Mr. Showbiz

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Like most aspiring New York City actresses,  I had to find employment between acting jobs. I thought a 9 to 5 job would be more palatable if I could find work in an office in the entertainment industry. I would be around creative people, see what happens behind the scenes, and try my best to network and make connections that would help my career. 

I was lucky and landed a job with a bigwig Broadway producer. Let’s call him Mr. Showbiz. I was hired to be his Executive Assistant.

Working for him on a daily basis was like permanently living in a Saturday Night Live skit. The man was a total stereotype of a New York City theater producer. Like a character inThe Producers, Mr. Showbiz actually wore a fedora, a cloak and waltzed around with a cane while chomping a cigar.

The cane was not just for style, however, but rather an aid to help him with his painful big toe. In my time as his employee, Mr. Showbiz was struck with gout. Yes, gout. I didn’t think people still GOT gout, the ye olde illness that overweight royalty like Henry VIII had due to a rich and fatty diet. But Mr. Showbiz was basically the Henry VIII of Broadway.

This fellow would actually strut around the office singing “I want to be a producer, I want to see my name in lights!”  At first, moments like that struck me as hilarious, but by the third week it was less entertaining.

Most mornings he would burst into the office, toss his briefcase onto my desk and shout “Where’s my coffee?” Soon he started referring to me as “his Gal Friday,” while winking and nudging his male associates. He felt totally comfortable telling me the kinds of clothes he wanted me to wear: Skirts should be shorter, heels higher, professional blouses showing off what I’ve got. He’d often quote from The Producers, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” I was just waiting for the day when he’d actually slap me on my ass. The role of women in the office has come a long way since the Mad Men days, but not in the office of Mr. Showbiz.

Needless to say, I couldn’t tolerate the office atmosphere for long. I did try to take advantage of the situation by seeking his professional advice on my career, but his idea of mentoring was to tell me to watch “All about Eve” and take note.  I made a few connections through some of his industry friends, but in the end, the job didn’t prove to be very helpful to my career.  I thought at the very least he could get me an audition, but he preferred having me as his Gal Friday. I had other aspirations for myself, so I left Mr.Showbiz and never looked back, except to have a few laughs. 

There’s no biz like working for Mr. Showbiz.


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Adventures in Bollywood!

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My first feature film experience was for an Indian production called Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye). It starred the famous Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, and Amitabh Bachchan and was directed by Karan Johar, one of the biggest directors in India. It was a New York City love story told in Hindi and English. My role was to be the assistant of one of the main characters who works for Diva Magazine, a fashion magazine similar to Vogue.

We background actors in our “featured roles” were thrilled to be a part of a big production and excited to be on camera. I had my hair and makeup done, put together  a stylish costume, and spent time bonding with the other Diva Magazine assistants, who, once the film started rolling, ended up competing with each other for the most camera time. It was a point in our careers when we thought anything could be our big break.

The director seemed to like me. In our group scenes, he would move the other actors around so I could be front and center.  He even decided, joy of joys, that I was going to have a line. I became confident and proud of myself. Not only would this be my first feature film, but I was getting my first line on camera! This, I thought, would surely get me into the Screen Actors Guild. The Bollywood experience was going to pave the way to stardom.

The shoot took many days and nights. We unimportant actors were all stuffed in the back room together, while the Bollywood stars strutted in and out of their dressing rooms in robes and slippers, with at least three assistants walking behind them. One of the  female actresses had an assistant  hold up a hand mirror in front of her every two seconds, while misting her with Evian facial spray. She was truly a diva, embracing her role in the movie. At one point, off camera, her assistant was no where to be found. The actress screamed for her. The poor assistant came running and the actress yelled at her, “FETCH ME MY SLIPPERS!!”  She obediently brought the slippers and put them on the pampered star’s feet.

After many takes of me shouting, “Come on, Riya, let’s celebrate!” the director finally got what he wanted. Or so I thought. The next day he decided  another girl should say my line because she was at a better angle on camera. I was devastated. Humiliated. Crushed. After many days of shooting this huge production, and losing my big line in the movie, I was bitter and ready to be done with the whole thing. Once shooting finally wrapped, we all straggled home and anxiously waited for months to see the end result.

I heard the film was a huge success in India, but I had to go to Amazon.com to find a copy of  it on DVD.  I ordered it and watched it for the first time alone in my house. It was a painfully long film, so I  fast forwarded to my scene. There I was. On camera. Looking good.  But I thought the girl who took my line was unimpressive.  She didn’t truly capture the moment of “Come on, Riya, let’s celebrate!” as well as I did, but what can you do? At least I had a feature film credit now, and a page on IMDB. It was a start. Hooray for Bollywood!

