.

Best,
Arlene (MsDirector)  

Acting in Plays, Singing

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Arlene Schulman

Expertise

I have been a director, dramaturg, actor and acting coach for over twenty-five years and am happy to share my expertise in learning to act, character development, taking direction, acting styles and techniques, auditioning techniques, how to choose an audition monologue or song (but NOT specific audition songs or monologues), learning lines, script analysis, acting in musicals, dramas, comedies, farces, mysteries and even new plays in their first productions. I am NOT a voice teacher or vocal coach. My expertise is in acting and directing, not in singing. I can not advise you on specific audition songs, vocal exercises, how to stretch your range or on solving vocal problems. For that you need an expert on singing and vocal work. And there is at least one very good one on this list.

Experience

I have been a director, dramaturg, actor and acting coach in the NYC/NJ area for over twenty-four years. I have directed dramas, comedies, musicals, mysteries, thrillers and farces as well as directing original plays in staged readings, workshops, showcases and world premieres. I have worked with all level of actors from amateurs to Equity, from children to seniors.

Organizations
Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers - associate member
Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of America - associate member
Shakespeare Association of America
The Shakespeare Instititute - MA candidate - "Shakespeare & Theatre"

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