Now that I’ve been in Los Angeles for three months, I’m starting to get a lot more perspective on why New York had become so toxic and unsustainable for me. I’m not going to pretend that I’m taking to L.A. effortlessly, but that’s largely because of all the ingrained patterns and habits I’d picked up while living in New York. And if nothing else, the stuff on the bottom of the Maslow Pyramid snapped into place almost immediately. Within just a few weeks of moving here, I was already sleeping more consistently, eating out more deliberately, spending money more wisely and efficiently in general, cleaning my apartment more regularly, and exercising more frequently than I had been in almost a year-and-a-half. I had a theory that I didn’t need a life that was “vastly” less intense than my life in New York, it just needed to be Not-New York; so far that seems to be the case, and not moving to Plano was definitely the right call.
The one thing that hasn’t quite clicked for me yet, though, is the social aspect. Most of this I can chalk up to L.A. Weirdness; “they say” that Los Angeles is notorious for being a difficult city to socialize in, and I see what they mean. It’s very much a Hustle City, but everyone seems to be hustling in their own lane. If their lane happens to cross paths with the lanes of others, wonderful! If not, no harm no foul, they’ll just keep doing their own thing. It’s not that there’s “nobody to hustle with,” but there doesn’t seem to be quite the same pavement-pounding culture out here; inner tenacity pays off, but banging on the doors and heads of the people you want to work with sure does not. (I’ve tried. It really doesn’t.)
A little backstory for context: when I landed in New York in August 2009 at the age of 23, I really hit the ground running doing the Musical Theatre grind. I’d signed with an agent that March, got my Equity card off my second professional audition ever, and had two Broadway callbacks within the first 18 months of living there. Starting in mid-2010, I was doing the “ten auditions a week” thing and that would basically be my whole life for the next five years; for the next two years I scaled that back to three to five per week before formally throwing in the towel in the summer of 2017.
When you make The Grind your life – whatever that Grind may be – your brain starts to contort itself in weird ways. It becomes likes one of those deep-sea creatures who have learned to survive on almost no food in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet; it makes you tough as hell, but it also warps your sense of normalcy and what you can expect from the world at large. And if/when you finally get out and start swimming with the whales and the sharks again, your brain needs to be actively retrained to learn how to take advantage of the less severe conditions, and that doesn’t happen overnight. I can say with absolute certainty that I haven’t felt this good, this confident about my body, and this comfortable with how I’ve chosen to move through the world since I graduated high school. Obviously my life was very different at eighteen – as was the world at large – but I really do feel like I’m starting college all over again.
I bring all this up because I’m realizing that so many of my bad habits came from being on the musical theatre audition grind for so long, and that it’s impossible to disentangle my departure from Musical Theatre from my departure from New York. Not only did I develop an alcohol addiction, bad sleep habits, bad eating habits, and bad social habits as a result of warping my life around auditioning, I stopped feeling like I was worth more than half a second of someone’s time. This was obviously exacerbated by the enormous advances in technology in the early 2010s (especially in terms of dating apps), but the root of it lay in my day-in-day-out experience of putting myself in a position to be judged based on wildly incomplete information. Which, okay, fine, that’s debatably “all of life,” and certainly a component of the line of work I’ve chosen for myself. But around the three year mark living in New York, it had gone from being something I had to put up with out of professional necessity to a full-fledged way of understanding my place in the world. It wasn’t just that my confidence was shot; it had gotten to the point where I felt greedy and entitled whenever I simply desired to exist in space and time.
One of the big reasons that L.A. feels a little clunky to me is that I feel like I’m still actively re-learning how to trust the world around me and not treat every interaction like a thirty second musical theatre audition. On a small scale, it’s learning how to just sit at a coffee shop and focus on my work for an hour or two and trusting that I don’t need to constantly feel like I’m on borrowed time. It’s fine, Raja. Nobody’s going to ask you to leave. There are plenty of seats for anyone else who wants to do work, I promise. You’re good. On a larger scale, it’s a little more abstract but no less important; it’s learning how to trust that working on becoming the most authentic and nuanced version of yourself will bring the “right” opportunities into your field of view (both literally and metaphorically). It’s learning how flow effortlessly between pragmatism and whimsy and knowing when and how to prioritize one over the other. L.A. may have a reputation for being full of iconoclast weirdos who are completely disconnected from reality, but the ones who end up being successful seem to be the ones who can effortlessly capitalize on the opportunities around them.
