When you were 17, what did you want to be?
My friends wanted to go to college, meet somebody, get married, and have the 2.5 kids. I never thought about that. I had one goal - I wanted to be a star. I wanted to go to New York, I wanted to perform, and I wanted to have a non-traditional gypsy lifestyle. It's unusual, I guess, for most 17-year-olds, but there was no other option for me.
My mom literally enrolled me in every possible activity. She put me in dance when I was five, and started getting me singing lessons when I was 13, late for a singer. My teacher was an opera singer in downtown Chicago for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and she said “Your daughter's young, but she has something that's different, and you should definitely keep her in this. This could be an option, if she's interested." Nothing in the world gives me the same kind of bliss as singing. I've never felt so close to being me; it’s basically therapy.
How did you decide to attend the Boston Conservatory of Music?
After high school, I got a full ride and followed a teacher to Ohio State to study classical voice. But we had to go to all these operas and I hate opera. It just was not what I wanted; I missed dancing, I missed acting, so I left and went to the Boston Conservatory of Music.
There are five main theater schools that lead into the Broadway community: University of Michigan, which has a conservatory program within it; Cincinnati College-Conservatory, which is at the University of Cincinnati; Carnegie Mellon; Northwestern also has a big program; and my school. I'm from the Midwest, and I wanted to be in the east coast. I've always been super-independent, and I wanted to create myself in a city. In hindsight, I probably wouldn't have gone to a conservatory, because I do feel like I missed out on having a real college experience.
Boston Conservatory accepts a small group of people, and they basically cast their class. So they'll cast a few potential ingenues, the sweet, innocent, nice girl, which I looked like, but I wanted to play the mean bitch, or the funny person. Then they would cast the quirky person, who usually has red hair or a non-traditional body type. Same with men.
You go through two years of intensive training, and then you have juries. They make you audition again in front of a panel of people, and they decide whether you can stay or not. They kick out maybe half the class, and you don't even get an associate's degree. After you pass your jury, you get ready for showcase. This is a performance that you put on in New York, in front of a whole bunch of agents, and that's how you get an agent. You pretty much have to have a good agent just to get in the door.
How did you choose your major?
I majored in classical voice for a year at Ohio State. But if you want to do Broadway-style stuff, you major in musical theater. So that’s what I did at the Boston Conservatory. But I was always worried about my voice. You can't go out and hang out like the other kids. We couldn't be around smoke, we couldn't drink, because you're judged by every performance that you do, every day, and you're terrified to get sick and mess up your voice. It was the most stressful experience.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
As soon as I graduated, I moved to New York. Summer doesn't really yield a lot of auditions, but there are not as many actors there because they're out doing regional shows. It's a good way to ease yourself into the scene. I would go to singing calls first, and then they'd say, "Come back at 3:00 for the dance call." I was always hauling a suitcase everywhere, like a bag lady. You have tap, ballet, jazz, and lyrical shoes, your leotards, your tights, your makeup, your curlers. You go somewhere to eat lunch, and then you come back and dance. It was a good rhythm.
When you start auditioning, all of a sudden you're going here or there at 24-hours notice. I remember I had gone in for Sandy in a Grease production that was touring Europe, and I got it. And they said, "Great. You leave tomorrow." I had just broken up with my boyfriend two days before. I didn't even have a passport; I had never been out of the country. So I got my passport, I packed, and I got on a plane to Amsterdam. I was on the plane, and I just start sobbing hysterically. This man next to me said, "I don't know you, but everything's going to be okay. I just know that." We ended up talking, and he even went through my lines with me.
So I lived in Europe for a bit, and did that show. I had the choice of staying on, but they were going to make the musical auf deustch, which means the songs would be in English but the dialogue would be in German. At that point, constantly traveling, living out of a suitcase, being in a foreign country… so I came back home, and that was the end of that. But that experience shaped me as a human. I got so much perspective about how egocentric Americans are, and how differently we live our lives. The Dutch live their lives to be happy. They don't work constantly, their focus is so different from ours. I'm grateful for that experience.
Then I ended up doing a national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with Jon Secada, which was cool. I played the “Angel in Heaven” wife, and had a little stand-up solo. I wasn’t headlining a show, so I wasn’t under constant pressure that my voice was going to go out, or it wouldn’t be perfect. I could enjoy the experience for the first time. I also toured with The Music Man, and I got to enjoy that experience a little more too. Grease had turned into my steady employment. I did 5 productions of Sandy in Grease between different things. And I did the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
But then 2008 happened, and there were long periods of time that I was out of work. And it was really tough. That business is quite toxic in terms of, you are your resume. You are what you're doing. And if you don't have anything, you're nothing, you feel worthless. Even when you reach the very top. I remember being on stage thinking, "Oh my God, this is what I always wanted to do, and I’m not fulfilled.”
I started losing confidence, and feeling like crap about myself. I was going to auditions, and the parts you go in for, you see the same women over and over. And you think, "Am I better than her? What's she done lately?" I remember realizing, "This is a really toxic version of me. I don't like feeling like I have to be in a show to be worth something."
