Pitt students hit the road: What it’s like to be a travelling actor


Photo courtesy of Sean Cook

Sean Cook poses with Pitt students at the EQT Young Playwrights Festival at the City Theatre, where he cast all Pitt students and had a staged reading at a professional equity theater.

By Beatrice McDermott, For The Pitt News

Margaret Pryor estimates that she performed at least 320 productions of  “Damn Yankees” and “Grease” in the span of two years in the late ’90s. But it wasn’t just the amount of shows that made the work hard — having to frequently move cities was also pretty exhausting.

The acting industry is competitive, and many actors, including students at Pitt, will choose to abandon traditional job markets like New York and Los Angeles for a more nomadic lifestyle. These travelling performers can pursue a wide array of careers — acting in off-Broadway plays with touring companies or flying across the country to fill roles. Often, the actors end up working seven days a week, putting on shows for cities across the nation.

Pryor, an MFA student in Pitt’s theater department, auditioned for the role of Gloria in the 1997 National Tour of “Damn Yankees” after graduating with her bachelor’s from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. One year later, she decided to continue her career as a travelling performer by auditioning for the role of Marty in “Grease.”

“It’s awesome, especially as a young actor. It’s a great way to see much of the country and Canada,” Pryor said. “But it’s really hard because you’re living out of your suitcase for a long period of time. You’re living with the same people, in the same hotel. It gets very old very fast. At certain points it gets tiring.”

Pryor said one of the most crucial traits an actor can have is flexibility. Accidents and mistakes are inevitable, so it’s important to be able to adapt to unexpected situations. One time, she said, an electrical generator went out before a production of “Grease” and the actors had to quickly improvise a way to perform without their equipment.

“We were able to do a concert version of the show. We were up on the stage with microphones,” she said. “It’s live so things happen. You really have to go with the flow.”

Sean Cook, also a Pitt MFA performance pedagogy student, also has experience as a travelling performer. Cook has worked as a regional actor in the film, television and commercials industry for over 11 years. He said he started his career in Los Angeles after graduating from Western Washington University in 2011, but had difficulty breaking into such a competitive job market, and decided to move.

“I realized very quickly outside of my undergraduate training that there’s no way to make a living as a stage actor. I moved into the Seattle market, and I sought representation for industrial videos, print and commercial, and any film or television,” Cook said. “That was a way I could create more income for myself.” 

When musicals and plays go on tour, the productions are just as involved as if they were seen right on Broadway. This means the performers have to apply the same effort as a Broadway actor — while also finding transportation to unfamiliar cities, dealing with faulty equipment and adapting to different stage setups.

Pryor also said touring companies need actors who are prepared for anything, so their auditions are designed to select the most talented, capable individuals. Trying out for the role of a touring performer, she said, requires an even more intense amount of energy and dedication than a traditional stage production.

“You audition, and that’s a process in and of itself. There are lots of people auditioning. Usually after an audition you’re called back. There can be up to three callbacks for a job. Each time you go back they’re giving you actual material from the show. Sometimes they pair you up with other people to see who they like best. If they want you they offer you the job,” Pryor said.

For Cook, one of the hardest parts of working as a travelling performer is arranging his own transportation. Applying for jobs across the country can create more opportunities for actors, but it also requires more money up front. Often, he said, he had to provide his own funding for cross-country travel.

“If I, say, booked a job in L.A., they would hire me on the stipulation that I would take care of my own transportation. There is a give and take in working as a regional actor, or working in smaller regions. It costs more to do the work — more time, more stress, more money. It offers a lot of challenges,” Cook said.

On the other hand, actors in the film, television and commercials industry have a better shot at achieving commercial success than stage actors, according to Cook. Performing on-screen, rather than onstage, gives actors the chance to appeal to a wider audience. Even though it costs more money to enter the film, television and commercials industry, the rewards are usually faster and more profitable.

Cook attributes much of his success to the Pitt MFA in performance pedagogy program. The two year program, offered by the Pitt theater department, is “designed to equip working, professional actors with the tools to expand their employment opportunities in teaching at the college and university level,” according to the department website. Cook said the MFA program helps prepare students for a competitive job market by giving students a taste of an industry that Cook says is pushing actors to have more and more technical knowledge.

“The MFA programs at Pitt offer something that only three other universities in the country offer. Students get to work with people with real experience in the industry,” Cook said.

Jahir Christian, a senior theater major, also said the MFA pedagogy program has been a fundamental part of his learning at Pitt. He said the guidance of MFA graduate students, like Cook and Pryor, were a great contributor to his success in the regional Pittsburgh theater scene — whether by helping format a resumé, work on audition material or help navigate office politics in the world of local theater.

“I’ve noticed that the MFA students are the only real ‘in’ to not only our industry, but they are some of the only liaisons we have to the faculty,” he said. “The graduate students are the ones that give us the information we need to perform our daily functions.”

Cook reaffirmed Christian’s statement that this extra support is vital for undergraduate students, especially for those unfamiliar with the changes occurring in the performance industry. Cook’s advice to younger students interested in acting is to follow their gut — though he suggests starting off in regional markets, which are more tolerant of beginners.

“If you feel an impulse to go to a major market, like N.Y., Chicago, L.A., and you can set yourself up in a way that makes you feel secure, then you should do it. If you’re not ready for that, there’s much to be learned in a smaller market,” Cook said.


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