He Liked It Raw

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Being a cocktail waitress while waiting for another acting gig can be demeaning. You are there to look hot and serve alcohol to the melting pot of wacky strangers who make up New York. Sometimes there are perks, though.

I worked at Southpaw, a cool live music venue in Brooklyn. There I got to see some of the hottest new musicians:  TV on the Radio, Sharon Jones, Devendra Banhart, M. Ward, The Slip, Sufjan Stevens, just to name a few. Another perk was the chance to meet some fun celebrities. There were lots of famous actors and musicians who walked through those red curtains, but one I’ll never forget is one I’ll call ________.

From the moment I strutted by him with a tray full of drinks, _______ was smitten with me. He flagged me down to talk, but when I showed no interest,  he’d order another round of drinks for his friends. While serving them round after round of gin and juice, _______ would makes comments like “I ain’t never seen a woman like you, girl, come sit with me” or “Be sure to thank your mother for me.” Eventually he settled on “Let me buy you a drink.” I said no, thank you. He upped the ante: “Let me buy you a steak dinner.”  I said I don’t eat steak. “Well, how about I just buy you a house? I can buy you a house, girl.”  I said I’m sure you can, but I’m just not interested, thank you. He stopped for a while to consider his next move.

I continued working and soon_________”s bodyguard approached me: “_________ really wants to buy you a house or a steak dinner,” he said.  I laughed and said to thank him, but  I didn’t need a house or a steak dinner. 

“Well he doesn’t want to do it because you NEED it, he wants to buy you a house and a steak dinner as his treat.”  I laughed again, not knowing what to do at this point, but just said to tell him no, thank you. I could feel __________’s eyes boring into my back as he watched the encounter. 

At the end of the night, _________ seemed to throw in the towel. He kissed my hand and wished me goodnight, leaving a massive tip on the table.

A few days later, my boss received a phone call at the club. It was ________”s bodyguard. He asked how _____ could get in touch with me. My boss said he could not give out my information. The bodyguard told him ________ REALLY wanted to take me out for a steak dinner.  I guess he didn’t grasp that I didn’t eat steak (or need a house) My boss said to stay away from me and hung up.

I was taken aback when I heard about the phone call. I felt sure _________ would stroll into the venue the following weekend and try offering me a lobster dinner. The following week, however, he was in the news, dead of a drug overdose. It was creepy and sad, but not surprising given his lifestyle. We played some of his music at the bar that night to remind us of a another wasted talent.

Who was it, you ask? I’ll give you a hint: If he had ordered a steak, he would have liked it raaaaaw.

Wanderlust Vermont 2011, From A Staff Point Of View

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My alarm chimed at six am every morning. Time to go to work. The air was heavy with Green Mountain mist as I made my way to my post, where I was yoga section manager.

I treated my section with the same care that I do my home. I was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of one of Wanderlust’s sacred yoga rooms. I turned on the lights, opened the windows for fresh mountain air, lit incense from two different corners of the room, and turned on the welcoming, blissful music of Garth Stevenson. 

Once the room felt ready for practice, I met with my volunteers and instructed them on how to check in the yoga students for class. They took their posts and soon the smiling yogis arrived, thrilled and eager to practice with some of the best yoga teachers in the world. Schuyler Grant, Elena Brower, John Friend, Dana Flynn, Seane Corn, Suzanne Sterling, Ragunath Cappo, Anne Marie Kramer, Dechan Thurman, just to name a few…

The students put down their mats in an orderly fashion and filled the space with noise and laughter, becoming a little more hushed when their instructor walked in the room. Class began, starting off slow and balanced, but often ending in ecstatic song and dance. For four days I would watch five yoga teachers a day fill my space and transform the moods of every person in the room. After each class filed out, I repeated my ritual of preparing for the next class. And so it went until 5:30pm each day. In the evenings, however, I was allowed to remove my festival walkie-talkie and enjoy the mind-blowing musical experiences of Andrew Bird, Michael Franti and Krishna Das, to name a few, and let’s not forget the group meditation with Deepak Chopra.

It rained the first two days, but I barely noticed. Once the clouds parted, the celebration became an outdoor one and the stars filled the night sky while yogis danced below them. When the day came to an end, I was exhausted but smiling. I would crash for a few hours before I’d have to rise and do it all over again.

