When it comes to practising your craft eight shows a week, it’s a very personal thing. Everybody works differently and what will work for some, may not work for others. This week, I wanted to talk about exactly that: how can we perform at optimum level, all day, everyday? And the answer is, we can’t. There are going to be days that are harder then others – all we can do is find ways to manage them – both physically and mentally.
I was lucky enough to sit down with a couple of Australia’s most esteemed performers and chat about their journeys in our industry. I found myself re-reading their responses more then once. Hell, more then three times. Because advice like this is hard to find in books – it comes from a place of doing: experiencing it, managing a problem, and finding a solution to success. I sat down with Alex Rathgeber and Michael Falzon to get some insight into their methods of madness.
Tell me a little bit about yourself? On and off stage?
Alex: Offstage, among other things I’m a bonafide chocolate addict, a quasi yoga junkie and a Wimmera-VIC-born-newly-converted-ocean-swimming-Sydneysider. Onstage, well… I’m whoever the boss has hired me to be!
Michael: A very little bit about me… I’m one of six children and the only one in showbiz. My very first show was The Prates of Penzance on the QPAC Lyric Stage with Jon English as ‘The Pirate King’. I nearly went to WAAPA but that show came up and the rest is history. I am recently, and very happily, re-married, yet quietly (and sometimes outspokenly) outraged that many of my friends CAN’T get married. I feel quite like (if you’ll forgive the cliché) I’m approaching something near the top of my game… I enjoy my work, both performing and producing and I have enough going on to enjoy free time.
Where did your career start?
Michael: My career started in Bris-Vegas. That is where I got my first pro show; from where I went on tour for the first time; from where I ran to explore the land of Music Theatre through Australasia. This was before social media and reality TV and so one had to work very hard to stand out… we’re talking twenty years ago. Australian Idol only started the year I won the role of ‘Galileo’ in We Will Rock You – and that was 2003. Although I had been an understudy in a string of shows before then, that is where I recognise my career started.
Have you found the way you deal with eight shows a week has changed from the beginning of your career, compared to now?
Alex: Gee, I can’t really remember exactly how I used to approach it. I guess, to be honest, I’ve always been pretty conscientious in terms of the small things like arriving to the rehearsal or performance venue with plenty of time to get settled, touch base with whoever I need to, warm up thoroughly and go over notes, etc. When I first started out, I definitely used to try to do too much with my daytimes on show days and over time I learned that I needed to conserve energy and voice for the show. Even with my day off – usually Monday in Australia, Sunday in the UK – I’ve learned the value of maximising the amount of rest and real switch-off from the show so that I can start the new week fresh and ready. There’s no secret recipe, though. Every show requires a different routine depending on the demands of the role, so I just make it up as best I can and do whatever feels right each time. My approach has probably always floated around the idea that you can’t be too prepared.
When you’re in full flight, what is your structure to surviving eight shows a week?
Michael: I’m a semi-competent ‘mover’ at best so my answers are based on vocal preservation and generally staying healthy. When expected to be running at 100% – there is no such thing as 110% or 150%; 100% is enough and actually unachievable everyday! – you have to look after yourself very well. Everyone has idiosyncrasies – no dairy, certain teas, superstitions – and I wouldn’t presume to take anything away from that, as getting through week after week of a show is mainly a mental game.
I don’t think there are any real secrets to getting through an eight show week. I’ve always followed a routine, just like any other job. It is different for every role but I’ve found that the right combination of fitness (without over-doing it), sleep (essential for recovery), vocal rest when needed (no talking after midnight through to 4 o’clock the next day!) and allowing yourself some fun on your day off … that does the trick. If I’m disciplined with my routine, that is where the mental strength comes from to be able to stay on top of a demanding role, knowing that you can do it day after day after day. Also, coupled with a gentle warm-up (I never over-sing before going on) I ALWAYS cool my voice down after a performance.
Alex: First up, I’d say getting the best sleep possible – I find sleep is the best thing for recovery and for really hitting all those intense marks or moments I need to hit on stage 8 shows a week. I can always feel a major difference physically, vocally, energetically and stamina-wise doing a show if I’ve had a decent sleep the night before. Next would be eating super healthily – lots of green veggies, protein and all the good carbs for energy. And last, just generally chilling out and resting as much as possible. That often includes some sort of exercise, but when I’ve got a show to do that night (and/or afternoon) I want to make sure the thing I’m putting my most focussed energy towards that day is the show. Oh, and I couldn’t forget physio massage treatments throughout the week where possible… they’re a lifesaver.
Are there any supplements or products you incorporate to keeping in top shape, both physically and/or vocally?
Alex: When I’m working out a lot I’ll have 1 or 2 protein shakes in addition to my usual full meals each day. And just multivitamins and vitamin C. That’s about it. Unless I’m feeling a bit under and I’ll take some Arma Force – echinacea, andrographis, olive leaf and zinc. Otherwise, I’m a believer in getting what we need from natural, real, fresh foods as much as I can. Oh and I’m a big T2 liquorice legs tea fan!
Have you ever had a physical or vocal injury during a run of a show?
