15 Tips for surviving (and thriving) while making theater away from your home

I’ve been totally slammed by a series of back-to-back-to-back shows, so I haven’t had time to write anything thoughtful lately.  That’ll change sometime in late May, but in the interim, as I’ve been away from my home for 6 of the last 11 weeks, I’ve been making this list of recommendations for how to survive a life on the regional theater circuit. (And, yes, Off-Broadway, you count as “regional theater” to me, even if you are too self-important to provide artist housing.) Here are my top 15 tips (ooh, a “listicle” – I’ve always wanted to write a listicle!)

  1. Unpack everything as soon as you get to your housing. Whatever time you get in – even if you walk off the plane into a 3:00 designer run followed by a 5:00 design meeting, a 6:00 production meeting, a 7pm quiet time and only get to your housing at midnight, take half an hour to empty that suitcase. Hang up your shirts and put those undies in a drawer. Take your toiletries out of your kit and put them on that janky shelf behind the mirror. Set up the desk/table/TV tray that company management found for you so you can work comfortably. Stash your suitcase somewhere out of sight and find a spot for the dirty laundry.  You’ll thank me when you wake up. And, more importantly, if you don’t do it right away, you won’t do it at all.
  1. Always take the hotel soap, moisturizer and shampoo. You’re not stealing – they plan for it. They want to give you a new bar every day! You never know when your next housing won’t have soap, and that bar in your toiletries bag can make all the difference between making your local assistant / fellow cast members feel really uncomfortable on that first day and the start of a fine friendship. (My friend Lemon suggests you also always take six sugars at Starbucks, and then you’ll never need to buy sugar on the road. I say, if the coffee spot’s gonna make me put my own sugar in my coffee, I’m going to make sure I have enough for the next morning at the housing…)
  1. Go to the grocery store as soon as you can. I know, you’ve only got 90 free minutes and you’d really like to just play Clash of Clans, finish writing that heavy metal country rondo, or get off book. But, even if you’re not a cook, a box of cereal, a container of milk, a loaf of bread and some sandwich fixings will go a long way towards keeping you sane. Having to stop on your way in every morning (or leave the grounds if you’re in on-campus housing) can really mess up your flow. (And please – even if you’re on home turf – buy some snack bars to throw in your backpack while you’re shopping.)
  1. Also on the grocery front – if you have a special comfort food, bring it with you when you leave home. Because, chances are, you aren’t going to be able to find that Vegemite / Mango Chutney / Barry’s Tea / La Colombe that you need to get you through the day in Olney, Maryland or downtown Houston. I know – I’ve looked. Also – if you require coffee, do NOT assume a coffeemaker will be there. Call in advance, and if they can’t get you one, buy one of those plastic single-cup filters and throw it into your kit.
  1. Pack your favorite pillow, especially if you’re going to Artist Housing rather than a hotel. Because a good night’s sleep (especially if they’re going to be short nights) matters a lot. They’re not going to have that feather / memory foam / perfectly packed pillow you spent all those years chasing down waiting for you on your bed.
  1. If you’re in a relationship, bring some stamps, some paper, and some envelopes, and write love letters home. If you have a kid or kids who can read, write to them, too. Postcards work wonderfully for this…
  1. Even if you don’t exercise in your regular life, try to exercise on the road. You don’t have to be a runner – take a walk early in the morning before tech. Do some pushups, laps in the hotel pool or sun salutations. If you’re on a long stay, find out if the theater has a relationship with a local gym, or look for a trial membership nearby… 30-day trials = the whole run on some shows.
  1. If you can’t go home on your day off, take two hours to go touristing. Everywhere in the world has something interesting about it, and sitting in your housing working on the next gig the ENTIRE day off will make you very grumpy on Tuesday. Is there a 40-year old heavy metal club in the neighborhood? A Polka society? An interesting rock formation? A Donner Party museum? Check it out.
  1. Talk to the drivers. Whether you’re Ubering, being picked about by apprentices, or traveling via a volunteer society of theater supporters, get to know them. They’re probably really interesting, they can clue you into the lay of the land, and you never know – you might make a cool new friend.
  1. I often feel like the difference between a successful regional gig with lots of out-of-town artists and a failure lies in the hands of company management. You can’t change how good or bad company management is, but you can at least make friends with them.* Even if you think they suck, they are probably trying their hardest, in rough conditions, as they’re often very low on the priority list when it comes to $$$. (And, if they really suck, and they’re really not trying? Tell the Artistic Director when you leave. Because that’s not ok, and you’ll make life better for everyone else down the line. Also – if there are any theater leaders reading this – please stop luring aspiring actors/writers/designers into Company Management apprenticeships – why not pursue graduates of hospitality programs? Or at least folks interested in theater management?)
  1. If you decide to rearrange your room (and I often do), take a picture of it before you move the furniture, and then put it back the way you found it. Don’t make life harder for that poor company management intern, or small theater’s artistic director, who will have to put it all back before the next artist comes. Housing Karma is real.
  1. If weather permits, and your body works well with it, ask the company if anyone around has a spare bicycle. Especially if you’re housed off-campus – it can make your commute in to the theater way more pleasant, and it allows you to avoid needing to wrangle over the shared-car situation, aside from when you need those groceries.
  1. Even if it’s embarrassing or seems obvious, if you have any special needs, tell Company Management explicitly. My friend John Beluso, who was well known for his writing about being in a wheelchair, was housed in non-ADA accessible housing on more than one occasion. I’ve been taken out to eat at “the BEST crab shack around” – and I’m allergic to seafood. Major or minor, obvious or subtle, why make life worse? Avoid the embarrassment.
  1. If you’re the sound or lighting designer, and you do a shop order, add an extra power strip / surge protector to your order, and let your department head know that it’s for your room. If you’re not, ask the sound / lighting department really nicely for one. They probably have one, and it’ll definitely be useful.
  1. Buy a second phone charger. Put it in your work bag. Every time you take it out of your work bag and use it, put it back in at the end of the day. Every time. Put it back. When it’s saved your bacon the fourth time, you can write and thank me.

