Staying passionate on long tours: Rachel Cole with Todd McKenney

Rachel Cole’s Stage Door Shrink returns to AussieTheatre this month with some excellent advice from Australian theatre veteran, Todd McKenney.

A note from Rachi

Todd McKenney
Todd McKenney

You’ve heard that Confucius saying: “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Whilst I appreciate his sentiment, it sounds to me like Confucius never did a Sunday matinee on a raked stage after a big night out at The Greyhound. There is nothing I love more than a wig cap and high belt but quite frankly, some days I would rather invest my life savings in Blockbuster video than do the show. When something you love becomes your vocation, it fundamentally and unavoidably changes the way you interact with it.

Being passionate is something I have never struggled with. I feel equally as passionate about Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple, as I do about the redrawing of electoral boundaries in Sydney or why the dumplings at Shanghai Dragon on Russell are unequivocally superior to the ones at that place with the big red doors in China Town. It’s common in our industry to see people struggling to maintain the passion, becoming bored with the show, chronically tired and sore, wondering if its all worth it, looking for a career path ‘after theatre’.

I’ll leave the more practical tips to Todd McKenney. When you see someone who has successfully worked in The Arts for over 30 years, crossing competitive dance, film, musical theatre, TV and still loves the industry, it’s important to take stock of their MO and learn what you can.

Todd trained in all forms of dancing as a child before representing Australia in various international Ballroom Dancing competitions. He played Nathan Starkey in Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom, and rose to fame in 1998 when he played Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz. He is known Australia wide as a judge on Dancing with the Stars. His musical theatre credits include: 42nd Street, The Pirates of Penzance, La Cage aux Folles, Singin’ in the Rain, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the Musical, Anything Goes and most recently, Grease.

Here are his words of wisdom on maintaining the passion on a long tour…

According to Todd

Give yourself a small challenge for each show

When you’re staring down the barrel of a two year tour, it helps to break the show down and think smaller. “Just give yourself one task to nail in that show- a little challenge to focus on a particular scene or song or routine, and turn the prism in your mind and look through it at a different angle.” As well as perfecting your show, it makes long tours more manageable.

Get enough sleep

Touring is fun and exciting, but you can quickly run yourself into the ground if you’re not sleeping enough, and it’s important to stay buoyant and alive. “I never want to drag myself through a show because of something I did in the day or last night. I hate that feeling. I want to always make sure I am in the right frame of mind mentally and physical. I always have a sleep between 3-5pm when I’m working. Particularly with a very physical show.”

Fill your days with things that aren’t related to work

Your world can become very small when you’re on a long running show. “See people who aren’t in the industry. Filling your day with things that aren’t associated with the show will help you maintain perspective. I have this whole other world- they call me the tap dancer, and think that what I do is ridiculous. Lots of my friends are nurses working in Aged Care, and that brings me back to earth pretty quickly.”

Don’t wrap yourself in cotton wool

You have to look after yourself, but find a balance. “Don’t let this job consume you. Life is not something you do when you’ve finished with musical theatre. It’s now. I see those people who don’t talk all day or can’t go out for coffee. To me, that’s not life. This industry has to be part of your life, but not all of it.”

See the show as a multi faceted jewel

“The best advice I ever got was from Gale Edwards on The Boy from Oz. She came into my room after we opened, and said: You’re going to get tired and frustrated and there will be nights when you don’t feel like doing this- on those nights, just think of the show as a rich multifaceted ruby, and give another side of that jewel to this audience.’”

Look every audience member in the eyes

“Mark Bramble, who wrote 42nd Street, once asked me to go and watch a tired old production of Hello Dolly on Broadway starring Carole Channing. When I asked him why he said, ‘By the time the show is finished you will think at one point in the show that she looked you right in the eyes.’

This is a gift of a technique and it is powerful. When I am tired, it’s a game I play with myself, I’m going to try to look at every single person throughout the show. It connects you instantly to the audience. To the audience member it’s incredibly powerful when someone on stage looks at just at you amongst the thousands.”

Whatever you do, don’t whinge

It’s unrealistic to think that at times you won’t struggle, be deeply tired or will go through phases of not enjoying your work. Some shows will elate you, some will bore you and some will exhaust you. “Singing in the Rain, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it wrecked me. The overture would start and my heart would sink, everyone else would say yay and my heart would sink. It was a deep-rooted tiredness and I struggled. I keep to myself in those situations, and get the job done. It’s in those situations that your day times away from work become even more important.”

Look after your body

If you’re in pain or injured a long tour can be unbearable. It’s imperative to avoid injury and look after your body. “I go to the gym for at least half an hour every day. When you’re doing the same thing every day, you are working out the same muscles. Get out and use different muscles, it’s important to me to stay lubed.”

Use unemployment as motivator

When you’ve lost your motivation, its good to remember the alternative- unemployment or a job you’re not passionate about. “I’ve been in this industry for 33 years professionally, and in that time I had 6 months off straight after The Boy from Oz in 1997. I worked at Cellarmasters selling wine with Sonja Kruger, because performers can sell anything again and again and again. I was worried about how to pay the bills. It also motivated me to get out and look for work in other areas- TV, radio and film. This was the best decision I’ve ever made”

Have an honest chat with your agent

Have an honest conversation with your agent about where you are and where you want to be in the future. “Having a good agent is so important. Talk to them when you’re not happy. Find one who is long term focused so you’re always moving towards a bigger goal.”

This industry isn’t for everyone long term- and that’s fine! If you’re that unhappy in the show there are plenty of others jobs in this industry which don’t require you to be on stage every night hating life. “Some people just keep turning up and are going to be the oldest Chorus girl in the biz. If you are struggling with that- get out. Make the break while you’re still young. This is the hardest job in the world if you don’t feel like being there. You’ll feel so fake. If your heart isn’t in it, then get out and make that decision soon. Don’t wait until you’re 50- its easier to leave when you’re young.”

Draw inspiration from others

When you have no motivation left within, look to those around you. “Spend time watching other people being creative for inspiration. I go and see every show which is on.”

Rachi’s final thought…

Psychologically, it’s important to remember that our emotions and feelings needn’t rule us. We shouldn’t go through life feeling like the tail that wags the dog. We have some power to affect our emotions and turn them around. Cognitive Behavioual Therapy (CBT) is the most widely used and evidence based treatment in Psychology today. It recognizes the bi-directional relationship between behaviour and thoughts/ feelings, in that we used to think: I feel therefore I act, but now we know that thoughts and feelings can be altered by modifying our behaviour. I.e. fake it ‘til you make it. Don’t feel like you love your work? Act like you do and your emotions will soon follow.

Todd McKenney is currently touring with What A Life and will be appearing in the upcoming production of Dusty at The Arts Centre, Melbourne.

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Rachel Cole

Rachel has a degree in Psychology from The University of Sydney but is currently masquerading as understudy for Miss Honey and Mrs Wormwood in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends. Follow Rachel on Instagram at: @rachelacole.

Rachel Cole

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