A Broadway gig AND a day job? Yup!
About the author:
If you've read many interviews with Broadway actors, particularly those starring in musicals, you've heard variations on this familiar theme: I sleep late; I rest my voice all day; I preserve my energy to make it through eight shows a week, etc. etc. And then there's Susan Blackwell, the witty, tart-tongued star of [title of show]. Resting her voice? This talented performer spends her days at a desk, working in management 30 hours a week before hightailing it to the Lyceum Theatre to sing about the joys and insecurities of pursuing a theatrical career. Blackwell's professional juggling act has been going on for several years now including a stint last season in the hit off-Broadway play Speech & Debate, and the multi-tasking star even made time to write an essay for Broadway.com that needed no editing. You go, girl! How—and why—does she keep doing it all?
You know what Carl Jung said back in the day?
"The artist's life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him—on the one hand, the common longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire."
Word to that, CJ.
Since my tender youth, I've wanted to be a professional performer. I came to New York in 1995 to launch my career and share my talents with the world. But there was also the small matter of paying the rent. On my second day in NYC, I registered with a temp agency. In our first meeting, my temp coordinator, a brusque brunette named Meredith, held my resume between her thumb and middle finger like the paper it was printed on had been plated in 14-karat dog turd. "What am I supposed to do with this?" she Fran Drescher-ed, "You've got no experience!"
According to Meredith, my advanced degree in acting qualified me to stuff envelopes and move office furniture. One day, I was supposed to move office furniture at Banco Santander of Puerto Rico. Through an accidental switch-a-roo, I ended up reporting for duty as the temp receptionist at this Spanish-speaking bank. By the end of my first day, Jorge, the Managing Partner, had decided that though I couldn't speak Spanish, I was good at my job and worth keeping on. "Si trabaja aquí, tendrá una oportunidad para practicar su español," he said. I nodded knowingly. I had no idea what he was saying, but I was touched by his kindness and thrilled to have regular employment at eight dollars an hour.
I was living the dream.
Throughout my 13 years in New York, I have primarily supported myself by doing corporate admin work. Throughout my 13 years in New York, I have also done many plays, episodes of Law & Order, movies, and experimental comedy. I have solemnly terminated an underperforming employee during the day and then eaten food from another woman's mouth in front of a volcanic audience that evening. One year, I used every one of my corporate vacation days to either rehearse a play or shoot a TV show. By the end of that year, I was exhausted and burnt out. I was tired of being tired. I wanted to perform, but I was worn out by show business. I decided to stop auditioning, lay back in my boat and see where the river of least resistance took me. With no rehearsal to propel me out of the office at 5:01PM, the river carried straight to a management position featuring:
- A juicy salary
- Sleepless nights
- A down payment on a Manhattan apartment
- Burning, prickly bouts of red-orange anxiety
- Comprehensive health insurance
Then [title of show] came knocking.
In 2004, my best friends Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen asked me if I wanted to work on a show with them—an original musical that they wanted to submit to the first annual New York Musical Theatre Festival. That musical would come to be known as [title of show]. The submission deadline was in three weeks. I was hesitant to take on the commitment—I was a busy professional lady in a fancy pantsuit. Ultimately, I happily acquiesced when Hunter phoned to tell me that they had already written me into the show. It was a great excuse for some creative fun-time with friends. First we played a 50-seat house, then we got accepted to the festival and played an 85-seat house, then we scored a fancy producer, then a trip to the O'Neill Center, then 99 seats at Ars Nova, then 120 seats at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway. And all the while, I continued my corporate ascension.
In 2006, while onstage teching our show at the Vineyard, during a hold as they adjusted a light cue, I found myself surrounded by friends and awash in tears. I was exhausted...I knew I couldn't continue climbing the corporate ladder and keep doing [title of show]. I was at a serious, Robert Frost-ian crossroads. On one hand, I'm a free-wheeling writer and performer, fashioned of hambones and glitter. On the other hand, I'm a practical, risk-averse professional who is a sucker for steady income, stability and structure. On the third hand, a really special opportunity had been presented to me.
In a nerve-wracking move, I resigned from my lucrative, full-time corporate role. I found an admin job with less responsibility that required only 30 hours per week. I carved out more time for creativity. Dear, dusty bones of Carl Jung, you hit the nail on the head: on the one hand, the common longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation.
And all the while, [title of show] kept on [title of show]-ing. In early 2008, it was announced that [title of show] was going to open at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway! 924 seats, baby!!
So now I'm starring on Broadway. And, PS: I'm still working my day job 30 hours per week. I don't know any other Broadway actor signing off on payroll during the day and signing autographs at night, but if you do, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org—I want to buy him or her a beer.
Some people think it's crazy that I haven't quit my office job. Carl Jung would understand. And Marla Gibbs. Remember Marla Gibbs? Her big break came at the age of 44 when she was hired to play Florence the maid on The Jeffersons. Gibbs quit her job at United Airlines only after The Jeffersons really took off. I feel you, Marla Gibbs. I'm a grown-ass woman. Broadway is a fickle mistress, and I've got mortgages, people. But don't cry for me, Argentina: In this economy, I feel downright fortunate to have two jobs. Plus, what I'm doing is much less rigorous than working a full-time job and raising a kid, right?
Here are the real secrets to my success: My husband makes sure I eat regularly and has learned to sort the laundry. My boss and co-workers are generous, patient, understanding, flexible and supportive. And, in addition to its 924 seats, the Lyceum has a dark, quiet room where I nap between my two jobs. If it's 6:30PM EST, it's a safe bet that I'm asleep in that room, perhaps dreaming about where this river is taking me next.