And, last, not a tip but just a thought to try and keep in mind: There is no not-for-profit theater in the world that brought you in to work with them because they hate you, or hate artists, or want you to be miserable. They’re excited to have you there, they are spending money to have you in from out of town because they think you’re bringing them something they don’t have at home, and they’re on your team. So, even as you’re gently escorting that stinkbug off of your coverlet, or heating up that CupASoup in a 200 watt microwave with a note on it that says “please don’t run this and the space heater at the same time” – try and remember. They really, truly are doing their best for you – and for the art of the show. If you’re the lead in the show, you probably ARE already in the best housing they have available, and if you are a fancy out-of-town designer, they really are doing their level best with that short-term situation. This doesn’t mean you have to be sycophantically grateful – but just try and keep this in mind, before you go storming into their offices.

Please add your own tips – maybe we can keep this going, and make life better for all of us!

* So, here’s the story with this.  I was lucky enough to do a show with the National Theater, in London.  And the first trip out, just because I like people, I spent some time getting to know the super amazing person in charge of housing us – just sat with her and chatted a bit, and learned her story, and became friends. Because I like people, and she was definitely good people.  And they’d given me a studio that was a little bit wonky, but it was fine – I was just there for 5 days on that trip.  I certainly didn’t complain – I let them know about a couple of issues with the space, but didn’t even worry them about getting them fixed.  But I did mention the fact that, for my long visit, my wife and four-year-old son were going to fly over and join me, and so, if it was at all possible, I’d love to get a two-bedroom spot.  They asked me when they were coming to join me, and if I’d mind shifting apartments partway through, if that made it work.  I was, of course, totally fine with that.  Well, when I got back, I spent 3 days in a perfectly fine corporate apartment about a 15 minute walk from the theater, and then got moved to a 2-story, 2-bedroom apartment with a deck. On Drury Lane.  In the middle of the West End.  It came with an espresso maker,  two beds in the second bedroom (in case someone else was going to visit), and was a 10 minute stroll over the bridge to the NT.  One of the other team members, who I’m told complained non-stop about the same perfectly good corporate digs, about the management (and about everything else), also moved on from the corporate housing.  To a small studio apartment that was a 30 minute bus-ride from the theater.

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