Goodbye Facebook (For Good)

I can honestly say I never thought it would come to this. Given all the different social media platforms that tried and failed to fully capture my attention over the years, I assumed that Facebook would be a permanent fixture in my digital life. But as we round the corner out of this global pandemic, I’ve come to understand that it will never be easier than it is right now to permanently delete my Facebook profile.

Fair warning: this will be the longest “I’m quitting Facebook” post you will ever read, clocking in at roughly 2800 words. However, I feel it’s important to articulate my process for any of you who are or have been reevaluating your relationship to social media and digital connection, especially in a post-COVID world. If you’ve already decided to quit Facebook (or some other social media site) and are just looking for a how-to on flipping the switch, you can jump straight to Part 3.

Long story short? New Facebook brings me very little happiness and very much unhappiness, despite considerable focused effort to reverse that trend; therefore, it’s gotta go. Long story long? Dust off that Blockbuster Video card, friends, because we’re taking a trip back to 2004.

Part 1: The Journey So Far

Much ado has been made about how different Old Facebook (2004-2012) is compared to New Facebook (2012-present), but I think it’s also important to understand that Old Facebook actually went through a lot of iterations in those first six years, well before the “like” button doomed the platform. Hell, I remember when someone’s “Facebook wall” was more like the whiteboard on your college dorm room door and you could erase other people’s posts to write your own. Over time, more features were added and cleaned up; the wall became more organized and was eventually rebranded as your “Timeline,” posts from friends showed up in your “News Feed,” you could upload photos directly to Facebook rather than using a site like Flickr, you could update your status, you could update your status without being forced to start it with “[Your Name] is,” the list goes on and on. However, once Facebook went public and became New Facebook, its core functionality mostly stopped changing, and certainly not for the better; it just became relentlessly efficient at doing what it was designed to do, which was to turn your attention into advertising dollars.

Once I became aware of this in late 2019 (i.e. that New Facebook had no incentive to change its aggressively predatory business model), it was clear that the change had to come from me if I was to continue using the service. First, I unfollowed almost everyone, especially people who posted a lot of content that was low-effort or excessively negative and political. I simply didn’t have it in me to be constantly downloading the horrors of humanity into my brain while also trying to function in my everyday life. Real talk: if you find that the first thing you say to yourself every morning is “what fresh hell is this?” you are not taking proper care of your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Period.

This mass culling left my news feed with a hardy mix of interesting articles, delicious-looking food, and glimpses into my friends’ lives as young parents. I also did my Cal Newport digital detox and took everything off my phone except for calls, maps, texts, music, and a handful of utility apps (Lyft, Starbucks, my laundry room app, my gym app to sign up for fitness classes, etc.). And I have to say: it was VASTLY easier than I expected it to be. I didn’t miss having constant access to social media and my web browser even a little bit; I was perfectly content to log on at home once or twice a day for a few minutes and then move on to literally anything else. By early March 2020, I was the healthiest I’d been in over ten years, I was starting to thrive both socially and creatively, and I could feel myself on a life path that was both rewarding and sustainable.

Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.

To say that the COVID pandemic was “a trying time for all of us” is underselling it by a lot. The last time the world faced something similar was over a hundred years ago, so none of us had any frame of reference for how to deal with the emotional toll it would take on us. To make matters worse (at least here in ‘Murica), decisions about how to combat the virus were mostly left up to the governors of individual states; rather than a set of clear, enforceable guidelines put forth by the CDC, the message from the Trump administration was basically “do whatever you want, Fauci is a clown.” So not only were we dealing with President Chaos Monkey’s abject refusal to unite the country in this time of unprecedented global crisis, we suddenly had to contend with the fact that we would be spending the spring and early summer of 2020 isolated at home with no in-person social connections aside from the people we lived with.

Which, first of all, remember when we thought the pandemic would last three months? Good times, good times. Second of all, I literally could not have picked a worse time to change my digital habits. And once it became clear that the trend of “digital connection only” was not reversing anytime soon, I made the conscious, deliberate decision to pause the detox and give myself permission to use social media however I saw fit. To be clear: I wasn’t happy to make this decision. But I knew that I’d be a lot less happy if I tried to maintain my digital purity because it would come at the expense of the only social connections available to me.

There’s not much to say about the rest of 2020 and early 2021 as it pertains to my digital communication habits, besides “WOW that was a fucking mess,” so here’s a video of a kitten being very adorable.

By March of 2021, the dust had settled from the transition to the Biden administration, and I was ready to get back to a healthier way of being. I was fully vaccinated at that point, and while it would still be another two to three months before things would start to really open up, I was definitely getting my groove back. I had started working out again, I was cooking more, I was nourishing my mind with messages of practical positivity and the law of attraction, and I had committed to a few small but meaningful daily spiritual practices. I also had the added benefit of an entire year of “me work” under my belt, so it was easier than it ever had been to discern between that which served my Best and Highest Good and that which did not.

Spoiler alert: Facebook did NOT.

Part 2: The Distress of Obligation

Before we go any further, let’s define some terms. There is a huge difference between stress and distress. Stress is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a response to external stimulus. Distress, however, comes from the unrealistic expectations we have about that stress. For instance, when I do push-ups, I am putting my body under stress, but it does not cause me distress because my expectations about how push-ups should make me feel align perfectly with reality. Going for a run, on the other hand, does cause me some distress; I expect running for half an hour to make me feel a certain way – invigorated, productive, and in touch with my five senses – but it actually makes me feel another way – cranky, sore, and mad at my left knee.

Facebook is a stressful place to be, no question. By logging onto Facebook (or any social media site), you are opting into an environment where you are bombarding yourself with external stimulus. But the reason I am comfortable calling Facebook “distressing” is that I kept wanting my experience to be like it was from 2010-2014: full of interesting conversations with smart, compassionate people with different life experiences and world views, along with a healthy smattering of my twentysomething friends drunkenly updating their Facebook statuses at 1AM. That was AWESOME. That stimulus, unpredictable as it was, was worth opting into because I (and others) could reasonably expect that whatever showed up would be at least entertaining if not outright nourishing.

And look, obviously when I quit drinking back in 2016, things in my life started to shift, to say nothing of me and my friends not being twenty-six anymore. But I also feel like over the past four years, being on Facebook has required you to not only have an opinion about everything, but also to spend your time consuming articles and current events so that your opinion is also the newest opinion. It’s “publish or perish” taken to the extreme; stay on the treadmill of non-stop information because if your opinion isn’t cutting edge and perfectly woke (or perfectly regressive, if you lean conservative), someone is invariably going to rake you over the coals.

But even once I opted out of those communities and “friendships” that made me feel like nothing I said or did was ever good enough, I still felt distressed by Facebook. I found myself struggling to be fully present offline because a part of my brain was so accustomed to going “can I turn this situation into a quip?” or “is there a life lesson that the people need to hear?” What was once an outlet had become an obligation. For the past five years, I’ve been chasing the feeling of “communion through self-expression” that had been foundational to the first decade of my time on the platform. And once it really sunk in that I was never going to reclaim that feeling, the choice was clear: Facebook could no longer be a part of my life.

Part 3: Stillness Is Our Natural State

For my #BobbyBirthday (my 35th birthday, for you non-musical theatre folks), I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a week-long wellness retreat in Arizona. As part of my intention to connect more to both my body and the natural world, I committed myself to a week without checking Facebook. I would check texts and emails twice a day – once when I woke up and once before going to bed – but Facebook was not to be touched. (I also didn’t go on Instagram or LinkedIn, but I don’t have anywhere near the same level of emotional investment in those sites). And much like in my initial foray into digital minimalism a year-and-a-half ago, I didn’t miss Facebook AT ALL. Not one bit. I didn’t care about the conversations I was missing out on, I didn’t care about the news, the memes, nothing. In fact, by the middle of the second day, I’d all but forgotten I had an account to begin with. More importantly, I found I was quite simply much happier without Facebook anywhere near my consciousness.

