When to Take Your Final Bow? The Performer’s Paradox

Stage Door Sign

I was five years old when I attended my first musical. It was a Lyric Theatre performance of West Side Story, and I was captivated. Every movement, every note, everything about the production stole my attention. Halfway through the first act, I made my decision. I leaned over to my mom and said:

I want to do this for the rest of my life.

That was it. Although I still believed in Santa Claus, I had decided how the rest of my life would go. I immediately dove in, performing at church productions (many written by my mom — great way to get cast!), and started training. By age 12 I had an agent and was training with great coaches, auditioning all the time and flying to LA each spring with my mom and agent for pilot season.

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The Jets from West Side Story
When you’re a Jet…

During this time of my life, I landed a few regional commercials, one of which was for a fast-food chain called Taco Mayo that resulted in me spending the better part of my middle school years being called “burrito boy.” I was cast in a pilot about pet ownership and performed in musicals on a regular basis. My claim to fame: “featured” roles (= extra) in a couple of HBO Original movies (starring such A-listers as Dan Cortese from MTV in the ’90s and Frank Stallone, Sly’s older, uglier, more bitter brother), and a role in the film Twister. Quite the career, I know. I was ready to move to New York City posthaste, but I stayed in Oklahoma to finish high school.

By the end of high school, I had honed my skills as much as I could and went to college, mostly to appease my parents, who wanted me to get an education. I went to Oklahoma State University to major in musical theater, and I performed in multiple shows there every year. Everything about my life thus far was geared toward moving to New York after graduation and trying my hand at the Great White Way.

Twister was released in 1996
Released in 1996.

Before graduating, I met with a man named Larry Payton. He was the founder and president of a company called Celebrity Attractions. This company presented national touring Broadway shows in several Midwest markets. After a long meeting with Larry, I decided to stay in Oklahoma post-graduation and save money for the summer doing a paid internship.  My internship began in the box office fielding phone calls, but quickly I found myself editing their TV and radio commercials and selling ads for their program. In the years that followed, I had several different responsibilities with the company. Larry taught me everything he could and eventually made me company manager and stage manager of the musical The Rock & The Rabbi. In many ways it was incredibly challenging because I was so close to my dream. But in other ways I started to really love learning the business of the presenting the arts and the stability that full-time work provided.

That was more than 13 years ago. I still have never gone to New York to pursue my acting career. And I never will.

My story is different from those of many others because I was given a fantastic opportunity to work in the field I was passionate about and still make a decent living. I don’t believe I gave up on my dream. I believe the dream I had as a child led me to where I am today.

Stage Door Sign
This is your half-hour call.

For many actors, knowing when it is time to let go is very difficult. You never know what that next performance could bring, or who could be in that audience to further propel your career. Every audition you go on is a chance to be a star. The problem is, after thousands and thousands of auditions, you realize the odds are nowhere close to being in your favor. This realization makes you start to look at your life differently. You ask questions of yourself like, “How many more years am I going to do this?” and “Is this worth it anymore?”

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No one can answer those questions but you. You are the only one who knows how much drive you have left in you. But I will offer this advice: when the enjoyment of your profession no longer outweighs the sacrifices you have to make, it is time to starting taking a hard look at things. The biggest question to ask yourself is: “How do I define my life?” If the majority of what sums up who you are is connected to your art form, then what is left if you walk away from it? If all your goals, aspirations, and life plans are based solely on performing, then the answer for you is to never give up. But most of us don’t define ourselves solely by what we do, and let’s face it: to be in this industry, still trying to break through, means a lot of sacrificing. The older you get, the more you feel it.

John Lowe, Britian's oldest practicing ballet dancer at 91
John Lowe, Britian’s oldest practicing ballet dancer at 95

For dancers especially, your drive is not the only thing to weigh when considering the length of your career. No matter how much it means to you, how much of yourself you find in dance, it is the most finite and rigorous of all performing arts careers. It is also typically the one where you need to begin your training earliest. Imagine working throughout your childhood for a career that you can only do into your mid-30s to early 40s. While other performers can mislead themselves with ideas of grandeur, a dancer’s ability is mostly based on their body and its condition. While they may not publicly make it known, dancers are keenly aware of their limitations and career lengths. This is one of the many reasons I have so much respect for them and for what they put themselves through for this beautiful art form.

All of which begs the next question that you should ask yourself: “What does life after performing look like?” This is where I will make my shameless promotion for arts administration. This line of work is the closest vocation to your chosen art form without being on stage; in time, your mind begins to shift how you view the arts. When I was a performer, musical theater was something that served me, not something I served. I used performing as my way to get where I wanted to go in life, to get what I wanted out of the audience, and in doing this, you have to be solely focused on yourself. Performing is a career bred on selfishness; you must be selfish because you are your only promoter. You are the only thing that will make or break your career in one of the most competitive occupations in the world.

But when you transition to administering or presenting the performing arts, you realize you are a steward of the art form. Your job is to make as many people enjoy it as possible, and hopefully to inspire them. You look at the audience and you don’t see a sea of faces whose emotions you want to own, you see a sea of people you want to affect, to leave excited and ready to return. When you work with performers, you don’t see them as competition that you must best, but someone who on their own journey who you can support. You think about everything they will do in their careers, all of the stages they will perform on in their lifetimes. You get to be a part of that. It is an incredible feeling.

Is there still a small part of me that wants to be a Jet? Sure. But I play it cool boy, real cool. *snaps*

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.