The following is an excerpt from Michael Kostroff and Julie Garnyé’s new book, The Stage Actor’s Handbook: Traditions, Protocols, and Etiquette for the Working and Aspiring Professional (Rowman & Littlefield).
It is a wonderful and honorable thing to join the lineage of stage actors, connecting with both those who’ve come before and those who will come after. To be accepted into this sacred order of practitioners is to be entrusted with the keeping of our rituals—some whimsical, some practical, all ours. The ways of the stage actor are unique, exclusive, and an integral part of the behind-the-scenes mystery that allows us to create worlds and characters out of nothing. This is our legacy.
I work with lots of young actors who have never been exposed to the history of what we do, have no idea what or who came before them. And, while they have fun creating shows, playing characters, singing, and dancing, often brilliantly, I think they miss out on their connection to the past—that they are a part of an historical continuum. So much of the pleasure I derive from working in the theatre comes not only from the act of telling funny and moving stories and making lifelong friends, but from knowing that I am a part of this great tradition of theatre artists who have moved this craft forward. It’s humbling and joyous.
The Show Must Go On
Since 1914, the unofficial motto of the U.S Postal Service has been, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” If there is an equivalent for theatre folk, it is our very own adage, “The show must go on.” It’s a reminder that no matter what has happened before the performance—squabbles, hardships, bad news, bad weather, even the absence of a member of the company—we do not allow those things to prevent us from presenting what we have promised our waiting audience. This motto has led to many stories (some of which are legendary) of actors soldiering on in the face of personal tragedy, heartbreak, technical difficulties, and other challenges—even despite illness. Such is not always the best choice, nor does it reflect the true meaning of the time-honored saying. It is the show—not always the performer—that must go on. While this philosophy is sometimes a motivation to push through, it is also the reason for having understudies, swings, stand-bys, and covers, all of whom carry a very special status in that they facilitate this great tradition of the theatre.
For generations, we’ve said “The show must go on” to each other as a fraternal exhortation to put aside our troubles, pull ourselves together, and go put on a show. It now falls to you to carry this sacred philosophy to the generations that follow.
There is a saying in the business: “The show must go on.” When we are feeling bad and are unable to perform, your health is number one. Without your health, there is nothing, and when it comes to eight shows a week, it is mandatory to take care of yourself. We are trained as actors to be able to take care of ourselves, whether it is voice classes, dance classes, maintaining a schedule with the gym or physical therapy…When I performed in A Christmas Carol with Tony Randall at Madison Square Garden, we often had three shows a day for six days! Tony never missed a performance. And when I had the good fortune of being cast in Jelly’s Last Jam, Gregory Hines missed one show in one year. And that is only because the producers sent him to the West Coast for publicity. The show must go on, and it does. And young performers can look at the past and learn from it, just as I did.
Actors the world over share a familial connection by virtue of our calling. Indeed, many of us find in each other the truest families we have ever known. That is not to say that we all like each other or get along; that is certainly not the case. Nevertheless, our family of actors is very much like a tribe, with its own tribal language, practices, traditions, and rituals, as well as a shared, unspoken understanding of the passions that drive us.
Theatre has always been a safe haven for the misfits, the oddballs, the eccentrics, the unpopular, and the just plain different. The tribe welcomes these lost ones with open arms. We also tend to find within our group certain recurring characteristics: irreverence, intellect, compassion, neurosis, empathy, humor, emotional intensity, vulnerability, insecurity, kindness, generosity, and obsessive self-reflection.
At times, we will misunderstand each other. We may wrong each other, even despise each other. But even still, we recognize each other in the shared qualities and the almost spiritual connection that make us different from the outsiders.
Honoring Our Tribal Elders
Many ancient cultures have traditions built around a practiced reverence for the wisdom of those with more experience. The tribe of theatre actors has that same tradition. When we are fortunate enough to work with highly experienced thespians, we avail ourselves of opportunities to learn from them. We do this by observing how they work and emulating the methods and qualities we admire. We listen to the tales of their adventures in the theatre. We consider their advice and honor their requests. We show respect for their time on the boards.
This is not to say that all elder stage actors behave admirably, nor that younger actors are obliged to take orders or notes from them, only that these performers are worth watching and listening to. By collecting bits of wisdom and learning from them, we perpetuate our legacy.
My favorite bit of advice was something Laurence Olivier said when he was asked by an aspiring actor what the most important thing a young actor should learn. Olivier said, “How to become an old actor.” The actors I love are in this business for the long haul. The important thing to us isn’t hitting it big so much as making it last. Because the bottom line is you can’t really learn what you need to know about acting any other way than doing it consistently for a long time. And in order to do that you have to stick around.
