Ten Life-Saving Tips for Conservatory Rookies
June 22, 2020
I walked into my first day of summer training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art RADA with years of professional experience and three-quarters of an honors B.A. in theatre studies. Still, neither prepared me for the thorough ego check that is conservatory training. Now a proper member of an MFA ensemble, I’ve penned some advice for budding, bright-eyed performers preparing to take on the conservatoire world for the first time.
If you haven’t done so already, stop right now and come up with five things you want out of your life in the next five years. Once your goals are listed out somewhere, you can see them every day, figure out what the path to achieving them might be.
Time in training flies by so, so, so quickly. It’s crucial to use it with intention. What can you do to work towards your specific dreams on the day-to-day? What projects do you want to have done by the time you graduate? With who do you need to be starting conversations?
The theatre industry is a microcosm of chaos within the outer chaotic universe; so many things are out of your control. Don’t let your journey through conservatory be random. Seek out opportunities that bring you closer to your ideal life.
Cultivate discipline in your life
Those opportunities take time and money. Learn how to budget those things before classes start because once they do, you’ll be too tired to track expenses and adjust at the moment.
Proper training brings you back to the basics, so don’t be afraid to get elementary with yourself. If you find procrastination or redirection problematic in your life, start setting expectations for your day like you would for a toddler. Psychologists tell us the best way to cultivate desired behaviors is to reinforce them when they occur and avoid reacting (including punishment) when they don’t. This might look like: if I do my morning run to the river and back, I can buy a coffee instead of making instant at home. If I’m too tired, I’ll take the instant coffee and try again tomorrow.
A lot of people erroneously associate discipline with harshness. If anything, effective discipline is clear and kind. You can’t chastise yourself into a “good” person (whatever that means), but you can set clear boundaries and consequences for adhering to them that keep you on the right path.
Prioritize according to your field
We’ve all gotten the “that’s not a real career” vibes from people before. Don’t perpetuate that energy in your life. Do devote resources to things that build you up as a performer.
I learn the most from seeing actors work onstage, so theatre tickets are not a frivolity, but a career expense—as are rehearsal clothes and the toner that tames my anxious acne flare-ups. My leisure time is reading time, which allows me to understand myself and the world my character operates within better. My diary has forgone journal entries in favor of meticulously-crafted profiles on the artists I admire most.
Transactions of money, time, and energy that make you a more prepared performer are never wasted. Don’t feel silly putting something at the top of your to-do list just because it isn’t at the top of everyone else’s. Your needs may be different, but that doesn’t mean they’re trifling; take them seriously.
Be your own “mom-friend”
Oh, my god, please sleep. Go out and make memories, but come home in time to not be hungover in class. I once had a night so late I couldn’t take a line reading the next day. I’ve never felt like such a disappointment.
Please deal with your stress early on and appropriate ways. These do not include taking up alcoholism, hard substances, or calling your ex for confirmation that you are a beautiful and talented person.
An industry secret: Being an actor is not about glamour. It’s about functionality. If you’re ever stumped for a choice, ask yourself, “What would Bette Davis do?” Let Bette Davis be your imaginary mom. She’s ruthless, and she’ll take care of you.
Respect your body, part 1
We all understand the bio 101 lessons on nutrients making energy until our “success diet” of coffee and chocolate puts us in the E.R. (True story.) Performance training is a marathon, not a sprint; eating only toaster pastries and ramen is like shooting yourself in the foot.
I get it. Cooking sucks. When you have no time, it feels like a waste of time—but fueling the machine is the prerequisite for the engine running. Learn two recipes for each meal, and keep them as raw as possible. Meaning: a) the food retains more of its natural “energy” without being spent through the cooking process and b) less time and effort devoted to your part.
