Dee Bradley Baker's "All to Know About Going Pro in V.O."

Stand Up & Children’s Theater & Theme Parks

I lump these forms of performance together because they offer a uniquely powerful learning tool for an actor: A live audience that isn’t afraid to give you vocal real-time feedback on what you are doing. Most stage performing (plays & musicals) compels the audience to sit politely while the performance unfolds. Not children’s theater, stand up or theme parks. If you are doing a great job, they let you know it loud and clear. If you are bombing or having an “off night,” they will let you know that too.

With these, there is a lot coming at you in addition to the planned show that you must deal with. Listening to the audience and inventing on the fly is a matter of survival. Quick improvisational instincts are essential for any actor working these types of shows.

It’s possible for this kind of work to bring a little money eventually (with theme parks you can earn a living), but at least stand up and children’s theater don’t cost you anything but creative work time and gas money. Other types of classroom or workshop learning for actors can be quite expensive and may not be as instructive without a live audience to play off of.

This is why I see stand up, children’s theater and even theme parks as good places to begin learning how to be a good live performer. 

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STAND UP COMEDY AT A CLUB

Stand up comedy can be as harrowing as it is thrilling. It can be humiliating agony and an exhilarating power rush. The latter is what keeps those with little talent coming back for more punishment. It’s like that one pay off at the slot machine that keeps the player coming back again and again, whether they win or not.

Whatever you do in stand up, it’s all on you. If you bomb, it’s all your fault. If you kill, it’s all your glory. There is no playwright or director or cast to help you diffuse the “blame” for a bad set. It’s “winner” or “loser” take all. This is part of why stand up is so thrilling, even scary for most.

You start doing stand up by finding a comedy club or bar that has an “amateur comedy night” or “open mic night.” You sign up to try whatever you want for a couple minutes. If you don’t finish before your pre-established allotment of stage time, you will be reminded by a flashing red light in the back of the house that you’ll hopefully notice. If you fail to notice that red light, signaling that management wants you off the stage, and you don’t get off the stage, you will not be allowed back on. 

There’s usually a club owner whom you may never interact with and you only occasionally see. There is also a club manager who is the gatekeeper to the stage. S/he determines and oversees who is allowed to perform, for how long and in what order. S/he will probably be annoyed with you at first, as club managers are constantly being pestered by newbies who want more stage time than the club manager is willing or able to give. Everyone sucks up to them and they are probably sick of it.

The amateur comics who have been at it a while and are known quantities at the club will probably perform first and the newbies (if allowed) will probably get later less desirable start times (one a.m., for example).  

Your evening of stand up consists of a lot of you waiting around with nothing happening but other comics performing while you wait for your stage time. There may be a “green room” (a holding tank room for performers, usually with a disgusting couch and signed posters all over the walls). Here you can hang out with other comics whose only apparent means of connecting with people is to perform their set for them. Or you can choose to sit at the bar and drink free club sodas while others are performing their sets that you’ve heard fifty times. 

This may sound kind of hellish, but the stage time can be heaven. Or it can be hell too.

When starting out, you may feel worthless or invisible, which isn’t far off the mark. This is because you are not yet recognized as helping the venue (owner) make money. You get on stage and perform your set where you either have a miserable time and never come back or you have some fun with your first hit of standup.

Then comes your post mortem: You analyze your set (perhaps you recorded it). You go about discarding what didn’t work, you keep or modify what seemed to work, and then come back next time and try it again, perhaps even throwing in some new ideas. Repeat as often as you can stand it or until your ego can’t handle the boredom and rejection. Some thrive on all this, though. Audience laughter can make it all well worth it. It can be energizing and inspiring or crushingly miserable. Or maybe both. The reason for the extreme highs and lows is, again, it’s all on you. 

An important unspoken rule in stand up is you only do your own original material and don’t steal others’ bits. Theft of jokes, gags, etc. (even old stuff) is treated by managers and other comedians as a capitol offense and will get you blackballed. The comedy world does not forget or forgive theft of what other comics have created. Also, you are generally to create material by writing and working out bits beforehand, as opposed to just improvising everything. There are very few comics who can sustain a killer set that is mostly improv. 

You keep at it and you slowly accumulate minutes of material that works–hopefully, that “kills–” consistantly. This process can take months or years until you finally have enough material and have earned the trust of the manager/owner so they allow you to M.C. or “open” a comedy show with maybe 10 or 15 minutes of material. An M.C. will do a quick minute or two in between the middle act and the headliner as well as close out the show. Gradually, if it goes well, you build up your set until you have maybe 30-40 minutes of dependable (original) material making you eligible as a “middle” act. Once you’ve a solid hour or more of material, you can “headline.”

