The Summer Stock Experience in The Last Five Years

By Shannon Stockwell 

The Last Five Years runs until June 5. Get your tickets here!

In The Last Five Years, Cathy regales us with horrid stories of her time at a theater in the Midwest with the song “Summer in Ohio.” She spends the warm months of the year at what is known in the business as summer stock theater. The practice of staging summer theater in rural areas, sometimes referred to as the “straw-hat circuit,” stems back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when urbanites would escape the stifling heat of the city by traveling to the countryside. Some theater companies fulfilled the city dwellers’ need for entertainment by setting up stages in barns and tents. The tradition of summer stock theater is still going strong, although most summer theaters today have actual performance spaces.

Berkshire Theatre Festival, a summer stock theater in western Massachusetts.
Photo by John Phelan, 2010. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Cathy’s summer is clearly a miserable one, but is Cathy’s experience true to life? Are there any unsung positives to the summer stock experience? In fact, many of A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Program actors have cut their teeth at summer stock theater and continue to return, and their stories of summer stock compare and contrast with Cathy’s in striking ways.

One significant thing Cathy doesn’t mention is the grueling pace of summer stock, and the stretching of artistic muscles that results. M.F.A. Program actor Jennifer Apple, who is in her first year at A.C.T., says, “It’s a really intense experience. You usually get one week of rehearsals, maybe one and a half, three if you’re lucky.” Sometimes productions are only up for a week; sometimes they are performed in repertory with other productions throughout the summer. No matter the schedule, actors are in for a demanding, rewarding summer, one that will give them a year’s worth of experience in just three months. “One of the things that summer stock helps you achieve is flexibility,” says Apple. “You have to be ready for anything at all times. That’s an incredibly useful skill to have as an actor.”

For M.F.A. Program actor Emily Brown, who is in her second year at A.C.T., summer stock has the feeling of work, but also has a bit of a summer-camp atmosphere. “It’s a tight-knit group that comes together for a few weeks to a few months, often in a remote location,” says Brown. “Actors and other artists find themselves spending a lot of time together and exploring the area in their time off. It tends to result in deep bonds with new friends, fun nights out, silly memories, and adventures, much like the experience one would have at a summer camp—but with some work thrown in for good measure.”

It seems like the summer stock experience isn’t as bad as Cathy makes it out to be. “I feel like, because Cathy wants success (which, for her, means fame like her husband’s), summer stock is beneath her,” says second-year M.F.A. Program actor Albert Rubio, who has spent time at his fair share of summer stocks. “The song paints a pretty grim picture of summer stock in general, which I feel is because of Cathy’s mental state in the story and her own self-doubts about feeling unsuccessful. In terms of getting work as an actor, she is successful; she just hasn’t achieved something that would make her ‘famous’ and therefore equal to her husband.”

In reality, the summer stock experience—while it has its downsides—proves positive overall. Despite Cathy’s terrible season, summer stock remains an important aspect of American theater, a place where growing and professional artists can thrive together.

To read more about the summer stock experience in The Last Five Years, click here to purchase a printed or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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