Some of that was due to my getting sustained, in-person socialization for the first time in over a year, combined with a natural lack of screen time. I had a cohort of about ten people who attended the same lectures, fitness classes, and nature walks together, but there were also people I befriended simply because our energies clicked and our paths happened to cross time and time again. But I think a bigger factor was that I’ve been looking for a context from which I could abandon this toxic presence in my life for at least three years, and probably even longer. I’ve known deep down since early 2018 that Facebook hasn’t been good for me, and while I’ve always had plenty of very good reasons to log off for good, my relationship to the service had become so tangled that I needed a different lens through which I could see it for the time/energy/heart suck that it was. And I can’t in good conscience continue to encourage everyone I know to quit Facebook while still remaining on the platform myself.

Given that we all lived through a pandemic that forced us to rely on digital connection, there’s no way to know if simply moving to Los Angeles would have eventually broken my addiction to Facebook. But what I can say for certain is that this wellness retreat got me keyed into the unshakable truth that our nature as humans is, at its essence, still. Our default state is not agitation; doing and thinking create agitation, but it’s not how we are meant to be. If we think of an agitated mind like a snow globe being shaken, the assumption is that we need to learn how to put the snow globe down. But that way of thinking is actually backwards, especially these days when there is no shortage of ways to agitate ourselves.

What we really need to learn and practice is not picking up the snow globe in the first place.

Part 4: The Road Ahead

First off, I’m not abandoning civilization or starting a Paleolithic nudist commune in the woods of southern Oregon (though I’m definitely not opposed to that). I will still have full access to e-mail, text messages, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I will also have this blog, my podcast, and any other media outlets I decide further my goals in a nourishing and intentional way. The only thing that’s getting axed is Facebook itself, along with Facebook messenger. That said, I’m well aware that this decision is likely to have many unforeseen consequences. My hope and suspicion, however, is that because my mind will be much more still much more often, I will be able to face whatever arises – mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually – with however much gratitude, wisdom, and courage is needed to address it.

I’m also aware that roughly 10% of you reading this are not going to be okay with the fact that I’m making this decision. If this is you, please trust that I am doing this purely in the name of self-care and self-preservation, and that I bear no ill will to anyone I’m “leaving out to dry.” If you’re part of one of the Facebook groups I manage, know that I have already reached out to my fellow moderators to help make my departure as unobtrusive as possible. The reason I’m not just nuking my profile 24 hours after this goes live (and am instead waiting until June 1st to flip the switch) is precisely because I want to ensure a smooth transition. I love the groups I’ve helped create, and I want to do everything I can to set them up for even greater success in my absence.

If you are considering quitting Facebook or any other social media site, just know that it’s not nearly as hard as it looks, at least in terms of logistics. You’ll have to reach out to a few people and exchange telephone numbers if you want to stay in touch, but mechanically, there’s not much to it, especially if you don’t manage any groups. Emotionally? Whole different story. Rage-quitting Facebook is a recipe for disaster and will cause you a lot of unnecessary turmoil. More importantly, the decision is a lot less likely to stick because you won’t have made it from a place of stillness and clarity. Therefore, I’d encourage you to start by unfollowing (not unfriending) anyone and anything that does not bring you joy at least 90% of the time. Once you’ve cleaned up your timeline, then you can start to notice when your desire to go on Facebook (whether it’s to lurk or to post) is earnest and when it’s coming from a place of perceived obligation. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, you’re just collecting data. Once you’ve gathered that data, you can make any decision you wish; personally, though, I think that if you’re logging on more than 10% of the time out of obligation, then it’s worth saying goodbye.

(Don’t worry, we’re almost done.)

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You are a wonderful, patient, mermaid-unicorn, and I appreciate you very much. And if you’ve made it this far and have decided that you want to keep using Facebook as you have been, terrific! If it brings you joy and positive connection 90% of the time, that’s fantastic. All I ask is that you make it a habit to check in every once in a while – maybe twice a year, say, on the Summer and Winter Solstices – and make sure that Facebook is actively contributing to your Best and Highest Good. Because life is far too short and far too long to be anything but creative, nourishing, and deeply joyful.


Why I Left New York

Click here to listen to this post in podcast form.

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.

We’re at Now, Now

“What the hell am I looking at?!”
“Now. You’re looking at Now, sir. Everything that happens now is happening Now.”
“What happened to Then?”
“We passed Then.”
“Just now. We’re at Now, now.”

If you were to ask me what the hardest thing is about living in New York, there are a number of superficial answers I could give you. The rent is obviously exorbitant, the island of Manhattan has a population density of nearly 70,000 people per square mile (for reference, Mumbai is at roughly 74,000), socializing happens almost exclusively around alcohol, and the run-yourself-ragged work culture here makes “unplugging” a true professional liability. But in the past three years, it’s become clear that something else has been bearing down on me: Now isn’t the same Now that it used to be.

I know. Stay with me. First, a little bit of context, courtesy of Wikipedia:

In April 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram to the tune of a billion dollars; in September of the same year, Apple unveiled the iPhone 5, a massive departure/upgrade from all previous generations of smartphones. It had over two million preorders in the first 24 hours, and was quickly iterated on in the form of the 5s and 5c (which included the similarly groundbreaking iOS 7), until eventually being replaced by the iPhone 6 in 2014. And right smack in the middle of all that, in 2013, the entire first season of “House of Cards” dropped all at once, quite literally revolutionizing how television would be made and distributed for the next several years.

Suffice to say, it was in this period between 2012 and 2014 that the world changed for good. And sure, we’d been living in a world of “constant connectivity” for some time; just look at this status update of mine from ten years ago.

The difference is that it felt somewhat optional back then; at the very least, it could be healthily partitioned. In 2009, if you left your phone at home, it would have been annoying and inconvenient, but you could still go about your day-to-day. Now? Forget about it. If you asked a hundred smartphone owners if they’d rather go a whole day without their wallet or without their phone, I bet at least ninety-eight would choose the former. Why? Because digital life now happens right now, all the time.

This seems like an obvious statement, but the more I think about it, the more it really never used to be like that. Analog life (including phone calls and basic text messaging) has always happened “in real time,” but digital life has happened on a time delay until very recently. I remember getting e-mail on my fancy-ass Blackberry in preparation for moving to New York, but most of my tutoring clients weren’t accessible in real time (unless you called them) until four or five years later. It was fairly standard to check one’s personal e-mail just twice a day, since anything truly urgent was always going to warrant a phone call. Going back even further, interacting with someone on AIM or a message board was often a game of digital phone tag, unless you both happened to be sitting down at your computer. I don’t know if it was better or worse back then, but it certainly was simpler in a lot of very important ways.

The ripple effects of took a few years to really sink in, and certainly it affected people at different rates depending on their circumstances. I’m sure investment bankers and real estate brokers noticed the changes daily, whereas I didn’t start to realize something was well and truly amiss until the summer of 2016. However, as I mentioned in my last post, by 2018 all of us had no choice but to accept this new normal of every aspect of our lives happening at what feels like lightning speed (and often just as traumatically). The mechanics of our daily lives are so dependent on the pocket-sized supercomputer that so many of us carry around that to “go off the grid,” even for a brief period of time, usually means a complete life-overhaul. The baseline is usually no social media, but depending on how seriously you take your digital detox, it also means no group texts, no access to “important” work e-mails in real time, no Uber, no Seamless, no Tinder, no Netflix…you get the idea. It’s not impossible, but it’s a lot different from someone in 2009 “taking a break from Facebook for a little while.”

“Go back to Then.”
“I can’t.”
“We missed it.”
“Just now.”

