School Survival Tips From the Pros! Actors from Hamilton, Matilda, Mormon and More Share Their Advice

News   School Survival Tips From the Pros! Actors from Hamilton, Matilda, Mormon and More Share Their Advice
 
High school and college can be tough sometimes, so we ask the pros how they survived those pivotal years. As part of Playbill.com's Back to School week (#BwayBacktoSchool), Broadway actors share some advice for aspiring artists heading back to the classroom this September.

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Performers from Matilda, Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon, this season's acclaimed Hamilton and more offer some tips and tricks, give some reading suggestions and share some thoughts they would tell their younger self if they had the chance!

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Andy Kelso (Kinky Boots, Mamma Mia!)
I always tell people who are going to school for theatre that one of the most important things you will get out of your time there is work ethic and discipline. One of the toughest things about being a professional actor is that you are your own boss, and if you decide not to get up and go to that audition or take that class, nobody is going to hold you accountable except for yourself.

School can be a great place to develop the habits of doing your homework, being on time and motivating yourself to go that extra mile while still having the security of teachers who DO hold you accountable. You will learn many techniques and gather many tools throughout your career, but your work ethic and discipline are probably the most universal things that you will need in EVERY job. That being said — don't forget to have fun and enjoy every minute of it!

Also, one of the books that I always go back to is David Mamet's "True and False." Such a realistic, practical and inspirational book about the actor's role in this art/business. I always go back to that book whenever I am stuck, frustrated or just need a different point of view. Cheyenne Jackson (Xanadu, All Shook Up, Finian's Rainbow)
"Survival Tips" for aspiring performers going back to school in September: Get a fresh Trapper Keeper [brand of looseleaf binder]. (Do they still make those?)

Tips picked up along the way that you wish you knew? It's not that serious! Relax. Remember, it's called a "play," it's not called a "work."

Jackson performing in Li'l Abner at age 16.

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Gideon Glick (Significant Other, Spring Awakening)
The two books that I go back to every couple of years are "Siddhartha" and "Lord of the Flies." Both feel like a completely different book every time.

Wesley Taylor (The Addams Family, Rock of Ages, "Smash")
I would tell my [younger] self to be less result-oriented and enjoy the process more; to take myself less seriously, but keep the drive/ambition.

"An Actor Prepares" is a go-to [book], but "Respect for Acting" by Uta Hagen really resonated for me when I was younger.

Taylor as Petruchio in his high school production of Taming of the Shrew.

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Taylor performing "I Can't Stand Still" from Footloose at a recent #TBT concert at 54 Below.

Betsy Struxness (Hamilton, Matilda, Memphis, Wicked)
If I could go back to my younger self, I'd tell her to calm down and enjoy the ride. There is time to accomplish your dreams and your goals. Do NOT compare yourself or your path to someone else's. It is a waste of your emotions. You are unique, and your contribution to this art form is unique. Keep it that way, and stay honest to yourself and your work.

Below are two shots from when I worked at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, MO, between my sophomore and junior years of college. This job taught me how to do quick changes, be in a long-running show (we did over 300 in a three-month span), sing consistently and powerfully while dancing and how to be a lead vocalist as well as an understudy.

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Nic Rouleau (The Book of Mormon)
My advice is for the non-dancers and movement-challenged people out there, a category in which I may or may not place myself (#nocomment). GO TO DANCE CLASSES! Go to as many as you can. Find a local studio in your area, and put yourself out there. Yes, it's important to know your strengths and focus on what you do best; however, it's just as important to work on those things you AREN'T good at. At the very least, it'll help broaden your physical vocabulary as an actor, and that alone is worth the price of dance classes.

Jay Armstrong Johnson and I when we did Floyd Collins at NYU in 2008!

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Lauren Pritchard (Spring Awakening, Songbird)
What I would tell my younger self in high school is: Just do the math problems, and get out of there. And don't worry so much, you stress box.

