In our new advice column, "Hey, Johnny!" (as in: stage door Johnny), an anonymous Broadway veteran answers the burning questions that might just be keeping your theatre-loving soul up at night. Previous columns have covered everything from how to tell your parents you want to major in theatre to whether you need a "Broadway body" to make it big.
Got a question? Ask it here.
I can't believe I'm actually doing this! I'm a 22-year-old single mom. I love theatre and would settle for something in the wings, I just feel like I'm too late. I work for a big financial company so I could go to school and get a business degree and be done but honestly, I don't like my job. Anyway, again I'm just looking for your opinion — do you think it's too late for me? Signed,
I am about to start my musical theatre degree, but I'm in my mid 20s, I'll be 30 when I finish my degree (hopefully). Most often I feel like I am running out of time or feel like I'd be too old for Broadway.
I have been out of college for seven years now and do not have a theatre degree. Is it too late to pursue a career in the theatre? Do you think school is necessary or should I take acting lessons?
Dear Andy and Jesse and Kelly (which is my favorite new do-wop group):
There are some true advantages to growing older. When it's eleven degrees out and your dinner plans get scrapped at the last minute, you're relieved to spend the night on the sofa in a way you never could have imagined being when you were in high school and desperate to be invited anywhere at all. When you find yourself in the three-bedroom TriBeCa apartment of an extremely handsome former banker who also happens to be a terrible kisser and refers to musicals as "plays," you're old enough to know that it's never going to work out. And most of all, when you eat cookies at midnight, your mom isn't there to tell you to stop.
And thus completes the list of all the great things about getting older.
I jest, of course, but the reality is that with age comes wisdom but also a ticking clock. At least one of you has children; at least one of you is starting a theatre degree later than a lot of people do; at least one of you doesn't know where to start, at all. And yet I've paired your questions together because "Is it too late?" is a refrain so common in my Hey, Johnny! inbox, we might as well call it a reprise. A reprise of the saddest song I know: the one that sounds like regret and ends on a low note.
Let's talk reality: None of you will ever play any of the Newsies, probably. There are certain career trajectories — dancers, gymnasts, figure skaters — that all but require an early start. You'll hear stories of certain great male ballet dancers who started later in life, and even Misty Copeland, I believe, had a surprisingly tardy beginning at the barre —but we're talking "in general," here, and in general I think there are certain theatrical dreams you three should hang up, like dancing in the chorus. BUT! While are undoubtedly certain roles you're too old for (young Cosette and perhaps even grown-up-soprano Cosette), nobody but nobody has the authority to tell you you're too old for the stage. Nobody!
I recall a man in the Bernadette Peters revival of Annie Get Your Gunwho began acting after a long career as a lawyer, and he ended up in a principal role in the show. Exceptions happen. That's what makes them exceptional, and anyone with onstage dreams wants to secretly believe that they just might be exceptional — even if it makes them feel embarrassed to, or uncharitable for what they already do have. Andy, Jesse, and Kelly: You all might be exceptional. Truly. That you've hunted out advice already tells me you want "this" terribly, even if you don't exactly know what the "this" is.
The irony of writing this advice column is how often I find myself wanting somebody to tell ME what to do, in my own offline life. Sometimes I'll even say, "What would Johnny say?" because what I seek more than anything is clarity. The feeling that I've made the "right" decision. So here's what Johnny would say to you all: Countless studies, both anecdotal and scientific, have proven that we regret the things we do NOT pursue more than the things we do. That is to say: YOLO, so you better make it count.
Worrying that you're too old for anything — the theatre, the dating scene, "The Voice" — is a fruitless affair. You are what you are, and the alternative is that you aren't, at all. The alternative is that you're not on earth to experience the grace and wisdom of getting older.
When I was seventeen my way-too-old-for-me boyfriend gave me a copy of Gilda Radner's autobiography, which was the best thing he ever did for me. My parents had loved her work on "SNL," so I'd grown up with a sense of her cracking jokes in the background. It wasn't until I read her book, though, that I felt such a direct connection to somebody whose towering talent and humor was cut tragically short by cancer. It was my AHA! moment as a performer — the day that theatre went from hobby to obsession. The reality that I wasn't going to live forever hit me only then, and it changed the way I danced forever. From then on out, when I went to auditions I placed myself in the front instead of hiding in the back. When I took dance classes I fell out of pirouettes, and asked questions. Someday I was going to die. I became willing to be laughed at, and you must, too. Do I think any of the three of you have a chance at Broadway? I don't know, to be honest. I find myself constantly surprised, even a decade-plus into my life in New York, by who does and doesn't get cast in things. But that's not really what you're asking me. You're asking for permission to attempt something that you already know you need to attempt — at least at some level, "even" locally — lest you spend your life in the clutches of regret (rent "The Turning Point" to see what I mean).
However old you three are, if you're asking the question "Am I too old?" then I already know two things: that you're old enough NOT to put your dependents in harm's way while you pursue your fantasy life; and that you're old enough to know that a few scrapes are par for the course on the rocky road toward anything that's worth pursuing.
A few other pieces of advice:
• Don't go broke chasing your dream
• Google "your hometown" + "auditions" and/or "theatre" to find a trove of potential opportunities
• Don't wait until you have a chance to "make it big" to start acting professionally; people make it big BECAUSE they've laid the groundwork by BEING professional along the way, and practicing extraordinary work ethic (showing up on time; bring full energy to rehearsals; not being a gossip backstage) when they're still in the "small leagues"
• Don't quit your day job
Don't quit your day job. Did you read that above? I'm saying it again, and again: Don't quit your day job. And if you don't have a day job, and are a full-time student, don't slack off on your studies because you're living for the evening rehearsals. Apply yourself across the spectrum. The smartest actors demand the best educations for themselves. The smartest actors are smart people, first.
And by the way, there's more to theatre than "just" acting. Those local organizations you're going to Google, right after reading this column? They are always in need of smart helpers. The fastest way to become an expert is to be willing to work for free under the tutelage of somebody brilliant. So go find the most brilliant people in your town – a director, a lighting designer, the one lady who "made it" on Broadway and is now back running a dance studio —and become invaluable to them in some way.
And most of all, know that while you'll ALWAYS be too old for some roles and too young for others, you'll forever be the perfect age to play yourself. Break a leg,
Johnny will be back next week with answers to your questions. Got one? Ask here. Need to catch up? All his past columns are here.