Booking It! Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Scott Oliver On Breaking Type, Breaking Out, YouTube Success and Self-Producing

Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with actress Lindsay Mendez and songwriter Ryan Scott Oliver.

Ryan Scott Oliver
Ryan Scott Oliver (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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Following her critically acclaimed turn in the Off-Broadway musical Dogfight (receiving Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League nominations for her performance as Rose Fenny), Lindsay Mendez's career took "flight" when she was cast as Elphaba in the hit musical Wicked, performing in the musical's tenth-anniversary cast and making various television appearances in celebration of the show's milestone. She has also been seen on Broadway in the 2007 revival of Grease, Everyday Rapture and the 2011 revival of Godspell. Off-Broadway, she has also performed in Ryan Scott Oliver's musical exhibition 35mm. She also collaborates with jazz pianist Marco Paguia, and their album "This Time" is available on iTunes.

Composer-lyricist Ryan Scott Oliver has written eight musicals and is a 2011 Lucille Lortel Award nominee, a 2009 Jonathan Larson grant recipient and the 2008 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre recipient. His work has been featured at the Kennedy Center, Off-Broadway and on television. His musicals include We Foxes, The Frog Prince Continued, 35mm: A Musical Exhibition, Darling, Mrs. Sharp, Out of My Head, Quit India and Jasper in Deadland, which was critically embraced in a recent Off-Broadway run starring Matt Doyle and Allison Scagliotti. Read more about his work in Playbill.com's Contemporary Musical Theatre Songwriters You Should Know.

Together, Mendez and Oliver teach Actor Therapy, a five-week master class in which students receive feedback and critique on their audition material as well as repertory suggestions, life coaching and guidance. Mendez and Oliver also invite industry professionals, including casting directors, agents, performers, songwriters and more, to each session of Actor Therapy. For more information, visit ActorTherapyNYC.com.

Mendez and Oliver sat down with Playbill staff writer Michael Gioia, also a frequent Actor Therapy student, to discuss breaking "type," bursting onto the scene, audition advice, YouTube success and more. Let's first talk about "types." In Actor Therapy, you often talk about how the typical "types" are diminishing, and we — as actors — have room to make or create our own so-called "type."
Lindsay Mendez: I think going into a room for an audition, the best thing you can do is represent who you are specifically as an individual and what you can bring to a creative process in a room — as opposed to being worried about "where you fit" because that's really their job to decide where you fit. Your job is to just present the best "you" you can. That's always my first thought when I'm going in to meet new people and audition for them.
Ryan Scott Oliver: "Type" is useful only in suggesting the development of skillset. When you're learning to do this, the idea of being the brassy, comic belter suggests certain things you should be working on to develop yourself. But, in terms of actually existing in the professional sphere, no one writing now is going, "I'm writing Ado Annie." No one is doing that — even when they're writing a classic show. In fact, when they're doing, for instance, the Kelli O'Hara- Matthew Broderick musical, Nice Work, they're intentionally trying to create interesting, never-before-seen riffs on classic characters. Again, they're trying to break type consistently, so ["type" is] only useful in developing a skillset. I don't think it's realistic to work towards — and this is an issue we face a lot in class — becoming the Adelaide of all time, becoming the soprano-ingénue of all time. I think that's not feasible. It's not helpful; it's not realistic anymore.

For you, Ryan, when you're writing as a contemporary musical theatre writer, what do you keep in mind? What are you looking for?
RSO: You're looking for incredible people. On one hand you are writing for a voice type, but the kind of soprano that Katie Rose Clarke is and the kind of soprano that Kelli O'Hara is are two different sopranos. Jessie Mueller can also sing soprano, and she's a completely different soprano than either of them. And, furthermore, if you get a great person, I think there isn't a composer out there who is going to be like, "Wow, this person is totally right for this part, in every way shape or form, but it's a third out of their range" — they'll change the keys. And that's the way it should be. You're looking for incredible human beings to embody your roles.