The book that helped me through high school was "Franny & Zooey" by J.D. Salinger. It follows these siblings, who are going through emotional times, trying to figure out what their lives mean to them as they start to see the selfishness in the world around them. I identified with it a lot — I remember moving from my hometown in Tennessee to Los Angeles in junior year of high school and feeling the same feelings of confusion about finally starting to see what the world was really like. I've read it so many times since high school, too, probably because it makes me feel all nostalgic.

Advice I'd give to those embarking on their new year in high school/college: Don't be afraid and be yourself.

Pritchard, 8, at a dance recital; with her brothers when they did Peter Pan (she was a lost boy, her younger brother was Michael, and her older brother was Nana the dog/the crocodile); and when she played Annie at age 11.

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James Lecesne (The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey)
School can be a challenging time, especially if you've decided to courageously be yourself on a daily basis. There will always be people who object to the full expression of your big, bright, beautiful self. Don't dim down for anybody. Stay bright. But also don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Being a young adult is all about discovering who you are, taking chances and expressing your authenticity, but it doesn't hurt to have someone in your life who sees you and has your back — a friend, a teacher, a counselor, a parent. Reach out to them, tell them what's going on, and ask for what you need. If there isn't anyone, then call The Trevor Project. This is a 24/7 national lifeline for LGBT and Questioning youth, ages 13-24; but Trevor is there for everyone and anyone who feels alone and needs someone to listen. 1-866-488-7386. You are not alone. www.thetrevorproject

Lecesne as Cathy in Cloud 9, his first professional gig in New York. Photo by Martha Swope.

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Christopher Sieber (Matilda, Spamalot, Shrek, Pippin, La Cage aux Folles)
"Hey, Christopher… It's me, Christopher… How have you been? I am pretty good. Listen, in 30 years, you are going to have a pretty good career going, you are going to have done a bunch of Broadway shows, met some incredible people and made thousands of people smile. It all starts now for you in 1985, in this production of Hello, Dolly! at Forest Lake Senior High! You were an amazing Stanley… 'Lose some weight, Stanley?!'… You are going to be bitten by the theatre bug. It's okay, just roll with it. It's going to be okay… Seriously. Just remember, be nice to people, show up… and wear sunscreen!! Seriously… sunscreen. Also, it's okay that you never looked good in parachute pants. They just aren't you… Have fun!! –Christopher"

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Danny Gardner (Dames at Sea)
"Don't let your highs get too high and your lows get too low." As theatre people we can be a bit dramatic, and it often feels like your life depends on a performance or a rehearsal or even a specific high note. Try to stay grounded throughout all of your theatrical endeavors. If you're having fun, so will the audience. Also, it's live performance, making mistakes is part of the reality of performing. So, if you make a mistake, "Take a deep breath, dust yourself off, and start all over again."

Gardner performing "Leaning on a Lamppost" from the 1999 Reading High School production of Me and My Girl.

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John Bolton (Dames at Sea, A Christmas Story, Spamalot, Curtains)
College is a whole experience that should be savored and appreciated. Dive in, and do it. A lot of your classmates will be your friends for life. Respect them, learn from them, and share with them. Don't go through college — or your career — comparing yourself to others. Know that YOU are your own secret weapon.

I wish I knew then that just phoning college in and grabbing a degree is not good. I might have dared to spread out a little and leave my hometown (Rochester) for college, but I was getting increasingly active in community and professional theatre in the area and didn't want to leave that safe arena. Fortunately, even though I didn't study theatre in college (I have a BA in Journalism) I was able to learn a lot from some amazing actors, directors, choreographers, designers and musicians active in Western New York state.

Here's a photo of me as The Scarecrow in LeRoy High School's 80s production of The Wiz. Yes, we did The Wiz. And, it was a blast. I like to say how I'm the only white actor I know who has done both The Wiz and Dreamgirls (the 2001 Actors Fund Concert and cast album).

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Eloise Kropp (Dames at Sea, On the Town)
Keep your eyes and ears open all the time; watching and listening to others is one of the greatest ways to learn. College can be overwhelming, but take everything in that your teachers have to say, and then figure out what works best for you. I believe you should never stop learning, so being open to new tips and tricks is going to keep you growing as a performer and a person.

