You've Got To Be Carefully Taught

One of the most eye-opening tips I’ve ever casually received in my career thus far came while doing a show called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. It’s an absolutely delightful, folksy, and heartfelt autobiographical musical written by the Canadian husband-wife writing team (and the kindest people) David Hein and Irene Sankoff - yes, the same people behind the international smash hit: Come From Away.

It was October of 2010 and we had been rehearsing the show at JCC Centerstage in Rochester, NY in a setting where the show was being workshopped with David and Irene as we went through the script. For a new writer like me, this was an incredible experience. The show’s director and a wonderful mentor of mine - Ralph Meranto - told David and Irene after one rehearsal that I was an aspiring musical theatre writer. They immediately showed interest and asked questions. As I said, kindest people ever.

At the end of the conversation, Irene asked, “Do you follow Ken Davenport’s blog? If you don’t, you definitely should. There’s a lot of great information. We read it religiously!”

This one suggestion set me onto a path over the next few years of attempting to acquire and consume every bit of knowledge that I could about writing musical theatre. And that is why this tip was so important.

Logo for  My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding

Logo for My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding

Nature/Nurture

The Rodgers and Hammerstein song from which this post gets its title suggests that we are not born with hatred, bigotry, and racism. Instead, this information has to be taught to us and become ingrained in order for us to live with these beliefs.

***Side Note: Anyone who says that R&H Musicals are old, fluffy, and unimportant isn’t paying attention.

This idea of being taught something versus having a natural inclination toward it is true of any area in life. No one is born with all of the knowledge about one subject or another. We must either be handed that knowledge or seek it out.

I feel this idea often gets ignored in the arts, and particularly in the performing arts. Why do I feel this way? 2 reasons: 1) Value and financial support are not being given to the arts in public education, and 2) People often assume that just because someone has talent in an area, they must not require much training.

Incorrect. On both accounts.

If we do not educate the general public in the arts, as we are now seeing, we will lose an appreciation for them. (I could write 10 separate posts on this topic…perhaps I will?) Additionally, talent is wonderful and extremely helpful, but as with any trade, skill, job, or expertise, the arts require education, training, hard work, and dedication in order to master them.

 

Where To Learn

If you are an aspiring performer, there are now many places you can physically attend in order to learn about the craft. Educational studios, like the one I teach at, have popped up all over the country in the past twenty years in order to teach young people about theatrical performance. Beyond that, it now seems like every college and university has some sort of Theatre or Musical Theatre program and is jockeying to acquire the best students to become the best program on some list or another.

For performers, that’s a great start. But what about everyone else?

Programs in the other fields of the performing arts are much more difficult to find. Not that they don’t exist or they aren’t beginning to come into existence, but they are few and far between. I’m talking about learning how to become a: Musical Theatre Writer (composer, lyricist, librettist), Playwright (more common), Stage Manager, Designer (lighting, sound, set, costume, etc.), Company Manager, Producer, Director (a bit more common), Artistic Director, theatrical Advertiser, and so many more. Basically, all of the other jobs that make shows happen.

Books

I love me some books. Books are everywhere. Books have been everywhere for a very long time.

It was actually a bit shocking to me how many books there are on these subjects, and many of them were written quite a long time ago. But now there are current theatre-makers writing books on these topics as well. Go forth to a library (in person or online) and find some books to order and read. You will learn tons.

Personal note: Books on musical theatre composition are difficult to find, but the amount I have learned by reading about my favorite composers and their work has been staggering. The info is there if you search for it.

Podcasts and Blogs

Well, if you’re reading this then I guess you’ve already got a head start on this one!

Like I said earlier, reading Ken Davenport’s blog was an important step for me. Not only do his posts contain large amounts of information from his experiences, statistics, and guest writers, but reading them also makes me hungry for more knowledge. Information begets information.

I’m also a huge fan of podcasts. Again, Ken Davenport has a great one (no, he isn’t paying me for endorsements! Though, maybe he should…”Um, hey Ken…!”) in which he interviews the best of the best from every corner of the industry. I have learned incredible amounts about our business, its ins and outs, and how it actually works just by listening to this one podcast.

Programs, Groups, and Companies

For some areas there are educational programs out there, but you might have to go looking for them.

For instance, musical theatre writers will find that there are currently two big programs in existence that teach you how to write for the musical theatre: the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing MFA program and the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Writing workshop. There are some smaller programs cropping up around the country as well, but you certainly have to search to find them.

Where programs do not exist, however, there are often other opportunities. These could come in the form of: 1) Offered opportunities from existing theaters (residencies, fellowships, apprenticeships, etc.), 2) Theatrical groups or collectives looking for like-minded people to join (they often include membership of some sort), and 3) Smaller theatre companies that are being formed just to do some work and create some theatre.

Again, it requires some research to find these, but it can be done!

See Theatre

Experience your craft first hand. Consume as much as you can. Ask questions. Find a way to shadow for a performance somewhere. Watch, listen, and learn as often as you are able.

We are lucky that we love to see theatre and it also happens to be one of the best ways to learn how to make it!

 

Not The End

Being educated in your craft and its history is not the end of the journey, it’s really only the beginning. Not only can you not possibly consume every piece of knowledge about your craft (especially in something so changing as theatre), but knowledge is only the jumping off point.

We learn in this business by doing. Also, knowing the rules is great for many reasons, but breaking the rules is how theatre evolves and grows. Learn what you can from wherever you can and go forth to make more great theatre.