Chasing a career in voice over, or any performing art, isn’t for the faint of heart. Why put yourself through the endless rejection, the stiff competition for sometimes pretty meager returns if you don’t have the passion for it? Here’s a walk down memory lane to when I first learned what dedication to a life in the arts might mean, and what the true rewards could be.
Living the Dream; what an awesome concept! These days when you hear that saying it’s often dripping with irony, muttered by a person who has no idea how they got where they are in life and no idea how to escape it. But every so often you encounter one of the lucky souls who are experiencing the professional life they always hoped for. Not a person who is fairly happy or merely content in their work, but someone who, if they died that day, would go out doing what they loved.
Do you remember the first time you met someone like that? I do, and it wasn’t just one person, but a handful of them. For good or ill it shaped the direction my own path has taken ever since.
It happened when I was a sophomore in college. I joined an organized Broadway Theatre tour to New York City. The Big Apple. To give you an idea how long ago this was, that branding campaign was shiny new. Yes, the Stone Age! Anyway, as a kid from a town of 500 people, what I encountered there was a whole new world on so many levels.
In a week we saw eight shows, toured theatres, and most influentially to me, met real live working professional artists – actors, dancers, directors, and stage managers. They spoke to us in the mornings before shows, or after performances when the rest of the audience had left. To a person they projected a passion for their work that I’d never really seen before.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like these folks were jumping up and down, affecting some sort of phony enthusiasm for what they do. They were just people describing their careers and jobs, the good and the not so good parts, yet clearly they were living the dream.
On stage we saw performers at various points in their careers: a young Glenn Close as the villainess in the Sherlock Holmes play Crucifer of Blood, the late, great Barnard Hughes in his tour de force turn in Da, Rudolph Nureyev dancing L‘aprés midi d’un Faune with the Joffrey Ballet – incredible stuff.
We got to tour the Helen Hayes Theater (the first one, now demolished) the morning after seeing Ms. Close perform there. Standing on that stage I realized how modest a performance facility it really was. The dressing rooms were no bigger or more stylishly appointed than broom closets. Many high schools have more comfortable facilities and more technically equipped stages. But put a supremely talented performer up there under the lights and a tattered hall became a world-class venue.
One of the most memorable shows I saw was A Chorus Line, a musical story all about the struggles and rewards of a life in the performing arts. Its message, that it’s possible to find fulfillment in the professional journey, that the struggles make the rewards all the sweeter, was one I was eager to hear, and have never forgotten.
It was an exhausting schedule and toward the end of the week many members of the group chose to skip the final one-on-one session with some director most of us had never heard of. Big mistake. The director turned out to be Alan Schneider, a person small of stature but a giant of the Theatre who directed the American premiers of Waiting for Godot, most of Edward Albee’s plays, works by Orton and Pinter – basically a greatest hits roster of mid 20th century drama. Oh, and he was the director of Julliard’s Theatre program and would later become the President of the Board of the Theatre Communications Group. Yeah, the guy had cred.
A quiet and unassuming man, Mr. Schneider spoke to the dozen or so of us gathered in the cozy conference room with the casual ease of a person at the absolute peak of his game. His personal anecdotes were the stuff of theatrical legend. How often do you get to chat with a guy who once directed Buster Keaton in a movie short written by Samuel Beckett? I never had, and sadly, never will again.
When the hour was over and we got up to leave he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture that I just knew meant that he saw great potential in me. In retrospect I’m sure it was just his gentle way of saying “excuse me, I’d like to go now and you’re in my way.”
Earlier I described the professionals we met as “lucky souls.” Of course they were fortunate to be doing what they were doing for a living, but that was far from the end of it. Each of them had reached his or her level of success not just because of their talent, but also their willingness to work their butts off to earn the opportunity to use it.
Many of those folks are gone now. Of the others I sometimes wonder if their passion for their work ever waned, ebbed, changed. I’d be willing to bet so. It’s human nature. But I’d also bet that whatever they took up next, they were equally as successful at it because of the type of people they were. In one way or another they all shared the same lesson: that it’s not so much the goal that’s important. It’s the dedication that moves us to go after it.