By Gabbi Traub
I’m 31 and I’m not sure what to do with my life.
I’m fully aware that this seems young to most people, and that I have an immense amount of time to figure it out. However, up until this past year, I’ve known what I’ve wanted to do and who I wanted to be since I was five. Now all of a sudden, I don’t. How does one pivot, especially when the world seems like it’s about to end in a giant billowy fire (or hurricane) of destruction?
Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but sitting here on month 9? 10? 1,000? Of covid related unemployment and social distancing, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Most of it has been one huge Netflix filled online window shopping (because unemployment, remember?) distraction. But one can only binge so much.
Backing up a bit, hopefully without whiplash, I’ve always wanted to be a performer. At age five I asked my parents for an agent. They instead put me in kid’s choir and dance classes and that’s been my life ever since. I did highschool theatre, ballet for 15 years, got a liberal arts degree in voice performance, then a master’s degree in opera at a conservatory in San Francisco (because, apparently, that’s what you do after a BM in the classical world, you go get a MM…) A year after finishing my degree I decided I didn’t want to be an opera singer anymore; I wanted to be a musical theatre performer (which, honestly, I wanted to do all along but I got a degree in opera because it sounded exciting and I was good at it). WHY couldn’t I have been good at/excited about finance or STEM? We’ll never know…
So I worked in CA for a while, by day (at my “survival job” as they call it) as an administrative assistant eventually promoted to an associate at a lovely non-profit in the city, and by night as a very underpaid (if paid at all) performer, auditioning for and performing in as many shows as I could make fit into my busy schedule. That was the life I’d known since childhood- pack as much into a day as possible, and I loved it.
Then I got burnt out. After six years in an amazing west coast city, 3000 miles away from family, learning how to be an adult, this east coast baby quit her decently paying day job, sold all her crap, moved back in with her parents, and did approximately nothing for nine months. It was glorious. Then I got antsy again. (And my parents, saints as they are, got a little tired of me sitting around in sweatpants all day asking what was for dinner). I decided, at 28 no less, if I was gonna be a performer I’d better just jump in and embrace all the stereotypes at once. Just shy of a year of living at home, I moved to NYC, using the last of my savings to pay the security deposit for a room in an apartment with two other girls in Queens. I got a crappy job as a waitress working nights and weekends at a bar close to my apartment, and dove into auditioning.
To all that know this life, man it is hard. I was broke, waking up at 5am to drag myself out of bed and into insanely long lines outside of Ripley Grier and Pearl Studios in Midtown Manhattan with 300 of my closest non-equity friends who looked just like me but had better headshots and longer resumes to wait until 9am for someone to let us into a cramped rehearsal room to wait for 6-8 hours to see if we’d be seen for an audition that only allowed us to sing 30 seconds or less of a song and pay us less than minimum wage if somehow we booked. Then I had to go to work, where I relied on tips to make money. (PSA – when you go out to eat, tip well! 20% or more! We literally rely on what you give for our livelihood. Also, fun fact, if you’re in basically any state that’s not NY, tipped staff usually make $2-4 an hour, which doesn’t even cover taxes, so if you don’t tip, it costs us money to serve you. When I worked in MA I made $2.13 an hour before taxes and didn’t even get a free meal.)
All things considered, I genuinely enjoyed it for a while. I’d pack lunches to bring to auditions and saved money by getting an employee meal for dinner at work. I took an audition class and dance classes in the city. I made friends through the long hours of sitting in a cramped room or a freezing line outside during auditions, and friends through work at the bar which opened my eyes to the incredible restaurant industry scene of NY. Every bartender knows another bartender from a former job or from that bar you go to every night after work. For a while, I got to live that fun NYC life of going out at midnight and coming home as the sun came up (on days where I wasn’t auditioning of course).
I’m coming up on my 4th year of living here, though this past year has looked a lot different. I moved from that crappy bar to an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, worked there for just under a year, then got furloughed. During that year I kind of lost my drive to audition. I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was tired of getting overlooked, and tired of not performing and only auditioning. It’s been 3 years this past October since I closed my last show, and I miss it so much. I’m so impressed with people continuing to do the work, virtually auditioning for shows they don’t know will even happen, taking classes and lessons through zoom.
I’ve come to the crossroads, somewhat later than some of my peers, and somewhat sooner than others, of “will I be happy doing something else?” “Can I give it up?” “Can I keep it up?” And honestly, it changes from day to day. If this pandemic ever ends and live theatre can happen again, will I jump back in? Will I be happy trying out the community or unpaid theatre while pursuing a different career? Now in my 30s with changing priorities, do I have the drive to continue with the disappointment and insecurity of the performing arts on a professional level? I’ve had so many jobs, jobs I’ve liked, jobs I’ve hated, jobs that were supposed to be temporary that turned into years-long sub careers. But I never really thought of them as anything but “survival jobs” on my way to doing the thing I thought I wanted.
What I do know is if you want to make a career out of being a performer in NYC, you have to give it your all. You have to want to constantly be better, do better, get better. Selfishly, I’ve reached a point where I don’t want to. I’ve given it my all for 25 years already. (Which, woah. I feel crazy saying that.) Now I have to decide, is that something I want anymore? Or are other things more important? Is it time to pivot?