I point to the iPhone 5 as being the driving force of this cultural revolution because of how aggressively it blurred the lines between our work lives and our social lives. Certainly, the professional world has become far more personal: Slack has turned work e-mail chains into group texts; second round interviews can easily be conducted via FaceTime; and getting a text from your boss or a client (even during working hours) about something business-related is not at all out of the question, even when it’s Super Important. But…that’s been happening for a while now. As we’ve become more aware of the limitations of the corporate rat race and the genuine importance of work-life balance, employers and contractors alike have done their best – occasionally successfully! – to be a little less soulless while still maintaining an air of professionalism.

What’s different in this post-2014 world is that the personal has also become more professional. Yeah, yeah, I know, clever turn of phrase, but really: how many real-life friends have you made since 2015 who don’t run in the same professional circles as you do? Before then, it was a little more common, I think, to connect through hobbies or happenstance. I happen to have a lot of friends in publishing, simply because a guy I met through a mutual hobby ten years ago happened to marry a woman who worked in publishing, and so her friends became my friends too. Maybe that would have happened if they’d started dating a year or two ago, but…I dunno, I just don’t see it.

On an even more tech-specific level, I think we often underestimate what using apps rather than full-fledged websites does to our relationship to those services. And look, I’m certainly not anti-app; as someone who remembers drawing maps by hand and photocopying them to give to people trying to get to my house before MapQuest was even a thing, I will sing the praises of Google Maps until I am dead and buried. But apps turn services into utilities, which makes the services they provide (even more of) a transaction. This is totally fine for PayPal and Spotify, and debatably fine for Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, given the role that social media now plays in our culture; but when you see OkCupid and Tinder in the same context as Uber and Seamless, it’s nearly impossible not to reduce human interaction to a nuts and bolts transaction as well.

(True story: I deleted Tinder and Bumble and only use my phone’s web browser to check OkCupid. It’s not much but at least it feels like a step in the right direction.)

These past three months, I’ve really been reflecting on how this seismic shift seemed to happen right in front of our eyes, but also too quickly for us to stop. And as someone living in New York, it just seemed that life itself was no longer sustainable. Which, okay, that’s a little dramatic, but even before 2018, I had begun to feel that the costs of living here outweighed the benefits. To be clear, I don’t just mean the financial costs; yes, this city is outrageously expensive, but I had a (fairly) high-paying job with a ton of flexibility. I was working hard, but I was also making a lot of money and “living my best life” in so many ways. But the pace of the city, which once energized me, became a source of unimaginable stress. It’s like the whole world got faster and more hostile overnight; seeing as I was already living in the fastest and most hostile city in America, it was clear that I needed to make a massive change in my lifestyle if I wanted to ever be healthy – or even just happy – again.

“When will Then be Now?”

Last week, I announced on my various social media pages that I was leaving New York after having lived here for ten years and moving to Los Angeles. I’d been lightly considering a move for a while, but I was still thriving in so many ways that it didn’t make sense to throw in the towel until now. I certainly don’t regret being here during that time of uncertainty, and I absolutely consider the fact that I survived ten years in New York a badge of honor, especially having grown up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But you can only “give it one more year” so many times before you have to face reality, especially when that reality is something so fundamentally and irreparably broken as my relationship with New York had become.

What was so interesting to me, though, is that looking back, the thing that was keeping me here was the amount of effort it would take to leave. Of course, on an emotional level, the thought of saying goodbye to the place I expected to be my forever home was inherently disappointing. I had no idea if I was going to want to be a musical theatre actor forever, but I felt very deeply that whatever I wanted to do, New York was always going to be the place to do it. Add on top of that the prospect of saying goodbye to my friends and it’s no wonder it took me almost four years to fully commit to leaving. But on a mechanical level, making any kind of change in New York City is daunting. Moving is never easy, but in New York it’s turbo-hard; changing fields is never easy (or even changing tracks within a field), but trying to do so in New York puts you back in competition with literal college students (and all the bullshit that comes along with it). As a result, it’s not only easy to become jaded and complacent, you begin to find comfort in that state of jaded complacency. If I had to sum up my last two years in New York, it would be this: “yeah, it sucks, but it’s better than trying to be happy.”

The biggest thing I’ve learned throughout this process of leaving New York “for good,” is this: there’s no such thing as a perfectly smooth transition when letting go of something you once loved. Yes, there are ways you can mitigate the trauma, and I am a huge believer in having some kind of plan and releasing with intention, rather than just trashing everything in a fit of rage. (If nothing else, Marie Kondo wouldn’t approve of that, and I’m legitimately terrified of pissing her off.) But no matter how seamlessly you try to make the transition, there’s always going to be something about it that feels abrupt, scary, and painful. It just can’t be avoided, and at some point, you have to just go for it.

More than anything, I’ve realized what it means to be at “Now, now.” I don’t see the world as a whole “slowing down,” but think it will start to feel calmer sooner than we think. We are on the very tail end of an enormous cultural shift but are still forced to rely on institutions that are stuck in the past; they are not going to change, so we have to move on without them. Maybe this means iterating on existing cultural institutions, or maybe it means forming new institutions entirely. Whatever the case may be, as long as we start with a foundation of empathy, whatever we build will last for a very long time to come. It’s our privilege and responsibility to put in the work Now – for both ourselves and the world at large – to ensure that the next generation feels inspired to build on their Then instead of wanting to tear it down and start from scratch.

So. When will Then be Now?


Un-Quitting: How I Survived the Great Trash Fire of 2018

Trust me, nobody is more surprised than I am that I’m writing this. Or maybe you’re not surprised, which, now that I think about it, would make a lot more sense.

The short version, for those who don’t know, is that last year, I’d announced rather publicly that not only was I quitting acting forever, I was leaving New York and moving to the suburbs to join corporate America. The timeline was flexible – first it was June 2019, then it was December 2018, then it was back to June 2019, “maybe” – but my intent was both sincere and unambiguous: I was done.

As the title of this post suggests, I am very not-done with acting, but it’s also not that simple. There were a number of factors that caused me to abandon the industry and just as many that inspired me to return to it. While I’m going to do by best to not throw anyone under the bus, I think a lot of you out there are in a similar boat as I was. Whether you’re in the arts or not, the general vibe for the past eighteen months has been one of growth, confusion, and general uncertainty about that which we’d taken for granted. Consequently, I think it’s important that I be as transparent as possible about what I went through and how I ultimately, miraculously, survived.

Self-help guru Tony Robbins says that there are four main human needs that we need to be happy, balanced humans: Uncertainty, Certainty, Connection [to others], and Significance. Everybody needs all four of these in some measure, but the order of importance will vary from person to person. It is through this lens that I want to examine the past eighteen months or so because each of them played a substantial role in my angst, as well as my ability to (largely) overcome it. My greatest hope is that you, too, might feel inspired to take a step back and look at how each of these human needs shape your life and your struggles.

I: Uncertainty, or What the fuck even was 2018?

Look, I’m sure that we’ll look back at 2018 and decide that it wasn’t “actually” that bad, but it certainly felt worse than lots and lots of years past. Even though 2016 ended on a fairly disappointing note, the year as a whole seemed pretty solid for most people. Even 2017 had a fire to it, where people were ready to actively take on the corruption and bigotry that we were suddenly faced with, not just in the new political administration, but in every institution. As more and more men in power were revealed to be sexual predators, we looked inward, called out our friends, and forced uncomfortable conversations with the people we loved. It wasn’t all stuffed-crust pizza and Chips Ahoy!, but we were up for a fight. So what the hell happened in 2018?