To say that the world of theatre made me jaded is the understatement of the decade. I’ve always had a knack for distinguishing good opportunities from bad ones, and by 2015, the majority of the opportunities that seemed to be in my sphere were just fucking terrible, and my breaking point finally came in 2017 when I got what I considered to be a truly insulting offer. I don’t care how “prestigious” your theatre is: I’m not going to take a week off work to go do a workshop in Poughkeepsie for $100 to be ensemble member #10 in a show written by and starring people that I have never heard of. However, getting that offer is not what pissed me off and ultimately caused me to quit; it was that it seemed like everyone around me thought I was insane for turning it down. Multiple friends thought I’d made the wrong choice and my agent talked about dropping me on the spot. Everyone agreed that it wasn’t a great opportunity, but that I should have taken it anyway because of where that opportunity could have led.
It was in that moment that I realized that I was never going to make it as a musical theatre actor. This was partially because I was in the process of making a number of major lifestyle changes, but it was also because I realized that my career hadn’t actually gone anywhere in the past seven years. At 24, I was getting called back for Broadway shows and being asked to be in the ensemble of theoretically-Broadway-bound readings and workshops…which is what I was also doing at 31. I booked a few neat gigs in that time, but I was accidentally making bigger strides at my tutoring company while putting in 1/5th of the effort. I know there’s a lot of serendipity in creative fields, but at some point you have to acknowledge that “one more data point” isn’t going to buck the very clear trend that had emerged.
The irony is that I knew that I needed to leave the New York musical theatre scene back in 2015, I just couldn’t fully admit it. I made an April Fools’ joke about moving to Los Angeles and the response was aggressively positive. And to be clear: at the time it was absolutely a joke. I had no intention of ever moving, especially since I’d just booked a sweet gig and all the signs were pointing towards my career being on the precipice of “really taking off.” The real joke is that my career had been that same precipice since November 2010, but I was not only fundamentally attached to the idea of being a professional musical theatre actor, everyone around me was telling me that it was just a matter of time before I caught something really big.
But deep down, I knew they were wrong. I booked a legit and fancy off-Broadway show in the spring of 2013 and nothing changed for two years. I wasn’t expecting to make my Broadway debut overnight, but two years is a long time for a major credit to have literally no effect on my career, given how hard I’d been continuing to work. I was vastly more famous as the minor internet celebrity “thejollyraja” than I was as “Raja Burrows, Actual Musical Theatre Actor.” And as flattered as I was, it was getting increasingly difficult to ignore just how amiss things were.
When I pulled the plug on musical theatre in 2017, it took me a little while to really allow myself to process that loss. And by “a little while” I mean “another two whole years.” In fairness, this is largely due to the fact that pulling the plug exposed a lot of other systemic problems in my life: the toxicity of New York, my perceived inability to prioritize my physical health, my feelings of arrested emotional development, and being so far away from my family in New Mexico, just to name a few. But in the midst of all that turmoil, I couldn’t help but go around and around in my head about how much those systemic problems were either exacerbated by my time on the Musical Theatre grind or caused by them outright.
As I’ve gotten the opportunity to reflect on my time in New York without being in the thick of it, it’s become clear to me that the real reason I burned out of the Musical Theatre scene, and New York in general, is that after three or four years of living there, the city stopped being able to teach me anything new about myself. Those first three years (2009-2012) were gangbusters in the personal growth arena. I made wonderful friends, I had a good job, I had an upward career trajectory, my alcoholism hadn’t yet gotten out of hand…things were objectively and subjectively going pretty great. Life wasn’t perfect, and I still had plenty of unsustainable life habits, but all in all, I was unambiguously “thriving.” But because I’m committed to personal growth and always have been, it’s kind of no wonder that my life went so far off the rails as soon as I felt myself start to stagnate.
