Take a minute and think back to the first time you decided what you were gonna do when you grew up. Not the proverbial, “I’m gonna be an astronaut!” spiel you give Uncle Al at Thanksgiving. . .but like a real job. A career you were passionate about.
How old were you?
I was a 16-year-old sophomore in high school when I decided I wanted to be on Broadway. I’m going to be honest with you, I had just discovered the musical Rent and its sassy and rebellious song lyrics fueled my hormonally-charged teenage lust for show tunes like you wouldn’t believe! And now, thirteen years later, I can’t tell you the last time I saw a Broadway show. I’m still late to the party with Book of Mormon. (Is that coming to New Orleans any time soon?)
Anyway, when I was twenty-three years old, I moved to New York City to make that dream come true. I could practically taste that Tony Award as I boarded the flight from LAX to JFK just seven days after my college graduation.
Within about twenty-four hours of arriving in New York, I had what my mother refers to as an, “Oh sh*t! moment,” when I sat down with an actor friend to discuss auditions and realized I didn’t have a clue how to accomplish my goals. Let me repeat that. I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I didn’t earn a degree in theater. I earned a vocal music degree, so my college professors knew way more about Strauss and Dvörak, than Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. The best advice I got was, “Get a good voice teacher when you get to New York!” . . .and we’re not even going to discuss what voice lessons cost there.
So here are the many ways I was unprepared to be on Broadway:
- I wasn’t union. AKA I couldn’t audition for Broadway shows. Like at all. #depressing.
- I was broke. I had a couple thousand dollars saved, but my rent alone was $950 at my first apartment, and I was living above 168th street. Bye bye savings!
- I had to work. As much as I wish that Uncle Al had a trust fund for me, to support my dreams of sitting next to Bernadette Peters at the Tony’s, he didn’t. So I needed to get a job. Like instead of sitting in an audition waiting room for six hours each day.
- I was scared. I was dealing with bad anxiety and was diagnosed with Panic Disorder my junior year in college and was terrified to even step foot into an audition room.
So as I saw it, I had two choices: I could give up and move home, or I could come up with a plan B and fight to stay in New York. I opted for the latter.
The first thing I did was get myself a nanny job. Nanny jobs pay well and the hours are somewhat flexible. But that was more of a survival job and I wasn’t really making enough to live comfortably in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Plus, I needed to be doing something creative. I’m a creative person and cooking mac ‘n cheese from a box and doing multiplication tables every day after school was going to crush my soul after awhile if I didn’t have some kind of creative outlet.
So how did I save myself from going nanny-numb? I started a small business. I did princess parties. That’s right! I dressed up as a princess and I went to kid’s birthday parties and I painted their faces and did arts and crafts with them. I read stories, I sang and danced with them. I signed autographs. I made their four-year-old dreams come true.
I created what my friend refers to as a “thrival job” in lieu of a “survival job.” I came up with something that played to my strengths that was marketable and relatively simple to start up. I was a natural performer, who was great with kids. I could sing. I could dance. I was an expert at playing make believe. And start-up costs were relatively small. I didn’t start with $300 satin ball gowns. I bought used prom dresses on eBay and fixed them up with ribbons and jewels.
And after six months, I was earning a decent income. I was actually able to eat out at restaurants on weekends with my friends and maybe even buy a new pair of boots for the fall!
Was I living the dream I had created for myself when I was a kid? No. But was I happy? Yes. Was I creatively fulfilled? Yes. Was I financially secure? You betcha! And I realized that my dreams had shifted and that it was “OK” to give myself permission to do something other than what I had planned as a 16-year-old high school student.
I embraced the fact that I really enjoyed being a small business owner, and I was pretty darn good at it. And later I started writing about my experiences and published a novel. That’s right, you heard me correctly. I wrote a whole novel! Like 90,000 words and 215 pages. (“But wait!” you say. “You don’t have a degree in creative writing!”) I sure don’t! But my novel has been reviewed by dozens of people who love it and it was just another cool little life surprise—the kind you only experience when you open yourself up to other career paths. With all this said, I have to state on record that I have so much respect for people who have successful theatrical careers in New York City. It is so immensely difficult to make it there, and those that stick it out are the hardest working people I know.
However, for many of us, so often our “perfect life plan” does not pan out. Gen Y’ers and Millennials who gradated right into the thick of the recession, will tell you that this is especially true. Post-collegiate jobs aren’t guaranteed anymore and the phrase, “Follow your dreams!” has been drowned out by the warning, “Make enough money to pay back your debts.” I’d like to institute a new mantra. Let’s call it, “Follow your dreams, but be smart enough to keep them flexible.” There’s nothing wrong with taking a life curve ball and repositioning enough so that you can knock it out of the park.
I left New York after four wonderful years there, and when I did, I chose to leave. The city didn’t push me out. No, I never won a Tony award, but I won so much more from the experiences I had and the lessons I learned.
Erin Shaw is a writer and music teacher living in New Orleans. Her debut novel, Party Girl – A Modern Fairy Tale, is loosely based on her adventures doing princess parties in New York City.
(Featured image via)