Sunday, February 7, 2016

My Actor's Journey Home to New York-- with Special Guest Star Maurice White

A note to new and young actors and other artists: always have a plan. Then expect that plan to change.

 Again, I was sitting in front of my laptop staring  at another obituary. We'd lost another amazing artist. This time, Maurice White, the founder and lead singer of the iconic group, Earth Wind and Fire. The man had a smooth soulful voice that was part of the soundtrack of my life. Upbeat optimistic songs like Fantasy, Shining Star and September always made me happy, and on occasion sent me running to the dance floor. This music would live forever!

But Maurice White's passing struck a personal cord. Thinking of him  brought up memories of my first professional acting jobs and my unorthodox journey to New York City. This will make sense later.

I booked my first acting job when I was a junior at Emerson College in Boston, MA. I had desperately wanted to attend college in New York City, but my parents wouldn't even consider the thought. The idea of me ever being in New York was terrifying to them. But once I had my degree in hand, I'd move to New York with its hustle and bustle, art,  history and culture. Most importantly, the center of the American Theater was in New York. I planned to make my living on the stage and could never imagine calling any place else home.

At Emerson, I was cast as Vera (the ingénue) in A Month in the Country. A casting director from WGBH (Public Television) was looking for young-looking actors to portray high school students in a new television series, The New Voice. The show centered around the staff of a high school newspaper, The Voice. (The Christian Science Monitor called it Lou Grant with teenagers.)

Several of us were brought in to audition.  A few months, later I was booked on the show. I was  shaking as I took the call from casting on the pay phone in my dormitory hallway. I was told what to bring, given a call time, and told  I'd be paid $25 for the day. Casting also gave me a brief description of my character; "You're a mean spirited student who makes an insensitive remark about another student."

I remember arriving at the WGBH Studio on the morning of my shoot. I arrived early; a habit I've maintained to this day. My makeup was applied professionally for the first time and wardrobe put me in a wrap around denim skirt and green button down shirt. I remember being escorted to the set and trying not to be overwhelmed by the flurry of activity, crew, lights and camera.

 My scene took place in the school's hallway. The situation involved the arrival of a new Native American student.  I was to come around the corner, see him, and deliver the line, "Where's John Wayne when you need him." I was to laugh sarcastically as I exited downstage. I was directed to keep it real. I tried to forget that my grandfather was Native American , and channeled my inner "bitch."
Two takes later it was over. The stage manager thanked me and told me I'd done a good job. I hated to leave.

Later in my dorm room, I sat on my bed holding my check from WGBH. In a surreal moment realized I was now a professional actor. The next year, after graduation, I'd be moving to New York where I'd have more days like this one.

I held on to my day on set by keeping my makeup on until I went to bed. I fell asleep reliving every moment on set that day, and imagined my life in New York City.

But a funny thing happened on my way to New York. I ended up in Chicago.

A few months before graduation I started to make plans. While I was still  focused on getting to New York, to remain proactive, I mailed out my first (awful ) headshots and resumes to 20 theaters in different parts of the country- I remember The Arena Stage in Washington, DC and ACT in San Francisco received packets. I laugh at my naiveté. Had I'd known that in reality a cold mailing was virtually useless, I would have saved the postage.

Meanwhile in Boston, I had a good audition an callback for the Boston Shakespeare Company. I prayed for a phone call  offering me a position by the end of the week when the final decisions were made.  If I was in Boston, at least I'd only be a few hours away from New York.

Friday night, I was devastated, having not received a phone call.

But Monday afternoon, a theater in Chicago called me on the dorm pay phone. They had received one of my packets-- and wanted to talk to me about the possibility of me coming to Chicago. Long story short, a week later I was in Chicago beginning my first day of rehearsal at The Free Street Theater. I was hired as an Actor's Equity Apprentice for $150/week.

A few nights later, I received a call from a dorm mate in Boston. "Boston Shakespeare is trying to get in touch with you. They want to offer you a contract for their touring company!"  I hung up the phone and cried.

I was in Chicago and employed as an actor in a professional theater company. I decided that I was in Chicago for a reason, and I stayed for three and a half years. I made the best of my time.  By the time I left, I had several theater, commercial and industrial credits. I supplemented my actor's  income by singing piano bar and by sometimes doing commercial modeling.

I was further away from New York than I wanted to be, but honestly, NYC was still only a plane ride away.

A commercial modeling gig in Chicago
Chicago is a wonderful place for an actor to begin a career and learn the business of the business. A few years later when I was again plotting my move to New York , I 'd joined SAG, AFTRA and was eligible to join AEA. Professional credits and  being a union member would make me a viable performer in NYC.