I think there’s a larger and worthwhile point to be made here about New York being a fixed-mindset city and Musical Theatre being a fixed-mindset industry. There are a lot of reasons for this, but at the core of it all is the perception that change is always too hard to be worth it. In 2012, I was thinking about moving out of my apartment because I was unhappy there (and also paying too much), but it would have cost way more in terms of time, energy, and money to make a switch. It felt too hard to leave, so I stayed. In 2014 I was in debatably the worst physical shape of my life, but I didn’t have the mental or emotional resources to prioritize physical fitness and my social life hinged on binge drinking multiple times a week. It felt too hard to change course, so I stayed.
Finally, after months of struggling with myself and with the world at large, I was able to let go of the idea that I just needed to try harder.
Y’all. I tried. I really, really tried to make it work. For those five years between 2012 and 2017 I did everything in my power not to succumb to the impending doom that would eventually suffocate me. I kept “working hard” and going to auditions all the time; I kept moving up in my tutoring company to earn more money to offset the rising cost of living in New York; I expanded my social circle to include even more non-theatre friends; I took a full-time job instead of trying to cobble together an existence by auditioning during the day and working on nights and weekends. I. Tried. And what it ended up doing was reinforcing the idea that no matter how hard I tried, the thing I wanted is something I would never achieve, and that trying was, in and of itself, an act of futility.
But the hardest part of this whole process has been accepting that I couldn’t have left any sooner than I did. On one level, the world wasn’t quite so batshit crazy in 2012; life was starting to move a little bit faster, but you could still draw a pretty straight line from the pace of the world in 2009 to the pace of the world in 2012. There was no evidence, tangible or otherwise, that suggested things couldn’t or wouldn’t get better. And not only did leaving “not make sense,” I also hadn’t tried to fix the problem yet. I cared deeply about what I was doing, and when you care deeply about something, you try to fix it before bailing, right?
On another level, though, I was deeply unaware of the twenty years’ worth of toxicity that had been building up inside my system. I’d been working towards a fairly singular goal – that of being a professional stage actor – for the past two decades. Even though I always cared about having a “normal” childhood, there was never a question that I would be professional artist of some kind someday. Once I committed to the pursuit of musical theatre at age 15, I felt completely locked into it. The idea of changing course was something that my psyche simply couldn’t handle, largely because I didn’t trust my ability to start from scratch. Now that I’m in my thirties, however, I’m realizing that not only can I start from scratch and be successful at it, I’m not actually starting from scratch. I can tell myself whatever “beginner’s mind” narrative I want, but the reality is that I’m not seven, I’m not fifteen, I’m not nineteen, and I’m not twenty-five: I have over three decades worth of life experience in my toolbox that I can use to help me navigate the world.
People ask me how long it took to finally leave New York, and I think the honest answer is “about seven years.” It took me eleven months to get from my formal decision to depart to the actual departure, but the whole process took so much longer than that; there was no sudden flip-of-the-switch. It felt like it for sure, but now that I have some real distance from New York, it’s a lot easier to see just how early on the cracks started to form. Thankfully, I’m now at a point where I can start to give my current self credit for trying to fill them while also giving my former self grace for failing to.
I saw a quote on social media the other day that said “I’m learning that I won’t find peace in my successes if I have to overwork to be worthy of them.” And that’s really my whole story of why New York stopped being an environment in which I could thrive. After those first three years, it was clear that I was mostly spinning my wheels, but that just made me try to dig in and work harder. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, because everyone around me was doing the same thing; we were all hustling in a hustle city, and we all told ourselves that the opportunity of our dreams was just around the corner. But as much as I pride myself on being a hard worker – something something “grit,” something something “growth mindset” – the line between hard work and overwork has been clear to me for quite some time. And once I chose to recognize that, I had no choice but to do something about it.
I want to be clear about one thing: I didn’t come to Los Angeles to loaf. I like working hard. I plan on showing up every day and working hard for the rest of my life. But right now, I need to take the time reprogram my brain to recognize when more work won’t lead to better results. Sometimes it will; sometimes you just need a little bit of elbow grease to get through a tight spot. Being able to “go to eleven” once in a while is an extraordinarily useful skill and arguably the foundation for any meaningful growth. But you can’t build a life around that. You have to find your baseline and know how to come back to that. Because once you give yourself permission access that place of effortlessness existence and make that your foundation instead, anything you choose to work hard at will bear fruits that you can really be proud of.