In the 1989 fantasy movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, an Iowa corn farmer hears voices that tell him to build a baseball diamond in his fields. He does and the Chicago Black Sox show up! It’s a great film and was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Because I make my living as a writer and actor (as Wayne Pyle), I often hear, “You’re so lucky, you’re following your dream” or “You’re so lucky, you have a dream job.” I’ve never quite understood what people mean when they say that because my “dream job” is something that I worked hard to build, luck really had nothing to do with it (it sure helps, though).
Like any job, writing and acting are professions that you can prepare for or just jump into and hope for the best. I took the former path and prepared for a long time to do these dream jobs. Like Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, people often think I’m crazy for pursuing these professions. Like Ray, I’ve been on the brink of financial ruin. But by building my path to these professions, people have come and supported me in my dreams.
TheLadders.com inspired this post. I wanted to share my experience pursuing these professions with people who might be looking for a way to break into them right out of school or later in life.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been passionate about performing and telling stories. When I was four, my parents got me on the children’s television program Romper Room. Our local TV affiliate in Philadelphia hosted the show. My best friend, Bobby, and I were on set together. I still have very vivid memories from that experience.
When I was ready to go to real school (instead of TV school), we moved to rural Pennsylvania and there was no internet or cable television back then (gasp). My brother and I would make puppet stages and write plays. We’d play role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or make up our own worlds. One of my favorites was “Chuck and Mack” where we pretended to be middle-aged guys with jobs. It was absurd and hilarious. I was always creating short stories and comic books. I got in trouble once when I “published” a comic at my junior high school called “Marshmallow Man” about an overweight bully who just happened to have the same name as the real overweight bully who was always picking on me in class.
We moved from rural Pennsylvania to a small town in Pennsylvania and I kept pursuing acting and writing. I went to undergrad at Susquehanna University where I pursued a Communications/Theatre Arts degree with a minor in Writing. I worked for the literary journal, wrote for the school newspaper (mostly parody essays) and did as much acting as I could. The school wasn’t giving me the professional training experience I wanted, so I pursued an apprenticeship at a professional theatre company called The Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was a well-known program and difficult to get into. I was accepted as a junior, but when they found out how young I was, they wouldn’t take me. They made me wait until I was a senior in college. I had to audition again, and this time I got in. I couldn’t afford to pay for the year away, so I convinced the college president that doing an apprenticeship at an established theatre company was the same as study abroad and that they should give me college credit while I was there.
It worked! I wrote plays and poetry for my writing minor and completed my theatre credits by keeping a journal of all the amazing work I was doing at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. I met some amazingly talented playwrights and I got to act in their plays. The theatre produced one of my monologues and a ten-minute play. It was a great experience.
When the apprenticeship was over, I moved to Chicago. The Second City was where I wanted to be. Chicago is an amazing place to do theatre. There was so much energy and excitement. I worked with a lot of small companies. One company, The Griffin Theatre, was also a place to produce new work. They included my ten-minute play in a short plays festival and I also became an actor in their company. Bailiwick Repertory was another company I worked for often. They produced a full-length children’s play that a group of us wrote together called, The Forest of Arden. It was a choose your own adventure play. At certain points we would ask the audience which action the main character should choose. We would then do that action and the story would change slightly. Most of the work I did in Chicago was because of relationships I built over time with actors, writers and producers.
I also had the wonderful opportunity of being on another children’s television show, The Magic Door. It was shown on early Sunday mornings, so my friends who were out partying late on Saturday would often call me and leave drunken messages on my answering machine. “Hey, saw you playing a screenwriting monkey on the Magic Door! Hilarious! I’m going to bed now. Zzzzzzz.”
I was also writing a lot of poetry in Chicago and participating in open mics. That was quite an experience. Dive bars would hold open mics and the barflys and the poets would be a little family for the evening. One of my poems, Sometimes: The Coat Closet, was picked by the city for a program called Dial-a-Poem Chicago. It was advertised all over the city. People would call the poetry line and hear the poet read their poem. For some reason, a suburban Chicago housewife called the line and thought my poem was offensive. She called a local radio station and they played my poem about 10 times on the air. The usual call rate for Dial-a-Poem was 80 people. That week, my poem got 8,000 calls. I was “viral” before anyone knew what that meant. The famous Chicago Tribune columnist, Mike Royko, did a column about my poem. I felt like a real Windy City native.
Not long after that incident my mother died of lung cancer. Distraught, I decided to move from Chicago back to the East Coast to get into grad school for acting. That’s where I’m originally from and where my dad lives. I auditioned for and got into the University of Delaware’s Professional Theatre Training Program, known as the PTTP. It was training in the classics, Shakespeare in particular. It was three years of intense training in movement, voice, speech and acting but it also made me a better writer. Saying Shakespeare’s words all day instilled a sense of rhythm and rhetoric that I might not have gotten without that training. We also did an exercise cutting full-length plays into 10-minute versions. Every summer we’d get jobs at Shakespeare festivals around the country. I had the opportunity to work at the Wisconsin and Utah Shakespearean Festivals, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and a small festival in Rhode Island. I still do a lot of Shakespeare, mostly playing the clowns, my favorite roles. They now have a REP company and I get to go back and perform with them occasionally.
