The auditorium at Averett University was quiet as professor of theater Richard Breen kicked his foot up on an empty seat.
A large black stage dominates one half of the room, with chairs for approximately 580 people standing in rows on the acclivity toward the theater’s exit. Depending on the day, that still, dark room looks very different; actors swirl across the stage, songs and dances are perfected and showcased for eager theater-goers and audiences sit in rapt attention at a performance that will never be exactly replicated.
But behind the curtain are stage technicians scrambling to keep the show going, sweaty costumes, fights between actors and, for some, a nomadic lifestyle that keeps thespians moving around the country. It can be a stressful exercise.
So why do it?
“You have to want this, with every bit of your fiber and being,” Breen said, seated on the stage. “You have to sit there and go ‘I have to do theater.’”
Breen has been hooked on theater since the fourth grade when he performed in a puppet show that aired on local television around Ramstein Air Base in Germany. His father was stationed there, and after competing in a talent show and enjoying every second of his time on stage, he caught the theater bug.
“I said to my mom, ‘can I do this?’” he recounted. “And she said, ‘yeah, you can son.’”
Theater is not a vocation, Breen explained. It is a calling — an itch that needs to be scratched, whether living contract-to-contract as a traveling actor or teaching theater to the next generation of actors, producers and designers. Because of Averett’s small class size, Breen said, each student can get more individual attention to help prepare them for the world outside the classroom.
The university puts on shows — typically five a year — for and with the community, inviting non-students to audition for the plays. Over the course of a three-day run, a show can bring in 2,400 people, Breen said.
For students that graduated Averett’s theater program like Kristen Williams, theater grabbed her as a junior in high school as she helped with a school play.
“I was like ‘this is what I want to do professionally,’” she recounted in the taproom of 2 Witches Winery & Brewing in Danville. “You get to put something out into the world that did not exist before and will never exist that same way again.”
But since graduating in 2006, the roles have reversed. Williams is now the theater teacher, tutoring students at Tunstall High School who may fall for the craft like she did. That compulsion to be onstage leads many to live the show-to-show lifestyle — peripatetic thespians going where the work is, however unglamorous, and leaving for a new gig later.
“If you are a theater person, you do not stop,” she said. “It is part of you.”
The world of theater outside the university is tough, Breen said. Traveling actors have to live on contracts for shows and make up the difference with side jobs, he explained. But the peaks are high, graduate Ja’Corey Jones said.
Working as a signer on the ironically named cruise ship “Norweigan Sky,” Jones has been to Hawaii, Buenos Aires and the Falkland Isles. He never expected to see himself singing Sammie Davis Jr. on a boat.
“I honestly didn’t even know about cruise ships until a year after I graduated,” he wrote in an email. “A friend of mine ended up getting a job with Norwegian and then told me about it and at first I was a little hesitant but I decided to go ahead and do it.”
Matriculating as a criminal justice major, he developed a love for theater after meeting theater students and knew he had to change.
“That’s where I found my love for performing and really knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he wrote.
That drive to perform in, design or otherwise produce a show is something that does not go away, Breen said. And many Averett students have grasped and followed it through a daunting professional world to success.
“If this is what you want, you have to go after it,” Breen said. “And you don’t stop until you get what it is you’re looking for.”