Lindsay Mendez
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

When you're young and fresh and new to the theatre scene, what's the best way to really get yourself out there when you're a non-Equity actor?
LM: My advice is always: Say yes to everything — whether someone asks you to sing in a reading for free or asks if you want to go to a concert with them. Even the opportunity to sit and watch other people and learn and then maybe meet some people there that night — that's such a great chance for you to get to know people in the city. A lot of this business is about who you know and when you meet them, and I'm always the first to say, "Really push yourself to get out there and start meeting people." You meet composers at tons of places — they're everywhere, they're all over the place. You can meet them and introduce yourself and ask if they would consider watching a video of you or listening to a demo, and see if they want to use you for something. The best way I know to get involved is to get attached to a new writer and say, "I want to work with you; I want to develop your work," and see if you can forge a relationship with them.
RSO: I couldn't agree more, [although] some people go, "At what point do you start saying no?" And, I think you know. You know when you get to the point when you start saying no because you simply don't have time. Suddenly there comes a day — that everyone should be so lucky to get to — when saying yes is starting to cut into your life, and that's when you might say no occasionally. But until that moment, which is far off for most of us, you should absolutely say yes to everything. One thing I'm going to talk about tonight in class, straight from this great Pixar book, is this line, "Fail fast, and fail early," which is the idea of, "Don't be afraid, failure is a part of the business." In terms of making mistakes, in terms of going to an audition and failing to get the part — who f*cking cares? Do it quickly. Don't delay six months or a year or two years because you don't feel like you're ready, and you're afraid to fail. Go out there tomorrow, go to an audition, fail to get the part…
LM: …and learn so much from the failure.

What about for composers looking to breakout onto the scene? What were your initial steps, Ryan?
RSO: You've got to work every day. You have to take one step every day. Sometimes, you might have to take three steps in three different directions. Whether that's writing the show, or whether that's getting your name out there, or whether that's marketing your material, or whether that's contacting performers and setting times to do shows… You just have to get your work out there. You have to be ever present. I'm doing the same thing that I suggest actors do when they're breaking out onto the scene.
LM: I feel like we both have a similar job, which is that we both have to light a fire under our own butt. No one's going to do it for us. We're freelancers.
RSO: Absolutely. And in terms of finding successes — it's about people hearing your name. When I did Jasper [in Deadland], I got a lot out of it. It's not going to Broadway tomorrow, but I got a lot of out of it. And, one of the things I got out of it was that a lot of people who had never heard of my name simply heard my name, and that's great. And, other people who had heard my name heard my name again — with something [attached to it] that seemed more prestigious than the last time they heard it.

Similarly for an actor, I'll have an actor send me an e-mail asking to watch their YouTube video. I will, and I'll correspond with them. And, I might not see them or meet them for a year or two, but their name is in my head. We have a student right now, Serena Berman, who auditioned for Jasper… She was one of 80 people who came in that day, and she came to class, and I [thought], "Oh, right, you’re that girl." Then someone posted a YouTube video of her singing that I randomly came across. I saw her a third time outside of class, and by this time she and her talent is getting ingrained in my brain. So when I need someone of her type — and she's got a great type — I'm going to think of Serena Berman. Again, you have to work every day, you have to light a fire under your ass, like Lindsay said.

Matt Doyle in Jasper in Deadland.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

What are the benefits and pitfalls of social media and YouTube for an artist in this industry?
RSO: The first time I saw Lindsay was on a YouTube video.
LM: That's right! And that was like the first YouTube video I was ever on. It was Rom Baumgartner's " [Pictures of the] Border Signs."
RSO: …That Stephen Schwartz flipped over.
LM: Yeah, that was my first one, and I've gotten a lot of work off that kind of thing happening. And social media, too — it helps us get stuff out there, like if we have a concert we're promoting. There are all sorts of ways to get in touch with people. On the reverse… I'm sure there are things that are on YouTube that I don't want on YouTube. A lot of people videotape our shows when they come — illegally — and that's… We're doing the show for the people that are there in the moment, not for people to record and keep, so that is something that I struggle with a bit.
RSO: And, they take ownership of it. They take ownership of that performance — that live performance — and they suddenly steal it from live experience. And, when I say take ownership, I mean they comment about it, and they compare and contrast… They take theatre suddenly to this competitive level that is so apathetical to what theatre is, so that is a negative side of YouTube. The other side of it is… Fifteen years ago, if there was a Broadway star you loved, you had to wait for the Tonys or some random PBS [airing] or be in New York to watch them perform live. But, people all over the country, in addition to the bootleg Wicked videos, have seen Lindsay perform 50 or 60 songs. [They] have followed her career through that whole process.
LM: When I was in Kansas City [performing in Nick Blaemire's A Little More Alive], there were so many people there who knew who I was because they had seen YouTube videos of me. And, that is so wild that it has that kind of outreach. Not only that, but then I do [Ryan Scott Oliver's] "[The Ballad of] Sara Berry" on YouTube, and some girls [say], "I love that song. I want to buy it," and then they go on Ryan's website and buy it. I think that's been really huge for the writers. And, I'm really proud to represent that work and do that. So I'm a fan [of social media], and we've both gotten a lot out of it, but there is a fine line.

