There’s a fascinating disconnect between theatre programs around the country and the acting business they’re supposedly training you for. Nearly all programs emphasize the transformative power necessary in an actor: as a petite lithe female, I should nevertheless be able to play a seventy-five year-old man with ease if I’m a real actor, or so the attitude goes. So we learn Stanislavsky’s methods for psychologically creating a well-rounded character, and we study Chekov’s techniques for finding new physicalities to help reinvent ourselves for a diverse set of roles.
But not a single collegiate class or high school program that I know of says, “Hey, let’s take note of an important fact in the professional theatre world – that you are going to be cast based almost exclusively on your type until you’re famous. So let’s spend some time helping you figure out what your type is!”
Part of this problem is understandable – there are not that many shows out there written for exclusively young casts. Most of the good theatre out there is for adult actors, ranging in age from 25 to 60. I can’t tell you how many casting notices I read through on a daily basis, only to find that there are no applicable roles for me because everyone in the cast is 50 and 60 years old. Seriously! (This, it should be noted, is not as true in the TV/film world.)
So when a school wants to put on a show, its options are limited, and that is why you have people like my dear husband playing 60-year-old Jewish patriarch Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the age of 15 (and developing a voice type he spent the next ten years unlearning). In college, I played the role of Maggie in 42nd Street, which was a complete blast; however, no matter how much fun I had, nor how enjoyable my performance was to others, the fact is that I will NEVER (for the next fifteen years or so) be considered for that role in the real world, because she’s 50 years old. I am not – at least, outwardly.
Now this is not to say that there is not value in learning to transform for the stage. Indeed, getting out of yourself and playing somebody completely different is an excellent skill and really widens your scope as an actor! And in fact, if you want to do community and local theatre, it’s actually a fantastic asset, as the casting there is often much like educational theatre.
However, if you’re seriously considering performing for a living, you have GOT to learn your type. The fact is that I am an ingénue, and so I have to focus my career on landing roles of females between 16 and 29. Believe me when I say I’d rather be the character actor who plays the screwball sidekick, the crazy old cat lady, and the 1800s-prospector-turned-servant (true story and one of my favorite characters – that’s me in that picture at the top of this post). But here in New York, with no agent, no real professional resume to speak of, and looks that shout “Ingénue!” no matter how I act, I’ve got to present what people see in front of them, or no one’s going to give me a chance.
The other part of the problem of this mis-education lies in the fact that, for the majority of schools, teachers have been out of the “business” for some time. It’s not really anyone’s fault. In fact, it’s a common complaint across a number of disciplines – that teachers of trades like finance or acting (rather than history or chemistry) aren’t in touch with the current business world they’re teaching. But of course, the struggles of our education system are a soapbox for another time…