Glimpsing the lives of New York actors

For this months posting I decided to do something a little different...

Cherry blossoms finally emerged all over town this month!
After reaching my 9 month anniversary of living in New York and surviving one extremely long winter, Ive naturally started calling myself a native! Im in regular classes, have just started working with a new manager, and booked a nice role in my first US feature film. The pieces feel like theyre starting to fall into place, and in honour of this I wanted to create a little overview of how I and other actors approach our day to day working lives in this great city.

On set, overlooking Madison Avenue

So I interviewed a handful of actors from different walks of life who, like myself, all decided at one point or another to set themselves up here and make a career push in the big apple. These are little glimpses into their world. I'll hold my hands up and admit there'll be a certain amount of NY back-slapping goin’ on! All part of the process, as I figure out what makes this city unique. Tempted to move over? For those of you reading this from other countries and other US states, I hope these tidbits give you some practical tips and ideas about what that new life might look likehappy reading!

Teaser for Sonnet 102, short film with Sawyer Spielberg and director Eli Russell-Linnetz
for the Sonnet Project, New York Shakespeare Exchange  

What difference have you noticed in the auditioning scene here, compared to other markets?
Comparing it to LA, most everyone agrees that New York has the edge in terms of size. Because this city is smaller, it’s hands-down easier to get known – the only balance one has to strike, is whether there are enough of the kinds of opportunities here that you want to pursue. If Modern Family or is your jam – best head over to the casting offices out west and wow them with your comedic chops in person!

But if New York has something to offer you, it’s worth staying in town – and from “House of Cards” to “Orange Is The New Black”, from Sesame Street to the Lincoln Centre stages, and from UCB to Saturday Night Live, we’re certainly spoiled for choice.

Time and again, the word “intimacy” comes up. Both literally – “because the rooms are smaller, with less people in room - often you’ll just have the CD reading opposite you – so ultimately it’s simply about you relating to another human being” and the whole atmosphere is seen as warmer. Actress Moksha McPherrin enthuses, “New Yorkers are more grounded for the most part, it always feels like they have other things going on in their lives as well. Casting directors will often have a little conversation with you before you audition, it feels simple and easy. I just met with Cody Beke and before we worked I mentioned I loved his shirt (it had a picture of The ‘Burbs on it) – and he and I ended up talking about classic Tom Hanks comedies for 10 minutes!”

There’s a general sense that it’s easier to get called in without representation here than it might be elsewhere. There are many stories of friends who were called in directly after taking a workshop with a CD to audition for a network show - and quite a few who went on to book. Those jobs ultimately allowed actors to start working with one of their agents of choice. And so - as it increasingly happens - resume and reputation lead to the representation, rather than the other way around.

Comparing this scene to the one she left behind in London, one actress feels “things are all-inclusive here. I’ve found it far more open, and welcoming. And in London you can be stunted by a bad agent - that can hold you back even getting an audition. Here it doesn’t matter, with a good agent or bad, or none at all, you can fill your days with auditions. And that’s part of the process - you need to audition regularly if you want to feel comfortable and have a knack of booking.”

© Universal Pictures

What acting class, CD workshop, or teacher has had the most impact on you or your work over the past year, and why would you recommend them to other actors?
This was such a great question for me to learn from! Here are five different views straight from the source, which have spurred me on to check out some new acting communities (websites listed below.)

“I worked with Deborah Hedwall, for about two years, who is on the acting faculty at Rutgers and has a private studio in the city. She changed my whole perspective on acting - I learned more in that class that in undergrad I think.  She’s a very grounded teacher, focusing on Meisner-based acting, although she incorporates other techniques as well.  It was just the safest space, and so the most amazing work came out of it from all the students. The on-camera class that has most profoundly affected me is Ted Sluberski’s class at One-on-One.  He’s a ‘tell it like it is’ kind of teacher, but supportive at the same time.  His advice of ‘do your work; take the room - it’s your audition, not the reader’s - make that space your domain for the duration of the audition, then leave it behind’ is so simple yet so important.  Step into your own power.  Just be the actor you already know you are.”

“Hands down, Kelly Kimball at Kimball Studio. It's not only her experience in all aspects of production, though that is a tremendous help, it's the sense of community both she and Janine Di Tullio foster that has been a game changer. Acting can feel like such a solo pursuit, and having a community behind you makes the rejection easier and the wins even better.”

Michael Howard Studio’s scene study class which I took for three years - it laid a new foundation for he rehearsal process and the necessity of taking the craft seriously but not always ourselves.”

“Three different stand-outs for me: First CD Camille Hickman of Lincoln Centre Theatre was phenomenal to work with – she accurately replicated their casting process in the classroom. After my workshop with Camille I got called into the Lincoln Centre casting room with Daniel Swann, and felt thoroughly prepared. Secondly, Risa Bramon Garcia, from LA. This class is life-changing - she deals with cutting the crap and pulling out the truth in the work. Her technique is practical, enlightening and fulfilling. Plus, I made amazing friends in the class! And third, the Director’s Lab with Neil Pepe, Artistic Director of Atlantic Theatre Company. Here you get to work with a fantastic director who is showing you how to do the job, keep the job and present the work. That makes a nice change from CD classes where you tend only to focus on ‘booking’ the work.