As a performer or writer, do you feel the want to edit your YouTube presence?
RSO: What's changed is [that now] I don't present a song of my work at a concert unless I want it to be seen by not just the 150 people in the room, but by everybody. That's why when you're writing a new musical, you're very selective of the material that you put out there because people will see it.
LM: I think I'm the same way in my performances now. I am extremely conscious to always go out and give a performance that I would be proud to have online because the truth is there's a big chance it will be, and I need to feel confident that I gave a good enough show. And, I hold myself to a high standard. I think that's good — it keeps me on my toes.
RSO: We're saying this as people with a number of videos of our work out there. For the newbie, absolutely get your stuff out there on YouTube. If you're not ready yet, the scary people behind the table aren't going to see it. If you are ready, people are going to start watching, people are going to start talking about it, people are going to start sharing it, and you'll get some recognition. As a writer or as a performer, putting a body of work out there — again, fail early and fail fast — is really important. When a young performer is looking for me to pay attention to them, if I can't immediately find them in 2014, there's another performer I can find faster. And, that's just the reality of it.

You always talk about self-producing and making your own work when you're not getting work or getting cast. Can you explain more?
LM: I got into theatre for "the hang" — that's why I wanted to do it. I love the hang. I love to spend time with people who want to create, so when I'm not employed to do a job, I'm like, "I still want to do the hang!" [Laughs.] So I'll call a friend and say, "Let's write a sketch! Let's read a new play — let's read the scenes together." I asked my friend Marco [Paguia, a jazz pianist] if he wanted to do a gig with me out of the blue, and those things blossom… My best friend Kirsten wanted to do a cooking show, so she started filming her own cooking show, and I was a guest on it. You all come to New York to really do this and devote the time and energy and money to be here, so make the most of it. Get your friends together, and put on a cabaret. It's totally possible. Ryan has produced thousands of them.
RSO: Thousands? Millions, really! [Laughs.]
LM: I feel like you should take advantage of the opportunities that New York has. There are a million places where you can put on your show if you want to. You can go see a million shows. You can rent a rehearsal hall and bang drums for a while. There's so much opportunity to have fun here.
RSO: You have to, as a creative person, conceive a path that is only dependent on yourself. I write a show every single year — one show a year — and I'm always going to do that. [After] seven years, I take a break [for one year]. I'm on year one of the second cycle. Last year, I let Jasper and We Foxes happen. The point is that some of the shows will go, and some of them won't. Some of them will go really big, and some will only go so-so. I'll do cabarets along the way, I'll do retreats along the way, I'll do master classes along the way, I'll teach along the way, but my path as an artist has nothing to do with the producers who produce my show. I'm going to continue writing the shows no matter what. I've been very lucky that the last three shows I've written were commissions, but if I didn't get the commission, I'd still write the show. I'm not writing the show because it's a commission. When I hear about young actors putting on their own cabarets at the Duplex, it makes me so f*cking happy. When actors write plays, it makes me so happy — when actors go, "I'm not going to wait for the audition to land, I'm not going to wait for the summer stock gig to come through, I'm not gonna wait…" [When] they just live in this world of callbacks and auditions and are often very disappointed, it can make you very sad and very discouraged and turn them from the art form, and that's the wrong way to go about this art and this business.

Mendez in Wicked.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Let's talk about auditioning. What do you think is more impressive when you go in the room: Sticking to the material? Showing your versatility? Vocal embellishments? Being simple? Not showing all the tricks in your bag?
LM: You can personalize the material you bring in — I don't think there's anything wrong with that — but I think there's a point of making sure you're also honoring the writer who penned those notes. There's a fine middle ground you can walk. I think what they're ultimately looking for [in the room] is if you can play with them [and] if you can take direction, so you can't be so ingrained in what you're doing that if they ask you to change it you can't change it on the fly. I think there's a line [between being] under-rehearsed and, frankly, over-rehearsed, and you kind of have to walk that a little bit.

This year, Lindsay, you went in as a replacement in Wicked. Sometimes, going in as a replacement — in such a big show — can be difficult. What would your advice be for someone going in to replace in a long-running show?
LM: I would say go to the text. Go to the book straight away. You have to watch the show, obviously — you have to learn it. It's an existing, breathing show, and there are marks you have to hit and things like that, but start with the script and the words — figure out what story you're telling and who that character is to you. That's exactly what I did with Elphaba, and I think it really paid off. I hadn't seen the show a whole bunch, so I decided to really start fresh with the script, and I felt really free. That's also a credit to Wicked — they really keep their hands off and say, "We want whatever version of Elphaba you are," so I had a lot of freedom and encouragement. But, at the end of the day, you're telling the story that's on the page. Say the words. As my friend Joe Mantello would say, "Say the line."