So I went to my union, and said, "I want to be in a group with a bunch of artists who are my age who are going through this kind of thing." So I joined this group run by an ex-Miami City ballet dancer. There were New York City Ballet dancers, Metropolitan Opera singers, two musical theater people, and one person that did movies. We were all at the same place in our lives, all around 28 years old, and thinking, "What now?" It ended up being the most positive, amazing thing to connect with these women and not feel so isolated, and that changed my life.
I thought, "I want to do this for people." So I asked the woman who ran the group, "Tell me what you did to do this, because I want to work with artists, and I want to be able to empower them, give them a place to go." She said, "I went to NYU, and I majored in clinical social work." And she ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.
I've always been interested in psychology. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with acting, because you're always analyzing human behavior. But I also remember being in my classes and being interested in the content, but thinking, "I'm not special anymore. There's nothing that sets me apart. Anyone can do this." So that was a really hard change, harder than I thought.
The reason I picked NYU is that half of it is school and half of it is they throw you into all these different situations, and say, "You're a therapist. Go." That's how I learn, so I liked that. And you get a whole variety of different settings, so you can figure out what works for you. One of my internships was with a high school, and I found that I really connected with the high school kids, because a lot of it was anxiety, which I had experience with. And for the first time, I felt like I was making a difference in people's lives. It felt great.
So I was working, I was traveling around the city, which I liked because I'm not an office person. I was going into people’s homes, working with families. Then, my life changed pretty fast. My dad had been suffering from congestive heart failure for four years, and his doctor told me he didn’t have much time left. I sublet my place, and I came home to spend the last few months of his life with him. At that point, I had been dating my boyfriend for a year, and he said, "I'll come with you." So we went from living in a city to moving into a house in a sleepy suburb near my parents.
I was so fortunate to get to spend time with my dad before he passed away. A few days before he passed away, my boyfriend said, "Your dad should see his daughter get married," which is very kind and wonderful in theory, but terrible in practice. So we decided to do it. We were wearing whatever we could find in our closet and we just went to his hospice bed, and an old man with dementia stole our boutonnieres. But my dad was so happy.
So all of a sudden, I'm married and my then-husband had a penchant for moving every year. I said, "You get one move. You can go wherever you want to go, and we'll set up a life there." And he said, "San Diego," so we moved to San Diego. I was dealing with grief, I was dealing with moving away from my family and friends, I felt very isolated here, and it was really hard to find a job. San Diego is not an arts performing city, and those were the clients I wanted to work with. So I started working in an eating disorder center, and very quickly learned that I hated that. We felt isolated, and it was just a bad situation. We ended up buying a house in May, and then in June we separated. It was very difficult, but during the separation period, we ended up becoming incredibly close friends, which I felt so blessed to have that.
He ended up going to Europe, and I felt very alone when he left. And I thought, "How do I make friends?" I’d never thought about that as an adult in a new city. I did end up finding a community, but it was very tough. I will also say, California was not a place I wanted to move to, because it's the only state without reciprocity. So I lost my license, and had to regain it. This summer I'm taking all my boards again, and I'm opening a private practice along with my day job doing outpatient psychiatry at a children’s hospital.
I've been asked if I would ever perform again, and I enjoy singing for myself and I do love performing, but I don't know. I still haven't dropped my card, I still haven't technically dropped my agent, I can't let go of all of it. Being in New York, you're so close to Broadway so it's very hard to let go. Moving out here, I miss it, but it was easier to free myself of that. And I was surprised to realize that, even though my audience has shrunk considerably, singing is still like meditation. I am completely in myself and present. I am my most raw, vulnerable self. I love that, and I'll always have that.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
We learn the most about ourselves, and we change and evolve as human beings from falling on our asses. I really think that learning to be resilient as an adult is invaluable, and going through those experiences, moving, watching my father die, getting married, moving again, getting a divorce, all within two years, that really changes you.
The biggest thing I'd change is not taking myself so seriously. Like, it's musical theater; no one outside of New York knows or cares what the hell it is. That was so eye-opening to me. This thing that was my entire life? It's not even a speck on most people’s radar. I would go back and tell myself, "This is not a big deal. This is just an audition. You'll be fine."
I catch myself being complacent sometimes, and I have to remind myself, "Look at this. This is beautiful. I'm so lucky to be around this." And that's still my goal, to learn to be present. Stop worrying about the future, and just let yourself be. You're gonna fall on your butt, and you're gonna fail, and you're gonna be fired, and you're gonna make mistakes, but those are 100% more important than your successes. Try to show yourself the same kindness that you show your friends and family. Learn to be resilient.
My thesis in grad school was focused on this Harvard 75-year study of happiness – there’s a TED talk on it and it's life-changing. It actually quantifies and qualifies what happiness is after following people for 75 years. And they found that, as long as you get your basic needs met, the things that matter the most in your life are feeling like you're of service in any way, it's having people around you and being connected to others, it’s learning to communicate. It's much easier said than done, but get that because it becomes so important in your life.