Rise, Shine, Repeat: A Day in the Life of an Acting Apprentice

Sarah Grace Welbourn, a member of ATL's current apprentice company

Sarah Grace Welbourn, a member of ATL’s current apprentice company

Sarah Grace Welbourn needs sleep.

It’s 5 o’clock on the final Friday of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. The acting apprentice is curled up in an office chair off a quiet stretch of Market Street. Her eyelids are half lowered and she blinks languidly, like a housecat. She’s been up since 7 a.m., and a drowsy smile plays on her face. That she’s good-natured is promising for her future with the press – after being told she wasn’t needed for an interview, she headed home to grab a nap, but doubled right back when asked to return.

A tight schedule and very little shuteye make up the life of an apprentice. Potential candidates audition for ATL’s training company in January. The chosen few – program director Michael Legg sees over 2,000 actors for about 20 slots – are notified in April and move to Louisville in August. And from that moment until the season wraps up in May, it’s an aspiring actor boot camp. “Some months I couldn’t even call my mom. I’d be in the basement of the theatre either crewing or performing in the mainstage shows. When I came up, I’d work on our Humana shows,” she explains.

“Everybody has a ‘dark time’ – that’s when you’re in the basement. You don’t ever have to be in a good mood if you’re in dark times. ‘What’s wrong with Sarah Grace?’ ‘She’s in dark times right now.’ [It gets to where] if you don’t have anything to do, it feels really weird.”

The payoff is sweet, though. Humana Festival attracts not only prominent critics like Charles Isherwood from the New York Times, but high-profile agents and casting directors in the market for fresh blood. In addition to their very own show in the fest (this year it’s Sleep Rock Thy Brain, three short plays about sleeping problems, appropriately enough), the apprentices present a showcase to an all-industry audience. The stats aren’t too shabby. Eighteen of the 22 apprentices in the 2012 company landed work with companies and at least eight signed with agents within a few months of leaving Louisville.

A 26-year-old native of Nashville, Welbourn graduated from Northwestern and moved to New York City to start her career. Yet after three years of grinding, she still didn’t know how to get her work seen. “The [business of acting] is not something anybody much teaches. It’s not as fun to teach as the art, truth and beauty of it,” she says.

But today, she got seen. The company had its showcase this morning, and she received an email from an agent who asked her to return to the city as soon as her apprenticeship ends in order to audition for a show. And that’s how it starts. That’s what makes the “dark time” worth it.

How worth it? Sarah walked me through Friday, her big Showcase day.

7:00 a.m. Wake up and go for a run outside the house — a renovated B&B — she and four other apprentices share. “Lots of us go to the YMCA, but if the weather’s nice it’s easier to run outside than pay the dollar for parking. ‘Cause I don’t have that dollar.”

7:30 a.m. Back at house. “It was a stupidly short run. I felt like I was gonna get lost in my thoughts and get too far away from the house. That just speaks to the strange fears in my head this morning.”

7:45 – 8 a.m. Drink coffee, a lot of it. “I was drinking it like medicine, not to enjoy.”

8:30 a.m. Arrive at the theatre.

9:00 a.m. Final run of the apprentice’s showcase. Former apprentices attend as a show of support.

10:00 a.m. Perform the showcase, a series of two-person scenes,  for industry guests.

10:45 a.m. Showcase over. “Everybody was completely on cloud nine. I felt like I weighed two pounds.”

11:00 a.m. Tech the Ten-Minute Plays in the Pamela Brown theatre. “No time to pat yourself on the back! All of the guys in the apprentice program are in them, they used every single guy. Half of the girls are on the crew.”

1:00 p.m. Change the set from the Tens to Appropriate. “During that time, we started getting emails about who was interested in us from the showcase. So we had to leave the changeover to go to meetings with agents. It was madness. You’re in your running shorts and t-shirt. I had to run down and sneak my jeans into the dryer in the costume laundry room ‘cause I needed them to shrink back to how I like them to fit.”

1:15 p.m. Meet with agents. “It was really exciting! In a way that caught me off guard. A lot of what we do is work for the theatre, and you forget that it’s all spiraling toward this great opportunity to connect.”

1:30 p.m. Back to work. Changeover still happening in Pamela Brown.

3:30 p.m. Hour break. “I went to meet up with my friend Sam at Chipotle. I hadn’t eaten. If you’re on the Bingham crew, you don’t see the people on the Pamela Brown crew. We’re all about the Chipotle.”

4:30 p.m. This interviewer is late due to confusion over where we’re meeting.

4:45 p.m. Run an errand. “I went to [the bank] to try to figure out how little money I really have. We get a stipend for the entire apprenticeship that’s spread out in three payments. You have to be really strategic. It’s April 6th and I haven’t paid my rent yet. I was moving funds around so I can go do that.”

5:00 p.m. Return for the interview.

5:45 p.m. Nap, finally.

7:30 p.m. Crew Appropriate.

10:00 p.m. Leave Appropriate as soon as last duty performed. “We have a show tonight at 11 p.m.” Laughs.

11:00 – 12:30 a.m. Perform Sleep Rock Thy Brain.

1:00 a.m. Go out. “You have to go. Everybody’s here. You don’t want to miss out on meeting people. We’ll drag ourselves there. But the last thing we have to do is a changeover, so we’re all sweaty and gross. And whatever you brought to wear, you stuck in your book bag at 7 a.m. and there’s a wrinkle situation.”

The light at the end of the tunnel? Monday. “We’re calling the last three weeks ‘Apprentice Spring Break.’ We’ll get to be with each other exclusively.” Louisville, you’ve been warned.


  1. Joan Welbourn says:

    Good article! Makes me tired to read about Sarah’s schedule.

  2. I think this girl sounds really active, optimistic, and so witty! I would still say this all even if she wasn’t my sister and best friend. Somebody get her on SNL pronto!

  3. This girl has what it takes. I am especially impressed by her money management skills.

  4. I like the part where she felt like she weighed 2 pounds

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