Roller Coasters in Manhattan

Photo by Michael Contreras

On some memorable mornings, I can’t help but flashback to boarding a roller coaster at Great Adventure, as I sit down on the subway to hear the announcer warn of the impending closing doors. So began this morning, promptly on the 6:54am A train (thank you, Google Maps), on my way to midtown east for what replaced my only day off this week. Three weeks or three days from now, I may regret sacrificing that time, but when a financially struggling artist gets a call for a two-hundred dollar day in a focus group, she says yes.

Confidentiality notwithstanding, I believe I can say that I feel the urge to shower to remove some of the corporate sludge in which I bathed today. Thankfully, as I ride the subway home, I can write, detox a little, and prepare my mindset for a very exciting week ahead. Headshots, a new study course in marketing, and regular check-ins with my accountability partner, Amy, all await my attention at home, as I continue to reinvent my career to include film and commercials this year.

After the Mahler and the general air surrounding September 11, I felt sick and a little overwhelmed yesterday. Surely I had bit off more than I could chew again, recovering from the hormone treatments and surgery, gigging, taking odd jobs, setting up photo shoots in three states, gearing up for a new class, and trying to remember to do my taxes before that extension deadline! Well, perhaps I have.

Still, I trim my priorities here and there. I missed our skydiving trip; our friends went again on the day of our Mahler rehearsal and performance, in less than the required time I needed to rest from surgery. While I love them and rejoice over their successful and fun dives, the Mahler served as enough of a thrill ride for this moment already packed with preparations and promise. Yesterday, I missed an informational meeting for Sing for Hope, a great organization that used the arts to heal… Having recently joined the roster for Opera Collective, another non-profit arts organization, I just can’t fathom how I would responsibly add it to my overflowing plate.

If I can cut out the tv, add in a little regular meditation and exercise, stick to a regular bedtime, and find a way to go out and have fun once a week, I may just make it through to the other side alive, well fed from all this overflowing activity, and ready for the exciting transition to come. Tonight, I have my first online session with Dallas Travers for her Actor’s Business Breakthrough class. Without giving away all of her hard-learned secrets, I hope to write here about my journey there. Suspecting much of the work will make me rather uncomfortable and challenge some of the fears that have kept me so long from pursuing my acting goals, this eight week voyage will fit in well on Skydiving for Pearls, without a doubt.

Tonight? 7pm call with Amy, to show her my new goals and hear her progress on her newest song for the audition book. I can’t begin to say how much she’s helpedme to stay motivated already! 8pm, my first group call for Dallas’ class! Tomorrow, a photo shoot in CT, tango with the Oscuro Quintet. Thursday, another photo shoot under the Manhattan Bridge… Now if only I can eat and sleep, this week starts a roller coaster I may want to stay on for a while. Wish me luck.

Riding the Weathervane

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Although I both want and sense a major shift in my path, very little has actually changed beneath the surface winds. At the age of six or seven, I dreamed of being the white kid on The Cosby Show. Really. As the years slowly progressed, I wanted to be Debbie Gibson and, after seeing Les Miserables for the first time, would walk around my neighborhood singing “On My Own,” hoping that maybe someone might drive by in their car and discover me. Crushed after my parents wouldn’t pay the money for headshots to get me on the roster at Barbizon in Cherry Hill (the agency later lost a lawsuit to Kelly Ripa), I came to believe that I’d never actually pursue my dream of living life as a performer.

Instead, I focused my energy on choir and the thought that I could teach, like my teacher Cris Bass who had given me so much of my strong musical foundation. My first detour at Westminster Choir College furthered a deep love and talent in music and singing and helped me realize I really just wanted to perform. Four years later, I can’t say my father initially smiled and shook my hand when I informed him that despite achieving my degree in music education, I had canceled my job interviews and started auditions.

Along the way, many have told me to focus on only one thing, opera or classical singing, since I had found a niche that worked and shouldn’t spread my efforts too thin. When I initially planned to move to LA after earning a master’s in opera performance, my friends in Maryland (mostly) protested in earnest, frightened I’d lose my contacts, my momentum, my career. Two calls from the chorus master at the Metropolitan Opera, offering me three shows in total for my first season there as an extra chorister, provided me with the greatest detour, moved me to my home in New York City, and gave me four glorious seasons so far. My friends breathed a sigh of relief, and I enjoyed the splendors of a successful career as a classical singer in the city.

