For now, actor Susan Shunk still has a day job – in fact, she has two. Both are part-time and flexible so she can fit them around her growing rehearsal, performance and audition schedules. "Some day soon I'll be making enough money as an actor to be able to quit my day jobs – even though I really like them," explained Ms. Shunk.
She fell in love with the theater in high school when she saw a touring production of Les Miserables. "I started auditioning. My first role was the lead in Antigone by French playwright Jean Anouilh." She also got involved with a local theater in Iowa City. "The couple who ran it taught me that you can have a fulfilling and creative life in the theater and also have a family and be an active member of the community." They also told her about the American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Her internship at APT nurtured her passion for Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov and the other classical playwrights.
Ms. Shunk graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a major in theater. With her bachelor's degree in hand, she moved to Chicago, a city with a thriving theater scene. One-and-a-half years later – and with some acting successes under her belt, Ms. Shunk decided she needed more training. She enrolled in the Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) at the University of Delaware, a graduate conservatory that specializes in the classics.
After she earned her master in fine arts degree, she and her husband Matt Schwader, also a PTTP graduate, moved back to Chicago. They are both members of Actors' Equity, the national union for 45,000 professional actors and stage managers, and are represented by agents. They work as actors in Chicago and out of town. "Matt and I are very lucky; the vast majority of Equity members are not working in the theater," said Ms. Shunk.
"You need more than talent to be a working actor," she added. "You need good training, the ability to keep learning and the drive to continually market yourself. You have to make it happen. But it's worth it. There's nothing as thrilling as feeling an audience coming along with you as you tell a great story."
Tell us about your career. When did it start? How did you discover your talent?
I didn't grow up going to the theater. I didn't see a play until I was in high school and saw a touring production of Les Miserables. That's when I fell in love with the theater and was inspired to start auditioning for school productions. But I was known as being shy and my teachers wouldn't cast me in anything. Then a new theater teacher was hired. She didn't know I was too shy and he cast me in the title role of Jean Anouilh's Antigone. My passion for classical theater grew during my internship at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. APT is a professional Equity house that produces Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov and other classical playwrights. I just knew that's what I wanted to do – tell great stories through great texts.
How is your career unfolding?
I moved to Chicago after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a major in theater. For the next one-and-a-half years, I worked to break into the Chicago theater scene. I was having some success, but I also realized I needed more training. So, I enrolled in the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Delaware. It's a three-year graduate conservatory that specializes in the classics. Students train in acting, stage management or technical theater. After my husband and I graduated from PTTP, we moved back to Chicago. We're both represented by agents now and we're members of Actors' Equity. As we go to more and more auditions here and out of town and get more roles and work with more people we make more connections and get to be better known. With every year, we're earning more and more of our living as working actors.
What do you enjoy the most about acting?
I love being on stage and telling a story to the audience. I love being in a room together with other human beings and feel them coming along with me while I tell them a great story.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
I got involved in a local theater in Iowa City when I was in high school. It was run by a couple who showed me by example that it was possible to have a family, be involved in your community and have a fulfilling and creative life in the theater. I want to be known as an actor who is talented, professional, well-trained and easy to work with. Who knows? Maybe someday Matt and I will have our own theater, too.
What has been your personal key to success?
I believe that you have to make it happen. You have to set a goal – with the understanding that it will probably change – and then push yourself to achieve it. You need more than talent to become a working actor. You need good training, the ability to keep learning and the drive to get out there and continually market yourself.
What was a great moment for you as an actor?
I was in a show in Chicago called Shear Madness. It's a comedy that's set in a hair salon. There's been a murder and the audience gets to decide who did it and how. One performance, there was an autistic boy in the audience. He called out a fairly improbable scenario. But I was able to make it work. He was beaming and after the show, the people who brought him thanked me for listening to him and empowering him. It made me very happy.
What were some of your favorite experiences as an actor?
When I was a graduate student at the Professional Theater Training Program at the University of Delaware, I got to work with Adrian Hall. He's the founder and artistic director of the Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island and one of the "wave makers" in American theater. Under his direction, we created our own version of All the King's Men. We connected to the material in a profound way.
I also was able to work with Tadashi Suzuki. He's Japan's best known director and the originator of the Suzuki Method for training actors. His technique is very physical; you really sharpen your voice and body skills. He combines elements of traditional Japanese performance and Western realism, stresses teamwork and believes theater plays a critical role in today's world. He's famous for his adaptations of Euripides, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Japan's early 19th century kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV.
Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the theater and acting to be successful?
Why would anyone do this otherwise? I think passion helps you be a go-getter and make sure people see your work.
Describe a typical day of work for you.
I'm a certified Pilates teacher. I start teaching classes at 7:30 in the morning. Then I go to rehearsal for five hours and go back to the Pilates studio in the evening to teach another class or two. I go home, have dinner and work on my lines. Or it might be my day to work in the children's clothing store instead of teaching Pilates. And when I'm in a show that's running, I'm performing at night and at matinees.
