How to Survive Summer Stock Theater: 10 Rules for Actors With Bug Spray and a Dream

I’ve done it. A lot. And I’ve been thinking of what I wish I’d known back when I was first costumed in fair isle wool sweaters, in mid-July, in a barn without appropriate climate control. For better or worse: some lessons I’ve learned.



1.  Just because there’s a lake doesn’t mean there are no rules.

You still may have a significant other in some other geographical location. There may be beautiful natural surroundings, porch swings, and pie, but there is no wrinkle in time, so keep it in (or out of) your pants if that’s what your real-life relationship requires.


2.  Write down your first impressions of people.

It will be hilarious to you later on. Your standards will slip after weeks in the hinterlands; especially if you’re single and/or you disregard rule number one. When you find your heart broken in August, you will want to remind yourself who wore an Ed Hardy t-shirt to the read-through. It will help.


3.  Bring one dress-up outfit. 

There will be zero reasons to wear it. (YOU: But the opening night party! ME: Birkenstock up. You’re in the middle of the woods. Put the platforms down and walk away from Rent the Runway; they hold no power here.)


4.  Do not forget warm clothes.

If you’re near a body of water, mountains, or old people A/C, you will need more layers than you currently imagine. You will repeat outfits anyway, because the cast washing machine will be eternally in use, broken, or too far to get to easily. Put a clean color on top and rotate your way through.


5. Have a substance abuse game plan.

If a bomb dropped on the outdoor dramas of the mid-Atlantic, US marijuana consumption and probably production would dip by 60 to 70 percent. Interested? Start saving up for the vape. Not interested? Maybe don’t audition for outdoor drama. And give yourself some bottom lines.




6.  Related: pick one form of alcohol you won’t mind having a physical aversion to for the rest of your life.

You may want to go crazy for one summer season; but once you vomit at a bonfire you’ll never be able to drink that form of alcohol again. (Not kidding. I haven’t had a drop of gin since September of ’02.)


7. Be prepared for bats.

Or ticks, water beetles, mosquitoes, sweltering heat, or disturbingly curious locals. Management is busy plunging the toilets and returning the last show’s wigs at the Walmart. They don’t have time to protect you. You have to protect yourself.


8. Speaking of plunging the toilets… learn to spot influence in the most surprising places.

Your artistic director is not the person having three-hour lunches at the yacht club with patrons. A development volunteer or board member *may* be doing that. Your artistic director is the person scraping pine tar and muffin crumbs off the front of the stage and attempting to install a new memory chip into a 2006 Dell desktop computer to give to “the education department.” Never be rude or dismissive to anyone doing what seems to be hard, disgusting, or menial tasks. They probably hired you.


9. Do good work.

It’s hard to get a job. When you do have a job, you should have one mission. To spread your actor wings and do the best work you possibly can. Imagine it’s your ticket to Broadway if you have to. (It’s probably not.) Convince yourself that a bad play is wonderful, or that your work will raise the consciousness of the people in the summer stock community who are able to see it. Work hard. You really do have the best job in the world.


10.  Go to the crick.

And then AFTER you’ve insured that you can do good work, go to the crick every time you are invited. Walk to the water, play the midnight croquet game, and explore the town. Watch the deer in the dusk, talk to people at the general store, run your lines with cast members at the boat launch, and get your nose up in nature every chance you get.


This, combined with the work, is how you will become the best version of you that you can be. Well-fed, well-exercised, and well-rounded.


You are so lucky. It’s your summer stock experience. Don’t forget to live it.


If you go climb the hill past the cemetery and take a right at the big white barn, you’ll get cell phone service. So follow me on Twitter! @jtparson


2 responses to “How to Survive Summer Stock Theater: 10 Rules for Actors With Bug Spray and a Dream”

  1. Paul Kiernan says:

    This is great and it’s true and there are many of us still heaving out to do summer stock. I would add to this remember that you need to be an example. So many young actors get there start here and it is so important for vets to be on the top of their game and to be good, good examples in the room. I had a conversation with a young actor recently and he told me all he wanted to do was play the lead role in every show. He was very flu of himself and his training and I told hi, being the lead doesn’t mean you have all the lines, it means you set the tone for the room. How you rehearse, how you come in-prepared, that says something about the way you lead the show. Guys like me, in our 50’s doing summer Shakespeare, we cannot forget, we are the examples and we are the formative teachers of future actors. How we see the business and our place there and the respect it needs, that’s important. I think it falls under: Go to the crick … But, it’s deeper than that. The old folks, the pros, the guys and women who have been in this business for years, and we are the back bone, not the Broadway stars or the movie stars, we, the working actors, are the backbone of the business, we need to be very, very aware of where we get our kicks. So, the fist point, goes double for the veterans. Great piece, well done, thanks. Paul

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