Monday, March 16, 2015

A Letter To Isobel

My talented niece, Isobel, is in the thick of auditioning for college theatre programs and conservatories.  She has been the star of her high school, demonstrating guts, showmanship and above all, confidence, as she has nurtured her love of performing.

As Izzy's closest relative in the business, and also someone who has coached dozens of young hopefuls for their college auditions as a private coach, and in my capacity as leader of the Goodspeed Musicals Audition Intensive, I have sort of stood silently in the wings, available to help when called upon.  Isobel is aided of course by the support of her family, especially her Mom, Patricia, who trained as a performer at one of the nation's top schools, Boston Conservatory.  It's moving to see this girl embark on her journey in the theatre, and watching this unfold has made me contemplate what I might offer her in the way of insight as I celebrate my 25th year as a professional actor.  So, here it is.


Dear Isobel,

I think I understand, as well as anyone, the dreams and desires that have brought you to this moment of embarkation, this stepping into the world as you await the decision of where to train as an actor and musical theater performer.  You've accomplished so much in your hometown, where people have truly accepted you for who you are--a real original--and where you have been given the chance to stretch and grow with each terrific part you have undertaken.  You also have had a preview of what it will be like to train alongside other young talents as a participant in the Emerson College summer program.  I have no doubt at all that you have brought heart and vibrancy to your auditions for the colleges and conservatories you have targeted and that they have recognized your unique personality and gifts.

I also know that at your tender age nothing anyone could say would dissuade you from your chosen path.  Nor should it.  It's not an easy path, the path of an actor, and it takes courage, stubbornness and devotion to pursue.  So I am not going to be one of those who try to intimidate you with horror stories of the harsh realities of show business.  But I am going to be honest.

In this business, rejection is the norm.  Being out of work, not getting the job--these are the norm.  It's something to accept, a reality to try and use as a spur rather than crumble beneath.  The work of an actor is mostly the work of stepping up time and again and putting oneself out there for the next job.  Even the most beautiful, the most effortlessly talented, spend more time not working than working.  You must believe in yourself, try not to personalize the vagaries of the business, nor get tangled in stories about why someone else is luckier or more fortunate than you, harboring resentments and hurts at how unfair it all is.  Show business is not a meritocracy.  Being good isn't a guarantee.  It often makes absolutely no sense.  But if you want it, you have to simply keep showing up.

Part of what enables you to do that is getting to know who you are and what you love to do and what you do best.  I know you enough to know that you already have a huge leg up in this department.  You know who Isobel is.  This will be enormously useful to you as you begin your serious training as a performer.  I want you to enjoy college!  I didn't enjoy undergrad that much, mainly because I spent the whole time feeling I had to compete--for approval, for good parts, for acknowledgment.  I had the gift of going to grad school when I was almost 40, and discovering the joy of just showing up each day curious to learn, and immersing myself in craft.  Stay in the moment of training and discovery.  These years will never come again.  The world and the business will all too soon demand things of you.  This is the time to revel in the art of what you do and to find your voice.

Let's talk backup plan.  It's a crappy subject, but it's one worth thinking about.  When I was your age I thought even contemplating a back up plan or the development of skills for that dreaded day job, or parallel career, meant admitting defeat.  Jumping without a parachute to me meant full commitment, full belief in my potential.  But the business being what it is, even the best have to support themselves and can't always do it performing.  Nurture whatever interests or skills you have that might be parlayed into money making opportunities, especially ones that will also allow you some freedom to pursue the business.  Don't wait until you are trying to survive in New York and start scrambling for a day job.  Think about it now and have a plan.  If you play an instrument, keep playing it!  Get good at it.  It's a reality of the way shows are created these days that actors often are asked to play music as well.

And now, the tough love portion of this letter.  I know I will come across as a judgy, over the hill, out of touch old crank.  But I do, in fact, live in 2015 and do observe your generation with a certain amount of perspective.  Never before have young people had such unfettered access to information and free education--via the internet, and that little phone you hold in your hand, you can tap into everything you need to steep yourself in your craft and the traditions of theatre.  And yet you guys are so damn lazy about digging around in there, so lacking in curiosity!  If this is the work you love, if this is the career you are willing to sacrifice stability for, to pursue despite all the odds, then you need to make it your mission to know all you can about it and revel in the discoveries you can make about it.

Yes, I know this is the era where a teenager can record a bunch of videos of himself singing in his room, post them to youtube, go viral, and become a major recording star.  I know it comes so easy to those lucky flashes in the pan.  But aren't those the rare freak successes, and aren't they short-lived? Don't you want more?  Aren't you investing the next four years of your life in training so you can create a foundation for a lifelong career?  So read every play you can get your hands on, from the classics to the latest hit on Broadway.  Listen to every original cast album.  If you love musical theatre, then watch every single musical movie ever made.  Know what shows are being produced now, and know who wrote them.  Regularly visit sites like and, where the latest news on the current work in theatre is available to you. Pursue knowledge like it's your job.  Training in a structured theatre program is a great experience, but you are responsible for your education for life.  And an actor's career is a self-directed career.  Even with the best agent or manager you still have to know what's going on and who's doing the hiring; you have to get yourself out of bed in the morning and stand in line at open calls; you have to show up at the audition and be prepared and ready and on your game.  That self direction never, ever ends.  And I guarantee you, no matter how gusty, or talented, or cute you are, there is no substitute for education, knowledge and preparation.  Start now.  If you are lucky enough to meet a veteran actor, buy her a coffee, draw her out, have her tell you her stories.  Theatre is a received tradition.  Learn from those who came before, and steal their best stuff!

Finally, I just want to say that I am so proud of you.  I am proud of you for nurturing your gifts and pursuing your dreams.  It moves me that you share my Dad's birthday.  I feel his loss so keenly... and I embrace, more and more each day, the knowledge that his artistry and pursuit of excellence in theatre helped shape the artist I am today.  He gave me so much and I know he would have been proud to watch you blossom as an actor and a creative artist.  I am always here for you, and I look forward to watching you grow.  You are just beginning.  Pursue it with determination, with joy, with discipline and with dignity.

With love,

Uncle Jamie