Summer stock is an old American theatre tradition that goes back to the 1800’s, bringing high-quality theatrical productions to communities all around the United States. As a dancer, though, why should you care? Especially if you dream about dancing on Broadway, summer stock is an incredible opportunity for young dancers and performers to gain experience in musical theatre jobs, visit new places around the country, and get paid – something everyone should totally take advantage of!
Summer stock began in Denver, Colorado, at the Elritch Theatre in 1893, with a mix of well-known and new actors taking the stage together in a number of productions over the summer season. The trend continued to spread across the country, with more communities adopting the tradition until its peak in the mid-19th century. The name comes from the stock scenery and costumes reused by theaters every year, and the fact that many of them only take place in the summer months, sometimes outdoors or under tents set up especially for the productions.
Young actors and performers often see summer stock as a starting point for their careers. Throughout the years, many famous dancers and choreographers had their start in summer stock productions, such as Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Tommy Tune, and Ginger Rogers, just to name a few! While the 1960’s were the peak of summer stock’s popularity, it is a longstanding tradition in many places around the country, and theaters have become famous just for their summer stock productions, such as the MUNY in St. Louis, Missouri, Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, and Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Young actors and performers often see summer stock as a starting point for their careers.
Today, much of summer stock is very musical theatre-oriented, which could lead some dancers to shy away, assuming that it is geared towards actors and theatre performers only. However, dancers can and should strongly consider auditioning for summer stock productions because of the unique learning and working experience it provides.
For one, artists get the opportunity to perform all summer long, in multiple productions! Some theaters perform up to 8 shows in a season- with rehearsals for one show going on during the day while performing another show at night. It is a great learning experience to work on various materials at the same time, and to develop the skills necessary to retain all that information.
Summer stock is also a perfect opportunity to network with people in the theatre and dance industry. Performers will not only work with top-tier directors and choreographers, but will meet actors, dancers, and technical theater professionals from around the country. Building relationships with all these people is not only great for making friends, but from a professional perspective, you never know who will go where, and what that connection could bring in the future.
Participating in summer stock is not only a great place for dancers to continue to work over the summer, but a place to develop singing and acting skills as well! Dancers don’t often have the opportunity to focus on those skills, since a lot of dance training is time consuming and one-track focused. Being in a musical really forces performers to be at the top of their game at all three, simultaneously.
Summer stock is ultimately a great way to keep dancing and get paid. Unlike summer intensives, which many dancers pay to participate in to keep dancing throughout the summer months, college-aged and young emerging artists are hired to perform. Theaters often provide free housing for performers as well. Many companies also offer paid or stipend-based internships or apprenticeships, for both aspiring performers and theatrical technicians.
Getting cast in a summer stock production isn’t so easy, though. Similarly to the dance world, there are only so many musical theatre jobs available, though there are many ways to increase your chances of being cast.
The first step would be to start honing acting and singing skills alongside dancing, as musical theatre really is the marriage of all three. As dancers, it is tempting to just take dance classes, but at some point, it is important to invest time and money in becoming a well-rounded performer. Taking voice lessons, or joining an acting class, might be a great idea if you don’t feel as confident in those skills. Practicing creating self tapes is also a smart way to prepare- as is investing in the equipment needed to make a professional-looking tape. Having a great ring light and a plain background would be a strong start!
The second step would be to audition! Many theaters post audition notices for in-person or virtual calls on casting websites, with breakdowns of which roles they are looking to hire for. Not to mention, the DancePlug auditions page is another great resource! Sometimes it is more efficient to send in a headshot, resume, and dance reels to casting teams at the theaters directly; there is usually an email address found on their websites.
Figuring out what types of musicals you want to be in, and working on the skills necessary for those can prepare you for auditions.
College-aged performers also take advantage of conferences where multiple theaters come together and watch auditions. Some of the most well-known conferences include A1, StrawHat, Unified Professional Theatre Auditions, and the NETC/SETC. These are ‘pay-to-play’ opportunities, where participants pay a fee and travel to locations around the country to be seen by various theaters all at once, for both summer and year-round opportunities. While many performers find success at these conferences, it is not a guarantee to get a job, nor is it necessary.
It may be too late to audition for summer stock this year, but what can an aspiring musical theater performer do to be ready for next year? Auditions for summer stock can begin as early as November of the previous year, but really kick up between January and March. Researching different theaters, in terms of reputation, upcoming season, and location, can help narrow down the auditions you want to prepare for. Different theaters are known for cultivating different workplace and living environments, and knowing this information can guide you in the right direction.
While taking acting and singing lessons is a huge boost to a dancer’s skillset, taking classes in all styles of dance (check out DancePlug’s virtual classes!) is a great use of time as well because different choreographers and different shows require dancers to be proficient in lots of styles. Figuring out what types of musicals you want to be in, and working on the skills necessary for those can prepare you for auditions. Many contemporary musicals feature commercial and hip hop dancers, while golden-age musicals’ choreography typically use more aspects of ballet and jazz technique, maybe more suited for contemporary musicals. Even strictly ballet dancers have a home in summer stock; they can look for theaters doing ballet-specific shows, such as An American in Paris, Oklahoma, and Brigadoon, among others.
While the path to dancing on Broadway is not linear, taking a musical theatre job in a summer stock theater seems to be a step along the way. If you aren’t dancing in a show this summer, be sure to support your local theater and see summer stock in action!