In this era of reality TV, we are in the potentially dubious position of creating celebrities who then go on to have careers in theatre and film.
Should the wannabe performer train or simply audition for the next reality show? Musical director/arranger/composer Annemarie Lewis Thomas goes beyond the TV screen to look at the reality of becoming a successful musical theatre performer.
From TV to training
Musical theatre with its infamous triple-threat criteria must be different, right, or do performers wishing to pursue musical success have to endure the often too personal spotlight of a TV talent contest? When TV created a show to 'find' the next musical theatre star, and the public eventually voted in the untrained winner, what happened next? They were put straight into training (but quietly, without the media furore, so we would all think that anybody could do it!).
So I guess that answers the question - why the need to train? Ask the athletes getting ready for London 2012, or anybody getting ready for a physically demanding job, add a dash of emotional depth and there's your answer. There are the obvious points like technique - how do you use your voice correctly to produce beautiful supported sounds, eight shows a week? Or how do you master the must-have dancer accessory of the triple pirouette? Stage fighting skills, anyone? Then there are the less obvious points like building an emotional dictionary, ensuring that whatever you're trying to put across on stage is supported by substance and understanding of your own psyche.
What makes a good musical theatre student is subjective from college to college - however, all colleges are looking for the students who they think can secure employment, after the correct training and advice have been given. A natural talent is certainly useful; as is an aptitude to learn and a healthy dose of humility balanced with performance confidence.
To prepare for the school/college audition is like preparing for a real-life performing job. Prepare one or two speeches and have a song up your sleeve (most colleges will provide a dance workshop/class to check your prowess in this discipline). None of which is as simple as it appears - finding the perfect song and speeches is actually time-consuming.
The word 'perfect' in the sentence is the tricky bit - something that's not overdone, something that is within your reality is useful (e.g. singing 'I'm Still Here' from Follies is not the ideal song for an 18 year-old with little life experience behind them - it was written for an older stalwart of stage and screen), something not particularly associated with another performer (who can listen to the opening few bars of 'Defying Gravity' and not hear Idina Menzel?).
Know your material both contextually and historically - who wrote it, when was it performed, who sung/played it originally, have a knowledge of the piece in its entirety not just your chosen section. If you're prepared to go the extra mile to find the ideal audition material, colleges will pick up on that. Think about the message that you're sending out - someone not looking for short cuts, someone prepared to put in the work.
Every panel will be looking for something different (that is why one will offer you a place whilst another one wouldn't even give you a recall). I guess the one thing that they all have in common is that they want to see that you're open-minded, in other words, that you're going to be easy to teach (which in time will translate into easy to direct, which eventually becomes easy to employ). I've said that they want to see performance confidence when that overspills into arrogance it becomes a very unattractive quality.
Finally, be yourself on the audition day - after all, you've paid good money to be there, and it's as much about you auditioning them as them auditioning you. Try to find time to talk to the students that are already on your 'dream course'. They are much more likely to tell you the real pros and cons. This is a time to discover yourself as much as it's a time to learn and hone your skills, so ensure that you feel that it's a safe environment (e.g. check the welfare/pastoral support mechanism, are the staff approachable etc.).
The 'r' word
So what if the audition day is a disaster and your chosen college doesn't accept you? Personally I think that's brilliant. To become a jobbing actor the first thing you have to get your head around is 'rejection'. There is no other job in the world that would require you to prepare so much for the interview and then not even tell you if you were shortlisted! Rejection - the word that none of us want to hear, but the reality of our working lives.
In real life, what are you going to do when you don't get that job - give up? If you answered 'yes' to that question, then you shouldn't be working in theatre. If you answered 'try again, with even more determination' then welcome to the profession. The majority of performers don't get accepted onto their dream course at the first attempt, many don't even make it the second year. But, if you really want it, every rejection will offer you a new lesson which will eventually make you a good performer.
No time like the present
Musical theatre training in the UK is evolving all the time - the elusive triple-threat performer (the person who can sing, dance and act) is the ultimate package that every reputable school/college is trying to produce - with that in mind, start training now: do a ballet class, get some singing lessons, learn the basics and give yourself a good chance of getting accepted. Desire to be better (your friends and family will always think that you're good; sadly they tend not to be casting the next West End show). Don't look for short cuts - be prepared for your career, work hard. Most importantly, if this is your dream job - then don't give up!
In October 2009 Annemarie Lewis Thomas opened MTA - the Musical Theatre Academy, offering an accelerated training programme for the triple-threat performer.