There are a number of major cultural events that caused us to lose our collective faith, but I think it all started on January 15, 2018, when blogger Katie Anthony posted this widely circulated article in response to the exposé on a young woman’s date with Aziz Ansari gone horribly wrong. I cite Anthony’s response as being the catalyst for the #mood of 2018, rather than the original article, because of how quickly the conversation stopped being about yet another celebrity behaving very, very badly. The sex crimes of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer were atrocious but also fairly unique in their atrocity. There was nothing unique about the events described in the Babe article; just about every straight woman has been on a date like the one “Grace” went on or found themselves in a similar circumstance.

Anthony’s article was shared (at least in my corner of the internet) more than the original post, and it forced everyone – male and female – to reflect on their own experiences and the systemic gaslighting they’ve either suffered or enabled. The crucial word there is “systemic;” starting in January 2018, we could no longer hide from the fact that most of the abuse we’d been tolerating or perpetrating was not merely a series of isolated, imaginary instances. It was real, it was everywhere, and nobody was going to help us but ourselves. By the end of the month, anyone who wasn’t straight, white, male, rich, Christian, educated, and able-bodied was acutely aware of the depth and detail of their suffering and the suffering of those around them.

So like, that was a super fun way to start the year.

From there…I dunno, man. 2018 just felt insurmountably hopeless in a way that I don’t think anyone was ready for. Whether our year was also marked by personal tragedy or not, all of our interactions just felt impossibly fraught. We questioned everything and ended up being paralyzed because it was just so much easier to see how short we were falling and “how much work we still had left to do,” both for ourselves as well as others, than to celebrate our small accomplishments and moments of levity. As Tim Grierson put it, “[b]eing angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry feels morally irresponsible.

But guys: WE FREAKING MADE IT. Every single one of you reading this survived 2018. I don’t know about you, but I think we deserve a participation trophy for that.

II. Certainty, or The hardest breakup of my life.

Okay, so that headline is maybe a little dramatic and not wholly accurate, but this past year was so dominated – both financially and emotionally – by my day job that I felt it deserved its own section.

In September of 2017, I decided to go full-time with my (now former) tutoring company. I started with them nine years ago, and from 2015-2017, I was working for them as a tutor part-time and also on the ops/management side part time to the point that it was effectively a full-time job without a predictable salary and benefits. The company was about to go through a big transition, including revamping the sales process, implementing new client-facing and employee-facing web-based systems, and restructuring the internal corporate ladder. It was a massive and chaotic undertaking, and to this day I have no idea how we made it happen. I really don’t: we did three years’ worth of work in nine months and the whole time we were driving the proverbial car, we were also building it and designing it.

To put it plainly, one crisis led to another, and solving one structural problem revealed three more that had been brewing for years. We ended up revamping and restructuring WAY more than we expected to, and by the time we were done, it was a completely different company. And one of this new company’s core values was (and had to be) “change is the new normal.” We’d shifted to a much flatter organization, where there weren’t really managers or directors, and members of the team were spread across five states and had a lot of autonomy in their one area of expertise and influence. However, this change meant that all the camaraderie and office culture that I’d come to really thrive on when I was “just” part time was never going to come back. Once I realized what the new normal looked like, I made the immensely difficult decision to put in my notice.

Ultimately, the process of restructuring revealed to me exactly what I needed and wanted from my “day job:” stabilityAs adept as I am at dealing with chaos, I need a steady baseline of routine and predictability to work off of. Weirdly, my old life as a musical theatre actor was actually super predictable: wake up, audition, dork around the city all day, tutor at night, tutor all weekend, repeat. It wasn’t a lifestyle I could handle forever, but it was repeatable for a lot longer than I expected it to be. Once I got into my 30s I realized how valuable my weekends were – if for no other reason than that I needed an uninterrupted 48 hours of unstructured free time – but the grind very much checked the “I know what I’m doing every day” predictability box in my life. The upside to this chapter of my life is that I know that I don’t do well when left to my own devices; I need playmates anywhere I work.

III. Connection, or Who are my people?

A lot of people have asked me over the years why the life of a musical theatre actor is so hard. There are a number of superficial reasons: it’s emotionally draining, the pay is usually terrible, the best people don’t always make it, the list goes on and on. But none of the reasons most commonly stated pinpoint what I believe is the actual heart of why it’s often so frustrating to pursue a career in musical theatre: the only question that ultimately matters is “are you one of us?”

The nature of employment in any field is that, by and large, the employer has more leverage than the employee. While that’s not a particularly novel observation, I think it’s an important one nonetheless. In the “real world,” it’s a little more balanced: maybe not a lot more, but if you already have a job (that you don’t hate) and a recruiter reaches out to you about a new opportunity, you saying no is generally worse for them than it is for you. However, the better the opportunity being offered, the less power the applicants have. And because those in the arts have continued to reinforce the narratives of “you never know where an opportunity will lead!” and “we do it because we love it,” objectively bad opportunities are given a lot more weight than they should. 

So why has “are you one of us?” become the trump card? Because there is way way way  more parity among actors now than there was even five years ago, not to mention ten or fifteen years ago when I started to take my career as a professional actor seriously. It’s not really accurate to say that “the best people don’t always make it” anymore, because the difference in raw skill level between the best person and the 50th best is basically negligible. Obviously it’s impossible to get a perfect consensus on this kind of thing, but I think it’s telling that you now need to have been on Broadway to be seriously considered for a principal contract at a regional theatre. The deliberate blurring of these lines has had an enormous impact on the industry, particularly when it comes to how casting decisions are ultimately made.

Which brings me back to the original question of “are you one of us?” Whether those on the production side realize this is how they’re making decisions or not, this is absolutely what is happening. The best theatrical experiences of my life were time in which I felt included and “validated by the tribe.” It wasn’t about the money, or the fanciness of the people, or even where the opportunity would lead to next; it was the fact that when I showed up to work, I felt valued and appreciated just by being in the room. Conversely, the most frustrating experiences were times when I didn’t feel appreciated, I wasn’t made to feel like I was part of the team and that my (substantial) contributions were less valuable than the contributions from someone who “fit in.”

The tricky thing about tribe validation is that you kind of can’t ask for it; once you express your desire to be included, the magic is gone. Arguably, my biggest motivator for leaving musical theatre was the feeling that no matter how hard I worked or how many shows I booked, I was never going to feel the kind of closeness and camaraderie that seemed to come so easily to everyone else. So I left, and I  tried to join the civilian workforce; “maybe they would appreciate me,” I thought to myself. “Maybe these are my people.”

Spoiler alert: they aren’t. In some ways, maybe, and there’s certainly a part of me that is drawn to the idea of getting to socialize with the same group of coworkers every day. But even though “corporate yuppie douchebag” is certainly a mode I have access to, it isn’t something that will sustain me thirty, forty, or fifty years down the road. And because I am and always have been committed to playing the long game, it’s become clear to me that, at least for the time being, I need to think of myself as an actor first and foremost.

IV. Significance, or I’ve really had a wonderful life.

Of all the human needs, the one I’ve respected the least is the need to feel like I inherently matter. I’ve always been a “high achiever,” both in school and in my personal life; the obvious downside to this is that when I fail to achieve something, I double-down on trying to achieve it, rather than taking a second to examine whether or not this thing is worth achieving. And because I’ve been successful more often than not, it doesn’t naturally occur to me that I could “matter,” irrespective of my accomplishments.

Guys, this is not a healthy way to go through life, and I very don’t recommend it.

If I had to pinpoint the source of my anxiety and depression this past year, it would be this: I felt like regardless of where I went, I would never matter as much as I wanted to. If you picked up on the fact that really I was just too attached to tribe validation, well spotted. Connection and Significance are a coin, of sorts, and excessively caring about one invariably means disrespecting the other. But when the handle to the existential basket into which you’ve put all of your eggs breaks, you are gonna be in rough shape for a while, at least until you start to diversify your happiness.

