It’s April, and for the theatre, film and television world at large, that means it’s showcase time. In the next few weeks, the graduating classes of drama schools from all over the country will swarm into theatre spaces all across New York and Los Angeles to showcase their talents to audiences of everybody who’s anybody in the entertainment industry.
The stakes are extremely high, as the showcase is the means by which actors cross that very important hurdle in any acting career: getting representation. And if you are one of the lucky few to get signed by a powerful agent or manager, that means starting at the top of the heap. But for those who wind up signing with two-bit agents who don’t have any clout, or worse, don’t get any representation at all, the experience can be a devastating one. Showcase is not only a high-stakes game for the actors, but for agents, managers and casting directors as well. Indeed, when a particularly talented class comes along, the result can be a feeding frenzy of who can swoop up the fresh talent the fastest.
Furthermore, although there are thousands of showcases every April, most industry professionals will tell you that there are only three they care about: the MFA Acting classes at Yale School of Drama, NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and The Juilliard School. Especially at these brand-name institutions, the much anticipated showcase presentation is somewhat like a southern debutante ball, in which America’s drama school elite “come out” into the illustrious society that is the entertainment industry. With an hour-long run time, the showcase often involves a series of two-minute scenes, with two actors in each scene, with material running the gamut from stage plays to TV scripts, classical texts to contemporary works, heavy drama to slapstick comedy, and sometimes even a few musical numbers.
Actors spend months searching for scenes that showcase their specific talents.
It’s a grueling process because two-minute two-person scenes that contain something resembling a dramatic arc are next to impossible to find. On top of finding two scenes that fit the bill, each actor is also on the lookout for material that is contrasting—in other words, you don’t want to end up doing two classical dramatic pieces and have the industry people think you can’t be funny. Furthermore, the task of finding those two perfect scenes for each individual is complicated by the fact that there are simply too many variables involved in the complex puzzle that is the showcase presentation.
Often a scene proves impossible to cut down to two minutes, often the scene partner you want has already chosen to work with someone else, and sometimes the showcase director just says “no” to your top choice. Finally, after the showcase scene selection process, you get to work on the presentation itself. You have to decide on a scene order (nobody wants to go first), you have to organize seamless transitions and set changes between scenes (nobody wants to be striking a chair when their scene’s up next), and you have to make damn well sure you’ve put all your might into making your two minutes in the spotlight as impressive as possible.
But it’s not just about the acting, it’s also all about the “showcase body.”
Translation: the best shape of your life. So that means it’s time to cut back on those post-rehearsal beers with your classmates, and get thee to the gym. In the preceding months of showcase, you’ll see students who didn’t even know what an elliptical was all of a sudden becoming glorified gym rats.
It’s a strange time. In the run-up to the big day, classmates often feel more united than ever. They’ve gone through so much together after years of training, and in the final sprint to the finish line everyone pulls out all the stops to make this final experience as a class—which is a production, just like any other—as fantastic as possible.
But let’s be honest, it’s a completive enterprise, and after the results come rolling in and some get massive industry responses while others get zilch, the effect on the family-dynamic of the class can be extreme. Nonetheless, the teachers at these illustrious institutions will often tell their students, “showcase isn’t everything,” which, in reality, is really true. All careers have ups and downs, and once the dust settles, it’s the training and talent that counts rather than how good your agent is.
That being said, best of luck to this year’s crop of graduating actors as they embark on this wild and crazy life that is a career in show business. But remember, showcase isn’t everything.
Keep reading more by Annie Hagg with her list of the best female auteur theatre directors, Part 1 and Part 2!