For actors going into audition for those long-running shows — Wicked, Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages — are there any tips or tricks to auditioning? Do you go to people who have been in them before for advice?
LM: You can. You can learn the dance combination ahead of time if you know what they're going to be teaching and you have a friend who has done the show before. I think it's always helpful to get advice from people who have done it before because they at least have some insight into how the show has been directed. But sometimes they're just looking for something fresh and new that's going to surprise them. When they were recasting Annaleigh [Ashford]'s role in Kinky Boots, it was like, "Who's going to be Annaleigh? Nobody! There's no possible way that any girl will come in here and do what Annaleigh did." So then bring what you have to the table. Let's see something else. I'm sure that's what they got in Jeanna [De Waal]. You have to stay strong in what you can bring that's special.

What was an early challenge you both faced in the beginning of your career? What would you say to you ten years ago?
LM: I would say ethnic is in! [Laughs.] Because when I first moved here, I was told that ethnic was out, and I changed my last name to Matthews. I even have a headshot with it on it: "Lindsay Matthews." I was Lindsay Matthews for like three months because I was told I would work more if I didn't have an ethnic last name.
RSO: Boy, were they right.
LM: [Laughs.] Once my father forgave me, I started to work and changed my name back.
RSO: For me, honestly, the challenge then is the challenge now, which is that you win some and you lose some. I remember getting notified that I won an award, and I gloated up a storm to my mother, and I was so obnoxious about it, but I said to her, "Momma, I'm going to enjoy every moment of this because tomorrow, something bad is going to happen." Yes, there have been rough patches, but just now — as it was eight years ago — I'm writing shows and putting them out there. The difference between now and then is that the people I can get to pay attention are much bigger than they were then. And, my audience base is much bigger than it was then. And, the dollar amounts are all bigger than they were then. But it's the same job.

Ryan Scott Oliver

How do you each feel about going to auditions that you're not necessarily right for? Do you go anyway?
LM: Yeah, I think you say yes to everything. If you can get in a room, it's an opportunity to give it a shot, even if you know there's probably nothing for you in that show. Practice, practice, practice.
RSO: Philip Seymour Hoffman has a great speech about that, after he won the Oscar, saying, "Every chance to audition is a chance to practice your craft." I think auditions that you aren't right for you can be a fantastic opportunity to get to go in there and go, "Who f*cking cares?" Because if you can bring "Who f*cking cares?" with integrity and life and light and power into every audition you go into, I think that's a pretty attractive quality.
LM: And, also, you never know what people are looking for — people are doing a million projects at once — so you might not be right for that, but they might see you and think, "You know what, I'm going to call him in two months for this other thing." That happens literally all the time. So it can never hurt, I say.

How does one go about finding representation if they didn't have a college showcase?
LM: There's a lot of classes that go on, [such as] Actors Connection, where you can have a class with agents and get to perform for them. I know my agents have definitely signed people from there. I also just think it's about [when you have] any chance to perform, send out mailers and try to get people to come see you. You should never waste an opportunity to be seen in a public venue. And, ask your friends who they're with and who they like. Getting an agent is hard, and I also think people rush to get an agent too soon. You don't always need one right away. If you're just starting, just build your resume. The agent will come when the time is right, but not everyone needs to have an agent. Many people book Broadway shows from an open call. It does happen; it happens all the time. I think people feel completely stunted without an agent, but there's a lot of auditions to be had without one and a lot to be learned before you take an agent on.
RSO: I can't think of one actor friend who has struggled, struggled, struggled, magically obtained an agent, and then their career started. Every actor I know started their career on their own, and an agent followed — an agent came in the middle of that process. And, furthermore, this issue of the showcase, as someone who teaches at a university, I think the showcase is pure cocksure validation in terms of, "How many appointments did you get from your showcase?" Because I know very few actors — in fact, I can't even tell you one — who are older than 25 years old and still with the agent that they may have gotten at their showcase. Can you think of any?
LM: Very few.
RSO: …Which is not to put down showcases or agents that go to showcases. It's simply to say that an agent is not everything and, in fact, it's only part of the journey.

Lindsay, you just got back from doing a show in Kansas City. How do you both feel about going out of town to do work?
LM: I think there's a balance, [and] you've got to eat!
RSO: The first time you get an out-of-town gig, it seems exciting, and it's fun.
LM: I look at it as: You go out of town to make some money so you can come back to New York and keep auditioning. Then you might have to take another out-of-town gig, and then you come back. I think you can find the balance. When I got offered to out to Kansas City, I thought, "Oh, wow… Am I really going to go spend two months in Kansas City?" And, I did, and it was an incredible experience to get out of New York for a minute and breathe and work on something in a really free space, and I had the time of my life there. It's always good to get a little perspective and get out of New York when you want to work on something you really believe in.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael).

Ryan Scott Oliver and Lindsay Mendez
Ryan Scott Oliver and Lindsay Mendez