Hey, Johnny! Theatrical Advice – When Is the Right Time to Take the Plunge?

Hey, Johnny!   Hey, Johnny! Theatrical Advice – When Is the Right Time to Take the Plunge?
 
Playbill.com's "Hey, Johnny!" theatrical advice column is back this week with responses for two of our readers seeking guidance on when to stop taking non-Equity jobs and if turning 30 means it's too late to pursue a dream.
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Read last week's Hey, Johnny column here.

Have a question for Johnny? Ask Johnny a Question! or tweet to us @Playbill using the hashtag #HeyJohnny.

Here's Johnny's latest round of reader replies.

Hey, Johnny!

With all of the non-union tours going out, should there be an expiration date for accepting non-eq roles? In other words, are these jobs keeping me from my Equity dreams? Signed,

Eric

*

Dear Eric:

Dreams arrive frequently in the Hey, Johnny! inbox, and luckily, I take dreams very seriously. (Next week, in fact, the entire column will be devoted to college-related dreams, which is code for "anxieties.")

But, first, let's talk about your "Equity dreams" — which aren't so different from any other kind of dream. Equity dreams just involve dental care and a 401(k), and also — of course — a certain level of "legitimizing."

Isn't that what we all want? To hear the special kind of applause that comes from an audience who has paid actual money to see actual professionals?

Note, however: Applause sounds the same, whether you're in New York or West Hartford or West Virginia, and it's arguable that you'll never have more fun than when you're non-Equity, making not a dime and yet — and yet! — also, never checking the clock during rehearsal to see when your next break is, because, heck, maybe there isn't even a stage manager to call the breaks.

When I moved to New York a semi-sheepish non-pro, I ending up working constantly, eager to make $250 a week and go to Philadelphia or Atlanta and perform in shows alongside real Broadway professionals from whom I learned something great and vital: They weren't so different from me.

(Also, being "a professional" and being professional are two different things; one of them costs money and gets you a flimsy little union card, and one of them is the priceless way in which you comport yourself.)

*steps off soapbox*

Now, Eric, I think you're asking something else, also, and that something else is: Could I get pigeonholed as "not serious" if I stay non-union too long? The answer is: Yes, you could. But joining Equity is a little bit like making the decision to finally move out of that "great deal" of an apartment that involves sharing two bedrooms with seven strangers: It's a big-boy step that also carries its own burdens. The minute you're Equity, you're in competition with everyone who has ever been on Broadway, from chorus boys to Carole Shelley, and so making the decision is an art, not a science.

You may be incentivized to stay non-Equity for a variety of reasons: because you're "young" (whatever that means to you); because you're playing roles you might not otherwise get to play; because you're earning EMC points. The list goes on.

But you might be disincentivized to stay non-Equity, also, by knowing that casting directors and agents who will eventually review your résumé will likely disregard most of your credits, at least if they're casting Big Broadway Shows. (Because theatre is elitist, is why.)

So yes, someday you'll want to join Equity — as you know — but the "expiration date" you mention will be a bit like those found on the side of milk: just a suggestion.

My advice: Once you've got six months of savings built up (not just for housing but for food, transportation and other essentials, like Netflix), take the plunge and do what you can to join Equity — provided you live somewhere with real, honest-to-goodness opportunities for union actors and stage managers.

The longer you're out with a non-Equity tour, the longer you're staying away from your so-called "Equity dreams." And, funnily, the only thing that doesn't have an expiration date is a dream.

So quit dreaming, and wake up.

Break a leg,

Johnny

Click through to read Johnny's reply to Ian, who writes in asking about how late is too late to move to New York to "make it."

Hey Johnny!

In your honest opinion, is there an age limit on (essentially) setting fire to stability and worldly possessions and moving to NYC (or LA) to try to "make it"? I ask this as I'm brushing up on 30, with a mortgage, white-collar career and two dogs (the dogs will obviously not be set afire).

Signed,

Ian

* Dear Ian:

First off, I'm thrilled for the dogs.