Passing the Torch
Mentorship is a deeply embedded aspect of our unique culture. To this end, just as we have learned from others, we also convey our knowledge to those who come after. This can be a delicate undertaking at times. It calls for diplomacy, respect, and sensitivity. One must never presume the role of mentor among one’s fellow performers. Rather, it is best to lead by example, taking extra care to display professionalism, graciousness, support, and patience at all times, remembering that you are being studied by those who look up to you. And when less experienced cast members have questions, be available to them. This is how we pass our traditions along.
It is still an infinitely touching experience to talk to a group of drama students, their idealism bursting out of every pore, or to sit round with a group of old stagers and talk about the great ones of the past, or to find oneself at a table where all the weariness and cynicism of professional experience is dropped as eyes burn brighter and emotion begins to rise at the thought of what the experience of going to the theatre might be.
—Simon Callow, Being an Actor
The Gypsy Tradition
In musical theatre, professional dancers and singers who travel from show to show as members of the ensemble have long been affectionately known as “gypsies,” a term that has come to mean nomads, travelers, and itinerant performers. Theatre gypsies, by definition, tend to remain in supporting roles, though there is one famous exception. The legendary Chita Rivera—a name-above-the-title star—is still called the “Queen of the Gypsies” in honor of her roots as a triple-threat ensemble member.
In recent years, the word has come under fire because of its origin as a derogatory name for the Romani people who, having been mistaken for Egyptians, were erroneously called Gypsies. In that usage, the word suggested a long list of terrible things, including swindling and dark magic. There has been considerable controversy in the Broadway community over whether the term should be retired from use. Those who defend the term “gypsy” as it refers to hard-working ensemble performers note that it has always been a badge of honor among our ranks. They contend that the term indicates accomplishment, dedication, tirelessness, adaptability, and professional success, and is a moniker only attributed to those deemed worthy. It falls to future generations of show folk to determine the ultimate fate of this particular terminology.
To be a Gypsy is to have a family, a family who teaches you to share, to balance and to see and feel everything around you. It is some [of], if not the most, valuable direction taught to all dancers at the beginning of their professional lives: You are never alone; you are one with the rest of the chorus and proud to be. You come from pride, hard work and dedication. I started out a Gypsy and to this day consider myself still a Gypsy. Family—that is the meaning of the ensemble. The ensemble holds the show together with strength, pride, and unity. I love being a Gypsy!
The Gypsy/Legacy Robe
The Gypsy Robe (recently renamed the Legacy Robe in response to the above-referenced controversy) is a Broadway tradition that dates back to 1950. The ritual is carried out by the companies of Broadway musicals that have ensembles. The robe is adorned with memorabilia and drawings from previous productions, and is presented to the chorus member with the greatest number of Broadway chorus credits.
The ceremony traditionally occurs half an hour before the opening night curtain. The new recipient puts on the robe and circles the stage counterclockwise three times while cast members reach out and touch the robe for good luck. The new recipient then visits each dressing room while wearing the robe.
A new appliqué representing the recipient’s show is added, along with the recipient’s name and the show’s opening night date, and the cast members sign that section of the robe.
When the next Broadway musical opens, the current keeper of the robe visits backstage before the first performance and presents the robe to the new honoree from that show’s ensemble.
The Ghost Light
The ghost light has significance not only for actors but for all who work in theatre. When a theatre is closed up for the night, a single bulb on a simple metal stand is placed downstage center. This is the ghost light. Its practical purpose is safety; it allows crew members to find their way upon arriving at the theatre the next day. But its meaning goes well beyond safety. Various superstitions hold that the light is there to either chase away or appease theatre ghosts. Others prefer the idea that the light is there so that a theatre’s life and energy never completely die out.
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021, when all theatres were shuttered indefinitely, ghost lights became symbols of hope—a promise that theatres would open again.
As actors, we find additional meaning in the ghost light. For us, it suggests a continuity, a never-ending flow from generation to generation, from place to place, and from practitioner to practitioner—a thread of illumination that weaves us together.
May we always keep the light of tradition lit and pass it along to those who come after.
Michael Kostroff is an established TV and stage actor, creator of the Audition Psych 101 workshop, and the author of Letters From Backstage, Audition Psych 101, and Answers from “The Working Actor.” Julie Garnyé is a singer, actress, writer, and teacher whose first play, Boys Like Me, premiered in New York in 2014 and who was most recently seen as an original cast member of the first national tour of Come from Away.
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