I can close my eyes and instantly be right back there – that shy little girl who somehow had a voice.
You can’t remember a time when you didn’t sing – it comes as naturally to you as breathing. Singing into your hairbrush along to your Young Talent Time and ABBA records (yes, I know how old you are, and I didn’t even mention the Original Australian Cast Recording of Jesus Christ Superstar). Singing to yourself day-in, day-out, quietly, under your breath, without even realizing it, driving everyone around you crazy. Crawling under the car seat with your little tape recorder during the family drive from Ballarat to Brisbane, and continuing to sing along as quietly as you can after your mum finally said “Jac, can you PLEASE stop singing for a minute???” at about the 12 hour mark (and, as I recall, your music of choice was The Chipmunks, Dolly Parton, Kiss and John Paul Young, so even back then you were a bit freaky in your musical tastes). Racing to the piano every time your tiny heart was broken and pouring all the hurt out into an emotional karaoke session of epic proportions. Music has always been your friend, your confidant, your way of expressing everything that was so big that your heart could no longer contain it, your one constant when everything else in life crumbled into a million sharp-edged pieces. All you ever wanted to do was sing. As your first singing teacher said: ”You don’t WANT to sing, you HAVE to sing, and that is why you will become a singer, even though your brother has a better voice” Yeah, she was harsh but fair and DAMN she taught you a lot, that wonderfully crazy old Polish woman, and you adored her even as she created and destroyed you with a few devastatingly honest words (“Well, that was just embarrassing. Please don’t tell anyone here that I’m your teacher.” …. “NOW you’re singing. FINALLY! NOW you’re singing!!!”)
And now you’re up there, singing your heart out, and people are actually listening. Actually PAYING to listen! You have a life and a career that you love and consider yourself beyond lucky to be in the middle of. A career which is turning out to be long and wonderful and varied and exciting and exhausting and heartbreaking at times, and so bloody hard but so bloody magnificent.
SO, if I could go back to snuggle under the car seat with that little girl, what advice would I give her? What are the things that I’d want her to know about having a career in this industry? What would be the things that I could tell her that would save her from learning the hard way (Oh, OK, sometimes you have to learn the hard way – I was told a few of these by beautiful colleagues along the way and brushed them off like the young, headstrong idiot that I was.)
It’s not all about talent.
I love the Calvin Coolidge quote: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
The most talented people do not always win. Many of them are deeply, DEEPLY insecure (in fact, the MOST talented people I know are also the most full of self-doubt) and fall by the wayside at the first or second rejection. If you really want this career, you are going to have a million little rejections along the way: not getting roles you desperately want, working with difficult colleagues or bosses/conductors/directors who bully you or belittle you, being slammed in reviews. If you can’t cope with rejection, get out now. If you’re a tough little beastie, rise above it all. Stand calmly and be the eye of the storm. If you are rejected, take it on the chin, go away and get better and try again. Be determined. Be politely persistent. Two steps forward, one step back. Swings and roundabouts. One day you’re the flavour of the month, the next you’re unemployable … but eventually chocolate chip with nuts becomes a classic, so hang in there!
You’re not always going to get that perfect role.
Sometimes someone else is cast in a role that you’d be just PERFECT FOR, DAMN IT, for whatever reason, and you have to move on . Don’t dwell on it. By all means, get feedback and find out where you fell short, and work on those things. Grow from it. Get better. Get more determined to walk in next time being so bloody fabulous that they just cannot ignore you. If it’s something you can’t change (height, look, voice size), suck it up and know that next time it might be your turn. Don’t bitch about the person who got the role (well, OK – only to your closest friends, and only for a moment). Nine times out of ten, it’s not their fault, so don’t blame them or treat them badly. It’s an ugly look and will not win you any friends or go down well with prospective employers. Treat missed roles like roadkill – take a glance and then leave them behind in the rear vision mirror.
Find a coach you trust
One of my favourite coaches of all time, John Dingle, once said to me “You always need another pair of ears.” No performer can trust their own perception of their talents completely. Find a coach or teacher that you trust and who you know will tell you the absolute truth. It’s lovely to be told you’re wonderful all the time, but it’s not going to make you any better. Find people who will honestly discuss your faults in a constructive way. Listen to them. Work with them on fixing stuff. Treasure them. I will never forget Richard Gill grinning at me when I completely mispitched a tricky note and saying wryly “Flossie, pitch is not a special effect.” THAT’S what you need in your life!
Be easy to work with.
Turn up on time. Do NOT turn up late with a latte in your hand. Be positive. Be adaptable. Be excited.
Be prepared and know your role inside out. At the first rehearsal. My crazy, gorgeous, Polish teacher drummed this into me, and I’m always amazed at how much it impresses and astonishes people to see you sing your role off the book on the first day. They notice. They remember. They will hire you again over someone who holds up rehearsals by constantly foofing their lines.
Have a concept of your role, but be prepared to explore and experiment rather than rejecting new ideas, even if they’re in direct opposition to your concept – directors will love you. You can always chuck them out if you try them and they really don’t work for you, but you may discover depths to the role that you never knew existed. This happened to me in a production of Madama Butterfly, which I’d performed a gazillion times. A brilliant new superstar soprano, Patricia Racette, came into the role and asked me to try something which every fibre of my dramatic instinct rejected because it went against the way I’d always imagined and performed the role, but I gave it a shot, just to see, and it ended up being one of my all-time favourite moments and mentioned by almost everyone who came to see the show. Give. It. A. Go.