The feeling – or rather, the belief – that I would never find the love and acceptance I was seeking forced me to take stock of all of my experiences over the past thirty years. I had to actively look past the last eighteen months of hell and think about my life up to this point as a whole. In doing so, I realized that I had amassed so many experiences that shaped me for the better. Even if I wasn’t able to appreciate them at the time, I am grateful for the ways that each of them impacted my personality as well as my life.

My experiences as a professional Magic: The Gathering player taught me to love my nerdy side; my experiences as a professional actor taught me the value of community and collaboration; my experiences as a college frat boy taught me about the double-edged sword of modern masculinity; my experiences as a tutor taught me that there’s nothing more fulfilling than helping others grow; my experiences as a Chicagoan taught me that most white folks don’t know how racist they really are; my experiences as a startup “exec” taught me that you have to know how far you can bend before you break; and my experiences as a single New Yorker have taught me that, at the end of the day, we all just want to be loved for who we are.

V: Growing and Giving, or Where do we go from here?

When I said that Tony Robbins only talked about there being four human needs, that wasn’t entirely correct. Those are the main four, but he also talks about our need as humans to grow and to give. That’s where I am right now: I want to keep growing, and I also want to start giving. I know that I’m not ready to give up acting yet, not by a long shot, but I do need to take a much different approach than I had been before. I burned out largely because I felt like I was giving from a cup that wasn’t my own. I felt like what was being asked of me didn’t line up with what I wanted to give, which led to a lot of resentment and frustration. I felt a glimpse of deep satisfaction working on a professional TV set back in the summer of 2017, so maybe that’s where I need to put my creative energies. But (as you can probably tell, 2750 words later) I also love to write. That’s something I want to pursue more seriously, regardless of what ends up happening with it.

All this is to say, if you’re going through hell, keep going. Examining the toxicity you’ve allowed to dominate your life is going to be one of the hardest and most painful things that you will ever do for yourself. But the good news is, if you’re committed to improving your life and the lives of those around you, it will only keep getting worse and worse, until one day it doesn’t. I don’t know how else to put it, other than to say that I promise that you can get through it.

I want to end with a Dorothy Parker quote that I think nicely sums up the energy I want to bring into 2019 and that we would all do well to remember more often: if you can make it through the twilight, you’ll live through the night.

As always, thanks for reading, and here’s to a terrific new year!

We Need to Talk About Bandstand

You know, there’s a part of me that was hoping that the controversy around the Broadway show Bandstand would have subsided by the time Tony nominations rolled around. The show has been rightly lauded for its direction, choreography, and two leads, Laura Osnes and Corey Cott; however, it has also drawn sharp criticism for its lack of diversity in both its principal roles as well as the ensemble. Considering the show is about swing music in 1940s and takes place in Cleveland, the fact that the only “diversity” in the cast is just one non-white actor in the ensemble is troubling. This is to say nothing of the fact that director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler was integral to the success of Hamilton, a show that goes out of its way to place actors of color at the center of a historically white narrative.

Many, including myself, have pointed to “historical accuracy” a being the primary reason that this show’s overwhelmingly white cast is so problematic. Upon further reflection, I actually think that’s pretty small potatoes in terms of why I and many others are so bothered by the lack of diversity in Bandstand.  At the end of the day, actors are storytellers and audiences are largely willing to live in the world of whatever show or movie they’re watching. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t black, yet I’d wager that almost nobody walked away from Hamilton going “that Daveed guy was great, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that Jefferson was white in real life.” On the flip side, nobody watched Argo and was simply unable to believe that someone who looked like Ben Affleck could be named Tony Mendez. There’s the tangential issue of whitewashing, of course, but to the extent that this artform hinges on the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief, I think that having a historically inaccurate cast is only a problem in the larger context of opportunities being systemically denied to actors of color.

For reference, this is the casting notice for the lead role of Donny Novitski, played by Corey Cott:

Donny Novitski: Male, 20-29.

Polish/Italian American. He is handsome, but in an unusual, melting pot way. He is a gifted musician, both as a pianist and a vocalist. He has a confidence in his talent that can sometimes appear arrogant, but he always has the goods to back it up. He also carries an energy of unrest, of frustration in knowing how much he has to offer musically without the recognition and rewards afforded others. This can sometimes result in speaking impulsively. However, there must be in him an inherent likability that compensates for these flaws. And when he is at his piano in front of an audience he is a true star. Donny also carries the enormous emotional burden of his war experience. Must also play piano. Strong high baritone with “crooner” colors in moments, low B-flat (lightly) to strong high G (with optional high B-flat).

Ethnicity: All Ethnicities

There’s a lot to break down there, so let’s dig in. “He is handsome, but in an unusual, melting pot way.” That just feels racist, straight-up. Like, there’s no getting around that. That is half a tick away from “he’s cute, for a black guy.” Then there’s the whole middle bit that’s totally meaningless and unhelpful and could easily be summed up as “a gifted pianist; cocky but likable; a true star when he’s at the piano.” But then we get to the very last part: All Ethnicities.

Let me be clear: I have no dog in this fight. I don’t pay the piano, the “cocky but likable” trope isn’t really my thing, and musically, I am much better suited to contemporary folk-rock than 1940s swing. That said, I have questions. For instance, how many actors of color were called in for an initial audition? How far was the production team willing to stretch the “melting pot” aspect of Donny’s look? As the casting vision began to settle, how many actors were not given another callback because they didn’t look “all-American” enough? And once the production team decided that they wanted Donny and Julia (played by Laura Osnes) to be so wholesome-looking, was any attempt made to diversify the other band members? I recognize that being an exceptional musician is mission-critical to even be in the running for a show like this, but-

…sorry, what’s that?…you’re kidding.

On Friday, the official Bandstand Facebook page posted a video showcasing Corey Cott’s piano skills. Here’s the catch: when he was cast, he didn’t know how to play the piano.

Let that sink in for a second. Here you have a character whose defining feature is arguably his proficiency at the piano, and the person who was ultimately cast could barely play scales. Don’t get me wrong, I have enormous admiration for Cott; the fact that he was able to become such an accomplished pianist in less than two years is both remarkable and praiseworthy. But we cannot recognize his accomplishments without also recognizing the fact that, on paper, we have yet another instance of a demonstrably underqualified white man being given an opportunity and hoping that he’ll rise to the occasion.

If a role like this were written for a woman or an actor of color, they would have to be flawless on the piano from day one to even be considered. Any marginalized actor will tell you that they are held to an objectively higher standard in the audition room than their white male colleagues. To be clear, it’s not because of any intended malice on the part of the production team. Rather, it is precisely due to our culture’s default assumption that a white man has limitless, untapped potential and can do anything as long as he’s given the opportunity. And because our chosen art form is a direct extension of that culture, we are just as susceptible to its harmful biases unless we make a conscious effort to fight against them.

Bandstand is just one Broadway show, and Corey Cott is just one actor; I truly wish the best for both of them, as I think they are both deserving of any and all accolades they may receive. But we no longer have the luxury of pretending that shows and casting decisions like this exist in a vacuum. Our industry routinely gives one group of actors (white men) opportunities on speculation but expects women, minorities, and other marginalized actors to show up to the initial audition with a finished product in hand; in letting this double-standard go unexamined, we strip ourselves of the opportunity to grow this art form we care so much about. If we want the work that we do to feel fresh and relevant, we cannot continue to extend these artistic privileges so intentionally to some while denying them so automatically to others.

To the Class of 2017

I’ve written a few post-graduation guides before, but the world has changed sufficiently since then that I wanted to revisit the topic, especially as college seniors are in the midst of showcase season. Not only has the industry itself evolved in the past few years, but I think that our work as artists is more vital than it has ever been. Of course, the industrial side of things hasn’t gone away; as you take your first steps to being a professional artist, however, I want you to give you a few pieces of advice for how to navigate the industry beyond the simple logistics of “get a good reel” and “know your brand.”

