Kyle MçLaughlin, Kevin Herald and Jenna Bamberger in Spring Awakening (© Kelly Ciurczak)
My mom always told me: "If you feel like you're not getting any opportunities as a performer, create your own!" For a young actor, this may seem an impossible task. Theatrical productions require a theater, costumes, sometimes music, a director, a producer, actors, stage managers, and the list just keeps going on. And yet there are productions put on completely by students and for students all over the place, and they are incredibly successful! But why put in all that effort when you want to act in a "more official" show?
Take a look at Darren Criss: He started out as a student at the University of Michigan, and first made a name for himself through fame on YouTube in A Very Potter Musical (a completely student-run show). Since he became a YouTube sensation, he now has a recurring role on the hit TV show Glee, has appeared in a Katy Perry music video, has recorded his own hit songs, and recently appeared on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Darren is a great example of how student productions can be incredibly beneficial, and of the same quality as shows put on by the official theater school.
So what is the purpose behind independent student productions? Well, first of all, they provide you with the opportunity to perform no matter what your major or specialization is.
This semester at USC, a group of students got together and put on the musical Spring Awakening, a show that is very challenging to do even with professionals! The show was produced by Manuel Prieto and Patrick Phillips, with Maddy Heyman, a sophomore BA student, as director. Maddy spoke to me about her experience with directing an ISP:
"I think that one of the main differences from a [School of Theatre] show is that the show is entirely what you make of it. We weren't handed any money or help for free, we had to apply for grants, hold fundraisers, find people to be our crew, enlist the help of the actors with technical things, et cetera."
Independent student productions also provide people with various interests in the field of theater to give other options a try. Maddy currently has an emphasis in acting, but was able to get a very valuable directing experience out of Spring Awakening. The opportunities are even more plentiful for people of other majors who have a deep love for theater! "[ISP's] allow people who are not in the school of theatre to participate in theatre. For example, a large percentage of our cast, crew, and band were majoring in things other than theatre but wanted to stay connected with their theatrical past," Maddy said.
Also, there are so many great shows out there just like Spring Awakening that would be unrealistic for an official school production, but are feasible for students to produce. A lot of shows with smaller casts or more controversial plots are a much better fit for student groups. Not only this, but there are just some really great shows out there that people are aching to do--and it's that kind of passion that drives them to get the ball rolling!
Also here at USC is the organization Brand New Theater, or BNT. This student group not only produces completely student-run productions, but completely student written productions as well. James Morosini, a BFA student in the USC School of Theatre, has been a participant in BNT for three seasons in a row now. "It's incredible to create something from nothing and to experience the trust it inspires among those involved. Because the plays are student written, the stories are generally more flexible [...] This provides the opportunity for dialogue among the cast, director, and writer, deepening the stories implications as well as everyone's personal connection to it."
The pessimist might look at ISPs and say, "Oh, they're just making do with leftover actors, the little money they can scrounge, and whatever designers they can coax away from their REAL work." The optimist, or realist, knows the value that lies in productions that allow students to push boundaries and get experience working with their peers. Can you imagine how rewarding that must feel at the end of the day? A team composed solely of students working their butts off to make their show the best it can be.