While grateful to have had the opportunity to audition today for the Met’s 2012-2013 season, this week carries a new hope of ending the detours from pursuing a more acting-based career as well. Don’t get the wrong idea, I love singing in operas and in operatic ensembles and would happily do so for decades, if possible and financially feasible. Somewhere between the music, the production values, and the acting, I love most about opera the way in which it combines so many elements to convey messages often larger than life to the audience and onstage participants.

For the same reason, film has always appealed to me as a brass ring of sorts, as a medium through which I have learned and expanded my view of humanity and by which, I have often dreamed of helping others do the same. Sitting joyfully through the credits of a meaningful movie, I thank the countless names involved and picture myself among the many fortunate enough to have contributed. Truly, I really have seen film as the culmination of inspiration, art, and accessible audience since I cried when the little girl in Space Camp said, “I’m goin’ up. I am.”

Consider this my first tangible step in reaching that brass ring. Perhaps not exactly the first, considering the seminar I attended last weekend called “The Actor’s Business Blueprint,” but definitely a crucial confession. In The Tao of Show Business, Dallas Travers (who also taught the blueprint workshop) writes, “If you sheepishly talk about your acting career only in safe environments after much poking and prodding, expect your goals to be reached just some of the time and only in safe environments.” Until now, this has been my bad habit and tragic flaw.

Given how little value I find hiding in safe environments and making excuses, consider me out of the closet. I am an opera singer, and I do it well. I am also a trained and talented actor, and not only do I intend to do something about it, I plan to commit each day to a lifestyle and passion that gets me closer to both achieving and living my goals.

Sometimes, yes, these goals seem daunting to reach. Currently, I’m transitioning to focus my efforts toward film and commercials, and this year, I plan to book at least three commercials and three high quality films. The biggest difference between opera chorus and film? I haven’t had to audition much for opera anymore, and I therefore haven’t experienced nearly as much rejection as your typical actor who auditions several times per week on average.

I’ll have to keep myself focused, on track, and encouraged to reach for the stars as I once learned from Space Camp. I admit, I need you. To my friends, my fans, my family, I tell you these things in hopes that you’ll encourage my journey, nag me to do more auditions, and expect me to book those gigs. In the meantime, for myself and all of my actor colleagues, my favorite line from an opera by Pasatieri based on Checkov’s The Seagull:

“I’m an actress. I belong on the stage. I believe in myself. When I think of that, my wounds vanish, and I’m no longer afraid.”

Peaceful Pandemonium: Reflections on Tableau Vivant

Once upon a time, several of my readers asked, “Why?”  They continue to ponder, “Why the nudity,” “Why the Bulgarian music,” “Why you (a question more likely uttered by acquaintances or colleagues)?”

Rehearsal for Tableau Vivant
Rehearsal for Tableau Vivant

My answer, written in January but as yet unpublished, seems all the more poignant to me as we prepare for our upcoming, much grander, longer (less than an hour), and far more ambitious performance this coming Monday and Tuesday, May 23 and 24 at 7pm and 8pm, respectivelyWithin this tableau, one will find weddings (yes, actual weddings), dance, improvisation, Bulgarian folk singers, a string quartet with a few additional players, opera singers, new compositions (none of mine in this production), classic opera arias, and just about every body type imaginable, both clothed and exposed. Within this preparation time and Tableau Vivant itself, I hope to find the peaceful pandemonium of life so perfectly expressing the imperfect we all discover each new day.

My answer:
The Peaceful Pandemonium of Tableau Vivant
By Abigail Wright

In September, at our first rehearsal for the current incarnation of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant, a large circle of fascinatingly varied introductions confirmed my role as the only nude singer. Although CJ Body joined me in my exposed expression as an unclothed upright bass player for our fall tableau as part of the DUMBO Arts Festival, I bore that undertaking alone in January’s Bathhouse Studio performance. Rima Fand, a brilliant composer I’ve had the extraordinary joy of knowing in three separate artistic endeavors, entered into the equation and introduced an unusual task for most of the models as well. As musical director, she and Sarah Small designed an aural tapestry that placed almost every performer equally far from their comfort zones by layering voice upon voice (mostly untrained), until each added his unique sound to the swelling chorus of suspended, sighed, and soared tones.

