Fact: I was a child actor.
Yep! I was one of those kids picked up from school in the northern suburbs of New York City by my mom at midday and whisked off to New York City to attend an audition. When I was in third grade, my dance teacher suggested that I go to an open call for a popular Broadway show (it’s still running today), and somehow they whittled 650 little girls down to six. Even at eight years old, I knew that I was onto something and it was going to be exciting. After that, there was no stopping me. I was quickly referred to an agent and manager and my career began. It was a happy and successful one, without all of the stereotypical drama you hear about in the industry.
As I grew up in this magical, adventurous, fun role of being a child actor, I subconsciously picked up a bit of baggage along the way: the feeling of pressure from others and myself—pressure to prove myself, to live up to the hype of how talented everyone thought I was, to be on the fast track to becoming the next big thing. Looking back on it, I think I simply wanted to be appreciative of this whole experience that had happened to me and make everyone who was expecting me to succeed proud.
After high school, I believed my acceptance into the prestigious NYU Tisch School of the Arts would catapult my career to a new level. Instead, my time at NYU gave me something much more valuable, something even more valuable than even the college diploma itself (and yeah, that’s a nice piece of paper). My time in Tisch taught me that it’s OK to cheat on my first love.
Of course, my first love was performing.
The first inkling I had that there was a life beyond the stage occurred when one of my classmates announced that she was going to be transferring out of Tisch and into the pre-med program. I was in awe. How could she throw away her opportunity at Tisch to pursue a career as a nurse
Secretly, I was jealous. I was suppressing a world of curiosity to convince myself that I was supposed to continue my dramatic studies and nothing else.
Then, another classmate transferred out of our studio to another part of the school to create her own major. I nearly fell off my chair in indignation. How dare she leave this amazing opportunity to pursue another path?
But deep down, another voice was whispering “that lucky bitch.”
Fact: Sometimes, you need to let go instead of trying harder.
I want to let it be known that I absolutely love performing, and regret none of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I’ve had in the industry. The pressure and misery I’m referring to was due to my own fear of giving myself permission to explore other interests in addition to my career as a performer. I was sure I’d let everyone down and face a mountain of disappointment and disapproval. To make it even worse, I was in class with extremely talented performers who appeared to be eating, breathing, and sleeping performing and loving every moment of it, when every fiber of my being wanted to take a more holistic approach to this career path. I felt so out of place and weird. Who was I to quit my program after my parents had invested so much in my career?
Before applying to Tisch, I had actually prepared an entire application for the Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, where I could actually have the opportunity to combine several of my interests. I ultimately decided against it, because I wanted to make everyone proud in the way they were expecting me to succeed. Growing up, I had entrepreneurial blood coursing through my veins. I painted and decorated sea shells from the beach behind our building and went door to door selling them to my neighbors. I started a recycling program for the lazy conscious consumer and collected all of their bottles and cans each Friday afternoon. Hell, I even took over my sister's girl scout duties and sold her cookies for her at the bowling alley where my parents’ league bowled every weekend. I was curious about speech pathology, women's studies, music therapy, and screenwriting, but I was scared to death to show those parts of myself. I longed to be a multi-faceted artist, for fear of disappointing everyone and giving off the impression that I wasn't dedicated enough.
Although the fear was strong, my desire to be free of these internal constraints was stronger. I felt like I was holding myself hostage in a self-imposed jail sentence by allowing all of this pressure to get to me. And finally, one day, after truly having enough of feeling like something was off, I myself, walked out of my studio in the middle of the day and called it quits from my conservatory studies for a whole year. Instead, I attended the regular college of arts and sciences for the next year until I was required to return to complete my BFA program.
The pressure lifted. The misery subsided. For the first time in a long time, I felt that I was actually doing what I needed to do to feel happy and successful, not what everyone else wanted me to do.
In the year that I took off from studying acting, I was able to attend university clubs, events, and parties, serve on the student council, and take courses that would have otherwise never fit into my conservatory schedule. I even joined the track and field team. I was able to learn so much about myself. Giving myself permission to do that ushered in a new version of myself, and made me who I am today. I gave myself permission to think past an acting career and engage with the idea of how I envision my life and how performing fits into that. I gave myself permission to step out of my identity as “actor” and into the mindset of a leader who is also a performer, a creative entrepreneur, an educator, a business woman. That year allowed me to start the long process of asking myself WHY. Why am I an actor? Why am I doing this? Why am I choosing to live this life?
The constant questioning has been my saving grace as a performer ever since.
I write all of this to say that if I could give actors one piece of advice, it would be to allow yourself the time, space, and freedom to explore other interests, passions, and talents that you may have outside of acting, even if you think “I could never be anything else! I’m meant to be an actor!” and especially if you have outside curiosities that keep knocking. Don’t ignore it. You may not want to hear this, but understand that the industry will always be here to welcome you back. After 20 years of performing professionally, I took a step back from my acting career out of frustration and a bit of confusion and asked myself WHY. I finally listened to a few curious voices that had been knocking for years and decided to pursue one of my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. I started my own business helping other multi-passionate creatives who have found themselves stuck in their own self-imposed corporate jails, and wanting to discover a more holistic and creative path to making a profit. My passions for public speaking, educating, performing, writing, and business all come into play with my new endeavor and I couldn't be more excited to share all of these parts of myself with the world. I am having the time of my life with this new challenge, but it has also made me realize something really important:
I am and will always be a performer. I can’t shake it. I plan to jump back into the hustle and bustle of the industry in 2019, and when I do, I will have more clarity in my vision, more discipline in my work ethic, and more appreciation for my craft— all things I was struggling with for a long time. And I know I’m not the only one. So to those of you who are certain that performing is your one and only, cool. Go get ‘em! For those of you who are multi-passionate creatives like myself, respect your heart, give yourself permission to explore, and be open to the journey.
As one of my business mentors reminds me on a weekly basis…
Fact: Success isn’t linear; It’s fluid.
Ashley Brown is a performer, coach, and facilitator living in Atlanta, GA