Updated: Aug 15, 2019
Not all theatrical dreams lead to NYC. Sometimes they do, and sometimes it’s just a pit stop on the way to another dream or goal. Yet, as a a musical theater loving nerd of the 1990’s, I was convinced that New York was just a natural part of the journey to becoming a successful artist in my field. The same way aspiring film and tv hopefuls run towards LA. But something I wish they would have mentioned in my college years is how many thriving art and theater scenes are all over the country. That, while New York can be an amazing place to train and hone your craft, there were more options than just the the tiny, crowded island of Manhattan. And the conservatory I went to, “Bootcamp for Broadway” my mom dubbed it, was absolutely in the mind set of “Broadway or Bust”…it’s New York or Failure… and I was more than happy to drink that Kool-aide.
Like many before and after me, I followed my dreams to New York City and I swore I wouldn’t leave without a Broadway credit to my name. But in my 16 years in New York, I learned some things about myself and my creative soul that I would not have predicted. One of them being that- Broadway was not the be all, end all.
I entered my first semester of “Bootcamp for Broadway” college in 1999 and it was like the “FAME” school on crack. I lived in a crap-hole of a dormitory, the subway still took tokens (I saved my last one before they switched to metro cards) and my typical day consisted of being screamed at by junkies on the street, singing showtunes, dance classes and script reading. I was in heaven. I had made it! Living the dream in New York City!
I actually enjoyed my time at school. Although, in retrospect, they were better at teaching the craft of acting and not so great at preparing us for the business aspect theater- ie. being an employed actor, meeting agents, networking, marketing classes, relationship building with the industries VIPs. In all honesty, times were different then and the business was changing right underneath us. No actor had a website when I enrolled in college. We had no business cards or post cards. We had metro cards. And they got us from one audition to the next.
The system shoved us out into the “real world” in our perfect red lipstick, jewel toned dresses and nude pumps. A perfectly castable cookie cutter actor. But it was all about to change…
My generation of musical theater hopefuls got shoved out into the world at an awful time of transition. It was was though everything we had been taught was yesterdays news. And the transition seemed never ending.
Your newly bought black and white headshot now needed to be color and just when you managed to scrape the money together to make that happen, the website revolution started, then workshops in branding yourself. Heels and jewel toned dresses were out, men’s dress pants gave way to jeans and t-shirts. RENT and American Idol was ruining everything we thought we knew about our craft. Auditors didn’t even care if you went to school for acting anymore. They wanted the next diamond in the rough.
Then “Cabaret” changed the game with actors who played instruments. Those who knew how already got lucky while many ran out to learn something, anything. Guitar, Piano, cello, cowbell. Better make sure you learn two instruments, just in case. I learned the ukulele, by the way… completely useless in anything but the Drowsy Chaperone or The Boyfriend. That was my sort of my “fuck-you” to the instrument-playing-actor movement. I remember being asked if I played an instrument at an audition and I said “Yes”. They smile and asked what and I said , proudly “Ukulele”. Their smile faded and they said “Ok, thanks.”
But it doesn’t stop there, while we were all learning to play a G chord- enter TUMBLING. Tumbling was now going to book you the job! So get on that shit. You couldn’t just be a dancer anymore…you needed to be a circus contortionist too.
Now, while all this was happening New York was becoming more and more saturated with actors. Let’s take another moment to blame American Idol. Before AI it took genuine guts, grit and heart to get your ass to NYC. It wasn’t for the timid. But here was this show that proved anyone, anywhere could audition for anything. So all the kids in east bumble-fuck, USA came running to NYC or LA.
And so, gone were the days of 150 people at a chorus call. Now there were 400. Actually 600 or more on some days. Which usually results in typing or 8 bar cuts of your music.
For those of you who aren’t in “the biz”, typing is when they bring a group of actors into a room and decide whether they are going to let you audition just by looking at you…and maybe your resume for a hot second. It’s cruel and rude but what else could they do? You can’t see 600 people in an audition day. You just can’t. And with this over saturation came the boom of marketing. Now you could take classes in how to get yourself remembered and noticed with branding, business cards, follow up emails, one-sheets. Different tricks and tips to get remembered.
Reread that entire last paragraph and tell me that all of this isn’t exhausting. Even just reading it. Not to mention we were all working insane side jobs just to pay for all the things we needed to learn and do to keep up with current conditions of the theater industry.
Man, I applaud those who succeed under those conditions. Truly. I no longer get jealous of other people’s success. Which is a nice change that has developed with every passing year of adulting. So yeah, Bravo to those who broke on thru to the other side. You beat the odds, you were in the right place at the right time and thank goodness you were talented enough to book it on top of that!
I did my best to keep up with all of it. And I did alright. Some years I got more work than others but in general, it was hard for me to get consistent work. I wasn’t the girl who booked show after show or got to swing from one gig to the next. How could I? There were now hundreds of girls who looked like me, could dance like me, sing like me. Forget about booking an agent now. They had every single type they could need. Why take on one more.
