Here at StageMilk, we get asked a lot about things actors can pursue in their careers that they might not otherwise consider. Of all the suggestions we make, acting in indie theatre would come out at the top of the pile. It’s challenging, it’s rewarding, it’s fun!
Independent theatre is a terrific place for emerging actors to develop their skills, make connections and even earn some money. Acting independent theatre develops your talents and network, and provides you with a strong foundation for later, more significant work commitments in your career.
And, look: while theatre’s not for everybody (and we do understand that) we strongly encourage you to tread the boards and give it ago. In this article, we’re going to answer some common questions about the indie theatre scene, and provide you with some info so you can make some informed career decisions.
What is Independent Theatre?
Let’s start with a quick definition. Independent theatre is a level of live performance that sits in between amateur and professional (mainstage) levels. It is usually minimally funded by either government bodies or investors, and therefore necessitates smaller budgets and modest venues of (usually) less than 100 seats.
However, this does provide independent theatre-makers with a level of freedom that often escapes larger companies with comparable overheads. Independent theatre is a space for innovation, or the staging of provocative or underrated works. It often attracts actors at earlier levels of their careers, hoping to hone their skills or gain some much needed experience/exposure.
“Is indie theatre a big commitment?”
This is a big concern for a lot of actors looking to act in independent theatre. There is a fear that, unlike a student film, a stage show will consume an inordinate amount of time—or even rob you of other paid gigs or acting opportunities for months on end.
Generally, an independent theatre show rehearses for six weeks, with a 2-3 night a week rehearsal commitment. The shows themselves can run from anywhere from a single night to three weeks. Full-time commitments are minimal, although technical rehearsals prior to opening can run for over 12 hours a day.
While independent theatre might be a longer commitment than you’re used to, please be assured that the average indie producer/director will be understanding when it comes to balancing your work commitments with their schedule. You’ll probably have some sacrifices to make in your professional/personal, but these are always negotiable.
“Can I quit the show/miss rehearsals/do less?”
In the resource-scarce world of independent theatre, the reliability and professionalism of actors is paramount. Just because the venue is small or the role is unpaid doesn’t mean you can take liberties such as turning up late or dropping out of the production for no reason.
Things do happen: sometimes bigger, professional jobs do show up and necessitate an actor stepping away. In such a case, give the producer plenty of notice and be as accommodating as you can. But don’t think that independent theatre’s modest status is any excuse to flip flop. Your reputation will follow you into the bigger leagues—and the stink of leaving a show in the lurch doesn’t wash off easy.
Making Money in Independent Theatre
The good news about acting in indie theatre is that you do have the opportunity to make some money. Most indie shows operate under a profit share agreement, meaning that once production costs have been recouped the cast shares a percentage of all ticket sales. Alternatively, you may be under a guaranteed fee contract which promises a lump sum. It won’t be anything to retire from, but it’s always nice to be compensated for your work.
Of course, not every opportunity is paid. If you can afford it, and you like the project enough, you may even decide to work for free. But asking yourself when you should work for free is an important question that only you can answer. Avoid, at any cost, signing onto a show you can’t really sustain yourself rehearsing and performing in. This stress always translates onto the stage and harms the final product.
Challenging Material, Fresh Material
One of the best things about acting in indie theatre is the chance to work with excellent material. Theatre is built on the foundation of good writing, and so you’re bound to experience something you might not usually get from a short film or even a professional audition. At the very least, it’ll be something more substantial, more in-depth with some ripe opportunity for script analysis.
You may have the chance to work on a totally new piece of writing—sometimes with the writer themselves in attendance. This may actually give you the chance to develop the script and add your own contributions to the strength of the piece. Otherwise, you may find yourself cracking open a classic play you’ve always wanted to perform. Odds are it won’t have the same polish as a mainstage production, but you can guarantee your creative peers will be just as hungry as you at tackling something challenging.
Work with Upcoming Talent
Acting in indie theatre is a great place to build your rolodex of early-career/emerging talent. It’s a field that attracts a lot of younger, hungry artists and drama school grads—all on the same journey as you. Take on an indie theatre show and rub shoulders with the next generation of writers, directors, designers, crew, producers and fellow actors.
Theatre is a great place to develop your networking skills, as it gives you long exposure to the people you collaborate with. You’ll make new friends, forge connections, not to mention commiserate over late nights and terrible audiences. And if you’re wondering whether or not you stand a better chance at a future audition with an indie company after working with them once, the answer is definitely yes. It’s a small world, the indie scene: good collaborators are highly sought after.
Develop your Skills, Gain Experience
At StageMilk, we are big believers in the importance of developing your actor’s toolkit and gaining industry experience. There is no better place to do that than in theatre, particularly the small and scrappy independent scene. Theatre is where you truly build a character, find your voice and your physicality. Table work (theoretical study of a script) enables you to break down a scene, to find the objectives of your character and their given circumstances.
Sure, you can get all of this working on a film. But you’re lucky to get one or two days on a student set—and remember how much of that is spent waiting around pillaging the snack table. In theatre, from the rehearsal room to the stage, it’s pure acting all the time. You have the chance to knuckle down and focus solely on your craft. Doesn’t that sound like the most wonderful privilege?
Strengthen your Creative Community
Ever wonder why so many actors are so ridiculously nice to each other? Why it’s all “darling” and “[insert name] is a genius!” and hugs and double-air-kisses? Believe it or not, it’s not fakery. It’s because actors know that their lives are damn hard. If they’re going to survive, they need to stick together. Acting in indie theatre will strengthen your creative community. They’re the like-minded people you keep around you—not to network, or to make you feel legit. They’re there because they understand your drive and passion better than your own mother. Find these people and never let them go.
These shall be your Scrappy Creative Friends. You’ll want mainly actors, or actor/singers. Have at least one writer, and somebody who has been penning a cabaret for the past decade. Together you’ll shoot auditions, indulge in a little scene study, maybe crash opening night parties searching for free wine and cheese.
Most actors at the start of their journey lack the regulation group of Scrappy Creative Friends. Which is a shame, because they are a deceptively important part of a successful actor’s life. Like-minded companions in the industry help you stay connected to your craft. They see you as an actor first and a friend/partner/child/hospitality worker second. And it’s not until you have that group of people who see you as the artist you are, regardless of your CV or status, that you realise there’s no way to make it without them.
Tip: one of the best creative communities around is the StageMilk Scene Club. We might be biased, but our members support and cheer one another on like no-one else. Come join us!
So have we convinced you yet? Are you ready to update your StarNow profile with theatre in mind? Almost-but-not-quite? Then we’ll close with this: theatre is fun. It is so fun—a delightful, delirious world of its own. It’s as close as you can get to running away and joining the circus, without having to shovel a whole lot of sideshow animal dung. Every night, you get to dress up in a costume and forget yourself for an hour or two. People show up to watch you and pay for the privilege. And they love you for it.
Acting in indie theatre is a great skill incubator, a networking shortcut and a whole other stream of potential work and income. But you really should do it for the good times it promises, and the family you’ll pick up along the way. Isn’t that why we got into this crazy business?