Since September, the larger group of artists composing Sarah’s tableau has grown closer in companionship and familiarity, and something about the quality of the picture and drones of the sonic landscape feels more cohesive and powerful as we join together again, now at Bathhouse Studios. The Black Sea Hotel, a hauntingly beautiful Bulgarian folk quartet fully clad in bright crimson wool dresses, ever-powerfully intones a stirring folk song about a man waiting for his friend’s death in order to marry the woman for whom he pines. Sarah Small, whose musical arrangement they sing, enters into the living picture to enliven selected groups of models, static poses beginning to unfreeze and interact with one another.

As eventually the motion quiets and our once crescendoed chorus comes down from the swell, this photographer/composer/creator adds her voice as a soloist which then melds with the folk quartet to conclude the perplexing but poignant song. Almost ominously, as the melodic love story ends on the Bulgarian word meaning “death,” each of us personalizes it, as chanted, spoken, shouted, and vibrated pitches echo a resonant “umre” throughout the space. Upon this scattered final iteration, each person in tableau releases her individually held pose, engages the eyes of a random audience member, and waits for the first note of my aria after extended silence as a signal to fade away and drop her head.

In September when Sarah and I first met to discuss which aria I might perform to conclude her Tableau Vivant, I had a comparatively vague sense of the profound nature of her living picture as a whole. After hearing her focus for the tableau as a means for exploring life and death, I chose music and a text that would minister to her spirit as the creative energy behind such a feat. In “C’est l’amour vainqueur,” commonly referred to as “the violin aria” from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, the character of Nicklausse sings this song to the poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, imploring him to write. Referencing the beauty of music, its transforming power, and finally triumphant love, Nicklausse exclaims, “It is all-conquering love, ah, poet, give your heart!” Little did I understand at that moment how much the aria and tableau as a whole speaks not only to Sarah Small as the creator of the concept, the musicians and the models inhabiting it, and the audience in the room, but especially to everyone as a microcosm of life as a whole.

In my brief but meaningful experience with the art of tableau vivant, I have enjoyed an insider’s view of her “Delirium Constructions” as a means to explore in public all of the common human experiences most hide. Fusing truly implausible combinations of the primal with the classical, musically and visually through the clothed and bare, static and engaged, healthy and deformed (some models in particular have body paint and positions to indicate bruises, rashes, and injury), proud and meek, this odd concoction of life without pretense explores some of the most profoundly universal themes in a short twenty-minute span. Reminiscent of the musings of Shakespeare as Hamlet tells Claudius how “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar,” this photographer brings to light in one small space a truly living picture of the simple complexities of humanity, seen and unseen. By insisting upon such an unapologetic depiction of existence, Sarah Small presents the most honest public offering in which I have ever taken part. As society imbues her art with love, death, life and its intricacies, may she continue to inspire audiences in the peaceful pandemonium of her Tableau Vivant.

Social Media Begins with the Letter “S” ~ 171

That’s right, boys and girls. Today, and for the remainder of this week, the world receives a free education in social media and all its myriad uses and possibilities. If you currently live or visit New York, San Francisco, London, Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Saö Paolo, or Istanbul, you have the incredible opportunity to hear lectures, party, play, and experience everything live. In other words, you can attend lectures, party, play, and experience social media in real time with companies like MTV, Comedy Central, Youtube, and Microsoft at venues like the Google Science and Technology Hub and the Gramercy Park Hotel.

For those of you residing in a different location this week, all you need is an Internet connection to access much of the free instruction and discussion happening globally. Visit Livestream to watch events happening now or talks you may have missed. I know many of my friends and colleagues still react towards social media as unnecessary, distracting, or evil and haven’t yet decided to learn how to make the most of so many tools available to us as members of a complex and changing society of corporations, freelancers, citizens, and participants in the history to come. If Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, MySpace, Tumblr, and WordPress all make you want to run for the exit, I highly recommend dipping your toes into the wading pool this week for free. You may find a way to enhance your life with our more connected twitterverse and if you don’t, you have invested only a bit of time.

