Thursday, October 9, 2014

Working Performer

When I first announced that I wanted to be an actress, my mother was supportive. In the next breath she quipped, “They say Thank God for the actors in New York. That way, the restaurants are fully staffed.”

My father wasn’t as glib about the whole affair. Flat out, devoid of emotion yet filled with practicality, he advised, “Get a real job.”

After my freshmen year of high school, I was admitted into a Pre-College program at Carnegie Mellon University. One of the most prestigious acting programs in the land, this was an honor, albeit a costly one. The curriculum was to mimic conservatory training like one would have at a four year BFA Program like Carnegie Mellon. Hopefuls, many who dreamed of Carnegie Mellon especially, came from all over the country to have a taste of this drama boot camp. Some of the older kids especially were dying for the mock auditions, because if they did well it could mean early admit into CMU.

All summer, we learned the difference between BFA and BA, and which each meant. BFA was all acting, and BA was more or less liberal arts. We had one monologue class with a woman by the name of Helena Sharpe. A former NYU dramat in the early days of the Tisch program, Helena had New York under her belt so we were more apt to listen closely to her. When she spoke of her college days, she told us horror stories of a cut system, meaning each class had so many students entering, and then they only would graduate a few. Several law suits later, NYU and many programs like it have done away with this antiquated practice. Now they just make school so hard that if a student can’t hack it, they simply drop out. Helena told us that each semester she used to get stomach ulcers fearing she would be sent home.

Helena had done the whole actress thing in New York for a few years. When she spoke of her time in the city, she told us horror story after horror story of how hard work and talent did not equal success. Helena mentioned a successful career had more to do with look and luck. In the next breath, she reiterated that this would not be fair. Helena then relayed that many actors she knew spent their yout waiting tables, and developed no other skills other than those required to manage a restaurant. After several years of being married, she and her husband had relocated to Pittsburgh after he got an adjunct professorship at the University of Pittsburgh in their Theatre Department. Now she more or less taught. Helena explained she wanted a family, and not the chaos of an acting career.

Either way, between NYU and New York itself, this woman seemed angry. Later I realized she wasn’t angry, just beaten down by a profession that doesn’t really want the people who enter it. I will never forget Helena’s pained piece of advice, “If you can picture yourself doing something else, please do it. The world needs creative and talented people everywhere. The theatre is only one place. Have a house, have a bed, have a life.”

After my Pre-College training ended, I stepped up my game by taking acting classes Saturday morning at Point Park, another Pittsburgh college with a respected performing arts program. Our teacher, Jackie McDaniel, was the wife of a well-known Pittsburgh actor, writer, and teacher. She herself brought drama programs to inner-city youth and I assisted her.

Jackie wanted us to know the truth about our decision so we were not surprised by how brutal our career choice was. While she had never done the New York grind, her husband Bill had. For a few years he had acted before deciding to return home, thus meeting Jackie in a show. The showmance turned into 30 years of marriage and 2 children, one a computer engineer and the other a missionary. Translated, not actors.

At the start of the class, because we were all shooting for the big name acting programs, Jackie handed us a print out of the employment statistics and income of a New York actor. To say this was grim was a complete understatement. Yes, it was a ten percent employment rate and a meager yearly income. In the next breath, Jackie told us big jobs were hard to get, and some producers would try to sleep with us. Jackie also made us lists other interests we could fall back on if acting were not to work out. “I want you to know the facts.” She said.

Then as some of the kids in our class, myself included, began to audition for the big name schools, many were rejected. Luckily I got into NYU, but did not get admission by two other name schools, one being Carnegie Mellon. I was happy about NYU because it had been my first choice. While CMU’s rejection stung, I had lived in Pittsburgh my entire life and wanted to see other parts of the world. However, others in my class didn’t share my fate. Many were turned down by all their first choice schools, and the letters of rejection came like a rainstorm. Jackie assured them that they could get an undergrad at a state school, train, and then an MFA from a top program. Still, in their meltdown as their dreams were being killed they didn’t want to hear this. With the same mix of tough love and caring, Jackie stated, “Much of your life will be rejection. Don’t cry, get used to it.”

