I can’t keep track of the number times someone has walked up to me in the lobby and struck up a conversation with the words “When I was a kid, Theatre Three was…” After 59 years of producing, Theatre Three’s impact and influence is immeasurable. Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton, who’s currently representing Big D at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, tells a great story about legend Larry O’Dwyer asking him to write his first play for a T3 children’s summer program.
In Funny, You Don’t Act Like a Negro, the children spend most of their time listening and absorbing what the adult characters say. There was a lot of art imitating life during the rehearsal process, as conversations about the play were serious and sometimes tough. Like their adult counterparts, they handled it like pros. Here’s Summer Stern to talk about the life of a young actor. – Jeffrey Schmidt
I stand with my father in the cold winter air of the parking lot, nervously pacing back and forth. We are early for the first rehearsal but that doesn’t make me feel any better. I can’t put my finger on any single thing that is making my stomach do cartwheels — my first equity show, meeting a bunch of new people, working with professional actors, the fancy facade on the theatre — maybe it’s just the fact that I’m the only ‘kid’ in this play.
I walk into the lobby of the theatre and am surprised to see almost everyone has already arrived, sitting at a series of long tables arranged in a giant square. No one is running around. No one is playing on their phones. There aren’t any parents hovering nearby. This is serious theatre. This is my new world.
That was a little over a year ago, before performing in Everybody at Stage West in Fort Worth. Now, as I prepare to take the stage in Funny You Don’t Act Like a Negro with Theatre Three, I’d love to take you with me on retracing the journey that brought me here.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Summer Stern. And despite having lived in New York and Los Angeles for most of my life, I wasn’t a child actor or model before arriving in Dallas. Heck, I didn’t even have a Mom-ager. Like most kids, I got my start performing in children’s theatre.
After my first-ever children’s theatre class, I remember walking out to my parents and telling them ‘This is MY thing’. I loved everything about the theatre: The stage, the lights, the songs, the scripts, and most of all — being around ‘my people’.
Growing up, I didn’t fit into the world of kids sports and when I broke my arm during 2nd grade recess, I had to drop cheerleading and gymnastics. For theatre, that meant that I was all-in. I did a few shows each year, took some classes and attended a few fun theatre camps and (very) slowly worked my way up from the bottom of the cast list towards the top. Not that my casting was very important to me starting out. I still remember being thrilled to be cast as Seagull #2 in The Little Mermaid Jr. As I gained more experience and began taking voice lessons, I longed to play Ursula or Ariel the next time the show came around.
My dad always told me it was better to be prepared and not get the opportunity than to get the opportunity and not be prepared so from early on, the emphasis was always on learning. He’d say corny things like “If you want a bigger part, you become a better performer.” Personal development, he called it.
The jump to adult theatre came after one particularly frustrating children’s show in which several characters hadn’t memorized their lines and I was asked to whisper their lines to them. That meant memorizing everyone’s lines. Stressful! I was eight years old! Luckily, I inherited my mom’s incredible memory which as it turns out is a huge gift in theatre.
What’s not a gift is audition anxiety! Even though I know actors of all shapes and sizes and ages get it, I quickly became overwhelmed at the thought of an audition — even for a children’s show with guaranteed roles. So when my father took me to my first professional audition, he didn’t even tell me where we were going. When we walked in the door and a woman handed us a script, I panicked like my dog does when she runs into the grooming shop and then realizes it’s too late to get out. My dad can be pretty sneaky like that (and yes, I got that part).
One of the things I learned was that theatre is almost the opposite of sports. In sports, you practice for weeks with your team before your big competition. In theatre, the audition IS the big competition and you don’t practice until AFTER the competition is over. As someone who never enjoyed competition, but enjoyed practice, that meant that I would never get a chance to practice unless I won the audition. That required going to as many auditions as possible, regardless of whether there were even any roles for me. I remember auditioning for a dramatic play where they were looking for teens and I was 8 and asking my dad every hour, ‘Did we hear anything? Did you check your messages?’ Accepting rejection is a big part of being an actor so I guess my parents wanted me to understand that not being right for a show or a role is just a part of the business.
Meeting a large group of kids you’ve never met before can be intimidating. Meeting a bunch of professional actors I’m going to be co-starring with is downright scary. What I do is to start acting before I even walk in the door. I tell myself “I’m seven-time (sorry Audra McDonald) Tony Award winning actress Summer Stern. I deserve to be in this room.” I just want the adult actors to give me a chance before they judge me. Yes, some of them have been performing longer than I’ve been alive but still — at least wait for the read-through!
Performing with adults is exciting because everyone takes the craft so seriously — just like I do. There’s also a lot more focus on blocking (directing where the actors go on stage and what they do physically) than you get with children’s productions. And there’s a lot less cat-herding! Most importantly, the directors aren’t lecturing everyone on memorizing their lines every week, which is great for me because there’s no way I could memorize everyone’s lines in an adult play or musical!!
The professionalism I have gotten used to by performing at both equity and non-equity theatres in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has been great preparation for what hopefully comes next.
Specifically, working with Christie Vela and Denise Lee on this show has been an incredible experience. They have both been so kind and funny, and to be able to learn from an amazing director like Christie and a mega-performer like Denise has only made me a smarter and better actress.
In April, after appearing in Fun Home at Uptown Players, I will earn my Equity Card and join the ranks of professional actors nationwide. I’m so proud to say that I did it all in Dallas/Fort Worth and that it never would have been possible without our incredible local theaters and the amazing fans who support them.