 

Abby, Bert, and Ernie
Relative Virality: How to Explode in Your Niche, at Sesame Workshop

Deciding to begin my #SMWNYC adventure in a less gigantic-corporation and free stuff sort of way tonight, I headed over to the offices of the Sesame Workshop to learn from the successful marketing campaigns of three separate Jewish organizations. Stephanie Wilchfort of Shalom Sesame began the discussion of how to leverage as many platforms as possible to succeed in marketing to one’s niche. Within five minutes, I had at least two pages of ideas already reproducing further ways to promote my career to the very specific industries within the arts and entertainment world to which I belong.

Motti Seligson of Chabad discussed ways in which seemingly underdog high schools won large sums of money in an online challenge sponsored by Khol’s. Most importantly, he stressed the value of empowering a passionate community to rally behind one’s cause and reminded us all of the necessity of keeping such a rallying point personal and relevant. Reaching out as human beings to the rest of humanity seems a crucial theme for this Social Media Week in New York, and Andy Neusner of Jewish Community Heroes spoke last and extensively on working more closely through as many channels as possible to individual. Specifically, he addressed the importance of avoiding polarizing issues that might distract from one’s mission and ways to engage with individual “thought leaders” in smaller parts of the community that one wishes to attract.

Discussions on hashtags, listening tools, automation points, email blasts, efficiency, time management, and the impossibility of overexposure ensued. This panel agreed that the ROI, or “risk of ignoring something,” far outweighed the potential danger of oversaturating one’s niche by posting the same information in too many places. Why should anyone care? Social media will change throughout the years, but our ability to connect as a society will likely continue to increase for quite some time. As a freelance singer and actor, I have a duty to myself and my career to promote and encourage future current and future work. With an obligation to my friends, readers, and supporters to treat them with respect and not as a number, I highly value the input given to help me consider every option available to me to intensely market myself, but with grace and consideration of my audience.

Tonight, I feel incredibly thankful for all of the sponsors, speakers, and participants in Social Media Week 2011. Take advantage of it, if you can. Tomorrow, I attend a case study of the marketing platform for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear with Comedy Central and MTV and a discussion entitled “High Art vs. the Masses” about the art world’s use of and reaction toward social networking. In the meantime, Sarah Small has one of my newly favorite pieces of writing in hand regarding her Tableau Vivant and hopes to have it published. I don’t know exactly what tomorrow will bring, but I can guarantee I won’t be bored, depressed, and hiding from winter anymore. Progress.

Laila Tov!

Irresistible Investments ~ 149

Visiting my friend and photographer David Michael‘s most recent website update, I paused to see his use of the word “investment” when referring to his fees for photographs and photo sessions. As my friend, David has used this word rather often over the years when speaking of friendships, relationships, and our careers as singers. Unfortunately, understanding the concept surprisingly doesn’t necessarily lead to keeping it in mind as a general practice.

I wonder how many performers purchasing a photo session pause to think of this yet another business expense as an exciting investment, rather than an annoyance, a financial burden, or one of the many initiation rites involved in keeping oneself current as an artist. Furthermore, how many dates give one the impression of purchasing dinner, paying her cover charge, and buying her drinks to invest in the future of a potential relationship? When someone flew 2500 miles to visit me this New Year’s Eve after only knowing me for a week, I began to understand the concept. Arriving a few days after his departure, two dozen red roses made his message ever clearer.

When faced with the option of making bold gestures and sizable undertakings with our finances, time, efforts, or talents, many of us pause in fearful protest, “I’m not ready for this.”  Teaching and looking after six to ten children per week, nearly twenty-four hours each day, I clearly remember not feeling prepared for the task of working as a camp counselor at seventeen. Of all of the many lessons I learned those two extremely rewarding summers, I regularly recall the priceless value of making even a seemingly risky investment in something truly worthwhile.

Handing out my first business card at my first rehearsal for my first puppet opera (Don Cristòbal, with ten performances this spring), I couldn’t help but contemplate the investments I have recently made of my money, time, and talents. Although I definitely need to monitor my finances and debt in order to survive as a performing artist, I don’t regret having spent money on new headshots, union dues, trade publications, opera tickets, etc. I did gasp for a moment when a promotional box of matches arrived in the mail with a 5×7 photo, both of which had an image of four women including myself (yes, nude) from Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant in September.