One Saturday, Jackie had us do improv, aka silent scenes. The assignment was to be as if in a given situation. There was one girl in our class, Tiffany, who stomped and whistled at a local musical theatre program in town. She was given a dance scholarship to Michigan despite her impressively low SAT score, but dropped out of the program later because she didn’t get to spend enough time with her boyfriend.

Jackie instructed Tiffany to act as if she was a working actor in New York getting on an elevator. Tiffany entered the pretend elevator like anyone. Jackie then stopped her. Infuriated, Jackie screamed, “No! No! No! Stop. In New York, if you are a working actor you are like a God. Do you know how many terrible jobs you probably had to work before you got that role! Give it some confidence!”

Tiffany took the note and tried again. With her beautiful dancer body, she stood up like Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Strutting like a high priced call girl, she entered the pretend elevator and pressed the button. Yeah, she was owning it. Tiffany had it. This was my dream, to be a working performer in New York. It was my dream to enter the elevator like a sexy beast. It was my dream to be that mythical creature of envy.

So it went. I completed my BFA at NYU. To support myself I got a job delivering singing telegrams. With the comedy, sometimes I would book headlining gigs but there is no money in standup. I paid my dues doing freebee shows in basements and bars. I got some paid puppet gigs and dinner theatre stuff, but the rest was freebee theatre and film work. Yes, in order to earn one’s wings you must first be slave labor.

Over time, I have also seen that Helena, Jackie, and my parents were not being cruel. Rather, they were giving me the God’s honest truth. This profession is brutal. Over the years, as Helena said, I have seen some of my peers squander their youth waiting tables. There have been times when I was on my way to deliver a singing telegram and an old friend from studio was there wiping the table top with their hard earned, very expensive BFA. Of course we said hi, and I relayed that I was working a day job as well. Wistfully, they reminded, “At least your day job is in performing.”

Sure, I had gotten lucky with that. When performing slowed, I was forced to flyer and do promos which sucked. Still, I had really lucked out. My boss has always been wonderful, letting me take off time to audition and film whatever television spot I might land. He has also recommended me for modelling and television opportunities as well, and even let me wear the captain’s jacket on a project regarding our company and my book. Not to mention my coworkers can be seen at any swing club singing or on television randomly themselves. We are all top notch at the outfit I work at.

Over time, I have been forced to deal with the terrible politics of my profession. There have been times I wished I was male, because then perhaps I would not have to work so hard. On other occasions, I have seen some talentless nitwits ascend to heights that both disturbed and puzzled me. Note, these talentless nitwits had a certain look and connections. I have seen fluzzies sleep their way to the middle, trying to make their career on their backs. Hell, I have had male promoters assert their gender over me, demanding I sleep with them in order to grace their shiteous stage. Or when success did come my way, there were male headliners who reminded me the only reason I got any success was because there was a woman needed for the spot, a shitty dig from a jealous person. Then there were women who spread rumors about these imaginary people I slept with. Add in two creative partners who tried to throw me under a bus and stab me in the back. Then chances where I almost got something big but it fell through, or momentum that got delayed and a domino effect of setbacks. I have lived through hell and eaten shit. Yes kids, I have paid my dues.

Now I know why Helena Sharpe was as intense as she was. She was beaten up, tired, and just brutalized beyond comprehension. Jackie had never done New York, but the horror stories form her husband and former students were so intense it made her never want to go.

However, this past year, my dream became a reality. I became a performer who worked consistently. Yes, I became that mythical beast everyone speaks about in New York. After a winter of questioning if I still wanted to do this, work came pouring in. Granted, technically I have always been a working performer through the telegrams. However, this was different. I was booking big stuff.

For starters, my DVD taping at a high profile cabaret venue was a success, and people brought my DVD including several fans in Europe and Australia. Now my DVD streams online. Around this time I also got a job as a talking head for a mobile device covering The World Cup. I had always wanted to do sports broadcasting so this fabulous opportunity was a gift. After which I got a hidden camera pilot where I made several awesome contacts and it paid my rent for most of July. Add in a puppet film that made the Top 200 in Project Greenlight. Then a photo shoot with a photographer from Hearst. My book signing was a success and sales skyrocketed. For nearly four months in a row, I didn’t have money troubles and rent paid itself. I was finally that mythical creature.

