Once upon a time… I was a part of a traveling enchanted castle aka the International Tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A few months into singing Disney tunes to fans worldwide, Abigail Gatlin joined our little provincial town, reprising her roll of a Silly Girl from the national tour the year before. With very little rehearsal, this gal hopped right back into the show with such ease I was like “who the heck are you?!”
Turns out she’s done more than a few high kicks in her life. Abigail’s been seen on stages across the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and even on the most famous stage basically ever- Radio City Music Hall!
I’m an actor. What sets my heart on fire is telling stories. I love just about everything about it, but mostly the human connection.
With your cast, crew, and creative team. The “teamwork” mentality of all coming together to create this thing that lives every night and wasn’t there before you came together.
With the audience. Giving them the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas or cultures, to give them the opportunity to share with the actors in heartbreak and joy, or just to give them a few hours off from their worries.
With the characters you play. Finding empathy and understanding and joy with people (and sometimes enchanted objects) in different situations than your own.
But I’m gonna tell you, it’s not easy. I’d venture to say it is one of the most difficult professions. Partly because rejection abounds. Partly because auditioning requires extensive physical and emotional energy and doesn’t provide any income. And partly because we all want it so damn badly.
So, how do you do it? I certainly do not have all or even most of the answers. But this is my approach to living New York, pursuing a career in musical theatre, and staying kind, peaceful, and happy.
Focused Pursuit of What I Love
To me this is about working smarter. I cannot go to every single audition and take every single class. It’s not necessary, and honestly, it’s just not an option. From time to time I take a hard look at what needs work. Where am I not currently improving? Then I reevaluate and shift priorities and give that aspect of my career more resources. Whether that’s time or energy or money, I focus on what I can control. Then I take those things and set small, day to day goals. I think the hardest part of this is that honest look at yourself and what you bring to the table. There’s a way to consistently trust that you are worthy and what you bring to the table is important, and be honest about your weaknesses. That is the space where growth happens.
Keeping Bitterness at Bay
Not easy, and I think there are several things at play here. Of course one is to not allow bitterness to seep in after not getting that job you really wanted, that you totally thought you nailed. But I feel like that’s pretty straightforward. I think there’s another kind of bitterness that seeps in with actors and normal humans alike that comes from the everyday struggle. New York City is hard. There is a reason they said “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” Because the MTA is *literally* the worst, making enough money to live often requires multiple jobs with zero benefits, and we’re all constantly on top of one another. And I think the struggle we go through to do what we love can sometimes attach a bitterness to that thing that we love. Just because it’s really, really hard. For me, combatting this is finding awe and admiration for the sacrifices my friends and I make. Seeing the worth in those sacrifices does so much to prevent bitterness. Case in point: I always wanted to be a Rockette, but after I’d been here about a year I saw that it was actually a possibility if i put in the work. I’d always been a dainty, somewhat flowery-type dancer. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen the Rockettes, but their dancing is far from dainty. Those women are powerhouses. So I put in the work. I went to the gym six days a week, ran (I LOATHE running), did kicks with WEIGHTS ON MY ANKLES. Sounds crazy, and maybe it was a little, but I wanted it and I knew I needed to be stronger to be able to dance that choreography with the precision required. I made sacrifices in the pursuit of what I love. And it paid off. I got the dream job. But it doesn’t always pay off in that way and you certainly don’t always get the job.
That does not alter the value of your sacrifices.
Find Ways to Turn Anxiety and Rejection into Positive Action
I was playing cards with some family friends over the Christmas holiday and losing at a truly remarkable rate, and one of the young men said, “You’re taking this really well” to which I responded, “Yeah well, I’ve had some practice.” It got a pretty big laugh. And it got me thinking, how is it that I am so good at losing? Other than sheer volume of experience? I think it’s because over the years I’ve put into practice some pretty solid courses of action. In other words, I know how to pick myself back up, dust myself off, and start all over again.
I think this process has to start by allowing time to grieve. “Grieve” seems like a strong word, and it is for the day to day minor rejections, but when you’ve poured your heart and soul into preparing for an audition, sometimes for a job you’ve already had, and are repeatedly passed over for some reason or possibly no reason at all, grief is exactly what you feel. It’s heartbreak. But it doesn’t work like romantic heartbreak, where you aren’t expected to move on and find someone new as soon as possible. With jobs, you are expected to keep hustling, keep looking, because it’s not like it was something you already had and lost. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some pain. And that that pain is totally normal. Take time to feel sad, your feelings are real and important, and glossing over them will only lead to bitterness. (See above.)
The second part of this process is knowing what active things make you feel better. For me, 97.5% of the time a dance class does the trick. I remember why I love it and that I don’t want to do anything else. Sitting in front of a body of water also works for me, particularly if I have good book. I can actually feel my body relax. And if I really need to give my brain a break from the thousand and one thoughts firing all at once, I go to a movie. If I want something creative, but has nothing to do with my musical theatre, I break out the colored pencils and coloring book. I know these things work for me and I’m constantly looking for more ideas. The anxiety that I get from rejection and just trying to keep everything straight absolutely works me into a point where I feel like I can’t move. I shut down totally. I felt it creeping in last night and this morning I went for a walk over to Riverside Park to look at the water for a minute. I clearly felt my body release some tension, then was able to take on my list, bit by bit.
Also straight forward, but sometimes the darnedest thing to tackle. Rest is CRITICAL, and I don’t think we value it enough in America and specifically in NYC. The hustle culture prevails. And in some sense, it has to. New York is expensive as all get out and ya gotta make those ends meet. The problem is, without rest, the quality of all that hustle you put in diminishes. At some point, exponentially. I don’t want to give my career anything less than my best, I think most people are also on that page, particularly in NY. In order to do that I must find time to “fill my cup.”
Another problem I see and experience is this value we place on what we do over who we are. You are not the sum of what you got done today. I repeat: You are not the sum of what you got done today. You are smart and funny and kind and not because you cleared your inbox.
(Though I totally believe in clearing your inbox.)
I saved the best for last. First off, my family is frankly out of this world. My parents raised me in our fairly small, conservative Southern hometown and it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do or be anything I wanted to do or be as long as I was willing to give it my absolute best. And I think that’s really something to accomplish in a fairly small, conservative Southern town. They were proud of me and believed in me, and I could never emphasize enough how that has shaped who I am.
There’s that community you create for yourself, though, and that’s something you have some control over. You find those dear, dear friends who you know are always cheering you on, with whom you have a deep mutual love and respect. But I think there’s a greater community you can find when you support the women around you. There is some gorgeous strength behind women empowering other women. I’m pretty sure I didn’t see this first hand until I was a Rockette. It is physically and emotionally grueling like nothing I’ve ever experienced and probably won’t again until I’m a mother. Sixteen ninety-minute shows per week and the feedback is primarily just what needs to be better. You’re tired and it’s easy to get down. But the way in which I saw my cast support one another empowered me to do the same. When you see the joy and courage that instills and how relatively easy it is to create, you see it’s just the only way to operate. There is nothing women can’t accomplish, particularly when we empower one another. And now I see it everywhere; in the stunning way my Pure Barre clients show up for themselves and one another, the way my fellow barre babes lift each other up seemingly without ceasing, and the relentless way the women I audition with day in and day out stay positive and supportive despite a stressful environment that could easily become competitive in a really ugly way.
It’s as if we have collectively chosen to support one another. Maybe it’s because we see there’s enough room for everyone. Maybe it’s because we see that another’s success is not our failure. Or maybe it’s because we’ve come to realize if we don’t lift each other up, no one else will. Whatever the combination of reasons, it keeps me inspired and excited for whatever comes next.