Getting real about the Musical Theatre industry.
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Disillusion. I remember my Sophomore english teacher defining this word for us in class one day. She told a teary and emotional example of a time in her life in which she was “disillusioned” and I remember thinking “wow I am so happy I have never felt that way and I really hope I never do.” The definition of disillusion is this : the condition of being disenchanted : the condition of being dissatisfied or defeated in expectation or hope. To cause to lose naive faith and trust. It’s like having your rose color glasses removed and being shaken to your core by what you see. It’s hard, but it is very much what I write about in this post today, and I am journeying to find that enchantment once again.
I have written and rewritten this in so many ways so many times. In my journals, in my head, on my phone, crying on a friends couch. Many of these things have weighed on my heart for years. I hesitated writing about the industry, because I want to do my best to stay positive. I have written in my journal so many times, but it still lives in the back of my mind crowding my happy thoughts and diluting my dreams. Maybe this will make someone out there feel heard. Maybe this will open someone's eyes to the realities the artists in their life face. Maybe this will help switch someone’s focus. Maybe this will help someone realize that they do indeed have a community dealing with the same things they are. The same woes and hardships. They are not alone. It has torn me apart to watch the people I love be broken down by the wickedness of this industry. For these reasons I write. I don’t write this to make anyone feel bad or to complain, but to give a voice to that 19 year old Liz in my head who was disillusioned by the industry that gave her a place to dream.
I recently watched the new Disney plus show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” and I absolutely honestly balled my eyes out during the first episode. Not because it is a sad show (It is totally not!) but because it brought me back to the ultimate joy that I first felt when I started pursuing musical theatre. High School Musical was my first community theatre show. I was 16 and was cast as Gabriella Montez (I knowwww I knowwwww......) Regardless of the casting choice, that show changed my whole life. I got to sing, as loud as I could, and it felt incredible! The people in the cast... they were MY PEOPLE! I finally felt like I was understood. Like I was cool. Like I was within a space that understood me to my core. I have lost a whole lot of that spark I felt back then, hence why I cried so hard as a 28 year old woman during a teen comedy series!
I’m coming up on ten years of working as a professional in this industry, so I think this post is quite fitting. I got my first professional theatre job when I was 19. I had attended a large unified audition in Lexington, KY. (Unified auditions are essentially like big audition conferences that bring in casting directors from theaters all over the country.) As a college student, not yet living in NYC, it was a great opportunity to get in front of many casting directors and hopefully book summer work. In this instance, there happened to be a casting director from NY there and they called me in to audition for the Legally Blonde tour. I was in SHOCK. I had no idea something like that could happen there. I had even brought my Legally Blonde sweatshirt I had bought when I saw the tour! It felt like a sign. Like the universe was lining up for me. I remember how unbelievable and yet how right it felt. I still feel so blessed for that time. Fast forward a few months later and that casting agency ended up calling me in to audition in NYC for the Grease tour. I made my first ever trip to NYC with my mom (who also sat at the audition with me! Bless her) and I booked it! Now here I am, almost 10 years later, and I can tell you that that is, sadly, not always how things happen to work. I was so blessed to be in the right place, at the right time, in front of the right people, naive and ripe with confidence in myself in that moment. Over the years in this industry quite a bit of that has been stripped away for one reason or another.
After the Grease tour ended is when realities started to set in. I auditioned with all of my friends from the show and didn’t book a thing. I went back to school for a year and half to finish up before leaving to head out on the road again. This time with the Hair. (I’m thinking I should write a whole detailed post about my own personal journey in the industry.) Then I finally moved to NYC and hit the audition scene. Here’s where that word “disillusioned” comes into play again.
“Get seen” is a way in which actors refer to making it into the room with a casting director and auditioning. It doesn’t always happen. (It recently hit me how deep that term is, but on the surface level that’s really our aim in the moment.) To put that into perspective a bit, I’m going to tell you a little about auditioning. When I moved to the city I was very lucky to be EMC. This meant that I was an “Equity Membership Candidate” That meant that I had had a job in which I got “weeks” that counted towards my journey to join the actor’s union. At any union audition, there are essentially 3 different options, or tiers you could say. You are “Equity” (a member of the actor’s union), EMC, or non-union. Now without boring you with all of the specific rules and details, just know that that is the hierarchy in which things run. Equity members get first pick, then EMC, then non-union. Which means as a non-union, or EMC, or heck even sometimes as an equity member, you could be sitting at an audition ALL day waiting to “get seen”. I have sat at auditions from 5am-5pm and not gotten in the room with the casting director. I have also sat in audition waiting rooms from 5am- 5pm and gotten in the room and totally blown the 30 seconds I finally got to show my skills! I have also been very publicly shamed and laughed at by a room of 50+ people for missing my name being called, but that’s a story for another time. ANYWAY…… Imagine waking up at 5am, in the dead of winter, sitting in a room full of 100s of other people, and then HOURS later getting 30 seconds to use your voice to impress someone. The odds are not quite in your favor at that point. You’re exhausted, your voice is most likely tired and/dry because audition season is during the coldest part of the year, and you have to go in and give the performance of a lifetime for someone who has also sat listening to people’s 30 second cuts all day. Oh yea, and also, you don’t get paid for it! You have to have a “survival job” to pay your bills. Which in turn just adds to the exhaustion on your mind and body.
