So You Want to Sing, Act, Dance?–Part I

I have convened a question and answer session with the Class of ’12 and invite you to sit in. I hand-picked the participants based on their high level of talent and their ability to listen. In other words, they are fictional.

In real life no one listens. Everyone has to make their own mistakes. But just in case there’s one eighteen-year-old out there who can be swayed, I’d like to explain why it might not be wise to “follow your bliss.” If only I could sit my own eighteen-year-old self down and force her to think again.

What prompted this post? I have a seventeen-year-old godson who wants to be a jazz guitarist. He can also sing, at least as far as I can tell from the video his mom showed me. I haven’t seen him in years—I’m an unofficial kind of godmother, the kind who sends gifts but doesn’t try to influence your life. However, his mother is one of my best friends from way back. Apparently he is talented in math and science—gifts that pay off big time in today’s world—and so has choices. We’ll call him Sam.

Sam, don’t take this personally. I want you to be happy. Both your parents thought they wanted to be actors. Your dad went to an Ivy League school and your mom was accepted into one, but went to a League school instead to study drama. They both did some cool stuff in New York—they were genuinely talented, take my word—but mostly your dad was a bartender and your mom was a waitress. Eventually they became psychologists. Your dad died of cancer. Your mom wants you to avoid her mistakes. She thinks you’re smarter than either she or your dad ever was. I wish I could convince you to be sensible, but the truth is, I want you to be happy, too. Even if that happiness is just a pipe dream.

So, Sam, this isn’t about you, but it is about others of your generation. It’s about Sally Spinto, who is a very talented soprano with a big voice. She is pretty and about thirty pounds overweight. Aaron Actor excelled at every children’s acting program in his city. He was awarded Best Actor in a Musical by the state’s main music theater company for the role of Jean Valjean in the high school version of Les Miz. Darcy Dancer is a classical ballet phenomenon who can also sing and act. She has big plans to go to New York in the fall. James Basso already sounds like he’s thirty. He won first place at the state Solo Ensemble contest and is one of the youngest bass-baritones ever to win the Metropolitan auditions.

WARNING: This is Cat with her claws unsheathed, ready to burst your bubble. No pussy-footing around here. If you’re looking for feel-good answers, look elsewhere. Lots of people will tell you what you want to hear at this age, because no one wants to rain on your parade. But I live in Seattle, and it rains on parades all the time. I’m used to it. It’s in the best interest of all your voice teachers to tell you that you’re going to make it. Because they need your money, and you make them look good.

To be fair, no one really knows … but we have a pretty good idea.

Sally Spinto:

Cat, I won first place in Washington’s Solo Ensemble contest, singing “Mariettas Lied von Laute” from Die tote Stadt. Isn’t someone like me assured of a future? I hear there aren’t a lot of spinto sopranos around.

Cat:

You definitely have a better chance than most. You are the best eighteen-year-old soprano in Washington, after all. But that is just one state, and you are competing with sopranos from every country in the world. Even the Eastern Bloc countries, whose singers used to be impeded by the communist thing—that is to say, they couldn’t leave the country. Tell me, are you the nervous type?

Sally:

My mom has been very supportive. I sang the heck out of that audition at State, but sometimes I do get nervous and sort of lose it. And I have allergies.

Cat:

Your competition never gets nervous. She also doesn’t have allergies. She is never sick. Are you planning to lose some weight?

Sally:

I’m only 160 pounds! How dare you?

Cat:

Well, you’re shaped like an apple, which means that a corset won’t be enough to give you the illusion of slimness. Your competition may be hefty, too, but if she has an hour-glass shape, she can get away with it. People who are investing in your future—such as agents—are worried that you will have a baby and balloon up to 200 pounds.

Sally:

That’s so unfair.

Cat:

Yes, it is. If they were to tell you to lose weight, what would you do?

Sally:

Tell them where to go!

Cat:

Then they’ll tell you where to go, no matter how talented you are. Even talented people have to suck up to every single person in authority around them, even those they don’t respect. That’s the business. Get a reputation as “difficult,” and they won’t care whether you’re Renee Fleming’s clone.

Aaron Actor:

What about me? I’m just about to do summer stock at Theater of the Young Gods. I’m playing Romeo! Look at me? How can I fail?

Cat:

Aaron, you’re a great-looking guy. Are you gay?

Aaron:

Are you kidding?

Cat:

Actually, no. Life will simply be easier if you are. Especially if you can play straight. Most of the casting people and many of the directors are gay. As are your fellow actors. As a gay man, you wouldn’t feel the same pressure to make a living. But frankly, Aaron, you’re a little arrogant. The stereotype is that all actors are narcissists. But in order to have a profession, you’re going to have to learn to “act” the part of the world’s nicest guy—and be really convincing, because these people have excellent BS detectors. Write lots of thank you notes, keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met, network for at least an hour a day.

Aaron:

I’m terrible at that. I can’t remember anyone’s names and I certainly can’t remember the casting directors I’ve met. I have a terrible memory for faces.

Cat:

Aaron, if you can’t sell ice to the Eskimos and recognize every single member of the tribe after one meeting, then you will never make it as an actor—not in any major way.

Aaron:

What if I have a great agent?

Cat:

That helps. Don’t be surprised if she or he expects you to sleep with them.

Aaron:

Come on. That old casting couch thing is a myth.

Cat:

Uh, actually, no. But you won’t be kicked out for not putting out as long as you perform in other ways. So you’d better be unusually versatile and well-connected or so talented that people hand you awards the way banks hand out lollipops.

Aaron:

What about my amazing good looks?

Cat:

Well, Aaron, you are eighteen. If you age well, then great. If you lose your hair early or get slightly chubby, then all bets are off. You’re not very tall, which isn’t in itself a deal breaker; there are lots of short actors out there. You should probably get your teeth capped and go on Accutane. And then at some point you’ll have to prove yourself as more than a pretty face, or your career will be over. You’ll also have to be very lucky. Luck is a HUGE element in every career, no matter what your gifts.

Aaron:

There’s nothing wrong with my skin!

Cat:

It’s not perfect. And you’re competing with perfection.

Aaron:

I want to be a stage actor.

Cat:

Then be prepared to make $500 a week before taxes. You will have to take your expenses—head shots, acting classes, cosmetic treatments—out of that. And save money while you can. Almost no one goes from show to show. Do commercials, look into voiceovers.

Aaron:

My parents are very supportive.

Cat:

Are they prepared to help pay the bills when you’re thirty-five?

Aaron:

Well, we haven’t discussed that.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

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