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:
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! How do you suggest making that independent acting job you love but aren't getting paid for into something that you are getting paid for? How do you get noticed, or position yourself to get noticed? Thanks!
How can you make yourself stand out? I've heard for years to focus on what makes you "unique," but it's hard to put into practice. Any advice?
Dear Notice Me and Madison:
I performed in Broadway shows and national tours for 10 years before realizing I didn't actually want to be saying somebody else's words — I wanted to be creating my own. It didn't occur to me that I was even allowed to have another dream until I was almost 30, despite the fact that I'd been told — since I was 15 — that the fact that I was a guy who danced was "the most unique thing" about me. Turns out, it wasn't. Or at least it wasn't how I wanted to be defined. I wanted to be a writer, and so here I am.
Notice Me and Madison, I've paired your letters together for an obvious reason: You've both been told that the best thing you can possibly do to stand out is to figure out what makes you stand out. So how do you go about finding your unique voices?
Notice Me has the edge — she, at least, has an independent acting job that she "loves." You want to know the dirty little secret? That's often as good as it gets. My favorite job I ever had was in a production of Grand Hotel in which I was non-Equity and making, like, a buck-thirty a week. I learned that some of the most miserable days a performer can spend are in the second year of a Broadway run during a January matinee when he can practically count how many audience members are in the audience. And three of them are related to him.
Notice Me, if you have an independent acting job you love, and want people to see and recognize, it's about rolling up your sleeves and posting clips on YouTube; finding reviewers who have loved shows like yours, and then personally inviting them; and figuring out ways to engage a community who would appreciate this particular kind of work if only they knew about it. It is, that is, deeply hard. And you'll do this hustle again and again, no matter what level you reach.
On to Madison, whose letter I also identify with. It's hard to put what makes one's uniqueness "into practice," if only because so many people will have different opinions on your uniqueness. That which made me unique as a boy — being a dancer — also got me teased relentlessly. Uniqueness is a double-edge sword. Just see Side Show to be reminded why.
This is an advice column, though, not a therapy couch, so here's my advice: try lots of stuff. Make a web series. Create a Vine account in which you make tiny six-minute movies with a beginning, middle and an end. Tweet from the point of view of, I don't know, an Annoying Actor Friend — except, oh wait, somebody is already doing that, and to great success. In other words, you will find out what makes you unique in two parts: by trying things that don't feel native, from belly dancing to backup singing to bakery owning, and then — here's the clincher — seeing how the world reacts.
The perfect level of uniqueness is at the three-way intersection of finding the thing you're good at, enjoy doing, and can make a living at. That occurs about once every five to ten years for most of us — if we are lucky.
I used to believe life was about following your dreams. I still do, but I think it's about something else, too: following your whims. That little silly idea you might have for yourself — a cabaret show about how your relationship to your bizarre father coincided with your discovery of Patti LuPone — could turn into a long-running act, like Ben Rimalower's Patti Issues at the Duplex. Or look at Bridget Everett, a larger-than-life-in-every-measurable-way performer who has taken what some could consider weaknesses and turned them into unblinkingly blazing strengths.
Here's one more name to drop. Mindy Kaling tells a story I think of often: People weren't writing leads for Indian girls, so she wrote one for herself — after slugging it out in a show downtown, which she also wrote for herself, which got her a staff job at "The Office." She made her own uniqueness — and her own luck, by the way.
That you've written in for advice tells me at least one unique thing about both of you, Notice Me and Madison: You are both humble enough to want answers. Not fake #humble but real humble. Let me challenge you and say this: Perhaps the most unique thing about you will only emerge when you aren't looking, when you are instead agreeing to take part in some no-pay workshop of a show called, say, Rent, and where you'll discover that, oh my God, I am actually Idina Menzel. A total unknown who became a total original, just by being herself.
Just like I know both of you will be, and already are. Break a leg,
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.