Do triple threats really exist?

In Features, London theatre, Opinion by Susan ElkinLeave a Comment

I caught up with La La Land on a recent long-haul flight. It’s a pleasant enough film with some interesting performances although I can’t for the life of me see why it won all those Oscars. What did strike me forcibly though is that it really illustrates how the triple threat has come into its own. Every performer in that film can act (really act), sing and dance and the three disciplines just segue seamlessly into each other so that the audience is barely aware of it.  Each performer has to be able to do it all to the highest possible standard. And it’s a good illustration of how things are going right across the industry.

No one wants people who can act “straight” but who won’t sing and can’t dance. Today you need to be multi-skilled.

Whenever I see Imelda Staunton, Judi Dench Julie Walters or Meryl Streep – to name but four and there are many others of course – in action I marvel that they can be such terrific all rounders. Take Staunton, for instance. Last year she was astonishing audiences with the quality of her simultaneous singing acting and dancing in Gypsy. Now she’s doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (more high octane anguish) without a song in sight.

In theory, then, musical theatre training ought to be the way forward because it gives you everything. Not so, it seems. I’ve been talking to actors and other professionals about the way musical theatre training is regarded in the industry. Apparently there is still a stigma because of a perception that some musical theatre courses don’t teach acting properly. If you’ve just graduated from a musical theatre course your chances of getting an audition for role in a straight play are slim because some casting directors are sniffy about musical theatre training.

I also gather than some musical theatre grads wanting to keep their work flexible and versatile are pretty frustrated about this. Some are retrospectively vexed that acting was so thinly taught on their courses.

There is also some concern about preparation for film work. After all there are plenty of musical films being made and recognised – La La Land for one. And look how successful Les Miserables and Mama Mia have been in their film versions. Well done, ArtsEd then which has long taught film acting and which takes acting within its musical theatre courses very seriously. And bravo Musical Theatre Academy (The MTA) which splits its course equally between film and stage work. Many of the MTA’s graduates have gone on to get work in straight plays too.

Such enlightened course planning is far from general though and there’s still work to be done to break down workplace prejudices. After all if you can do what they want then the details of your training are irrelevant. The trouble is you have to be invited into the audition room in order to be able to demonstrate that and, too often, it all becomes a vicious circle.

Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a former teacher of secondary English. She has also been a very active and eclectic freelance journalist for more than 25 years. She now focuses on education, performing arts and books, and was education and training editor at The Stage newspaper 2015-2016. Susan is the author of over 40 books, mostly on education and performing arts topics, including So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books). In 2016, she launched her personal website susanelkin.co.uk.
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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin is a former teacher of secondary English. She has also been a very active and eclectic freelance journalist for more than 25 years. She now focuses on education, performing arts and books, and was education and training editor at The Stage newspaper 2015-2016. Susan is the author of over 40 books, mostly on education and performing arts topics, including So You Want to Work in Theatre (Nick Hern Books). In 2016, she launched her personal website susanelkin.co.uk.