1) Your “brand” is mostly meaningless. A few years ago, the industry experts were alllll about helping actors brand and market themselves (beyond simply having a headshot/reel/website, which are indeed mission-critical for every performing artist these days). There was a huge emphasis on actors needing (to pay people) to figure out how to best create and present a cohesive, unified “product” that could be easily understood by any industry professional. In some ways, this is really important. If a casting director is working on a show you’re right for age-wise, it is theoretically in your best interest to have a cohesive package that indicates to them which role to bring you in for. As the theory goes, if they don’t know what to bring you in for, they won’t bring you in for anything at all. However, this premise hinges on a few assumptions that I super don’t agree with.

The first is the assumption that casting directors are, on the whole, lazy and see actors as having more in common with cuts of meat rather than as three-dimensional humans with rich inner lives. There are a few who I would absolutely describe that way, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Time is always of the essence, and I’d absolutely agree that casting directors need to rely chiefly on their intuition to evaluate an actor’s potential likelihood of making a good impression on the production team. But the whole point of “building relationships with casting directors” is so that you don’t have to rely so heavily on making first impressions (which is really all any marketing materials are ever good for).

The second assumption is that casting directors – as well as agents and managers, to an extent – are in positions of direct authority over you as an actor. It makes sense that one would see it that way, especially early in an actor’s career, but an actor’s goal should ultimately be to see casting directors as true collaborators. This industry has it’s quirks, but it’s exactly like every other industry in that success hinges on the strength of your relationships. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is still true; the difference is that now it refers to the robustness of your personal network of like-minded artists rather than “being on the radar” of people who happen to be doing prestigious things right at the minute.

2) You are an industry professional too. Did you notice how I said “production team” rather than “creative team” in the previous point? That wasn’t an accident. The phrase “creative team” is actually a huge pet peeve of mine as it implies that the work that actors do isn’t creative. More than that, though, making a point to distinguish between “cast” and “creative” suggests a hierarchy that quite simply does not actually exist. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of people think it exists. But if you find yourself in room after room after room where you feel like you have no creative input, you are making it all that more likely that you will get frustrated and burn out.

There is a larger conversation to be had about the importance of knowing yourself as an artist and what developing your artistic sense of self entails, but that’s a life-long process. That said, you absolutely have the right to start developing your intuition about what rooms you feel energized by being in. As you get further and further in your career, you will start to get a sense of what you want to bring to the table, as opposed to what people in the past happened to have asked of you. Being what the industry wants you to be might work for a few years, but psychologically, it’s unsustainable. The onus is on you to recognize your inherent specialness and seek out those whose inherent specialness meshes well with yours.

3) Status may matter to them, but it can’t matter to you. When I say “status” in the context of being a performing artist, I’m not simply talking about the credits on your resume. Obviously, having a Broadway credit helps get you into rooms that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to get into with just your Equity card; even more obviously, having a Tony nomination helps get you into even “better” rooms. But I think the concept of status is a lot less overt than that, at least in terms of how it tends to play out in audition rooms.

In our line of work, status is often established by association. “Oh, she has a BFA? She’s probably not incompetent. He worked at such-and-such theatre? That’s pretty prestigious, so I can risk giving them an audition slot and trust that my time won’t be wasted.” This is true in just about every line of work – a Harvard MBA opens a lot of doors that a state school MBA just doesn’t – but the invisible, systemic, cultural associations with status are built into the hiring process in a much more concrete way for actors.

To illustrate this, I want to look exclusively at one very obvious, quantifiable status indicator: height. Let’s say you’re a white guy with a grounded, masculine energy and a rich Baritone voice. Because you’re 5’6”, however, your cultural status is automatically lower than it would be if you were 5’10”. Consequently, you may find it difficult to get appointments for the roles you’re really right for, roles like Lancelot, Billy Bigelow, and Fred Graham/Petruchio. There’s nothing in the text that says that any of those guys have to be between 5’10” and 6’2”, but we are accustomed to seeing taller men with shorter women because it reinforces that traditional gender dynamic.

On the flip side, if you’re a tall woman, it’s a lot harder to get called in for late teens/early 20s roles because, overwhelmingly, female characters in their late teens/early 20s are defined chiefly by their lack of status relative to the other characters in the piece. Even in shows centered around a young, female hero – “The Little Mermaid,” “Legally Blonde,” and “Bring It On” spring to mind – the hero’s emotional journey relies her on being initially unable to even and eventually learning how to passably even throughout the course of the show. As a result, taller women, especially ones with grounded, stable energies, end up being given the ridiculous choice of “learn how to be a funny, quirky character actress” or “wait fifteen years.”

I say, Fuck. Literally. All. Of. That.

It has been my experience that the biggest predictor of an actor’s success is not talent or connections or luck or hard work; in fact, success doesn’t even seem to be a combination of those things. Sure, they help, but they can’t predict success like most people think. Rather, the most successful actors I know are the ones who are willing to be something other than what other people want them to be. This often gets construed as “you have to be willing to be wrong for a part,” but that implies that the vision and opinions of the people behind the table matter more than yours do. And for individual shows, that’s arguably true. But whether you’re a veteran performer with twenty years of credits on your experience or you’re a brand-new college graduate who moved to New York twenty days ago, you have every right to change and grow and develop and seek out opportunities that you find meaningful. And while this choice may not pay huge dividends in the short-term, believe me when I say that it is the best thing you can do to ensure that you can sustain a career that you can actually be proud of.

The only that a career in theatre guarantees is that “smooth sailing” will never be part of the deal. Learning to ride the proverbial waves sooner rather than later is an absolute must if you want your career to last more than three to six months. It is not the job of this or any other industry to fulfil you emotionally; to expect it to will only set up you for disappointment. If, however, you actively find ways to build your work as an artist around a life that can sustain you on a day-to-day basis, you will be setting yourself up for the greatest chance of success, both personally and professionally.

Three Hidden Benefits of Online Signups

Actors Equity’s new online signup process went into effect and the preliminary results are…pretty great? Obviously there are a few technical glitches  that need to be addressed (particularly with the site crashing), and I’m sure that we’ll continue to discover plenty of kinks and quirks in the system. Nevertheless, the benefits of this new system go far beyond being able to sign up for auditions on your phone and not having to get up at the ass-crack of dawn in the dead of winter to wait outside Nola studios until they feel like letting people in.

1) Being rested for your audition. Of all the “hidden” benefits, this is probably the most obvious. We’ve all been there: wake up at 6, out of the house at 6:30, at the Equity building by 7:15, be #50 in line, get a 10:50 appointment time, wait around for two hours, and try to not sound like shit even though you’re tired and frazzled from being surrounded by nervous energy for the past four hours. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t usually go well. Compare that to show up at 11, audition at 11:10. On a purely physiological level, being rested and focused before auditions means that you’re more likely to be open and receptive in the room.

2) Not having to choose between auditioning and making money. I’ve long been a proponent of prioritizing making money however makes you happiest and fitting auditioning into that. There’s no one right way to do it, but we’re all grown-ups here, and being an actor is an expensive proposition. Even if your day job does manage to pay your bills, you still need additional disposable income to pay for headshots, classes with casting directors, and voice/acting/dance classes. Before online signups, it was not unheard of to give up a late serving shift so that you could get more than 5 hours of sleep before waking up to get the slot you wanted for a super busy call. Now you can, in theory, pick whatever time slot suits your life without having to orient your entire day around a single thirty-second audition.