Kropp in Music Theatre Wichita's 2010 production of Gypsy.

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Chilina Kennedy (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar)
If I could tell my younger self one thing it would be this: "As cheesy as it sounds, be yourself. It's enough, and it's the only thing that makes you stand out from the others. Be unselfconscious and confident in being who you are." I would also tell myself to have more fun — that is easy to say, but directors and casting directors respond incredibly well to positivity and a good, fun attitude. 


There isn't one specific book that I go back to, but there is meditation. Meditation/learning how to be/stay in the moment helps any actor, and it is the best remedy for audition nerves. If you are present and in your body, there's not much room left for nerves.

Kennedy dancing as a little girl in her living room with her dad playing piano; in high school as Anne of Green Gables; after she graduated college as Nellie in Summer and Smoke at the Shaw Festival; and as Rose in Bye Bye Birdie at her high school.

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Josh Young (Amazing Grace, Jesus Christ Superstar)
If I could go back in time, I would tell freshman self to not only "stick with the dancing," but "figure out a way to excel"… and learn as many other skills as possible: guitar, piano, marshal arts. Being in a fraternity is fun at the time, but funneling beers and keg stands in no way pays off down the line.

Young as Padre in Man of La Mancha and Herman in Sweet Charity.

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Fred Applegate (Wicked, Sister Act, The Last Ship, The Producers)
What would I say to my younger self? Simple formula for anything you say to anyone, ever: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?

Appreciate and respect everyone. The person who irons your shirt contributes just as much to the show as you do. Thank people who do things with you, or for you. Be proud of your project and of your work, but not of yourself.

And… Do something, do everything, do anything, but always be doing. Don't wait for the "right thing" to come along. Do what's next.

And… Don't just do what you're good at, and don't agree to do only what you're good at. This is especially true for "character actors" in college. Be 20 on stage at least as often as you're asked to be 60, no matter how much the department "needs" you.

And… Dance. It doesn't matter if you're any good or if that's what you want to do. Dance. Grace, poise, rhythm, tempo, pace, focus, reliance on your partner… Dance.

Don't want to be anyone! You are not going to be the next… Laura Osnes. We already have a perfectly good Laura Osnes, and we don't need another one, thank you.

Is there a book I go back to all the time? I read Susan Sontag's essay "Against Interpretation" at least once a year and have for at least the last 40 years. Uta Hagen's "Respect for Acting," and if you don't "get it"? Read it again next year.

And, read poetry. I like E. E. Cummings and my friend Hayden Saunier. Again, like dance, it's about rhythm and movement, only this time, in language. Shakespeare's sonnets, and no, not all of them are great, but some are! Get an anthology of poetry, and look for more from the authors you like.

Final thoughts… When you see someone's work, and you see them after the show, all you have to say is that you were so glad you got to see it, it was a great show, your friend was wonderful and that you are proud of them. If you say anything else, anything at all that is not positive or uplifting or appreciative, you are not a good person. Yes, that's what I said: you are not a good person. If they were brave enough to put themselves out there, you can be brave enough to appreciate their courage and hard work, if nothing else. The Golden Rule applies backstage just like it does everywhere else. Now, if your friend says, "Let's get coffee, and I really want to hear what you think…," well, then, go ahead.

Steve Martin said the best way to succeed is to work hard and be so good at what you do that you can't be ignored.

Good luck.

I couldn't find a picture from college, but I sent one of me working with Sting, which I think it pretty cool.

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Tony Yazbeck (On the Town, Gypsy, A Chorus Line)
Looking back towards when I was in college, what I really remembered most were those couple of teachers who really stood out to me. I wanted to just learn as much as I could from them while I had the chance. I believe that choosing the right school to go to is really about making sure you have the right teachers teaching you. It's not about a program. It's about a teacher.

I also think that being truly yourself while learning all you can about your craft is the right combination of becoming an artist. Take chances, push yourself, practice a lot. You can learn from other artists, and you can even steal a dance step, but at the end of the day the public wants to know who you are inside, and they are dying to connect with that.