However, being a working performer means work. Being a mythical creature means a lot of running around, and it sucks when you can’t fly or teleport for real. The night of my DVD taping, I didn’t feel like a diva but rather someone who was overworked and who’s brain was exploding. After the event, I was so fried I couldn’t speak. Then when I headlined the theatre, the one show was small but the other was sold out. I found myself telling the producer how to do his job. Granted, I was right but now I felt less like a diva and more like a threadbare, overworked, angst ridden lonely woman who had sacrificed the better part of a decade. The film shoots meant early mornings, and weird sleeping schedules which led to some interesting encounters aka snapping at customers and staff at Amy’s Bread because I was so worn out. Then the other late nights and projects led to more hissy fits and feeling like I was run ragged. On top of that, I was stressed because I had worked forever for these opportunities and I didn't want to screw them up. So I started to have panic attacks that scared me. 

One day, I remember feeling so tired that I had nothing to give anyone, anywhere. My mother asked me if I was dating during a phone conversation. I exploded, “How the fuck am I supposed to do that! I have no time for myself!!!”

My schedule was stressful and wouldn’t let up. At the time, I was taking a graduate level writing seminar and wondered why the hell I had even signed up. While I enjoyed the class, I always felt like it was just one more thing I had to do. My mother always called me afterwards. Sometimes I would snap on the phone. Other times I just screamed. She asked me about the photo shoot with the man from Hearst, and if I was sure he wouldn’t kill me. Looking back, she was being a mother. I yelled in the middle of Duane Reade, “Mom, if he killed me I could sleep forever. My life is fucking demanding. Could I be so goddamn lucky!!!”

After that I walked into a tampon display. If that is not the definition of winning I don’t know what is. Either way, my schedule was starting to burn me out. I yelled into the phone as my boss called me for jobs. I wasn't mad, I was just that burnt out. Eating become optional, which was probably why some of my behavior was so off kilter. Coffee became a food group. This same behavior had burned me when I was nineteen, my first year of college. Yet here I was doing the same thing as I felt overwhelmed. I didn't like who I was becoming, and I was worried about the door I was opening as the panic attacks got worse and worse. While I still did well when I was called upon for a job, my screwed up state made it hard for me to leave the house. I thought I had left April the People Pleasing Neurotic at NYU freshmen year. She was back and working harder than ever. I felt in my gut I was not worthy of the work I booked, and somehow still had to work hard just to be on the same level as my cast mates. Nevermind I was booking the damn lead. 

My body constantly ached for no reason whatsoever. Exercising become near impossible as I always felt so wan, weak, and frail. My refrigerator broke, and rather than fix it, I kept food in the top part because it chilled my perishables to some extent. So when I did eat, I got very sick. I was too busy to have my appliance repaired, so I just kept getting sick. 

One evening, as things got bad, I was lying down on my stomach to sleep. My mattress felt uncomfortable so I readjusted it not once, not twice, but three times. Finally, I realized it wasnt the mattress. Going over to my mirror, I saw between my coffee diet, forgetting to eat, and getting ill when I did that I had lost so much weight my ribs were actually piercing my skin in my selected sleeping position! This is what I had always wanted, but now my dream had become my nightmare. Tired and feeling alone, I cried myself to sleep. 

Life got worse before it got better. I began to feel as if my performances were off, and blanked out during assignments because my brain was so tired. During a visit home, my mom told some old neighbors of mine from back home I was coming to a party. I yelled and screamed at her to the point of being abusive for making this decision without my consent. If anyone else would have spoken to my mother like this, I would have killed them. My mom told me to shut up, and informed me I could leave early. While these neighbors are great people that I adore, I fell asleep at dinner. My mother walked me home and put me to bed. 

The next day, my dad noticed the dark circles under my eyes. More often than not, I was distant like the Martin Sheen character in Apocalypse Now. My father, concerned, informed my mother I needed to rest. Did he think I was lying when I spoke about my schedule? I was a working performer. We didnt look like divas because we were working Goddamn it. I was one of the few, the proud, the gainfully employed stage performing and paid. Where was my metal?