3) Not having to orient your entire day around a single, thirty-second audition. I know, I literally just said that, but it deserves its own paragraph. Beyond the convenience of being able to dip in and dip out of auditions, I think single biggest advantage of the new online signup system is that it doesn’t make actors place more importance on the audition process than is absolutely necessary. Because the mere act of auditioning was so time consuming, it was reasonable to assume that it was deserving of a proportional amount of mental energy. If a thing takes up over a sixth of your day and is the most time consuming non-sleep activity, it stands to reason that you would think that it is also the most important. And indeed, auditioning is important, but it is not the end-all-be-all determiner of how seriously an actor is taking his or her career. I am personally INCREDIBLY guilty of going to as many auditions as possible in an effort to justify to myself that I was “doing everything I could” to achieve my dreams. Again: you can’t not audition. But having a healthy perspective of how auditioning fits into the industry as a whole is absolutely critical to the longevity of an actor’s career.

Bonus: Knowing in advance if you’re going to get seen or not. I put this as a bonus benefit because there’s always going to be some amount of uncertainty as to whether you’re going to get seen if you don’t manage to snag a time slot right when auditions go live. But conceptually, if there’s a show you’re right for and time slots all go away really quickly, then you can either choose to get there super early to guarantee yourself a slot, get there medium early to get on the alternate list, or ignore the audition altogether and spend your day being a human. Regardless of what you pick, online signups give actors an extra level of control over the pursuit of our careers that we never had before.

As much as I love the new online signup system, I also recognize its shortcomings. Right now, the big elephant in the room is demand outstripping supply by a pretty sizeable margin. In a few weeks, we’re going to start to see how this new sign-up system affects the super shitshow auditions like PCLO and Sacramento. There are a number of ways that this will play out, but I think that our biggest challenge as actors is reframing how we see auditioning in general. There is value in EPAs, I still very much believe that, but I think that this new system will require us to look at EPAs as one tool of many at our disposal that we use to further our careers. Whereas before we were, in many ways, required to bank on grinding audition after audition in order to “gain traction,” we now need to be more creative with how we use our time and energy. And most importantly, we now need to look at auditioning as “just one part” of being a working actor, rather than being the defining characteristic of our livelihood.


[The following was written in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.]

My favorite emoji by far is the unicorn emoji. I can’t say for sure exactly why I have such an affinity for it; perhaps it’s because it is appropriate for any situation that isn’t expressly solemn. Perhaps it’s because it alludes to the mythical and magical, something I feel is too-often absent from our day-to-day lives. But I suspect the real reason I love the unicorn emoji so much is that I find it totally Fabulous.

Of all the sides of myself I’ve struggled to accept, my Fabulous side has presented – and occasionally continues to present – the most resistance. Sure, it may not be the dominant part of my personality, but it’s totally there and something that I have since grown to cherish, largely due to the love and encouragement I’ve received from the LGBT community. If I weren’t an actor, I honestly don’t know if I’d ever be able to even acknowledge by Fabulous side, let alone embrace it.

The reason for my former reluctance to love this part of me is simple: I didn’t want people to think I was gay.

In defense of my younger self, taking concrete steps to make sure I didn’t “come across as gay” served an important utilitarian purpose. A common saying about men in the theatre industry is that we are “gay until proven straight.” Many of my gay and bisexual male colleagues were closeted at some point during their college career, and it was assumed that I was one of them. Consequently, I felt that I had to indicate straightness, just so there would be no confusion about what my intentions were. And in order to do so, I felt I had to adopt a wholly inauthentic persona, one that was not merely devoid of any and all Fabulousness, but one that actively shunned it. For if I did not rebuke Fabulousness, I left myself open to the possibility that someone just might think I was something I’m not.

But it goes much deeper than that. When I was seven, I was taught that it is objectively better to be straight than gay; I heard gay men’s partners often referred to as their “special friends,” rather than their boyfriends or – God forbid – husbands. When I was nine, I was taught that if you acted the way gay men act, you ran the risk of becoming gay yourself, because sexual preference can obviously be transmitted through osmosis. When I was eleven, I was taught that if you’re a man who “chooses” to love other men, you ran the risk of being brutally tortured, tied to a fence, and left for dead in a remote, rural area near Laramie, Wyoming.

And when I was thirty, I was taught that if you choose to express your love in what you think to be a safe space, you could be gunned down along with forty-eight other people who are doing the exact same thing you’re doing.

I used to not understand why LGBT Pride was so important. Despite what I was taught, I still had many gay friends growing up, and the idea that they should, or could, be treated any differently because of who they were attracted to baffled me. How can you be “proud” of something so innate and which you have no control over? And wasn’t Pride a deadly sin and something to be avoided? But as I have seen atrocity after atrocity committed against our fellow members of the human race because of their skin color, gender identity, or sexual orientation, it has become more and more clear to me.

When we have been taught for so long that some inherent part of who we are makes us less worthy of love, we have no other recourse but to proudly embrace it.

It is easy to look at the world today and think “what on earth do we have to be proud of?” Well I, for one, am proud to know each and every one of my LGBTQ friends. You awe me with your bravery in the face of a world that still seems to think of you as less-than. You humble me with your tenacity to stand up for yourselves when it would be far safer to try and live up to other people’s expectations. And you inspire me with your courage to be who you are, even when it is outright dangerous to do so. Please know that no matter what, you are so, so loved, and that I am proud to call myself your ally.

Be Proud. Be Fabulous. Be You.

What I Learned from Being an Audition Reader: Part 2

As you might have guessed, this is Part II of “What I Learned from Being an Audition Reader.” Click here for Part I.

When I conceived this mini blog series, I set out to answer two questions that I believed were crucial for “success” in our field, no matter how you define the term. The first question was “what makes a performer stand out?” The second was “how luck-oriented is our industry really?” In Part I, I said that when it comes to standing out, the best way to make a favorable impression on the room is to make the world you live in super clear and invite them to hang out with you in it for a minute-and-a-half. This is obviously easier said than done, especially in an over-saturated market that cares about type first and earnest artistic expression…at some point…usually…okay, like half the time, and as long as there’s not too much money at stake.

As I began to dig into the second question – how luck-oriented is our industry really? – it became clear to me that I was asking the wrong question entirely. Serendipity, synchronicity, entropy, randomness…call it whatever you want, but “luck” influences nearly every aspect of our lives in one way or another. So I don’t really have a useful answer for that one. It’s all luck, really, because life itself is all luck? No luck, really, because in the long-term, we can effectively negate “bad luck” and maximize “good luck” if we focus on our craft and make good, strategic business decisions? Some amount of luck and hard work and magical fairy dust because, I dunno, it worked for that one guy one time? I felt like I was trying to find an answer to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

I knew I had to search for a better question, and I knew that question had to be existential in nature. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was looking for, but I suspected the key was to dig deeper into my first question. I’d already discovered that the same things that made a performer “stand out” in a poorly-air conditioned rehearsal studio were the same things that made a human stand out in everyday life. When we call someone “charismatic” or “magnetic,” what we’re really saying is “I wanna know what it’s like on whatever planet they’re from, because they sure as hell aren’t from here.”

But if standing out boils down to making the world you live in super clear, how do we actually accomplish that? Hell, what does a “super clear” world even entail?

A trap I see a lot of actors fall into is thinking that their job is to try and be “right” for as much as possible. This is especially true on the musical theatre side of things, with people thinking their book needs to have twenty different songs so they can “make smart, strategic choices” in terms of the material they present. I see their logic, but by doing so, they end up relinquishing so much agency in the room. As soon as you go into any situation (audition or otherwise) with the mindset of “this is what I think they want from me,” what you’re really communicating is “tell me who I am.” To be clear, putting casting in the proverbial driver’s seat may serve you from time to time. If you’re a Latina singer/actor/mover and you’re going in for “In the Heights,” you may want to play the field and show you could be right for either Nina or Vanessa; and if you’re a REALLY good dancer, they’ll likely want to utilize you in the ensemble and have you cover both roles.

But those kinds of corner cases are fewer and farther between than you might imagine. Overwhelmingly, you give yourself the biggest advantage by having a clear idea of what you want to bring to the role.