I'm a very big believer in physical awareness of others and collaboration. The best way to create is to trust that instinct that comes out of your soul when you are listening fully around you. I have also found that the best creative process will always occur when collaborating with other like-minded open-hearted artists. I'm a huge fan of a technique called Viewpoints. This has raised my level of awareness and given me a more exciting way of creating with others.

Lastly, always remember to be a kind and generous human being. This will only inform your art as you grow older and you will attract an enormous amount of support from the artistic community. Everyone wants to work with a kind and generous artist!

Joe Kinosian (Murder for Two)
I would tell my younger self, "Self, you look better than you ever will again, so take off your clothes as often as possible."

A younger Kinosian in Bat Boy.

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Kellen Blair (Murder for Two)
Take more classes that have nothing to do with your major! Someday you'll be at a party, and everybody will be talking about their favorite shows and performers, and you'll think, "Hey, wouldn't it be interesting if we were able to talk about something else, too? Also, shave that mustache. Who the hell do you think you are?"

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Megan McGinnis (Daddy Long Legs, Les Misérables, Little Women, Parade)
As someone who didn't go to college for theatre (I studied English), my advice is that there is no ONE path that brings you success. My students often ask, "Should I go to this specific school? Should I study in this specific program?" Do what makes you happy! I think a well-rounded person makes a better performer. Some people gain knowledge from a liberal arts education, some people from a conservatory, some from traveling through Europe. Everyone has a different path, and I encourage you follow your own.

Also, this has nothing to do with performing, but I try to read "To Kill A Mockingbird" once a year. It's a good one. Important for all humans!

A younger McGinnis (in the center with the braids and straw hat) in Parade.

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Erin Mackey (Amazing Grace, Chaplin)
Eat breakfast. It will get your brain ready to learn and be creative.

The picture is from Babes In Arms, which I did on my summer break from college right before I started working on Wicked!

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L. Steven Taylor (The Lion King)
While it's important to have a focus, don't let that focus limit your possibilities. Singers: take dance classes. Dancers: take a voice lesson. EVERYONE get some acting training. Take a foreign language, learn to tumble. I once went in for a film audition, and it came down to me and two other guys who looked just like me. I booked that gig and the director's next project because I randomly knew how to do a back handspring! The original audition required nothing of the sort — be prepared for anything!

Taylor as Herald in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.

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Chantel Riley (The Lion King)
My main survival tip would be to see yourself where you want to be. Having a visual is, and has always been, important to me and has helped me get to where I am today. Once I had the visual, I worked hard and never gave up until I saw it come true. Never give up on yourself! DREAM. PRAY. BELIEVE. RECEIVE.

Fred Berman (The Lion King)
Keep yourself open to EVERYTHING. Make big choices, and don't be afraid to fall on your face. Work on the classics, but always keep an eye out for the great current playwrights. Don't just focus on the theatre/acting classes. Branch out, and stretch yourself. Take a philosophy class, art history, sociology, WHATEVER! Just broaden your horizons as much as you can…it'll all play into your craft at some point.

Adam Jacobs (Aladdin)
For those of you just about to start your freshman year in a performing arts program — remember to stay open to criticism. Welcome it. Try not to be embarrassed or get huffy when teachers try to break of you of bad habits you picked up in high school. I wish I had done a little better at that my freshman year because the reality is the quicker you can let those bad habits go, the faster you'll be able to build and transform into a better performer.

Courtney Reed (Aladdin)
Drink lots of water, sleep as much as you can, and ENJOY EVERY MOMENT! Your school years will go by so quickly, and although so much of it may be stressful, try not to let that get to you! It should be FUN! Take it all in! If you don't believe me listen to "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" from Avenue Q.

Alex Dreier (Finding Neverland, Billy Elliot)
Since Alex won't be headed to college for six years, his advice is geared towards children. Here is the advice he imparts:

Whenever you have a spare moment, even if you have the opportunity to do something else, finish your schoolwork.