Comedy shows open with the M.C. or “opener” then there’s the middle act and finally the main event, the headliner. The M.C/opener probably isn’t paid money but might get free soft drinks. This is usually a local comic who has put in the time at the club and is getting a shot at some stage time. The middle act is a pro who is paid a fair amount. The headliner is a traveling pro who is paid the most, depending on his/her status, resume’ and ability to draw a crowd. 

Weekdays at a comedy club, there may be just one show a night. On Friday and Saturday there are probably two evening shows. So, if you do your little set at the beginning of the first weekend show, you have to hang around a couple hours to do it all again for the second show. That’s probably four hours or more of hanging around for your few minutes of stage time.

The object of a comedy club is to make money which means selling weak drinks and possibly some horrible food, plus door money. The more people laugh, the more they’ll drink and eat. Your job is to be funny and not piss off the manager. And be nice to the wait staff.

The life of a stand up is a lot of work. You drive a lot- possibly all over the country. You will have to hang around in not-so-great areas of not-so-great towns at many gigs. Stand up comedy is neither glamorous nor lucrative. It’s lonely and it’s a real hustle trying to string together (sometimes non-paying) stage time or gigs. On the other hand, some enjoy it or just need their hit of laughter so badly they don’t mind the crummy lifestyle. Some seem addicted to it, almost “laugh junkies.” Others can eke out an “okay” living, enjoy the freedom of road life and can maybe use it to transition into television, movie work, comedy writing or even voice overs. Still others– we’ll it doesn’t end well…

Despite the seedier side of it all, stand up comedy can be great fun and there is much to learn doing stand up: confidence, a unique sense of comedy that is your own, the ability to riff and improv on your feet as well as a toughness and focus you need to give a good show again and again. It also requires cultivating a habit of creating and writing new material.

All of this is great experience to have under your belt.

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CHILDREN’S THEATER

Many cities have some kind of children’s theater program. It could be part of a city’s parks and rec department or an art’s center, a children’s museum, a church or even a company that wants to reach out to the young. Some children’s theater troupes are kind of a big deal, are quite good and may even pay a little.

Children’s theater is usually mostly scripted with some improvisational component. It’s about moving the story along and engaging with the audience. At it’s best, it is high energy fun that plays to the back of the house, as they say. It can’t be stuffy, formal or slow. It must be inventive, fresh and great fun or you might have a mini riot on your hands.

Some trained actors may turn up their noses at something so “popular” or “derivative,” but I have found it can be a blast and a good place to learn while you earn. Some children’s theater actors are very versatile and well-trained stage actors, depending on the company. In terms of earning some dough as an actor in America, it’s not a bad gig.

There is much overlap with children’s theater and improv. When the audience is a large group of children, there is always something new flying at the performer (sometimes literally). If you accept the unexpected and run with it, you can have a great show. The rules of basic theater acting- how to move, clarity of speech and intent, for example- all apply on a children’s theater stage. It’s just freer and funner. The rules of good improv also apply.

Kids are very open to connecting with a performance. They embrace an honest performance and will eagerly help you out. They will also quickly turn bored and chatty with a performer or show that is dull or insipid. Kids are delighted with the unexpected, for instance, when the actors leap from the stage for the obligatory final act chase through the crowd. An entire audience of kids will all jump up and chase the bad guy if you ask them to, because they are all willing to improvise and commit to imagination. They love call and response and will loudly answer anything you ask of them in the show. Grown ups would never dare go along with any of this.

Kids let you know if you’re doing great and they let you know if you are doing terribly. They are a kind of audience that has much to teach a performer. The real-time feedback and improv is why children’s theater is a great arena for learning to be an actor. 

Renaissance Fairs and Theme Parks

Another type of free-wheeling-play-to-the-cheap-seats kind of performing can be found at Ren fairs and theme parks and even street theater. This is often improvisational and interactive and can be either great fun or a miserable time, depending on your temperament and if you’re competing with food or are stuck with an awful script.

Is there “artistic satisfaction” in entertaining a crowd? Does it matter if you are being paid to have fun?

The good version of this is a fun cast with lots of room for improv fun plus you get paid! Sure, you’re not performing Shakespeare, but it can be a real blast and a paycheck can free you up to do other performing work or classes while helping you pay the bills. Some theme parks offer insurance and pension benefits as well. 

This kind of work isn’t for all aspiring actors, but it can be a real education to make a repetitive show feel fresh and fun time after time, sometimes for years on end. There is a kind of performer’s ethic that you must learn to get this sort of “Groundhog Day” lesson from such performing. 

I did theme parks for a few years and had a blast earning a living with it. It taught me much about making every performance count and always trying to find fresh fun in repetition. 

Theme parks can be a stepping stone to other realms of performing or can even turn into a lifetime career. It can be with a single company (e.g. Disneyland or Universal Studios) or with cruise ships or other venues. 

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© Dee Bradley Baker 2017
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