One actress decided to go against the grain and not take industry classes when she moved to New York from LA, “Because it’s easy to load yourself up with classes, which can lead to exhaustion. And I have a problem with classes where there’s often so much talking and analysis and not enough playing! So instead, I started my own actors’ group, which has actually made a huge difference. I feel more comfortable and confident with my own instincts now, in not having a teacher and focusing instead on having a supportive environment. It has really changed the way in which I walk into an audition room – I don’t try to please everybody any more, instead I’m ready be authentic and have an enjoyable experience.” Side note: this actress literally radiates grace and confidence and has been working steadily for the past year. Her drop-in group is always a really fun experience - the proof is in the doing!

If you have a day job outside of the business, what is it and how does it contribute to your acting life?
As we all know, life as an actor is a full-time job in and of itself – whether or not you’re being paid for it! Sometimes we’re lucky to make that full-time living from our acting, commercial and voiceover work, but having a sideline income - part of the ‘portfolio career’ – can be a wonderful thing. Popular survival jobs range from the tried and tested server-industry ($400 tips a shift at the Little Owl, anyone?) to au-pairing and carpentry.

Here are some other choice ‘day jobs’ that I enjoyed hearing about, which have added value to each actor’s life:

One actress works in television production and casting, which she felt has been a tremendous help to her career. “Not only do I constantly meet creatives who work in all different facets of the industry, but I’ve found it invaluable to get a hands-on education about how television is made.”

British ex-Pat Emma Kaye enjoys a flexible sideline job in the world of Beauty and Fashion PR. Regularly liaising with celebrities and brands spokespeople, and organizing styling for events such as the Oscars and Golden Globes every year, she’s loved learning about this jet-set world of brand presentation, image, and telling stories. “I’ve become adept at selling and telling stories – about a product or a person. And as an actor you have to be able to share stories! Not only that, the PR industry has informed my business savvy – I am constantly on industry websites, I have the inside scoop and I know what deals are being made. I know that money drives so much of this industry – art is only a part of it! I have the inside eye on a crucial part of the industry, namely capitalizing on a moment in time when you are IT, and everyone wants a piece of you. By the way, that doesn’t mean a celeb is selling out - signing a contract and taking a payday can allow them to take artistic time out to do theatre or lie on a beach, before they go back to their high-pressure network show” Emma is also a skilfull make-up artist, allowing her to be camera-ready at any given moment!

Other great day jobs involve dancing and music. Actor Christopher Domig teaches music lessons – “I mostly teach beginner piano to kids. I love music and spending time teaching the joy of music is nourishing to me and also allows for me to help out at home with my wife and kids.” What more could you ask for?

Quick tip for those of you interested in super-flexible temp jobs that fit around an actor’s lifestyle: 'Survival Jobs For Actors' was created by Michelle Dyer and is a resource that curates temp agencies, catering companies, and the like. It gives performers the basics such as a company’s phone number and website, and how best to apply for a job.

Outside of work, where do you go to meet like-minded people and connect with new actors, theatre and film folks?
Over the past nine months I’ve found that New York has an infinite amount of venues to meet new friends and collaborators. Aside from the many theatres and arts festivals that pop up around town, actors can mingle at events like those thrown at the Paley Centre, Director’s Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA.

But the most common answers to this question were without a doubt to join theatre communities, taking class, and attending readings. “Mixers at places like New York Theatre Workshop and Naked Angels are really worth going to. Getting involved with a group that regularly reads plays or film scripts sharpens your skills and you’ll meet so many fantastic individuals who are creating their own work.”

Marisa Tomei and Rob Morrow were founding members of Naked Angels, a group dedicated to producing new theatre and film works

Actress Jamie Carroll summed up her feelings about ‘networking’ like this: “I start from a place of ‘where can I be of service, who can I introduce them to?’  instead of thinking, ‘who can I meet and what can they do for me?’  I find that more empowering and active. It's about finding what motivates you to do the things you want to do, and it's different for everyone.”

There’s also a general sense that whilst connecting with like-minded people in class or from a show can be terrific, the rapport, respect and friendship must come first – and that it's important to have friends in all areas of life. Certainly not a hard thing to find in a city like this.

What is your No. 1 thing to do in NYC, as a way of motivating yourself, or getting back on the horse, when you find yourself slipping?
I loved the answers I got for this one! Right off the bat actress Carey Van Driest says, “I remind myself that whatever I put out there energy-wise, comes back to me 50 fold.” Every actor also emphasised the importance of creating your own work– to nourish yourself by always having something you’re building with your mates independently of industry trends.

Both those things are surely true wherever we live around the world. Specifically in New York, however, hands down the number one thing I heard was – ‘Stuck in a rut? Go see a show!’