Don’t whinge or make excuses.
You’re sick. You’ve had a crap week. Your baby kept you up all night. Your mother/wife/girlfriend is driving you insane. You’ve just had a root canal. You have irritable bowel syndrome. You put milk in your tea by mistake during the break and it’s coated your throat so you can’t possibly sing the high notes (yes, I have heard this in real life). Tell your colleagues. Tell them once. Maybe twice. Do NOT tell them for the whole of a three hour rehearsal. If it’s that bad, stay home. If not, shut up and do your job.
Contact that company you would love to work for. Ask for an audition. Contact that agent you’d love to represent you. Contact that magazine you’d love to do a feature on your cabaret show. Ask if they’d be interested. Ask. Ask again. Ask again. Ask people you think will say no about things you think they’ll say no to. Aim for the top. You’ll be surprised at how often you get a yes when you least expect it!
Big one. This took me a long time to learn. If you’re offered a huge role but know you’re way too young for it, say no. If you’re offered too much work at once, say no to some of it. If you know you’re not ready, either technically or emotionally, for a role, or it just isn’t right for you, say no. There is nothing worse than taking on a role you know is beyond you because you reeeeeally want to do it, and then discovering that you’re completely out of your depth. You’ll feel like you’re underwater, it will be excruciating for your colleagues and it may impact on the rest of your career. It’s your responsibility to look after yourself – nobody else will do it for you. Say no when you know you should.
Love your colleagues, and be generous to them – they are your family.
Be friendly and polite to everyone in the rehearsal room. EVERYONE. You are not more tired than the stage manager – they probably worked double the hours you did this week. You are not better than that extra playing a spear-carrier – he has a Physics degree, a part-time job at NASA, and a brother who’s a casting agent for that movie you were in contention for before you acted like a complete dick to him. Do not act like a diva. You are one of a team, and if you embrace that, then that team will have your back when you need them. And you WILL need them.
Be thrilled when a friend gets a role that you were in contention for. Of course, you’ll be disappointed, but transfer that negative feeling into joy for your colleague. It’ll feel great (MUCH better than stewing and shooting out hate darts at the ‘enemy’) and they’ll feel the same for you when the situation is reversed. It’s a much happier place to live than being resentful and trust me, your friends are FAR more important than any role.
One of the most joyous things about this career is the extraordinary showbiz family that you build as you move along. It is like a magical little bunch of folk who keep you grounded and sane. You will spend concentrated hours/days/weeks/months in a pressure cooker with these people, and they will drive you nuts one day and be your saviours the next. Like a real family. Love them. Cherish them. They are precious beyond words and make this crazy gypsy life a shiny place to live.
Be kind to yourself.
Look after yourself. You are not unbreakable. Nobody is perfect every time, or even most of the time. Believe in yourself and give yourself a break. Learn when to take and when to leave criticism (if it’s from a respected source and comes with the right intentions, take it on board; if it’s tossed with vitriol across a rehearsal room from someone who has a reputation for being a diva, you can probably safely jettison it). Give yourself permission to experiment in the rehearsal room. Be brave. You will stuff up now and then and probably make a complete fool of yourself, but if you’ve followed the advice above, everyone will laugh with you rather than at you and the whole team will grow together.
Know your strengths and your limits.
You’re a kick-ass dancer who just had a huge success as Anita in West Side, and they offer you a role in Traviata. You have a fabulous career as an opera singer and they offer you a plum music theatre role. You’ve just performed Mother Abbess in Sound of Music and they offer you the Aussie Ballet Giselle. Can you sing opera/music theatre style/dance and look great in a tutu? Really? Be honest with yourself, take a long hard look in the mirror and get advice from a legit teacher/manager. You can do immense damage to a distinguished career with one bad choice – to paraphrase Pavarotti “I sang hundreds of immaculate top C’s, but people always remember the ONE where I cracked.” Nail the stuff you do well, push yourself to explore the limits of your possibilities, but don’t push those limits until they crack. SO, if the answer is no, walk away, no matter how disappointing. If yes, slap on those tights, strap on the tutu and dance, baby, DANCE!
If you’re sick, take a sick day.
Self-explanatory. Do NOT ‘soldier on’. Even with Codral. You will take forever to get better and nobody will thank you when the rest of the cast comes down with the lurgy. In fact, they will curse your festy name.
If there’s anything else you’d be happy doing, do it.
If you ever find yourself thinking “Actually, I’d be quite content in that teaching job/IT position/accounting firm/research lab”, GET OUT. This is a brilliant career, but an extraordinarily tough one, physically and mentally, and if you don’t love it and commit to it with everything you have, it’s just not worth it. Go and relax in a job where you actually get some security and regular hours.
Enjoy the moment
Even on those days when you are exhausted, distracted, sick, fresh out of inspiration, overworked, and generally over it, remember why you do this. Remember that little girl singing into the hairbrush.
Sing from your heart. Find the things you care about and love, and sing about them. If you’re doing a show where you can’t pick your own material (like a musical or an opera or a play), find yourself within it. Find the lines that speak to you, and find the parts of yourself that you can bring to the character. This will make every performance you do unique and interesting. Nobody else is you, and if you bring your own truth to a role, that will shine out to the audience like a beacon of originality. At its best, our work can move, uplift, unite, challenge, and make a theatre full of strangers feel like your closest friends for a few hours. It’s worth it.