Are computers important to you as an actor?
Absolutely. I get audition notices, rehearsal schedules and sides (sides are excerpts from plays that show only the cues and the lines for a single specific role. A play with five characters could have five different sides). I use the computer to do research, to market myself, to reach out. I send e-mails and attach my headshot and resume. I create, edit and send my bios for programs. I look up directors and other actors. I find out what's going on.
You're a member of Actors' Equity Association. What are the other professional organizations you could belong to?
Equity is the national union for 45,000 actors and stage managers. I don't need to belong to the Screen Actors Guild or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Yet.
What are some common myths about your profession?
That we don't do real work; that acting isn't a profession. We work very hard. I know I prepare anywhere from 10 to 20 hours for each audition. A rehearsal can last up to eight hours a day. You spend whatever time you can memorizing lines and working scenes, working on your delivery, doing research, watching relevant films. You're constantly working on your craft.
Who are the actors you most admire?
There are many Chicago actors that I think are remarkable. Of the actors with most name recognition that I most admire, I would say Emma Thompson and Patrick Stewart.
What are the best ways to get a job?
Audition, audition, audition. Show up on time. Be professional and be easy to get along with. Market yourself. Do mailings, try to get seen. Get known. Make sure you have good headshots and a good resume. Get an agent.
What do you consider most challenging about acting?
Creating and maintaining a well-rounded life. Making sure you stay connected and go to weddings and family reunions. Learning to handle rejection. You need to realize that when you don't get a part, it isn't personal. It's all about choices. You just have to continue to do the best you can and keep growing.
How is theater different than other art forms?
Live theater is probably similar to live music. You're "with" the audience in that moment. You're aware of the room, the people. You pay attention to the audience and if you're succeeding in bringing them along with you.
You received bachelor's and master's degrees from well-known schools. Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?
You make some good contacts. But mostly, you get good training. And you get lots of experience doing shows. The conservatory I went to has graduated a high percentage of working actors.
You trained in classical theater. Do you think that makes a difference?
It might. I trained in classical theater because I love the great texts, especially Shakespeare and Shaw. You have to master basic techniques to become agile with that language. You need rigorous vocal, speech and movement training. Then you have to learn to let your technique work for you naturally.
How available are internships?
There are quite a few opportunities. The schools know about them. In fact, many companies actively recruit from professional theater training programs.
How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?
Who knows? There is always talk about how American theater is dying. But I believe there will always be a place for the classics. And there's so much going on in the world now that's makes us more socially conscious. Some of the best work has been created during times of social unrest. I also believe that as our technology increases, we will need human interaction even more. I think people are going to want to be together and hear a great story – just the way we always have.
Why is theater important?
You have contact with other humans. It fulfills a human need for storytelling. It helps us learn about ourselves and others, to have compassion, to think.
Do you need an agent? How do you get one?
It's more important in Chicago than I thought it would be, especially if you want to be considered for commercials or film. The best way to get an agent is through a referral and having an agent see your work.
Tell us about your theater education.
I got my undergraduate degree in theater at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and my master's degree in fine arts at the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Delaware, a graduate conservatory program. PTTP is a three-year program. It only accepts a few students every year. My class had 28 actors, six stage managers and ten technical theater students. You're in the classroom during the day and rehearsing or performing in the evening. We did 15 to 20 shows in our last year.
What did you like and dislike about your education?
What I liked was having the time to work on my skills, to practice. I liked working with my fellow students, learning how to become agile with classical language and working with extraordinary teachers, especially at PTTP. We learned that we were responsible for our lives and our futures. It was intense and we got incredible training. And it was free, so it was an honor to be selected for the program.
What I disliked is that you get stuck in the ways of the school. But they warned us about that. That we'd have to learn how to shed some of the stuff we learned in school and learn how to make it work in the real world.
If someone has the talent already, should they go to school for the theater and why?
You need more than talent to be a working actor. You need good training, the ability to keep learning and the drive to continually market yourself. You have to make it happen. But it's worth it. There's nothing as thrilling as feeling an audience coming along with you as you tell a great story.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?
Go someplace you really want to be. It has to feel right. I knew when I visited the University of Wisconsin that it was where I wanted to be – even though my family wanted me to go somewhere else. Meet with the professors. Decide if you feel welcome.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?
There are lots of very good schools and programs. People have heard about NYU, for example, but there are many good schools. You have to talk to people, do your research and visit.
Would you change anything about your education if you could? If so, what?
Like everyone else, I wish I could have seen then what I know is important now. For example, small stuff doesn't matter.
What are some of the trends that you see in the theater that could help students plan for the future?
Friends of ours are doing commercials on the Internet. One friend is doing a lot of work for video games. They put sensors all over him. He's one of the characters in Grand Theft Auto. Who knows what opportunities there will be for podcasts? But I think getting the best training you can is the key. Learn to move, learn to work with classical language, be professional.
Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with Susan Shunk personally about this interview, click here.