Summer Stock: A Lab for Students
By Dana White
As an educator I often question if students understand what full time employment in theatre actually means. We are all too familiar with the plan of moving to New York City, auditioning as much as possible, taking dance classes, and working as a server at a restaurant to make the bills – The Starving Actor Plan. But, do my students truly understand what it means to work for a professional company, being responsible for their own schedule, and work full time in rehearsal or in a shop?
While the training of a university program becomes more culturally necessary for the future theatre practitioner, an important supplement is working for a full-time theatre company; i.e. real world experience.
I can remember signing my first contract for a theatre season and wondering if a seasonal job in theatre would be something I enjoyed. This thought had barely crossed my mind before this moment. The saving grace was that I was working for a summer theatre company, also known as a Summer Stock. It may have been a long three month contract but I was going back to resume classes at university in August. Yet, I was still unsure what to expect. In hindsight, I can honestly say that it reaffirmed my attraction to theatre, further developed my skills, fast-tracked my career, and answered that important question: Will I enjoy working full time in theatre? Yes
If you are waiting until graduation to work for a professional theatre company, you are falling behind.
I have witnessed friends and students leaving university with a passion for performing, construction, etc., only to be miserable in non-academic theatre. This is not to say that other career tracks do not experience this shock; they do. Fortunately, there is a universal solution to the lack of experience: internships! But more specifically with the theatre industry in the USA, the answer is Summer Stock.
If you are not familiar, Summer Stock is a branch of the theatre industry that operates in the summer season. They typically produce between four to six productions in a short six to twelve week period. And there are hundreds of Summer Stocks across the U.S. Some you may have heard of: Utah Shakespeare Festival, Glimmerglass Festival, and Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Others you may have not heard of: Brevard Music Festival, Peach State Summer Theatre, Creede Repertory Theatre, or Cortland Repertory Theatre. For the past several summer seasons I have worked as the Technical Director at Cortland Rep, in upstate New York. In truth, upstate New York alone has many summer operated theatres like the Hangar Theatre, Adirondack Theatre Festival, and Bristol Valley Theatre (funny, until now, I never realized how many are titled as ‘festivals’). And if you are interested in finding these companies, there are several resources that can be used to find Summer Stock job advertisements:
Posting starts as early as December.
Due to the nature of summer seasonal work, Summer Stock employs hundreds of college students every year, and it would behove you as students to participate in these experiences. Those hired can gain real world experience through internships and stipend positions, whether it be as an actor, carpenter, assistant stage manager, electrician, etc. The full day is spent working in shops or in rehearsals. Some positions require long days (upwards of 14 hours) and others could seem more like a nine-to-five.
Either way, students can actively practice their craft without the distraction of homework, multiple classes, and part time jobs.
In my scene shop, the student carpenters will work an eight hour day on the shop floor building scenery. It is a very different experience from work in their university shop for three to four hours a night. These students will also experience working with different people with different training, and experience a variety of work techniques and management styles. At the end of the summer, several more shows can be added to resumes along with the credibility of a company’s name.
Summer Stock is a great way to fast track your career.
In addition, working in the summer serves as a lab for the college experience. As students learn and grow throughout the fall and spring, they can then put their skills into practice at a summer theatre. This further develops their education as an application based industry. Some of the available work can also be specific. Say a student learns to weld, they could then cater their job search to companies that need welders, or where set construction involves a larger amount of steelwork.
On the other side, as a student hones their singing or dancing skills, they can cater their job search to companies that produce more musicals than plays; the same applies for Shakespearean or New-Works companies. Most hiring personnel and their department heads will also ask their prospective employees what skills they wish to learn or focus on, taking that into consideration of task assignments. Summer Stock goes a step beyond the practicum class/academic production, and puts education to real-world experience.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of Summer Stock is the inherent design for student employment.
Summer seasonal work is perfect for students. Instead of going home as baristas and movie ushers, spend time in a different part of the country as employees at a theatre. Summer Stocks are looking for college students to employ! At times, being college graduates could even hinder their opportunity, as they are thought of being too old or experienced for their needs/ finances. Truthfully, no one is going to survive financially on Summer Stock work alone. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. But the employees will find that they can earn some money, while most companies provide a stipend and housing; sometimes even food or travel.
Summer Stocks typically work with a tight operating budget and can only afford to pay for internships, stipends, or minimum wage. Recently there has been a push to hourly wages due to recent changes in legal codes across the country. I encourage students to view Summer Stock as an opportunity to hone their craft, build their resume, network, and make enough money to live while pursuing their craft. I know that can be an unpopular opinion for students given the state of the economy and their looming school loans. But, it is very different from volunteer work, or the dreaded ‘free exposure’ argument; a topic for another article.
I can tell you from my own personal experience, spending years working for Summer Stock companies has fast tracked my career into an MFA program, through several levels of management, and into my current job as a college professor.
In addition, many of my fond memories come from these experiences. Whether it was an impromptu Christmas in July banquet, or a go-cart championship between shops, or making jokes during an all-night changeover, I cherish those moments. At Cortland Rep, one of our favorite day off activities is to hike the many waterfalls in the area. All in all, I encourage students to talk to their professors, and professors to talk to their students, about the many opportunities and benefits of Summer Stock. And I promise, you will refer to your experiences for years to come.
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