28 February, 2017

'My guardian angel is afraid of the dark...' by Charles Simic

My guardian angel is afraid of the dark. 
He pretends he's not, sends me ahead, tells me he'll be along in a moment. 
Pretty soon I can't see a thing.

     "This must be the darkest corner of heaven," someone whispers behind my back. It turns out her guardian angel is missing too. 
     "It's an outrage,” I tell her. "The dirty little cowards leaving us all alone," she whispers. 

And of course, for all we know, I might be a hundred years old already, 
and she just a sleepy little girl with glasses.

03 February, 2017

Ask Al: You Contain Multitudes

Dear Al,

Honestly, I am a little embarrassed to ask this question because I suspect you are asked it all the time, and possibly not with total seriousness. But I am actually asking in earnest: How do you get to Broadway?

I am a sophomore musical theatre student in a great American MT program and I’m a soprano just like you! It is my one and only dream to be a performer on Broadway someday, and I literally can’t see myself doing or loving anything else as much, but all I ever hear is how impossible it is to get “there,” how hard, how tough, how the odds are against us all. If that is true, then I don’t think I understand why training programs even exist for such an “impossible” profession! Because, well, you are “there.” You did “it.” You proved that this impossible thing, is not, in fact, utterly impossible. Somebody is doing it! So I figured I might as well ask what makes you tick, what motivates you, and how, if possible can others hope to be in a position like yours one day?

I know there is no real secret, I do. I know you have to work harder and be better than the rest. But what does that mean? What does that look and feel like?

You are such a big inspiration to me, and I just wanted to know if there were any thoughts on the topic you could share.

With gratitude,


 * * *

Dear dear Tara,

You’re not only a smart cookie, you are bold! This is a great question, and I sincerely thank you for asking this with such a genuine spirit. You are right, one does have to work harder and always strive to be the best they can possibly be in order to work at the top of any profession. But, assuming that that is obvious, let’s start by breaking up the mysteries of “making it” into a few points—all of which are not about specific “How To-s,” but about outlook.

1. No more “Never”
    Ah platitudes!  
    I love your logic because YES: Somebody is doing it. They have to cast someone, so “Why me?” Well, why not you? I like to think of Broadway as the “Special Forces” of the Theatre, and thus, by that logic, yes, it is an extremely rare, special, and thus, difficult achievement to make the cut. The reality is: you might not. Most people don’t. But? Some people do. And you could be among them. You have to be talented, bold, very resilient, and more than a little lucky.

    But you are correct: someone is out there doing it. People are also winning medals at the Olympics, going to outer space and this year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. So take away those “Never” platitudes and replace them with language (and thus, thoughts/beliefs!) that stay open to possibility, even if the possibility is indeed slim.

Instead of
    “I’m never gonna make it,”
    “I’m never the lucky one,”
    “I’ll never sing like that”

Try phrases like
    “They have to choose someone!”
    “It might as well be me!”
    “Every day I am improving my skills and capacity!”

2. Athletes of the heart
    You are correct, “How do I get to Broadway” is a question I get asked all the time. It is matched in frequency to “How do I know when I’ve ‘made it.” And “What is ‘Success?’” Whoa Nellie. These questions all garner a similar response.

    'Broadway' is just like any other dreamy life goal. If I were an Olympian, people would assume that the view from the summit took years of early mornings, sacrifices, fierce commitment and bone crushing work, but somehow, society doesn’t always view artists in the same way. Believe me, the rigor required is identical, it just takes different forms. As Antonin Artaud said, artists are “athletes of the heart.” Artists of all kinds, but particularly interpretive artists have to do emotional gymnastics that turns their heart, minds and souls inside out to serve a story. But performing artists are also? Actual athletes. Just ask any performer doing 8 shows a week. Of anything.You ask what rigor "looks and feels like." That is, of course, different for every individual, but here are some ideas that I adhere to. These thoughts do not apply to and for everyone, but they are a guideline for me. (Also, if you are not an actor and you are reading this blog anyway, I welcome you to find the corresponding parallels in your own profession and life!)

    - Rigorous self-exploration (you are the only personal human experience you will ever have)
    - Incredible discipline (of diet, exercise, rest, study, class, physical therapy, skill improvement, health maintenance, vocal rest)
    - Empathy (you have to constantly expand your heart to be able to understand and portray without judgement, people very different from you)
    - Curiosity (about humanity, relationships, history, culture, and people who are different from you)
    - Voracious, rigorous study (read plays, books, see theatre, take classes)
    - Practice Practice Practice (you have to DO it actually warm up, sing, stretch yourself, sight-read, Read out loud, or freaking finger paint I don’t care— but you have to DO your art— every single day)
    - Exercise (your body is your instrument)
    - Feed yourself real food and actually sleep (depravity is overrated, and seriously uncool/not to be bragged about)
    - Constant skill improvement and expansion


3. “Broadway” is special, but it also just geography
"Broadway" only made up of a few criteria:
    - The size of the house
    - The geography of the address.
     There are 41 qualifying Broadway theatres, all of which have to have over 500 seats, and located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center circling along the street “Broadway,” in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. It is also, not unlike church or marriage or the right to vote, much much more than just that the basic criteria, but in essence…that’s it...

     Yes, Broadway (along with London's West End) is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. But, while that is amazing, and a wonderful goal to aspire to, there are many many places in America, and across the planet to create, perform, participate in, and enjoy, the theatre.

    Off Broadway services more New York city tourists in a calendar year than the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island combined!

     And that is just New York! What of London’s West End, National and International Tours, summer stock, semi-professional theatres, and last but certainly not least, incredible, award-winning regional theatres across the country (like the Guthrie, McCarter, Goodman Theaters, the Mark Taper Forum, and of course, The Kennedy Center)? See where I am going with this? Essentially: There are lots of places to work that are not Broadway.