Dreier finishing his reading in the wings of the Lunt-Fontanne during a performance of Finding Neverland. (Photo by Caroline O'Connor, child guardian.)

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Robert Anthony Jones (Finding Neverland)
One thing I wish I told my younger self, going into college was, "Just be you, and embrace every theatrical opportunity in your path." When I finally did that, I look back on it as one of the best times of my life that sculpted my professional attitude in every job I take. (Professional attitude clearly depicted in this photo.)

Jones in Wonderful Town at Hofstra University.

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Remy Zaken (Spring Awakening)
Go to class, and actually pay attention. This, for me, meant writing my notes down on paper instead of a computer where I could be easily distracted. If you take the time to learn along the way, you won't have to cram and stress at the end. Treat class as if it were a performance — unless you've got a 102 fever, and you can't see straight, you should go.

When you get stressed, just do what my dad taught me — break down what you have to do into a list of tiny, easily completable tasks, and focus all of your energy on your next bullet point. That eliminates the ruminating and obsessing that can feel so overwhelming.

These pictures are of me playing Shelly in Bat Boy. Dream role much?

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Patrick Page (Spring Awakening)
I used to say, "I don't sing, I don't dance, I'm awkward, etc.," so I would tell my younger self to avoid limiting himself.  Get outside your comfort zone as much as possible. Take singing lessons: no matter how poorly you think you sing, you will get better, and if nothing else learn breath control. Get in a dance class: no matter how poorly you think you may dance, you will get better and lose some of the inhibition you have about movement. Try your hand at writing a play: no matter how poor the play you write may be, you will learn something about the choices playwrights have to make and learn to honor the intent of the writer. Get into the gym: in order to compete in this business, you will need to be fit and have tons of energy.

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John Angeles (Stomp)
For anyone just starting out in college, I believe any advice I could give would not only be the generic "study hard," "don't skip classes," "don't party too much," "don't drink too much," etc; but it would also fall on deaf ears as it did on my own. I was given the same valuable advice, among other valuable tips, but when I was that young, I was just terribly irresponsible and thought I knew what was best for me. My college career was a long one, my parents said I should have the title "Doctor" in front of my name for how many years it took me to graduate. But, if I would have listened to anyone, other than my past self (since I knew everything), maybe I would've listened to my future self. Here is what I would say to my arrogant, stubborn, very idiotic and irresponsible younger self.

Don't be in a rush to leave your parents, you have no idea how much you need them and how much the things you say when you act like you don't need them will hurt them. You will see that hurt later and never forget it. Make sure to call them everyday and tell them you love them even if that's all you have time to say. You're in college, and you're probably skipping class, so call your parents and tell them you love them before you have a beer.

Stop skipping class. College is actually really easy, and the easiest thing you can do is just show up. You'll be amazed at what you can learn just sitting in class, even if you're not taking notes. But, take notes, you idiot. That's all you have to do, and you'll make an A. That's it!

The amount you practice percussion is great, but give equal attention to all the instrumentation in your repertoire. Learning to excel at things you're not particularly fond of will bring greatness out of the things you are fond of. You'll appreciate them more. You'll value your level of consistency across the board. That applies to everything. Consistency will bring you great things.

Don't lie, fabricate or embellish stories. You have a lot of things going for you and great things are yet to come. You're going to be very proud of the things you will accomplish. Earn them and you will see that hard work creates rewards greater than anything your mind can create. Be patient.

Speaking of being patient, stop trying to find love and "the one." You're going to hurt a lot and get hurt along the way. Just date and have fun. Stop being so serious, you're an idiot, and you are not mature or responsible enough to be ready for "the one." I promise you that you will find her, and she is more than worth the wait. If you're so desperate to tell someone you love them, CALL YOUR PARENTS, AND TELL THEM YOU LOVE THEM!!!!

And, aside from just going to college, embrace it. Go to events, and participate. You're going to be very proud to call yourself a TCU horned frog one day. Go Frogs!!!!!

Just a few things I would say to myself. Then I would probably slap myself and then buy myself a beer, I'm still kind of an idiot. Hey, at least I remain consistent!

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