Our job 98% of the time is to essentially let people judge us. We walk into a room and perform a song or scene and the people behind the table deem us worthy or not. They judge me. It’s me in that goes into the room. Not a project I worked on, a painting I did, or something I wrote. They are judging me, as a performer, but it’s still me in in the room they are looking at. My clothes, my walk, my shoes, my song choice, all goes into it. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked "have you thought about changing your hair color?" Have you thought about changing this that or the other thing? All in hopes that maybe someone will THEN finally be able see you for “who you are” and for what you bring to the table. Only after you have changed so many fundamental things about yourself. Change your body type, the clothes you wear in hopes that the person in charge will see you as worthy. As something that they want. That decision is made in less than two minutes, sometimes 30 seconds, in an audition room. And just like that, the hours we have spent learning, improving, changing out hair color, working for our craft are deemed not good enough.
Imagine going in for an interview for a new job OVER AND OVER AND OVER again and imagine that being 98% of your career path. I once had a casting director tell me “Auditioning is your work. That’s when you “clock in.” Booking a job…. that’s vacation.” That is what we do all the time. There is no guarantee. Even once you book a contract, majority of the time, that has an ending date and then you have to go back to auditioning (or essentially “interviewing”) over and over and over again until hopefully someone else likes what you’re doing enough to give you a callback. Then MAYBE you’ll get the job.
Everyone else seems to know how you need to do it. You “HAVE” to book an ensemble track on a tour, and THEN you can try and book a leading role on a tour, and THEN you can try and book a swing track on Broadway. And yet some people just pop out of college and pop right onto a Broadway stage. The same can be said for one’s union status. There is no exact path to equity either. I know non-union actors that work far more than me. I know people that have joined equity their first ever contract and I know people that have worked for 10+ years in order to join the union. There is no one way ticket here. There is no exact mathematical course or equation to lead you to that Broadway stage. It can be different for everyone, but it is so hard to get past the “have to’s” and “musts” shouted at you by the people who are making the casting decisions.
For a while all anyone could talk about was the importance of taking classes. I used to take a lot of classes. I was told that that was the way to do it. Now, I am ALL about learning! I was such a nerd in school. (I still color code basically everything in my life) But these classes were not the same as high school or college. They were “the only way” to get yourself in front of a casting director in hopes that they will remember you the next time you are auditioning for a show they’re casting. You pay for these classes. You pay just to get seen or “pay to play” as some will deem them. And in my experience, majority of the time the people in the “professor’s” chair, do not want to be there at all. how I said you have to have a “survival job” Now that job has to help you pay bills, but also allow you to have enough time off to spend auditioning during the weekdays, but also pay you enough to take classes…………. Mmmhmmm. I know. It sounds nutty. It is nutty! But when you love doing something so much, I guess you pay little to no attention to reality at that point.
I have been in classrooms with casting directors that spent precious minutes of working time (that we paid for) joking and laughing together about a piece I performed for the entertainment of themselves and to get a few laughs from my classmates. Not at all adding any lessons I could put into use into their hilarious stand up routine masked as an informative/helpful class for actors that we paid for. I have had people tell me my audition book is weird. That I need to dye my hair red. I have been told by an agent that I could not be all of the facets of myself and my talents, I had to pick one. I have been ghosted by an agency. FULL ON GHOSTED, by a credited agency that only weeks after, signed one of my very best friends.
This has always been my biggest dream. My biggest goal. My passion for as long as I can remember. I believed in it so whole heartedly for so long. I had such confidence that I just had to make the move and it would be mine. I studied and I worked. I took opportunities and I kept asking questions. I kept learning. But the toxicity just kept building and draining me at the same time. Piece by piece my confidence and belief in myself were stripped away and I finally just let it take hold. It hurts my heart to write this, but I need it to be known. My life is not perfect. My journey is not over. I write in hopes to educate and heal myself along the way. To shed some life on some harsh truths and hope that changes can be made. To let whomever needs to hear this truth that they are not alone and you and your talent are so worthy!
If you are not a performer, but have friends that are, I hope that this helps you to understand a bit better. To be sensitive to the situation. To legitimize what we do for a living. I know to some that it may seem like the "dream life”. Like it's not a "real person job." But that belittles everything we have worked SO hard or. The hours we spent singing until our voices were raw. The countless classes we spent dissecting a scene or a song. The times we cried and cried because it stripped us down to our most raw selves in order to bring that feeling to the world. To know that it is not just dressing up and playing pretend. That what we do can change someone's day. It can change someone's world! I have been so moved by theatre countless times. It has simultaneously broken me to my core and filled me with a knowing and passion that I cannot explain.
Every time we perform its a piece of us. We are putting our most vulnerable selves out there to bring a little joy to the lives of others. To help create an escape for you for an hour or two. SO show some love to the artists around you! Buy a ticket to their show, invest in their “side hustle”, and just all in all show respect and kindness to one another. That’s what it’s all about.
I know that this may be a bit all over the place, but it feels good to get it off of my heart. This is a big part of my life and all of these types of experiences have led me to the place that I am at now. I hope that these words can shine some light and help someone else heal like it is helping me. I am absolutely an open book and an over sharer, so if you are at all curious about the acting industry, please please reach out! I am happy to answer any and all questions.