I had a manager once, for a short time…She turned out to be old school New Yorker, crazy! But that’s a story for another time. And later I worked with an agent who dropped me because they said “You don’t know who you are!” That crushed me deeply because I always thought that was one thing I DID know. I’m Jen. I am talented, determined, one of the hardest workers you’ll meet. I’m a good friend, animal lover and vintage fashion fanatic….But that’s not what he meant. He meant that I didn’t know where I fit in this “industry”. Which, at that point in my career, was true.
I had gone to so many branding classes and listened so many opinions about “my type” and how I should market myself and whether I should be blonde, brunette or a red head. Was I the the quirky best friend or the romantic lead? Are you comedic or serious? Are you a Glinda or an Elphaba? You can't be both! So don’t even. Being versatile had stop being a positive asset and pigeon holing yourself was the way to go to get work. And because I have been trained to take direction so well- I just ended up listening to too many opinions and lost my way. I was trying too hard to be all the things I needed to be and all the things I thought “they” wanted.
I became blurry.
I once, went into a seminar with a casting director who told me he just saw a big question mark over my head. Though the comment pissed me off at the time, he was probably right. I was confused and exhausted and just… trying so hard.
What happened to the little girl from California who thought she could do and be anything! Where had she gone? She was full of hope, guts, confidence and not afraid. The girl that had replaced her had become stuck on the hamster wheel of “the industry”...and my soul was dying. I felt like I was jumping around on the side lines of the biz yelling “Hey, hey. Pick me, I wanna play, I wanna play! and no one gave a shit. My light was slowly fading and I was running on fumes.
I can say it now because, well, hindsight is 20/20, right? But New York and “the industry” had kicked the shit out of me. It took 16 years to kick the shit out of me but it managed to do it…chipping away bit by bit.
About a year before I left New York, I was sitting in Jen Waldman’s Artists Alliance Class (which I highly recommend). A last ditch effort to “find myself” as a human and artist in this insane city. We were asked to write a list of people we wanted to work with in the biz (a smaller part of a larger project). Be they agents, directors, choreographers….
....and I. Went. Blank.
I just stared at my paper and wrote nothing. Of course there were names that popped in my head (Jerry Mitchell, Susan Stroman, that guy who directed that other thing I liked) but my best reason for wanting to work with them was ..”because they are a big broadway director?” (make sure your vocal inflection goes up at the end of that sentence).
Was that a good enough reason? Did I care? Hmm. Wierd. I didn’t. I couldn’t think of a single person I cared to work for or with in this city. No offense. But I had run out of fucks to give. All those seminars, classes and workshops that I had paid thousands of dollars in, just in hopes of making a connection had led to nothing…because the connection wasn’t real. It was just a money machine and I stopped caring. Not about me, but about trying to be accepted and validated by all those Broadway big wigs.
I realized my caring survives on a diet of genuine connection, joy, creativity, collaboration and mutual respect. Things that I hadn’t run into enough of in my time in New York and I was spiritually starving. Where were my kindred spirits?
My Broadway Dream was not what I had imagined it to be. It wasn’t Peggy Sawyer stepping off a train in Penn Station and making her way to a large theater to audition for a big time musical. It wasn’t Fred and Ginger in a silver screened art deco glow. It wasn’t Gene Kelly knocking on doors and tapping out a little ditty. It wasn’t the New York I wanted it to be. Well, at least, not anymore. Perhaps I was to much an old fashioned theater kid for this new industry world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an idiot. I didn’t expect NYC to be all technicolor and max factor but the point is….it wasn’t “my dream”.
I slowly began to realize that my dream was less about the whole broadway thing and more about creating and sharing joy within a community of artists, who simply loved what they did. Who carried that old Broadway Melody in their hearts. The renaissance people who could do it all and dreamed big. People who said yes-and, instead of no. People willing to put on a show in a Barn, just for the joy of diving into that creativity. But do this people exist outside of stage door musicals and ideal daydreams.
Actually they do. And I knew just where to find them. I was lucky enough to be raised in a creative community like this. The San Francisco Bay Area. And when I had this moment of clarity, the clouds parted and I knew…It was time to go home.
I said goodbye to New York and I was completely at peace with my decision and felt no fear or apprehension in leaving. I realized that I was holding on to a childhood dream that didn’t exist, in a New York that didn’t exist and by letting go, I opened up a whole world of possibility. I had freedom.
Leaving New York was absolutely the right choice for me. I am much happier in a smaller artistic community that allows me more flexibility in the roles I play, the projects I choose and the people I choose to work with.
And since moving back to the Bay Area, I have discovered that there are many more pockets of these warm, loving professional theater nerd communities all over the states.
Don’t get me wrong, it still takes work and determination to book the jobs (and sometime I don’t) but I find the opportunities to be more plentiful, the rewards greater and the people kinder. I walk into auditions with hope and positivity, rather than worry or defeat. And when I don’t have a show to keep me busy, I have this beautiful environment around me, which allows me to embrace nature and family and adventure, which in turn makes me the best version of myself.
NYC- you may have kicked my ass but you did not win! I think, maybe…no, definitely, I ended up winning. But I am eternally thankful for the experiences in NY that made me a stronger, better artist and human.
I would never tell another artist that leaving NYC is the right choice for them. But I offer up my story to those who might need comfort or be struggling, questioning, wondering….”what if?”
To that I say….Yes! AND….