The thrilling conclusion to my life in theatre school…
During my second year of theatre school, I read “True and False”, a book by David Mamet that should be required reading for anyone contemplating a life in the arts. Mamet abhors theatre schools but I have to give mine credit in one respect: if it wasn’t for them, I’d never have decided to be a writer.
During out first year at school, I penned the books and lyrics to a musical in the hopes of one day finding a composer. I gave it to one of my teachers, David Warrack, a man who has been the lifeblood of Canadian musical theatre for almost forty years. Later, he told me that the musical was one of the best things he had read in years. Having reread it recently, I see he was just being kind, like when you give a drawing of a stick figure to your mother and she hangs it on the fridge. But the result was the same. I had been encouraged and if you’ve ever been bored during one of my plays, David Warrack is partly to blame (so is my mother, but that’s another story).
Since most plays are a combination of big parts and small parts, students often pay money to play minor roles. This is called a “learning experience” and it’s a scam.
Like most theatre schools, the students worked towards a year-end project, which in this case was a stage show that would be produced in-house. “In-house” means only the faculty and invited guests are allowed to see the show. Most theatre schools do this as a way of sheltering their students and it amounts to a vague imitation of community theatre, in which actors perform for a kind audience who won’t ever tell you what they really thought.
Anyway, that was the year David Warrack was in charge of our year-end show. He had decided on a production of the Stephen Sondheim / James Goldman’s musical, Follies, both because he loved Sondheim and because the score gave lots of opportunity for different students to have solos. This is another problem often encountered by theatre schools: it’s difficult to find shows that will give ample performance time to all their students. Since most plays are a combination of big parts and small parts, students often pay money to play minor roles. This is called a “learning experience” and it’s a scam.
I suspect David knew this because he decided to give opportunities to as many students as he could. His idea was to interpolate other Sondheim songs, some of which had been cut from Follies and some of which were from other shows. This would provide solo opportunities for all the second and third year students, while still giving first year students enough to do.
It was also, of course, completely illegal, but then so was the production. It’s possible the school got permission to perform the show, but I doubt it; in any case, we never performed the Sondheim / Goldman version of Follies. In order to ensure all those new songs made some sort of narrative sense, David asked me to adapt the script. This represents the only time I have ever collaborated with Stephen Sondheim and I’m sorry to say it was a wantonly criminal act; and if the universe conspires to make sure I never meet Sondheim or Goldman, then I will accept it as a punishment that is well-deserved.
* * *
In my second year, David moved on to more musical pastures and our show was given to a man who I’ll refer to as John A. MacDonald, since like our first Prime Minister he was a roaring drunk. Mr. Macdonald had no interest in my creative talents; this was a paycheque job for him and he had no interest in encouraging his students to do anything other than accept his word as the word of God.
It was becoming clear to me that while there was no shortage of good performers, people desperately needed good writers...
His alcoholism got worse and I remember him spending one afternoon slurring and stumbling as he tried to impart on us the proper way to sing It Only Takes a Moment (from Hello Dolly!). At last there was a small scandal and he was replaced by a lovely woman who panicked when she saw she had only three weeks to put together our show. She was happy, I think, to accept my assistance and we cobbled together a show that featured some incidental Fishbanian dialogue that hopefully no one remembers.
All this work, combined with Hermia: the Musical (discussed last week), led me to believe I might be well-suited to write for the stage. It was becoming clear to me that while there was no shortage of good performers, people desperately needed good writers and I wondered if I could become one (I’m still wondering).
I only had one more year to go and I might have decided to stick it out if not for my friend Hamlet, who showed me that theatre schools are no place for anyone who wants to work in the arts. Hamlet, as you might recall, was my best friend in those days. He had been dancing since his youth and during school he had revealed both his singing chops and a solid ability to act. One of our classes was taught by a casting agent who pulled him aside and offered to set up a few auditions on his behalf.
Like many theatre schools, students were forbidden to audition during the school year. The excuse was that the student was in training and should not be trying to work until the training is done. The truth is that schools know if a student gets work, they might realize that work is all the training they need.
Is this cynical? Not really. Business is business. Beer manufacturers could put more alcohol in a bottle of beer, but then you wouldn’t buy as many. Meanwhile, the education system is designed to keep students from ever becoming self-sufficient; they design their programs to keep them in the classroom as long as they can.
...he had to make a choice: pay to be in school and learn to perform or get paid to learn while being on stage.
Within weeks, Hamlet had secured a role in a Danish production of a major Broadway show. He asked if he could defer his third year and come back when his contract in Denmark had expired. The school refused. In their minds, he had broken a cardinal rule. I think he was even disciplined (I don’t think he told them how he got the audition, so the teacher who helped him was never sanctioned; it was a wise move, on his part, since I’m sure she’s gotten him other jobs since).
The school’s position was clear. Hamlet could go to Denmark, but he would not be allowed to return. In other words, he had to make a choice: pay to be in school and learn to perform or get paid to learn while being on stage.
I was enraged. Theatre school should be a safe place where talent is nurtured. The faculty should encourage any experience which permits one to explore their abilities. But schools can hardly be free to do this, since this might mean supporting an experience which leads to a loss of tuition – like, say, allowing a student to take a job in Denmark. It is simply not in a school’s best interest to encourage students to work outside the classroom. And so they discourage it and in doing so they deny students what could be a vital part of their training.
As David Mamet says, “The audience will teach you how to act and the audience will teach you how to write and to direct. The classroom will teach you how to obey and obedience in the theatre will get you nowhere.”
Hamlet had a unique opportunity and they had tried to squash it. It offended me and I was suddenly soured towards the entire institution.
...since theatre school is the reason I’m a writer, I’ll fully admit that it was useful to me, although not in the way the faculty might have hoped.
I’m happy to say that Hamlet moved to Copenhagen and remains one of my most successful friends: this year you can find him at Shaw and his past credits include Stratford, Canadian Stage and national tours of more then a few major musicals. His success is ignored by the school: since he dropped out, his name is not listed in the school’s alumni. As for me, I dropped out and moved to Montreal.
There are other reasons why I think theatre schools, in their present form, are not a useful institution. But this is a memoir, not a pulpit. I don’t pretend to think that every theatre school will be like mine; and I’m sure there are plenty of people who will swear that their theatre school was a useful place to be. And since theatre school is the reason I’m a writer, I’ll fully admit that it was useful to me, although not in the way the faculty might have hoped.
David Mamet isn’t perfect, but I don’t mind sounding like a disciple when it comes to this. “If you want to be in the theatre, go into the theatre,” writes Mamet. “If you want to have made a valiant effort to go into the theatre before you go into real estate or law school or marry wealth, then perhaps you should stay in school.”