Shortly after my meltdown at my family's house, I spoke to my mentor. A Broadway vet named Melina, she told me I needed to continue to rest and recommended I get educated on nutrition. She also suggested I get my refrigerator fixed. During our session, we discussed now it was okay to say no, and how the word yes was wonderful, but not when your dance card was overloaded. 

Things slowed down shortly thereafter. I took Melina's suggestion, educating myself on health and exercise. I consulted my trainer mother about what foods were best for someone with a stressful life, and filled my refrigerator with them. That is, after the thing got fixed. I also began to spend time with my friends, and realized that they liked me for me regardless of how my career was going. While it meant leaving my diva at the door, I hit open mics just to remember how it felt to have he sheer joy of making others laugh for the right reason. I wrote jokes. I dreamed new puppet characters. I drafted scripts. To feel inspired, I read plays and watched movies by genius directors with actors I loved. Once upon a time, I had done this as a teen in Pittsburgh. Yes, the same teen who dreamed of being a working performer. 

It got worse before it got better. When the phone stopped ringing, the panic that I would never work again set in. I wanted so desperately to go to the next level that every audition and writing packet submission had my bloody claw marks all over it. Then I realized that in my quest to prove to everyone that I could be a working performer, I had forgotten to be a person. In a career that demands I be a human, I had turned into a robot that kept going. The problem is, I am not a robot that can keep going. I am in fact a person. Working or not, despite popular belief, I was not a mythical creature at any point. I had worked so hard to prove myself to so many people, and in the end I was just becoming a crazy woman. 

However, things got better. One change I got was a commedia event where I worked with an ensemble who was all very good. There was no weak link amongst us. For the most part improv, it was amazing how well we all worked together. There was no stage hog, and everyone took turns with the spotlight and we supported each other. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I didn’t feel like the girl who had been on TV or the one who’s film was at a certain spot in the competition. I wasn’t obsessing over who was paying attention to me. I was onstage making people laugh and that’s all that mattered.

Once upon a time, that had been all that mattered in my journey. I got onstage because I liked to tell stories, entertain people. I wrote because I liked to tell my own stories. Then in my flashback, I saw poor Helena, who had been beaten by the eternally honest city I have come to call home. While she was happy as a professor and mother, all she ever got in New York was low/no wage theatre work. She would have died to switch places with me as a young woman. Jackie had been proud of me when I got admitted into NYU, and whenever she is asked she chirps about her student who went to New York, is on television, and is still there. Yes, I am doing all the things she had been so afraid to do. 

Many kids from my Pre-College program went running after that summer. They wanted lives, and conservatory training coupled with a job plagued with economic uncertainty was too much for them. Then my peers from my Saturday class at Point Park, aside from one who is on Broadway periodically with the voice of an angel, none are acting. Getting rejected from the big schools crushed their young spirits, and they didn’t want to sign on for a life that would continue to reduce their self-esteem.

As I realized that, I came to see being a working performer is not a chore or burden but rather a gift I am continually humbled by. This year in particular, I have been blessed to work with amazing casts and crews, and have a plethora of co-stars that I adore as artists and people. I wouldn’t want to trade them for anything.

My phone is ringing again. This past Friday I filmed some talking head commentary for a television show, and then filmed a movie Monday. My dad’s friend from high school is using I Came, I Saw, I Sang as a part of her book club. God willing, my phone will continue to ring. As the opportunities get bigger, I see my dream of performing at Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House with my puppet children becoming a reality. Of course, in there my manager needs some things from me and blah, blah, blah. Yes, I have one now. That was another gift of my hard work this summer.

As my workload increases, I will try not to run around like a crazy woman from one of those Netflix horror films. Instead, I will take care of my body, but most importantly, myself. This is not just for me, but everyone who dreams of being a working performer trying to earn their wings. Like Tiffany did once upon a time in our acting class exercise, I will own that working performer skin. I will own it everywhere I freaking go. Lord only knows I have earned it.

But before any diva strutting can be done, I must first get something to eat. Haven’t quite had that second meal of the day yet.

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