If you and I were friends and I said to you, “Let’s go see a play,” your first reaction would probably be, “Bwahaha! Man, you’re a crackup!”
I get it. In the digital era, with movies on our phones and DVRs and Netflix, few of us can be bothered even to watch a TV show when the network wants us to. So the idea of driving to a theater, waiting in our seats until the curtain goes up… just to watch live actors standing in front of a hand-built set? No thanks.
But that’s too bad. Because as I learned attending maybe 100 such little plays in Los Angeles in my early 20s, going to these performances can teach you a great deal about how to be a professional. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.
1. Perform at every job, at every task, every day, like a talent scout is watching.
What always amazed me as I sat in these 99-seat theaters was how much energy and dedication the actors put into their performances — even when there were only seven of us in the audience.
What’s even more incredible is that many of the actors in those plays were successful men and women you’d recognize from movies and television. Some were big enough that you’d know their names.
So what was going on? Why would these folks work themselves to exhaustion — and acting live onstage in a two-hour play is exhausting work — night after night, at a tiny theater, if only a half-dozen people even bothered showing up?
Because that’s what you do when you’re an actor. You act. You act your butt off, every time you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity. And even the Hollywood actor who makes a good living in TV or film considers a chance to act onstage two hours a night to be an opportunity. It doesn’t matter how much they’re being paid (often nothing at a little theater) or the size of the audience.
That’s how we all should perform at work.
Yes, some parts of your job might be boring. Some parts might seem unimportant or even unnecessary. Doesn’t matter. Give your job everything you’ve got, every day, and treat it as the opportunity it is.
That sort of approach — which is far less common than you’d think — is what leads to more opportunities.
2. Find something to love about your job.
Let’s go back to those successful Hollywood players I’d often see at these tiny theaters. I once saw a play written by Kevin Arkadie, the hugely successful TV producer who co-created New York Undercover, and who produced and wrote for NYPD Blue and The Shield, among many other credits.
When I walked into the lobby of that little theater with my uncle Alan (who always took me to these great plays), we saw Arkadie… sweeping the floor. Here was a guy worth many millions of dollars, putting on a play for what would likely be an audience of 30 people, and he was sweeping up beforehand. What’s up with that?
Did Kevin Arkadie have a secret passion for sweeping? Did the stars of his play (some well-known character actors with long Hollywood careers) enjoy showing up day after day for rehearsals, or driving through LA traffic every day to reach the theater? (On that last one, trust me, the answer is No!)
Even actors passionate about acting, and playwrights (like Kevin Arkadie) passionate about writing plays, don’t love everything about the theater. But they put up with the waiting and the rehearsals and the disappointments when a show falls through for whatever reason… and sweeping the floors before the show starts.
Why? Because they all love some part of the process. Arkadie loves sitting in the theater watching his play come to life. The actors love being onstage and performing for us (even all five of us).
And you know something? There’s some part of what you do for a living that you can love too. Doesn’t matter what your job is — there’s something to love about it. Find it, cherish it, and — if you can — try to make it a bigger part of your job.
3. Remember, there are lots of talented people out there.
This last tip is more of a word of caution.
Something else that always amazed me attending live plays at little theaters was how good the actors were. I mean, they were phenomenal. At almost every show I saw, I’d come out of the theater saying to my uncle something like, “Those actors are as good as any Hollywood A-lister. How’s that possible?”
I never did figure it out. Given how difficult good acting is, how is it that you can find great acting almost any night of the week at almost any hole-in-the-wall theater in Los Angeles (and I suspect New York as well)?
What I do know is that, in an increasingly competitive world with more tools and resources and knowledge available to more people than ever, chances are your profession is experiencing its own little-theater trend. More people are in the game: studying, practicing, honing and mastering the same skills you’ve cultivated. So you’ve got to stay at the top of your game too.
And maybe that’s part of the answer to why so many successful Hollywood actors show up at the smallest theaters, for no money, and act to exhaustion night after night for tiny audiences. They know there are many up-and-comers right behind them, sharpening their acting skills too. So even a proven actor has to stay just as sharp. They can’t afford to coast.
And neither can you.