Directors talk tough with local actors: Get to class!

Continuing Classes Forum

Photos from the recent communitywide forum on the need for continuing education among local theatre performers. To see more photos, hit the ‘forward’ button. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Local theatre directors and producers had a provocative message for Colorado’s teeming talent pool at a specially called forum last week: “Get to class.”

Representatives from Colorado theatre companies large and small gathered at Cap City on Jan. 12 to light a fire under the creative community.

“We’re good,” said longtime BDT Stage Artistic Director Michael J. Duran. “But good is not good enough.”

Producers sense a complacency settling in over the acting community because, ironically enough, the local theatre ecology is so healthy. There are more than 50 theatre companies in the metro area, and more than 100 statewide, which means there are plenty of shows – and plenty of roles – to go around.

But if you want the jobs that actually pay more than gas money, the actors were told in the complete absence of sugar-coating: They need to be continually honing their craft.

“I think the problem is our community doesn’t think they have to work that hard because they are working all the time,” said choreographer Piper Arpan. “If I am working all the time, then there is a sense then that I must be good enough.’ ” 

Doctors and attorneys are required to participate in continuing education to keep their licenses, but nothing obligates an actor to continue taking dance, voice or acting classes. “Why is that?” Duran said. “Athletes don’t stop practicing when they turn pro.”

But as long as actors continue to be cast in shows, why should they bother with the time, expense and inconvenience of classes?

Read more: Audition advice from the experts

Duran had a rather pointed response: Just because actors are working does not mean they are they are getting better by merely working. Worse, Duran said, many don’t even seem to want to get better. And that is being reflected in the quality of productions theatres are putting on local stages.

“Every one of us (producers) makes concessions and lowers our expectations for our shows,” Duran said. “We dumb it down because we don’t have the dancers to make our shows what they could be. Listen, just because you are cast in a dance show does not make you a good dancer: It makes you a warm body.”

Tim McCracken QuoteWell, if that doesn’t make a warm body hot … to trot … to class … what will? That is the question.

“How do we find the competitive edge within ourselves?” Duran said. “How do we create the desire to improve just for the sake of getting better at what we do?”

Arvada Center Artistic Director Rod Lansberry told the gathering of about 40 that every casting director goes into every audition hoping that any given actor will be amazing. After all, you would then be the solution to the director’s problem. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

“We want you to have those skills that we need,” Lansberry said. “But you have to bring them to us. We can’t give them to you.”

This was an uncommonly blunt forum presented by Duran in partnership with the Colorado Theatre Guild. Others who spoke either in person or by proxy included Charles Packard of the Aurora Fox; Chris Starkey from AXS Group; Gloria Shanstrom and Pat Payne of the Colorado Theatre Guild; Jalyn Courtenay Webb from the Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins; Ali King of the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown; directors Nick Sugar (Town Hall Arts Center’s Violet”) and Spotlight’s Bernie Cardell; Arvada Center choreographer Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck; BDT Stage’s Matthew D. Peters, Jessica Hindsley and Scott Beyette; and other interested individuals.

And the tough love didn’t get any less tough as the evening progressed. For example, Lansberry told attendees that the buzzword today is “triple threat.” As in, “If you want to work in this town, you have to be able to do all three well,” Lansberry said of acting, singing and dancing. “They don’t have shows coming out that are not for triple threats.”

Starkey took that one step further. “Now you actually have to be a quadruple threat,” he said, “because more and more, shows are calling on performers who also can play their own musical instruments.”

Once the ABC message got through – “Always Be Classing” – the conversation turned to practical matters, such as: Are there a variety of classes out there available to be taken (there are); how is a potential student to know where they are (read on); and who’s to say the investment will eventually pay off? (No one honestly can.)

Tim McCracken, the new Head of Acting for DCPA Education, took the opportunity to introduce those in attendance to the breadth of year-round classes the Denver Center makes available to more than 68,000 every year, covering all disciplines, experience levels and age groups.

“I think in the past there has been this notion that the DCPA is somehow separate from the rest of the theatre community, and that could not be further from the truth,” McCracken said, citing a whole host of the community’s most prominent performers who also work as Teaching Artists for the DCPA. As for any perceived cost barrier, McCracken spoke of scholarship opportunities that can bring the cost of classes down by as much as 75 percent.

“We want more inclusion with the entire Denver theatre community,” McCracken said. “That’s our goal.”

Michael J DuranArpan ran down a range of metro area dance companies that offer lessons for all abilities, and Hindsley and Peters spoke of continuing classes held at BDT Stage as well. By the end of the evening, a Facebook page (The Denver Area Actors Continuing Education Forum) had been created that is dedicated to informing potential students about class opportunities. There was also preliminary talk of a more organized repository, perhaps one to be taken on by the Colorado Theatre Guild’s web site.

“So I would suggest this is not question of opportunity,” Arpan said in conclusion. “It is a question of motivation.”

This is not a topic of conversation you can start within the local theatre community without opening up a Pandora’s Box of ecology-related questions, such as: Why can’t more theatres afford to pay a living wage? Why do the biggest theatres feel they must cast from outside the metro talent pool? How can a mid-size market like Denver make it more attractive for our most talented performers not to leave for New York or Los Angeles? Each is worthy of its own forum.

But as the discussion pertains to classes, Duran reiterated his staunch belief that the quality of theatre on our local stages would be much higher if every singer, dancer and actor took it upon themselves to continually work on their craft.

“The thing I think we need to figure out,” Duran said, “is how to make people hungry to be better.”

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