“When I'm in need to inspiration, I look to the theatre. Taking in an amazing ​performance is such a great reminder for me that first and foremost, it's about the ​craft. That's what I'm in love with.” From another actor - “Go see a Broadway show! The level of talent is outstanding. And it fills you with such a level of pride, to be in New York. I live in here, I’m seeing this amazing Broadway Show, this is my city, I can actually really do this...Your own city being the place that puts on Broadway shows – that’s awesome!”

Probably more shows per square foot than anywhere in the world...

And no matter where you’re based, it’s important to approach the business with a focused mind and be specific about what exact kind of work you want to go. In one actor’s words: “Just wanting to work isn’t good enough. Get clear on where you’re headed. Living here, it can be especially exciting to know what you want to work on, who to work with, and then challenging yourself to come up with ingenious ways of meeting those people who are working on projects you want to be part of – because not only are those people either working in New York or passing through here – but in this city I find those people are willing to talk to you! It’s not just a game of kiss chase. For me the difference here is knowing that - if you chase hard enough - they’ll stop and they’ll listen to you.”

Lets talk about health and fitness regimes What do you do to keep your energy levels up, is there something you couldnt live without here?
We all know the value of staying active on a regular basis.  Being thrust into the intense lifestyle every day – it’s sometimes those gruelling high intensity work-outs that help us to refocus and keep us sane the rest of the day. Since moving here I’ve done more niche work-out challenges than I’d ever come across in my life – from aqua-spinning in TriBeCa to high-altitude yoga in midtown!

Some other favourites:

“Every other day I do HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) on the treadmill at the gym. It's INTENSE. The routine is one minute running at a comfortable speed and then one minute of all out-fast as you can without collapsing-sprint.​ Then on the other days some toning work with programs like Physique57 or AKT Motion.”

“Jogging, parks, wrestling with my 1yr old daughter.”

Yoga and meditation are musts for many actors – “a go-to when I sense myself getting scattered.”

And there’s the resolute sports-phobe who told me, “My energy truly comes from going to the theatre or cinema every week. I work so hard so on my survival job that I have the money to do that – if I don’t go at least once a week to something performance related a part of me dies inside!

Quick shout out for Class Pass, a fantastic mobile gym membership which I’ve become addicted to since moving here – I can’t imagine life in New York without it now. The benefits are many – not least that I can jump into classes in London, LA or other major US cities whilst travelling!

Finally, whats the best thing about being an actor in NYC as opposed to anywhere else?
I will let my fellow actors speak for themselves on this one..

“Most auditions are here or in LA, and if LA isn’t your scene then there is an increasing amount of work in New York to take advantage of.  TV alone has exploded in recent years.  The nice mix of theatre, TV and film is also a bonus.  I think New York actors are some of the most facile and diversified actors in the country.  We have to be able to jump from a theatre audition to a TV audition to a commercial audition sometimes in one day.  Plus there’s a grounded-ness here, a ‘real' quality that appeals to me.  Yes, we work hard and play hard, but in the end, you know where you stand with a New Yorker. And that’s refreshing!”

“We're spoiled with great performances here, from all the off-off, off and Broadway productions, to amazing film festivals and independent films, solo shows, experimental theatre - it's outstanding. Plus, Shake Shack.”

The original in Madison Square Park

“The amount and variety of plays that get produced, as well as the incredible cultural landscape that feeds into your work in unknown ways.”

“Living here! It’s the perfect city in every way. It may sound cheesy but it’s so unbelievably dynamic - New York City is always alive. There’s always a pulsating energy on the streets. Every kind of human, profession and type of human on the streets, we’re all crammed together and kind of forced to work it out together. It creates this incredible synchronicity – we’re a beating organism together. And as an actor that feeds me – that palpable energy and pulse of the city feeds me. I have crazy and cool interactions with strangers in the city every day – it feels like people are more open to that here - and I’m never bored. Exploring the city brings me alive. I try to make a point of doing that several times a week, to discover something new, like a new comedy venue, museum, or a play – or just any other creative venue really."

“Being in New York I’ve never doubted that my acting career would happen. I go through defeat and deflation – back home when feelings of worry or defeat came in, I’d seriously consider stopping working as an actress. Living here, no matter what’s happening I don’t doubt that if I stick it out long enough, my end goals are attainable.”

And there we have it, folks! I hope you've humoured the NYC high-five's going on in this piece - I'm not working for the tourist board, promise - but I’ve been curious to get under this city's skin from the point of view of other working actors, and I've found myself relating to many of the points they make.

I think the biggest change New York has made for me, has been constantly finding new ways to get involved in the business. The breadth of the community of actors, filmmakers and theatre people is extraordinary – everyone is always working on something. And whenever I go to castings or classes I see what support there is amongst actors, even just in the waiting rooms. That kind of small-town feel has been invaluable as I get settled into a big city like this.

Thanks for reading – we’ll dig down a bit deeper into a specific area of the New York acting world when I return…

Classes   - for some of the best CD workshops in town

Temp jobs


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