How do I get a job as a musical theatre performer today?
This is a question we get asked regularly by prospective students who are tempted to enrol in a musical theatre training course at CADA or another institution.
If you love singing, or dance, or acting - or all three - and your dream is to be performing in shows like Matilda and Wicked and The Book of Mormon, this question needs a real answer before you commit time and money to preparing for a career in the field.
There is something wonderful about the heightened experience of musical theatre, with its rousing choruses, upbeat plotlines and colour and movement.
But what do you need to get into this industry, and how can you find the work that will give you a secure job doing what you love?
Identify your skill set. The first thing you need, to work in the industry, is a good strong skill set. So to get started: analyse your skill set. Some musical theatre performers see themselves as 'dancers who can sing' or 'singers who can dance' or 'actors who can sing and dance'. Take a good hard look at your skill set - and know which you are. Your personal limitations may determine the types of musical theatre roles you're likely to win. Identify your strong suit - and you'll have a better idea about the types of musical roles you should be aiming for.
Develop your skill set. So now you know you're a singer who can act, for instance. But you feel dance is not your forte? Then get dance lessons. And keep them going. Most professional musical theatre performers continue with singing and dance lessons even while they're busy in a performance season. Why? You need to keep up your physical and vocal fitness, your stamina, and there's always room to grow and improve.
Likewise, if you are a dancer and you've never had acting lessons, and you're keen to secure speaking or singing roles, then that's your next step. You need to consciously identify the training you need to operate at a professional level. This is important to understand. You may have had some experience in amateur theatre or in a high school musical, but it’s a big leap from amateur to professional. But if you develop your skill set, you’re on your way.
See professional musical theatre - as much as you can. You need to know what you're aiming for. You need to listen to the quality of the voices, see the level of dance skill required, and observe how the musical theatre form is used in different ways. And don't just go see your old faves. Check out lesser-known shows, or more intimate musical theatre experiences, or cabarets. Go to the opera. Get a sense of all the different expressions of 'music drama' that are on offer. You may be surprised by what you see.
Develop your audition skills. Getting professional work is all about the audition. You need to know how to audition well to put your best foot forward. You need to know how to physically enter the audition room with confidence. You need to know how to speak to the accompanist about the piece you’re about to sing. You need to know how you should and shouldn't engage with the audition panel. You need to know how to close your audition in a positive way. And that’s just a singing audition.
If it’s a dance audition, you need to understand the etiquette of the process. You need to know what to wear. You need to be able to follow and replicate choreography. You need to know how to embrace the space. These are skills you can pick up in a good training course in musical theatre. If you do well in an audition, and are offered a callback (an invitation to a further audition) or a role, you’ve effectively passed the initial 'job interview'.
It’s all about the storytelling. Musical theatre is all about the storytelling. You need to be able to ‘act’ your song. You need to be an expressive dancer who can communicate with more than arms and legs - be someone who uses their face as well! This is why actor training is so important for the musical theatre performer. If you have strong acting skills, they cover a multitude of sins. If your voice cracks during an audition, because of nerves, you may save yourself by playing the character convincingly. If your dance technique slips for a moment during audition choreography, but you’re a compelling dancer to watch because you physically embody the character they’re looking for, your error will matter far less.
Tell the story every time. Just tell the story. This is what the audition panel wants - and it’s also what your audience wants. That’s why people go to musical theatre - to be moved by the stories, and how they're told through song and dance.
Find out about the auditions. Right, so you’ve mastered a range of skills and you’re ready to audition. How do you find out about the professional work that’s available? The first thing to do is to set yourself up on social media and email to receive audition notices. Find out who produces and tours professional musical theatre productions near you. In Australia, The Gordon Frost Organisation (GFO) in Australia is an important one. They’ll advertise their auditions on their facebook page, their website, and other social media. So follow them. The Michael Cassel Group (producer of Kinky Boots) is another. Do some research. There are also numerous smaller independent companies and theatre venues who produce musical theatre from time to time. If you want to keep abreast of what’s going on in the industry and who’s producing what, the Touring Selector website is a good site to explore. Track down companies you like, and follow them.
But don’t just think of theatres. There are musical theatre jobs on cruise ships all around the world. If you’re willing to live on a boat for six months of the year, then check out the opportunities on cruises. Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise liners all seek performers. Often these companies will conduct auditions in Sydney and Melbourne - if you're willing to travel.
Register for auditions. Some musical theatre auditions may require you have an agent to register, while for others you can simply put yourself forward. You’ll normally need to invest in a good headshot and write a CV of your past performances for your application. Once you’re accepted for an audition, you’ve got your foot in the door - and then it’s up to you to strut your stuff. And if you get a role - great; the best thing about musical theatre contracts is that they often run for months or even years, so it's steady work for a period of time.
But there are also alternatives to finding work. Principally - making your own work. Many musical theatre performers make their own work - for example, they may create their own cabaret material - a series of songs and banter about the performer’s life - and tour their show to a range of venues. Others create a character or persona, like Queenie Van De Zandt’s alter ego, Jan Van De Stool, who even makes special appearances and hosts special events.
But if you can put together a series of songs, alone or with other performers, find yourself a pianist (or play for yourself), you can create your own night of entertainment. If you can develop a secondary skill set as a producer - well, then, you’ll be booking and finding funding for your own tours. So as a musical theatre performer, business skills will never go astray.
Ultimately, the secret to getting work as a musical theatre performer is this:
Know your skill set.
Develop your skill set.
Improve your audition technique.
Apply for auditions.
Know how to audition well.
And when you've got nothing lined up - make your own work.
Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art