I graduated and stayed in Delaware, doing various temp jobs in the banking industry. The internet was just starting to boom back then and I found opportunities to write online. I would write book reviews and post them online. I didn’t know anything about blogs back then. I applied to Prestwick House Publishing as a writer for their educational series of Side by Sides. I would take a Shakespeare play and write a more contemporary translation next to Shakespeare’s words. I was also hired by Dupont-Merck to write a few industrial scripts for some important programs they were running. At the time, I was getting paid more to write scripts than I was to act in them.
I also worked as an assistant to a magician touring with a magical children’s show. We went all over the country and even traveled to Taiwan. I built some relationships with the producers in Taiwan and offered to bring them a show from my theatre company (that didn’t exist yet). They said, “Thank you.” I thought I’d never hear from the them again. About a year later, I got a call from Taiwan. They would like us to bring Hamlet to Taiwan. I instantly started a theatre company called The American Shakespeare Theatre Company and recruited actors from all over the US, mostly grads from the PTTP. I convinced the grad school to let us use their space to rehearse. I hired my friend, Ty Jones, as Hamlet and Robert G. Anderson as our director. We rehearsed the show and took it Taiwan with a videographer from The Sundance Channel. The documentary we produced about this crazy production, Within a Play, was shown on Sundance for two seasons.
My next stint was as a proofreader for First USA, a credit card company that later became Bank of America. I’d go into this darkened room and sort through stacks and stacks of papers with teeny, tiny print on them talking about how the rates worked and all the legal jargon and I’d proofread it until my eyes were almost falling out of my head. I was auditioning in New York City and living in Wilmington, Delaware at the time. I was hoping to get a break from all the mindless proofreading when I got a call from my agent that they were auditioning for the musical, The Lion King, for their first national tour. I auditioned. Five times. My friend from Hamlet, Ty Jones, was the reader and would tell me what the producers were saying about me in the auditions so I could adjust my performance. The last audition was just after 9/11. Acrid smoke was still billowing from the holes in the ground as I rode the Greyhound bus into the city. After my final audition, I went downtown and walked among the debris and hundreds of flyers looking for lost, and most likely dead, loved ones. I developed a hacking cough from the smoke. It was not a good time for the United States.
A few weeks later, I found out I got the job as Ed the hyena, understudying Timon and Zazu. I was about to live my dream. I was going on tour with a big Broadway musical. We rehearsed downtown at 890 Broadway, the big rehearsal studios for all the Broadway shows. Julie Taymor was there. The teams of producers and costumers and directors and choreographers were there. It was intense. People got fired the first few days. My knees were sore from climbing stairs and practicing being a hyena. I had to ice my hands from all the puppet work we were doing. Eventually, we made our way out to Denver, Colorado to start the tour. I stayed with the tour for five years. It was an amazing experience. I had my ups and downs (I’ll write about those in another post). I traveled the country and the world. Eight shows a week, 50 weeks a year, I worked on The Lion King.
I did a bit of writing while I was on tour, but mostly what I did was act. I taught myself video production and sound editing. When I got off the road, I moved back to the city. Not long after, the economy tanked. There was no work of any kind. I moved up north to the beautiful Hudson Valley to skydive and garden. I lived right next to a community college and convinced them to let me teach in the Communications/Theatre Department. I taught acting for the camera and script writing for film and television.
I had never actually worked in the production end of a television studio, but when they hired me, I taught myself how to run the equipment so I could teach the classes. The students came up with some really great writing and we also made some very funny videos based on their stories. That job ended and I started teaching in the Communications and Theatre Arts departments at one of the SUNY colleges. I was acting in small theatre companies and lots of independent films, writing for academia, teaching and traveling. I started a small film/television production company and voiceover business with my wife. We have a film casting business as well. But I missed the creative writing I had done.
I started writing fiction and short stories again and got into self-publishing about a year ago. That’s when I started my blog and started listening to Sterling and Stone’s Self-publishing Podcast. They did this great project called Fiction Unboxed and wrote a steampunk novel, The Dream Engine, in 30 days. I followed along with their process and learned a lot about how they worked together. I contributed to an anthology of steampunk stories inspired by The Dream Engine called Beyond the Gate and started working on a novel-length story based on the world of The Dream Engine. I’m also writing, illustrating and publishing children’s books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program. It’s been quite a journey.
This blog chronicles that journey. I’ve been fortunate to be able to tell many stories in my life and I’ve found that Stories are the Wildest Things.
So, what are the takeaways from my long and varied career?
- If you want a “dream job” you have to build it and trust that they will come. Instead of thinking you have to “get” a job, think about how you can “create” a job.
- Keep looking for opportunities, don’t wait for someone to call you. You have to be active in the pursuit of your dreams.
- Do apprenticeships or internships. Find a way to afford it. If there aren’t any apprenticeships for the type of job you want, create one by funding a project through crowdfunding.
- Do as many different jobs as you want to. You never know which one is going to be the one you want to stick with. You might never want to stick with one. The freelance life is challenging, but you’re rewarded with a lot of freedom and many amazing experiences.
- Sometimes you have to convince people to help you in your journey. They get just as much out of helping you as you get from asking them to help.
- Persistence pays off. Five auditions and almost a year later, I got the job.
- Use the internet as a tool for finding work and building relationships. Be careful about going down too many internet rabbit holes. That happens to me a lot. But if you do, use the information you find in some way.
- Building relationships is one of the most important things you can do to build a career. Almost every “dream job” I’ve had has happened because of relationships I’ve built over the years.
Please leave me a message in the comments about how you are pursuing your dream career. Also, let me know whether you’ve stopped by TheLadders.com to check out their site. I’d love to hear from you!