I met the craziest, cutest, most bright-eyed, star-struck girl a few weeks ago. She actually managed to track me down at Broadway Dance Center. When I came out of the school she literally threw her arms around my body and told me she loved me and I was her idol and it was because of me that she learned she could pursue acting as a career and not just as a hobby. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or terrified. But almost instantly instinct took over and I realized it was a fan that had been corresponding with me via email for about a week already. I shouted, “Kelsey!” She rambled frenetically, “I swear I’m not a stalker! Well, I guess I did stalk you here, but it’s not what it looks like.” I smiled and knew she was harmless and speaking from the heart.
I told her I was rushing off to meet Patrick for dinner, but if she wanted to accompany me to the subway we could squeeze in a talk. She listened with a ferocity that actually inspired me. This girl was a sponge. It was clear to me she had what it would take to make it in the business of show . . . moxie.
But she definitely needed advice. We all do when tackling such a huge venture, like conquering a ridiculous business, not to mention in a city that could eat you alive. I thought I might share with you some of the advice I passed on to Kelsey.
First I congratulated her for taking the biggest step of all toward achieving her dream of becoming a professional stage actor . . . moving to New York City. It took guts to get here. It will take even more to stay here. But this is where the auditions are. This is where the opportunities are. Yes, there are regional theaters across the country, but the cold hard fact is those theaters audition actors here. There have been times that my husband and I have worked in regional productions only to hear the local actors who have been cast in smaller roles complaining bitterly about the New York actors who come in and steal all their parts. To that we say, “Get your butt to NYC, work three crappy jobs to pay the exorbitant rent on your sh_thole apartment that you have to share with two other obnoxious roommates just to get by, and compete in the biggest pool of talent where thousands of more talented people are standing by to ‘steal’ your parts.” (Whew! I typed that in one breath. Pardon me while I brush that chip off my shoulder.)
Then I went on to give her some practical advice about making a permanent home here and the first-things-first situation of setting up shop in New York. Perhaps these basic tips will resonate and be helpful to some of you aspiring actors out there. (Then keep reading for the 8 Life Lessons!):
* Get yourself on social media. (Kelsey isn’t currently.) One of the fastest, most efficient ways of finding a sublet and connecting nowadays is via Facebook or other social platforms.
* Check the Equity call board or chat sites for sublets. If you’re not in the union, perhaps you have a friend who is and can assist.
* Anybody in your current school in need of finding housing too? (Kelsey was doing a summer intensive at The NY Conservatory of Dramatic Arts) Perhaps you can pair up with a fellow student, even two, and find a place to rent together. Roommates can be tricky, but they do allow better spaces to become more financially attainable. Plus, you gain an automatic network/family to come home to. Bonus. 🙂
* Don’t get too stuck looking only in the obvious Manhattan neighborhoods. Look in Washington Heights, Astoria, Long Island City, Inwood, and Sunnyside. Tons of actor peeps live in these neighborhoods. Theses areas are lovely and not nearly as inconvenient as Manhattan snobs may imply. LOL.
* You’re gonna need a job. People wait tables primarily because the shifts are flexible and it’s a “disposal” job, meaning if you had to quit for an audition or gig, you would, and then just get another job at a different restaurant. Same goes for any retail job. You can also look into temping.
* Experience as a nanny or qualified babysitter can also be advantageous. It can be fruitful and flexible. Can be emotionally delicate if you book a job and don’t want to leave a family you’ve grown close to, but it can really serve a purpose of getting you shelter and cash in the city you need to live in.
But above all, and far more importantly, are a few life lessons that Patrick and I have catalogued over the years. Rules, if you will, that will sustain anyone and everyone as they try to keep their head above water and their spirits high in the quest to succeed in any difficult career or challenge:
- Get used to hearing “No”. Successful people have heard the word NO a thousand times more often than those who are not as successful. “No” puts you in the same league as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg and just about everyone else who has ever made something of themselves. Patrick and I see far too many friends who don’t book a job in the first year, heck, the first month, and they’re ready to throw in the towel. You must be able to stick it out.
- Be a life long Learner. When I got to NYC I was in dance class everyday. And voice and acting, too. Maintaining and growing in your craft is ongoing. And that means ALL learning. Newspapers, current events, literature, seeing plays and shows and concerts, taking workshops and intensives. You cannot just wait. You must do your job, even when you don’t have a gig.
- Surround yourself with people who believe in you as much or more than you do. You’re gonna have plenty of detractors, plenty of people who tell you what you want to do can’t be done. So counter it by surrounding yourself with a force-field of people who know you can.
- Never take “no” from someone who doesn’t have the power to say “yes”. Just let that one sink in for sec. It’s probably my favorite. It doesn’t mean stepping up too many rungs on the ladder too quickly or going over people’s heads indiscriminately, but rather, don’t stop before you’ve exhausted every option.
- When yes comes, be ready! And don’t use #4 unless you are ready. This takes into account Rule 2. It’s not always the most talented person who gets the job. It’s the one who’s ready and never gives up.
- Be yourself. This sounds easy, but it’s so hard in business and in life. It’s tempting to fall prey to wondering what they want, rather than showing what you have to give. One of the things I told Kelsey was how much I appreciated her enthusiasm and vigor. Like me, she was often teased for her outgoing, overly perky, seemingly annoying personality. But it will be her calling card soon enough. If you’re faking something, you’ll never be able to keep it up long term. I have another friend who has fiery red hair. Everyone was telling her she’d have to mute it. She tried that. Big mistake. She didn’t feel like herself and was insecure every time she went into an audition. She dyed it back and is much happier. Oh, and she booked a job btw, thank you very much. My advice is . . . you do you, boo.
- Live outside your comfort zone. You have to be afraid and on the edge to have any kind of success. Don’t play it safe with your heart, your goals, your fervor, or your attempts. Go for it full tilt. That’s what I meant when I said it was amazing that Kelsey took the leap from her small hometown to New York City. Balls to the walls.
- Be Flexible. Be prepared for success to look differently than you imagined. You never know where a path may lead you. My friend Dan wished and dreamed and even assumed that he’d be a tap dancer on Broadway, but low and behold, a surprise path brought him to his true calling as a musical director and conductor. You can read Dan’s story in another blog I wrote, All I Ever Wanted. He is so inspiring.
So there you have ‘em. Mine and Patrick’s life lessons and rules. Pretty straight forward stuff. And we realize easier said than done. But we will be those people in your corner telling you it can be done, encouraging you to stick it out. Consider us in your Rule #3 camp.
And tell me your biggest life lessons, too. I’m always up for learning. You know, Rule #2 and all.