After my initial shock, I weighed my experience with Living Picture Projects, new skills and strengths discovered, and my belief in Sarah’s vision against the handful of those who might innocently judge what they don’t understand. I realized that if I intended to continue appearing in her performances, with one later this month and another in May, I needed to embrace and celebrate overcoming such a challenge as part of my life. Now, the box of matches lies in plain sight next to a candle in my bathroom for any visitors to see.

To remind myself of the extreme personal profit I gain each time I defy the inner voice who constantly chimes, “I’m not ready,” I displayed the 5×7 of my first Tableau Vivant, framed on the wall by my bed, under another photo from this summer’s skydive. Hung for inspiration every day, they may help me remember to face the cold a bit more happily tomorrow to sing at church, act and puppeteer with some brilliant artists, and enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labor at the 3rd Ward Moviehouse for the premiere of Wolfy’s Journey at 8pm.

Wolfy’s creator, Leat Klingman, knows all about investment. She has done everything on this project and for many months has given her time, money, effort, love, and sleep to creating something magical, beautiful, and original. Presenting timeless themes of searching, loneliness, meaningful art, faith, and community, I expect the film to give back generously to the audience and its creator. As for me, I have already received so much more than the hours and effort donated to Wolfy’s Journey in skills learned and friends encountered. With an exciting day ahead of me tomorrow, I confess I most look forward to seeing how the journey ends – mine and Wolfy’s. Hope to see you there.

A Pinky-swear Beats a Resolution Any Day of the Year ~ 148

Pinky Swear

Six years ago, on a very memorable New Year’s Eve, I needed a fresh start more than oxygen. Traveling to New York City and meeting a friend for the ultimate ball drop in Times Square, I converted myself to the worship of this annual holiday and sought to celebrate each year in style ever since. As for resolutions, I’ve lost weight, changed relationship status, exercised more, visited grandparents, made fewer excuses, and oh yeah, started a blog.

Beginning a journey of writing about abandoning excuses and embracing change led to regular resolutions, which changed my life and path and made the need for an annual “New Year’s resolution” a bit trite and, after a busy season of work and travel, unnecessarily exhausting. This year, I felt a bit under the weather and actually turned down party invitations to (gasp!) stay in with someone special, rest, and watch the ball of newly swirling lights descend above the crowd from the comfort of my upper Manhattan apartment. Despite my best attempts, the relaxation and healing ended a bit prematurely as I traveled on Sunday to Philadelphia after my church job to hear my friends sing an incredibly worthwhile concert with The Crossing Choir, conducted by Donald Nally.

Still recovering from this cold that thankfully waited for a short break in gigs and rehearsals to attack, I have now have a bit of enforced downtime to reflect, and the concert proved well worth the extra effort and travel despite the minor health consequence. Having sung for several years in Philadelphia, I sat in the audience at my old church job and home at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian and missed the acoustics, the beauty of the space, the clear and inspired conducting of Donald Nally, and the uniquely beautiful voices of my friends who perfectly blended to give life to all of the recently-composed works. Afterwards, I refrained from alcohol but not from colleagues or good company, as I enjoyed the brief time to reacquaint myself with some dear and beloved musicians and friends.

Somewhere amidst the din of the reception, I stumbled upon the best and most motivational impetus for resolutions imaginable : the shared goals of my competition. You may imagine classical singers sabotaging one another’s auditions, withholding valuable advice and information, secretly wishing for the other to fail. Although I too have heard the urban legend of pianists booby trapping the pianos at Juilliard with razor blades, I literally can only remember one instance of another singer intentionally giving me bad information since I began singing (from the womb), and I didn’t know her at all. Very much to the contrary, other professionals in my fach (voice type) have given me good advice on agents, jobs, upcoming auditions, networking, and just about every opportunity imaginable.

A few weeks ago, my dear roommate and fellow mezzo soprano Ariana Chris began turning my accountability wheels when she suggested reminding each other about important goals, from sleep schedules to marketing. Sorry Ariana, but I have stayed up way past my bedtime tonight and will have to work on that one yet again tomorrow. In the meantime, I have spent a bit of time thinking about my successes with Skydiving for Pearls and realized that with a few small exceptions, I have not accomplished the very longtime and important goal of increasing my number and quality of auditions, one of the many demons I still hope to face here. Enter Super Maren.