Michael: Oh god yes! I’ve fallen down stairs on the way to the stage, twisting the fu*k out of my ankle (off for weeks); tripped and face-planted ON stage; fallen off the front of a stage into the aisle (luckily!), hurt shoulders and knees doing lifts; and often feel a decent amount of neck strain – nothing that weekly or fortnightly osteo can’t help stay on top of. Vocally, I’ve been alright. Touch wood. When performing eight shows a week I’m clinically careful with my voice. Even when I might be “rocking out” it’s a considered, technical choice. As possibly the vocally most difficult role I’ve played an example from WWRY – I listened to the original Queen albums and worked out where I was going to sing/place every note, and rarely strayed from it. This was thinking long game. It was a form of training that allowed me to feel like I was in a vocal routine and my voice became used to singing the repertoire, finding a pace I could deliver every performance that allowed me to sing the role the same on show 1 and show 501.
Alex: Absolutely. Over the years, I’ve had a bunch of niggling role-related injuries… a fractured foot, an arm nerve strain, torn achilles and various cases of vocal fatigue at different times. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone that hasn’t in this game! People commonly compare the similarities of being a musical theatre artist to being an elite athlete… well, it’s true. The enormous physicality of performing a musical 8 shows a week is, very often, an unbelievable amount of pressure on the body. While doing everything in my power to guard myself from injury, I also have to accept that sometimes my body just might not cope with the unnatural repetition of certain physical actions day-in-day-out, or the very specific physical demands of a particular role. The acceptance of this is key. As much as it’s great to strive for excellence, it can sometimes be damaging to strive for some sort of perfection we think is expected of us or that we might expect of ourselves. We have to remind ourselves that none of us are perfect or invincible, and be sure to look after ourselves… the show will go on, and everybody’s wellbeing and safety always matters first and foremost.
How did you deal with this during the run, as well as post-show?
Alex: With my injuries along the way, I’ve sought assistance with managing them straight away. And this comes under being kind to yourself… there’s no need to be afraid of letting management know you’re struggling with something. Because whatever the injury or condition, the sooner the company knows you need help, the more you’re going to have that proper help with getting yourself back into good shape sooner, and keep the show from becoming compromised. Once I’ve had that expert assistance in managing it, I’ve just been as diligent as I could with paying the injury the attention it needed for recovery, keeping up treatment and rehabilitation exercises, staying positive, and being mindful not to over-extend myself with regards to that particular area of injury, until I knew I was fully recovered and ready to ‘go for gold’ again, or just keep being patient and attentive with it for as long as required.
I’ve been lucky in that respect – I haven’t had a recurring injury that’s gone on repeating itself for years, but I have friends who have and the thing is sometimes injuries go on much longer than you’d imagine, and you just do whatever you can, whatever your body needs. I think it’s probably helpful to think of injuries not as something that’s ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’ but more like something that just needs the special attention and due care you’d expect it to with the workload it’s under. I always think, there’s a reason they have a team of masseurs on the sidelines of an AFL match, and full-time Pilates coaches etc for ballet companies. Sometimes that sort of help isn’t as readily available in theatre shows but, more and more, theatre producers seem to be providing better access to good, essential support and treatment services, which is fantastic.
Any special tips for young actors starting out? Perhaps something you wish you were told on your first big gig?
Michael: Don’t doubt yourself. If you’ve been cast in a role – ensemble, featured, or starring – don’t ever doubt yourself. Some very experienced people have cast you because you can do it. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, just be great at what you do.
Alex: I was born for this question – my surname means ‘advice/counsel giver’! But seriously… my tip is simply to DREAM and THINK BIG. You are the author of your own story and only you can keep exploring what’s possible for you… nobody else will or can do it for you. Back yourself. Jump in. And make the absolute best out of every opportunity. And maybe, for every moment of doubt or criticism or perceived failure, whether it’s coming from within or from someone else, remind yourself of 10 things that you’re doing really well, 10 things that you already have to be thankful for, or 10 reasons why you want to keep improving. And don’t let anyone tell you you can’t change the world. You can. We can.
Finally, dream role? Can be on stage or screen.
Michael: My dream role has shifted a lot over the years – funny that – but for now, ‘Ché’ in Evita, ‘Guido’ in Nine … when I was younger I thought it was all about ‘Jesus’ but ‘Judas’ is the role (whom I got to play); I always wanted to play ‘Tony’ in Westside Story but now that I’m in my forties that ship has sailed.
Alex: I have to say playing Billy in Anything Goes was a total dream. In the future, though, gee…there are so many types of roles I’d love to play: something in a great movie musical like the poet that Ewan McGregor played in Moulin Rouge would be a dream; basically any role that Eddie Redmayne chooses; some awesome character in a Marvel series; Hamlet; a role like Evan Hansen; a crooner type like Bobby Darin… the list goes on and on, and changes every day… as long as I can explore a big range of emotional depth and physical challenge, and keep working with seriously inspiring people on excellent material that has a really positive effect on people I’ll be – in the words of my mate Ben Mingay – living the dream!
And so there you have it. Whilst we could write a thesis on just these two individuals alone, I feel if I go on, they’ll be asking for royalties. I have to thank them both for finding the time in their busy schedules to help me out with this one. I don’t need to highlight the importance of this topic, for seasoned and new performers alike. Find your ‘groove,’ or for close friends of mine reading this, find your ‘zest’. As Michael says above, don’t compare yourself to anyone else, just be great at what you do. And as Alex so fittingly puts it, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t change the world. You can. We can.
And by the sounds of it, that starts with a good night’s sleep.