Over 35 years ago I started my theater career as a professional actor working in what was my high school summer job doing musical theater performances for children. Since then I’ve been variously a wardrobe person, stage manager, costume designer, technical director, sound designer, set designer, props master and lighting designer.

Set model of Greek

Here are some tips and strategies for starting your career in theater:

  • If you feel you have a calling for theater, start young. Look for auditions for kids’ troupes, and if you are not cast, work behind the scenes.

  • Don’t lock yourself into one thing; be open to all the many jobs in theater for different talents. When I was eighteen, I thought I wanted to be an actor, until I volunteered to do costumes for a student production and discovered that my true passion was the “technical side”.

  • One good place to start is in a community theater. There may be one attached to your local community college. Community theaters are rarely short on aspiring actors, but they are always looking for more people to build and paint, work backstage or hang lights.

  • Offer to assist department heads and be willing to do any job in the place. But there is a caveat to this advice that applies both to theater and film work, which is the next point.

  • If you are going to intern or volunteer, try to do so in the most prestigious, highest budget theater (or film) company that you can. In terms of contacts and networking. It is better to have a lowly job on a prestigious production with eminent individuals, than a big credit with an unknown group. When I was starting out I was fortunate to find work at the community theater company that was, and still is, the oldest continually running theater company in the Australia, which, in addition to philosophical principles informing all play choices, had an established, loyal audience. Everyone had heard of New Theatre, and the main newspapers reviewed their shows. It made a difference when I widened my net to professional companies.

  • Volunteer with companies putting on fundraisers or special performances and concerts in aid of charitable causes. Sometimes there are big names involved with this type of event. Plus they are worthwhile for your karma.

  • Educate yourself. Read about theater history. Read plays from all eras. Attend plays and take backstage tours when you can. Watch the wonderful movie adaptations of theatrical works, as well as programs like Masterpiece Theatre that are superb.

  • Build up your portfolio and don’t neglect to keep a visual record of your work. I wish I had been more assiduous in taking color photos of my early scenic and lighting work. With inexpensive digital cameras, this will be much simpler for you than it was for me back in the day.

The Globe Theater, London

College or Experience – which is the best path?

There is sometimes debate about the value of college or other courses in comparison to practical experience. My own story is a combination of the two.

Early in my career I felt the inadequacy in myself of certain skills that made it hard for me to realize my vision. I was fortunate enough to be able to enroll in certificate courses in technical colleges (very similar to community colleges in the US) in Fashion Illustration and Pattern Making, and later in Architectural Drafting. Highly vocational, these courses gave me an understanding of design theory, and useful skills to present my designs with clarity and style.

Later I felt called to enhance my qualifications even further, and interviewed and was accepted into a selective degree course at a highly regarded university. I gained my degree in Theater Design and Technology. The coursework was similar to that in an MFA, and I was never sorry that I took those four years off from professional work. However my work experience was what made the difference to my initial acceptance into the course.

In addition to the opportunity for pure scholarship, there are some excellent reasons to go to a good vocational theater school:

  • Access to a caliber of advisers, resources and equipment that might be unavailable to the neophyte in the real world of theater.

  • The mandate to work in departments outside of your prior experience and learn about every task related to mounting a production.

  • The opportunity to form close networking relationships amongst your peers. You will enjoy great intellectually stimulating conversations about theater philosophy and debates about quality.

  • First chance at official internships at high end professional theater companies, which often reserve their intern positions for students officially enrolled in accredited colleges.

  • The priceless opportunity to stretch, take risks and generate your own projects in a safe environment. Your school might be the only place where you can stage your brand new musical adaptation of “Hamlet” with complete creative freedom and sufficient resources.

I believe that theater is a calling –  a fierce, heartfelt calling. It means long hours, sweat and backaches, emotionally leaping onto a roller coaster. Every horrific mistake becomes an amusing anecdote for your future dinner parties. There’s nothing more exhilarating than fixing some disaster on the fly, without the audience realizing anything was wrong. I’ve always loved it. The anthem of theater from “Annie Get Your Gun” never fails to bring me to tears.

“There’s no business like show business, like no business I know.”