Maren Montalbano sings and writes, brilliantly, in Philadelphia. While that somewhat places us in different markets, we each have sung in the other’s city, share the same voice type and interests, and could shy away from encouraging the other to succeed in order to maintain some kind of edge. Not for a second. Instead, we decided to keep each other motivated and auditioning with a pact. Actually pinky swearing, we pledged to initiate a minimum of five contacts per month, either applying for auditions or completing them. While this number pales in comparison to some incredibly motivated actors in New York who manage to audition at least that many times per week, I find it both realistic and a less overwhelming place to begin.

Born with a desire to perform in almost all aspects, I find my career bewildering at times with choices, options, obstacles, and rejections. On the docket for ways to improve my career this new year includes far more time in deep practice, improved preparation, and increased visibility in networks, auditions, and media. I sing, act, and write. Apparently, in the new year, I also research and learn as much as necessary to act as my own agent, publicity and press manager, and perhaps most importantly, strategist. Already swimming with infinite possibilities and fears, my brain has much to assimilate, understand, and initiate. Still, I hope it helps you as my readers if I share sort through some of it here, reporting my progress and findings along the way. In the meantime, I thank God for my friends who share my burdens, goals and dreams. In the end, you make each year and every day worth the reinvention and resolution.

Overwhelmed yet Overflowing, Day 97

Sitting in my unusually quiet apartment for a few minutes before again running out the door, I haven’t yet completely absorbed the fullness of the last few days since Thursday’s memorial service.  Amidst periodic moments of mourning, I gained so much from my time spent with four old friends in New Jersey and Philadelphia, some of my favorite people in the city at a surprisingly discombobulated restaurant and an enlightening play, my colleagues at Park Avenue United Methodist Church, a new partner in crime likely to play an important role in my blog and life, a somewhat recent companion surrounded by an unanticipated Tony-viewing party with the cast of Chicago, and finally my incredibly insightful voice teacher, W. Stephen Smith.  It took me about fifteen minutes to word that sentence, so I certainly don’t expect anyone else to keep it straight!

Suffice it to say, I feel a bit overwhelmed and yet incredibly honored to have had a chance to step back and see the progression of my life from so many different viewpoints and angles.  Perhaps the first to spark a long period of self-reflection, Saturday’s play, Quantum Poetics, fit brilliantly into the scheme of a multi-dimensional, somewhat confusing weekend.  We went to see our friend Chris Hale, who played Lancelot in a confounding cacophony of characters from multiple times and places, including a God who wanted the others to prove their existence in order to prove his.  Chris skillfully played a marvelously dumb and eager Lancelot, and the entire cast with little exception maintained an excellent momentum and performed in a manner worthy of a thought-provoking and imaginative production overall.  Still in mid-workshop with full costuming and staging, hopefully Quantum Poetics will return soon to a theater near you.

Chris Hale, Rehearsing Quantum Poetics
Photo from stolenchair.org

Near myself, at the moment, looms yet another appointment in a seemingly endless cycle of growth.  Having already stepped back to see my progress, both personal and vocal, with my voice teacher earlier this afternoon, I have no words to describe the joy that I feel over these early stages of embracing truth, abandoning excuses, and promoting greater feats with less fear both in my writing and in my life.  Since February, I have skiied after a four-year hiatus, belly-danced, boxed, survived a breakup, enjoyed delicious and sadly neglected foods, found a trustworthy dentist after three years of avoidance, appeared (and posted photos!) in a bikini, lost almost ten pounds, shot a rifle, performed my heart out, earned my Actor’s Equity card, networked with countless strangers, repaired important friendships, mourned losses, and worked toward removing my own labels to live a fuller life, among many other things.

Doubtless I still have many demons to face and a long way to go as each day presents new opportunities to grow as a singer, actor, writer, and person.  I hope you continue to join me, letting me know about your successes and sharing your inspiration, which we all so regularly need.  In the meantime, thank you – especially my friends, family, and colleagues – for faithfully living in ways that sometimes take me to task and often trigger my own need for change.  I owe you my love and my life.