But then, a weird thing happened. A friend of a friend was visiting from Los Angeles. I was told this man was in the industry. I remember smiling politely because I'd learned that many people outside of the industry only think they know someone in the industry. He gave me his card and I thought nothing of it...until he called me a month later. Apparently, he had a friend casting a new television series, and there was a role that might be right for me. He asked if it would be possible for me to be in LA in three weeks. This sounded too good to be true.

I was young, but I'd developed some business savvy. I asked if I could look at my calendar and call him back the next morning. In reality I wanted to do some research. In this pre-internet age, I called  a reference librarian at the Chicago Public Library and gave her the information on the business card. This man turned out to be a legitimate talent manager who represented named talent. His father helped to establish The William Morris Agency in Los Angeles.

I'd never been west of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. I'd never thought about Los Angeles let alone living in los Angeles. But in a huge leap of faith, I left Chicago three weeks later, for good.  I felt I couldn't pass on this opportunity. New York, while now an even longer plane ride away, would always be there.

When I left Chicago it was seventeen degrees. When I arrived in LA, it was sunny and seventy-five degrees.

 I didn't book the role that initially brought me to LA. But remember, an actor is always auditioning for the future. The casting director I first met also cast a soap opera, and asked if I'd be interested. (She would put me to work the next year. My first scene was with Genie Francis on Days of Our Lives.)

I  loved the laid back atmosphere in Los Angeles. The city is large, but I soon discovered areas and neighborhoods that I enjoyed. I loved the weather, views and the fact that I could find absolutely anything and everything.

The professional opportunities seemed endless. My LA contact was helping me find representation. But in the meantime, I was invited to his office everyday to look through the breakdowns. His office would make submissions on my behalf.

A few weeks after arriving in Los Angeles, I had my first LA audition on a street called Melrose Place. I don't remember too much after I learned this was an audition for a music video for Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire. He was doing a solo project and had recorded a cover of Ben King's Stand By Me. Two days later I booked my first LA job.

The next week, I arrived at the makeup trailer for the Stand By Me music video. I was part of the street ensemble. They wanted me to look very young, so they applied a lot of pink blusher, lipstick and teased my hair. Wardrobe put me in a white mini skirt and go go boots that were a half size too small, but I didn't care.

I remember Maurice White on the set. He was friendly, down to earth and said hello to everyone, myself included. It all seemed so normal. At 2:00 AM, I was dancing to playback on the streets of Hollywood below the iconic Hollywood sign--and everything seemed right. I was happy, content and performing. A serene feeling came over me as I realized I was never going to be a New Yorker. I was already home in Los Angeles.

Maurice White. Stand By Me.1985 by capitainfunkk

While I'd always planned to be a New Yorker, circumstances continually moved me west until I found my way home to California. Five years after my arrival in Los Angeles, I met my husband. I've continued to work as an actor, and recently began writing.

A few years ago, as I began writing what would eventually turn into Fall Again, (a four-part contemporary romance series), one of my goals was to create a realistic look at the lives of working actors and other artists. My characters are grounded hard working professionals, each with his or her own path.  It's not autobiographical, though some events were inspired by incidents in my life, or the lives of fellow performers. The most recent novel Fall Again: Lost Boy deals with  the life of a New York actor who becomes disillusioned with New York. This is the story of his search for professional and personal fulfillment. This is in addition to a primary romantic storyline.

Those of us in the creative and performing arts are often misunderstood by the general population who can't understand that we can make a real living in an artistic or creative field. During one of my most successful years in the industry, my father asked me I got paid for appearing on TV shows and commercials.

As a newcomer to Hollywood in the Stand By Me Video
The Stand by Me music video was shot in Hollywood on Cherokee
between Hollywood Boulevard and Selma Avenue, blocks away from where I'm currently living. When I heard about Maurice White's passing, I took a walk over to the location of the Stand By Me video and where I began my career in Los Angeles.  I suppose in an indirect way, Maurice White had something to do with that. If he had not recorded the song, there would not have been a video which marked the beginning of my professional life in this city that I've come to love and call home.

While I've highlighted several of my successes, remember, like any creative, I've had good years, not so good years and extremely challenging years. I've had periods of self doubt, have had family issues about my career choices, and have seen the industry and rules change for working class actors like myself. Thankfully I've always been able to reinvent myself when necessary, have clung to a strong work ethic, (an artistic career is hard work), and have never lost my passion.

I looked at the building where the Stand By Me video began. I said a silent goodbye to a man, who has been part of the soundtrack of my life, and in a way, unknowingly helped me find my way home.

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