Second: I paired your query with Eric's, above, because they share a certain anxiety. Your question is somehow deeper to me, though, because you are looking 30 square in the eye and you're not sure which one of you is going to blink first. I can relate.

A couple of years ago I was about to turn 30, too, and a tiny irrational voice was telling me I had to pursue writing — though I had no earthly right to believe anybody would be interested in reading my clunky junk, heretofore unshared.

For one thing, I didn't go to college, where I'd always imagined people "learned how to write," or at least learned how to be the smart version of their selves.

For another, I didn't know what I'd write about. I only knew people had always called me "funny," and that I had had my fill of performing, and that a recent romantic relationship had ended and so I had a lot of time to sit around and think.

(Also, I didn't have the benefit of having two dogs to walk. So it was a lot of sitting around and thinking.)

One day, sitting around and thinking led to drinking beer and wallowing, and I chose that rather than to wallow, I would write. I closed the refrigerator and opened my laptop and wrote the words "Chapter" and then "One," and 30 days later, somehow, I had written the first draft of my first (terrible, still-unpublished) novel. But it didn't matter if it was terrible or ever to be published: What mattered is that I had — brace yourself — a calling, and rather than putting it on hold, I answered.

And you must, too.

One of the reasons I answered the particular call to write was because I knew the same thing you know, Ian: when a person is turning 30, it's a natural and pivotal moment to decide whether he's going to keep being a slightly chubbier version of his twenties-something self, or if he's going to buck the trend and get off the couch and not just walk both of his dogs but also take them along on a journey.

When you say "make it" it could mean a million things, but actually I believe whatever your version of making it is — singing at Ellen's Stardust Diner, or becoming a Blue Man downtown, or going on a non-Equity tour, even — it's ultimately speaking to the same quiet-but-getting-louder desire that Eric, above, had: that you see a vision for yourself that might sound crazy, might make your white-collar friends turn red-faced, laughing at you, and might not make any sense even to you.

But dreams don't make sense, dammit. Sometimes they don't even make you any money. You seem to know this, though. You mentioned, for example, "setting fire to stability."

Years ago, I had a fire in my apartment. A lot was lost, because fire doesn't just burn things — the smoke enters your closets and ruins your one tux, it turns your ceilings black and there is an acrid smell that lingers for months.

But this isn't about fire safety. I'm telling you this story because, though there was tens of thousands of dollars in damage, I went on. I learned a lesson about not lighting matches distractedly, but mostly it was just a sucky moment. That day set fire to some of "my stability," even my "worldly possessions," literally, but I still walked out, a little charred but still standing. And I knew something new about myself: I could lose a lot of things and still I'd have me.

I don't know your particular situation. Some people with white-collar jobs have enough in savings that they can wing it for a while. I think you'll find a way to keep the dogs, or make sure they find a good home. It sounds like you don't have children, which is probably good, in your case, but I'm just assuming, here. Here's the one thing I do know: There is no fire that burns hotter than the one that says "try."

That fire of desire burns in you, Ian. There is no age limit to becoming yourself. You and I both know if you don't try — if you don't see if you can "make it" (your words) — you will always wonder.

And wondering is like the opposite of fire. It never even sparks.

A short time after writing the first draft of that novel in a month, I got an agent. She thought the book was unreadable, but that I had "a voice." She saw a little spark. And so I worked and worked, and got lucky, and got published with an altogether different book, and it's the best thing that ever happened to me. No — it's the best thing I ever made happen.

But I came dangerously close to not setting fire to the cloak of safety that said I was just an actor, just a high school graduate, just a "just." It took an outsider to look at me and say: You might be 30 but you've still got fire in you, kid; go build it bigger, before the winds of growing older come and blow it out.

And now, Ian, it's your turn.

Break a leg,

Johnny

*

Send us your theatrical conundrums, and don't be afraid to dive deep. Johnny's got the time. Be warned, however: He talks straight and fast, and he's a little tired. Keep the questions vivid and you're more likely to keep him awake and get picked.

Ask Johnny a question!

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