     These incredible venues are not only the birthplaces of many original works, and Broadway shows before they reach New York, but the majority of regional theatres like to revisit the past and cater to the audiences (just like you!) that love classic plays and musicals as much as they enjoy the new stuff, not to mention: they are the sites of many of my (and hundreds of thousands of other actors’) very favorite artistic experiences.

     In 2016 there were also over 500 amateur productions of Fiddler in America alone, along with 20 professional American productions, and countless international professional productions (did you know Fiddler has been professionally produced in Japan over 1300 times in the last 50 years?!)

Which brings me to the ultimate point:

4. Work is the Goal; and Work is Work
     I am no less playing Tzeitel than Haley Bond was at The Muny last summer, or Teagan Wouters continues to do in the Australian National Tour; or any number of Tzeitel’s across the country and world in regional, amateur and high school theatres. I get paid—and yes, a Broadway production usually gets recorded into an album, which is eligible for a Grammy; but the words themselves, the songs, and the life Tzeitel Kamzoil lives? Every actor with “Tzeitel” next to their name in the program says the same words—at varying levels of professionalism, artistic depth, exposure, technique, experience and capacity, yes—but we all still do it.

     And so can you, dearest Tara! If you possess talent and grit (and I’m just going to assume you do!) you can play Laurie and Carrie and Magnolia and Maria and allllll the yummy sopranos you want—they just might not be on Broadway. But honestly…who cares? You might thrill, entertain and move the good people of St. Louis or Sarasota or Minneapolis and that’s wonderful! Some of the greatest artistic experiences of my life have been in Edinburgh, Washington, DC, Sheffield, Manchester, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles. These lovely roles are out there in the world to be played, and you might just play them. 

     For work is work. That is the nature of an functional actor’s life/a performing career. Working. Not working in a highly public, salary-and-fame-and-award driven way. Fame and fortune are hollow goals, and their pursuit (I promise, I've witnessed it) will make you miserable. Not every screen actor is a movie star, nor every musical theatre performer a Broadway legend. Some are both (ohai there Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnette, and Mandy Patinkin)!
    But most of us actors are just going from job to job, and while often those jobs are quite rewarding, though sometimes they are not. That's okay. We go about this work regardless of the fancy address; we pay our bills, collect our insurance weeks, and when we are lucky, make new friends and fill our souls. But above all, working is truly about providing for ourselves as artists. That alone is a difficult goal to achieve (only 1% of all the actors in the Actors Equity Association, work) thus, being a working artist is truly the ultimate artistic dream. If notoriety and shiny awards come your way, how wonderful. If not? That’s okay too. Someone has to, nay, gets to play Hedda Gabler in Philadelphia; someone gets to play Valmont and Mama Rose and Coriolanus in Whereverville. Be honest: wouldn’t it be magical if that could be you?

5. “I contain multitudes”

    Walt Whitman said:
    “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
    Whoa boy, Walt. Steady there. You nailed this on the head. Human beings are vast creatures, containing multitudinous textures, capacities, and qualities all of which make up who we are, and the stories of out lives.

     Broadway is a wonderful life goal, and I feel beyond honored to have “made it” to both the West end and Broadway myself—I count my blessings every single day.

    However, “Broadway” is, in actuality, just a goal like any other. It is like making partner, losing the weight, winning the medal, etc. There is no train station of “Success” one pulls into where when they depart, everything is perfect and grand. There is no magical wand that waves and voila you are all set. No no no. You achieve the goal, pop the champagne and celebrate! But then? Life proceeds.

    Ask any Olympian what life is like 3 weeks after they win a gold medal. I guarantee you they are watching movies and ordering takeout. My version of that is this: 40 minutes after my Carnegie Hall debut was I in a fancy champagne bar raising a glass of Veuve Cliquot in Manhattan? Nope. I was in Brooklyn Diner getting a strawberry milkshake with my mom, manager and two of my best friends. I was still in my ballgown. Then? I ran home, fell dead asleep, and woke up early to teach my 9am acting class for the next 6 hours the next day down at Pace. Why? Because I contain multitudes!  (Incidentally, not one of my students gave a damn that I’d made my Carnegie Hall debut the night before. They were too busy feeling their feelings and being chickens…). I reveled in the dichotomy of my activities—because life is ridiculous! And hilarious! And beautiful! All of the these activities heightened the celebration of the other, and of the richness of life itself.

    The point is: once you climb the mountain/achieve your dreamy amazing goals, yes, you absolutely get to enjoy the view from the summit! But then you have to realistically go about life with humility. That means maintaining and hopefully often expanding your standards; it means setting new goals, getting new dreams, falling on your face again and again (just in higher heels…) and on you go, living your life. You still have to vacuum, do the dishes, get sick, feel grumpy, bloat after eating salty stuff, get caught in the rain, and have bad hair days. #SorryNotSorry: big dreamers and high achievers are people too.

    Part of “making it” is not only accepting, but celebrating that your best life achievements and your greatest successes will come in may shapes and sizes. When I think of my Carnegie Hall debut, I do think of the orchestra, the gown, the sight of the hall, and that high C that soared over the crowd. But I also think of the strawberry milkshakes with my closest people, and the class I taught the next day at 9am. When I think of that achievement, it contains the multitudes of all of those details— not just the shiniest one. I was proud to be at school the next morning after the evening I’d experienced. I was proud to be celebrating the greatest artistic achievement of my life thus far with my dearest friends in a place that felt true to myself. Because I contain multitudes.

Work. Sing. Soar. Be yourself.
Whatever and wherever that lift-off point may be.
For you, too, contain multitudes.


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