The actual worst thing you can do on a 9—9 rehearsal day is going hungry. Keep snacks in your bag that you want to eat. Prioritize proteins and healthy fats; we’re looking for long-haul sustenance. Remember: you cannot be fit to perform if you are starving. True fitness isn’t diet-culture-shrinking-violet-syndrome; it’s about being able to use your body, which segues nicely into:
Respect your body, part 2
You never know what kind of physicality a character will demand, and movement is an art that must be cultivated in advance. The single most impressive thing I have ever seen an actor do was when Adam Gillen jumped on a moving piano and played it while portraying Mozart in the National Theatre production of Amadeus. It was a moment the audience could see the indefatigable energy of the character, and something I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do if asked.
That’s not to say that you need to be an Olympian to be an actor—only to say that your body has a repertoire of its own. The more extensive that collection is, the more roles you can portray well at any given moment. Find a movement practice that puts you in touch with your body and pursue it relentlessly. I’ve found balancing running, yoga, and rapier combat to be maintainable; one to push myself, one to focus on repairing my relationship with my body, and one to feel like a superhero.
Integrating movement into your daily life is especially important if, like me, you grew up feeling like your body was your enemy. She’s not! She’s the vehicle through which you tell stories! To use her well, you have to be friends with her. Stretch her. Move her. Love her.
Create a meltdown action plan.
Building up an actor often requires tearing down the parts of your personality that no longer serve you. This is not a graceful process. I would let go of any illusions you have about being cool or untouchable now—they’ll only be violently ripped from you later.
You will have a breakdown, and you will have more than one. You will have these breakdowns at inconvenient times and places, and sometimes it will feel like all you’re suitable for is breaking down.
So who ya gonna call? What mantra are you going to chant through the difficult times? How are you going to collect all your pieces back in the big sack of you and go back to rehearsal tomorrow?
Knowing these answers in advance saves you one less problem to solve. (For reference, mine are: Bear; “something will go wrong, and it will still be perfect”; two episodes of Broadchurch and a good cry, respectively.)
Be intentional about your connections.
This can be a big wake-up call to some: Your ensemble is all you are good for. We are not here for ego. We are not here to be stars. We are here to tell stories well, which demands we acknowledge and promote the best in each other and compensate for our weaknesses.
You were chosen as a cast. Together you all have signed on to support and receive support from each other. Get to know your team and show up for each other. Your course isn’t meant to be friendly—it’s your family. There will be fun times and hard times, and times you feel like the worst in the room; remember those so when someone else is going through the grind, you can support them.
So much of the art of acting is in seeing people. Your course is a captive sample set. Practice! Find what makes them shine and the places they go you haven’t yet found. Let them make you better. Above all else, take care of your ensemble, and they will take care of you.
Get it together.
Things move quickly in this world. If your training is worth its weight in gold, it will see you jumping genres and practicing techniques that change by the week. Know where your skills lie, so you have an angle to approach new material and an idea of where you should focus energy on improving.
Have a repertoire—a physical one you can flip through if at all possible—arranged by genre and period. Having relevant material at hand always gives you the upper hand on a new challenge. Know where to find new content, fast (wink, wink).
Get proper headshots. If you do screen work, edit a reel together. If you write or compose, have samples. Keep links to past projects on hand. You truly never know when you’ll be in a place to pitch yourself, but you need to be ready when the time comes.
Commit to believing in yourself.
The time to be ambivalent about your success is long gone, my friend. Apologizing for your presence and progress has no place here.
When I cornered the teacher who paid for my MFA audition, he said, “You are an investment.” I take that seriously. People are investing in you—even people you don’t realize are watching you shine, and your success is inspiring them to do the same. You owe it to them to be brilliant; you owe it to them to do the work.
Storytelling is a sacred art. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t do it. Performance is one of the purest ways to offer justice to another, and if you’ve chosen to be a performer, you must take that seriously. The most captivating actors are the ones who know themselves the deepest, whose self-respect covers the glorious and ugly equally. The self-esteem of this nature is what makes it possible to rightly esteem the character you’re playing: to know them and to love them as they deserve.
Need some advice? We’ve got you covered.
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