I want to continue this “In the Heights” example for a second for two reasons: a) “Hamilton” has had fair-to-moderate success, and I think theater companies are gonna get real excited about producing Lin’s other work, and b) the show utilizes many of the conventions of Golden Age musical theatre without being as tropey as “Billy should be played by a Dangerous Leading Man, Enoch should be played by a Nice Character Actor*.”

If you are an African American male, there is exactly one role in “In the Heights” that you’re right for: Benny. I don’t care how good a rapper you are, you do yourself no favors by trying to show that you “are probably most right for Benny, but you could be an interesting choice for Usnavi.” That may be true, but it’s virtually impossible to communicate that in a 75 second initial audition. This is not because the people behind the table are myopic buffoons (necessarily…), but rather because time is of the essence. If an African American male walks through the door and one of the show’s leads must be played by an African American male, that’s where they will try and place you.

This does not mean, however, that you can’t or shouldn’t bring a unique spin to the role. Benny is one of my favorite characters in the show, because he has to have a bigger emotional range than just about anyone else. We need to believe that he is “Mr. Braggadocio” and someone who in many ways typifies the machismo of his culture; however, a huge part of his arc is learning that swagger comes at a price, and that it’s in our moments of vulnerability that we really connect with the people around us. It’s no accident, after all, that he and Nina bookend Act II with “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” So how can you show the people behind the table the world that your Benny lives in? By playing to your strengths. If you’re a big ol’ softie, be a big ol’ softie! Your Benny’s arc is not going to be “aggressive alpha male learns there’s more to life than the hustle,” but probably something more along the lines of “sensitive guy learns to let his guard down despite living in a world of rigid gender expectations.” And that’s great! After all, there’s plenty of machismo in the show, in the form of Kevin, Sonny, and Graffiti Pete; nothing in the texts suggests definitively that he must do the heavy lifting in that department.

Crucially, though, neither take on Benny is “wrong.” For the purpose of the audition, the only “wrong” choice is one that doesn’t resonate with you.

When people say “that was terrific!” and then never call you again, this is often why. The producer and director usually have a loose vision for the show, and while you can theoretically blow them out of the water and change their minds, it’s unlikely. If a director wants him and Nina on opposite sides of the confidence spectrum in the opening two numbers and have them meet in the middle by the end of the show, then a Benny that starts in Softyville isn’t going to live in that production’s world of the show. Nevertheless, you are still better off showing your sweet, sensitive side at that initial audition if that’s what you connect with most in Benny. They are much more likely to remember someone who gave a great audition but who didn’t end up getting a callback than someone who happened to fit their vision a little better but didn’t fully embody it.

The more time we spend in this industry, the easier it is to lose sight of the fact that our job is to teach others what it means to be fully human. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to fit a costume, or getting headshots that show off your sexy jawline, or being strategic about which auditions are worth taking time off from your day job to go to. But at the end of the day, the most resonant, compelling, unforgettable performances are the ones that make us go “I thought I understood human nature, but this has shown me a side of it I never knew existed.” For the immediate purposes of the audition, your earnest interpretation of a character might fall flat. It might be completely wrong for the project you happen to be auditioning for right this second. But if you fully commit to the truth of the world of the character as you see it, you will end up having given a “successful” audition and having left a positive and lasting impression on those you auditioned for.

* I know it’s not actually as cut and dry as this, but a lot of people get “Carousel” completely wrong. Rich and Oscar weren’t stupid, and Billy and Enoch are both bad husbands, albeit in very different ways.

What I Learned from Being an Audition Reader: Part I

Last week, I had the tremendous good fortune to be able to act as an audition reader for an upcoming play here in New York. I’ve been a reader many times before, but only at agent appointments and callbacks. This time, however, I was present for the agent appointments, the callbacks, and the sides EPA in between.

Brief terminology aside: EPA stands for Equity Principal Audition. The easiest way to think of it is like an open call that any member of the stage actors’ union (Actors Equity Association) can show up to and theoretically get seen. Actors who are given an audition appointments show up at a pre-determined time on a different day from the EPA with material from the show emailed to them a few days prior. At an EPA, however, actors are usually asked to come prepared with their own monologue or song (if they’re auditioning for a musical); if it is a “sides” EPA, material from the show is provided to them at the audition for them to present instead.

As a reader, you have the luxury of being a totally impartial observer; because you are almost never part of the deliberations, you get to watch how actors are discussed and which actors make it into the “yes” pile rather than the “maybe.” This is incredibly useful to us as performers, because you get to see firsthand just how impersonal these deliberations are. With very few exceptions, everyone we saw was “very good;” even at the EPA, nearly everyone objectively did “really good work” in the room. And yet, some people just…stood out. It’s hard to quantify in the moment, but there were a handful of performers who you watch and go “wow, they are pretty much perfect for this show.”

Seeing this phenomenon in action led me to ask two big questions: what makes a performer stand out and how luck-oriented is our industry really?

When looking at what makes a performer stand out, there are a number of conflicting factors to consider. Conventional wisdom says “just be heads and shoulders better than everyone else and you’ll at least get a callback;” however, conventional wisdom also says “it’s all about whether an actor is a good fit for the part and it has almost nothing to do with how good someone is.” And yet it’s easy to recognize the people who “own the room” and “totally take over the space” and who are “utterly magnetic.” Yeah, those are buzzwords, but they’re buzzwords for a reason. We use words like “charisma” and “magnetism” to describe people we meet in life all the time: why wouldn’t we do the same thing in an audition setting?

As the days went on, the overall vision of the production team (in this case, the director and the two executive producers) became more and more tangible. More accurately, the world of the show started to crystallize. The defining characteristics of the piece as a whole began to reveal themselves throughout the audition process and the comments turned from “he/she is super talented but not right for the role” to “he/she is super talented but doesn’t live in the world of the show.”

Hearing that phrase – she doesn’t live in the world of the show – over and over was a watershed moment for me because it clarified why some people were immediately put into the “yes” pile and some went into the “maybe” pile: the people in the “yes” pile naturally lived in the world of the show, at least in the minds of those doing the casting.

Great! Good for them. But what happens if you don’t live in the world of the show? Is there anything you can do to improve your chances of getting called back? More importantly, is there anything you can do about it in a revolving door setting such as an EPA where you have ninety seconds in the room, rather than the 10 minutes you’d have if you’d gotten an appointment?

Damn right there is.

Your only job as an actor at an EPA is to show up. You will either fit into the world of the show (in the mind of the production team) or you won’t and there is precisely nothing you can do about it. Therefore, the best way to make a favorable impression on the people in the room is to make the world you live in super clear and invite them to hang out with you in it for a minute-and-a-half. All this applies to appointments as well, but you can get away with a little more worldview vagueness since you’re expected to be able to “take adjustments” and “collaborate.” At an EPA, however, you just can’t count on that kind of artistic leeway to be there for you.

As someone who makes an effort to live on both sides of the table as often as possible (i.e. as an actor and also as part of the production team), I find this perspective to be far more freeing than discouraging. Having a concrete, measurable incentive to ‘live in your own little world” so to speak sounds fantastic because it puts the auditioning actor in the driver’s seat in a pretty unambiguous way. But it also means that growing as an actor means working to fill out your world by making it as rich and nuanced as it can be. On an even deeper level, it means truly loving the world you bring into the room, the world only you can bring because of your inherently unique you-ness. Your opinions about the world of the show and the character aren’t just valid, they are crucial to actually bringing a character to life.

I still believe that skill matters more than luck in this industry. I’ve seen too many people’s hard work pay off to say conclusively to say “it’s better to be lucky than good.” But it does bring us to the second question: how luck-oriented is our industry really? After seeing this audition process from start to finish, I’m gonna go with “less luck-oriented than roulette…probably.”

Stay tuned for Part II!