I have since returned to Brooklyn from the lush hills of Vermont, but I am still buzzing from the experience. Wanderlust, for those of you who don’t know, is a festival experience of yoga, music and arts, tied together in a breathtaking natural environment. I attended the festival in Tahoe, California, last year, which was jaw-dropping because of the massive mountain peaks, but there was something really comforting about the lush and humble mountains of Vermont. Maybe I just feel more at home on the east coast, but Vermont always makes me question why I live in New York City. This experience was my first time actually working a festival, but being a part of making it happen made me feel like a true yogi.

The Theater Company Scam

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Dear Fellow Actors: Never join a theater company that asks you to pay dues. You will get screwed. It is usually an elaborate scam that may seem beneficial to your career at first, but you will end up losing money and performing in a “show” made up of monologues from your high school monologue book.  My personal bible, “How To Be A Working Actor,” warned me about this, but I was so desperate to be on stage again that I ignored it.

I joined XXXXX Theatre Company with the hopes of actually performing in a legitimate New York City theater company. It struck me as odd that I was paying for the privilege to perform, something no legitimate theater company would ever do, but the lure of performing was so strong that I gave some unheard of “director” my money and ended up ultimately paying the price.

The company members paid monthly dues to attend weekly “workshops” led by the director. At the end of the term, they put on a final performance that would highlight what they learned in the workshops. Sadly, the workshops just ended up with us playing zip, zap, zop and various other basic theater improv games, while the final show consisted of a bunch of monologues pulled from a monologue book that every actor owned in high school. The production level of the show consisted of bringing in our own props, playing music on an ipod, and using one lighting cue for the whole show.

It may have crossed a few of our minds that this was a crummy scam created by a hack of a director, but it was also clear that some of these hopeful actors actually had some talent. We all devoted ourselves to the program and tried to make the best of it, despite our growing doubts. A few other members and I tried to take the company further by suggesting we perform original material written by our own playwrights. The director agreed that we could put together a reading series and start planning for a one-act play festival, all written and performed by members of the company. But once everything got underway, our director decided to take off for Puerto Rico for a month. She abandoned the company right as we were starting to plan the big show. But we bravely took over, planning our own rehearsals, working out the set design, lighting, sound, and costumes, as well as organizing actors, playwrights and directors. We did it all. Our “director,” made a half-hearted attempt to help from Puerto Rico by making the programs for the show, in which she billed herself as the Producer.

Our show was successful. We had a full house every night. We were left with a sense of hope for the future of the company. We thought we could shake things up, and gave everyone a position of leadership. We wanted to move forward and become a legitimate theater company. We met with the artistic directors of other theater companies in NYC. We took steps to become incorporated and learned about becoming eligible for nonprofit status. Most importantly, we wanted to be a real company where members no longer had to pay dues. Needless to say, the head of our company had no interest in any of this. She was also bitterly angry at those who had taken leadership positions in her absence. It was clear that nothing was going to change. It was her company after all, and she liked things they way they were, with desperate actors paying her monthly dues to have a place to perform.

Her company stills exists. Old members have all left, of course, but now she has 30 new eager actors paying her money to be in a show. But they will figure it out and walk away eventually. They always do. Their hearts will be disappointed and their pockets will be empty. I recommend that they keep a copy of “How To Be A Working Actor” by their bedside and memorize the part about theater company scams. Heed the warning signs. Take my advice. Don’t follow my example.

Guru Gone Wild!

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The yoga instructor. Often a Plan B career for failed artists around the world, whether they be actors, dancers or musicians. Throughout my years of struggling to be a working actress, yoga and meditation have been the touchstone that kept me somewhat sane throughout the process. So when I finally decided that acting might not pan out, yoga teacher training seemed like the obvious next step to take. It would be a fulfilling, healthy Plan B that would allow me to do something good for other people, and technically, I’d still have an audience.

In my teacher training school, I felt that I had found a home away from home. A sangha, or community, of like-minded individuals with a passion for yoga. But what I loved most about it was that I felt an incredible sense of respect and admiration for one particular teacher. She made me laugh, she had a beautiful yoga practice that I wanted to emulate, and her words could move people to tears during class. Most importantly, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I had finally found my guru.

Weeks of training went by. Long hours of sweat, meditation, research, aching muscles, and homework. But every time I wanted to give up, my guru was there to remind me that my hard work would pay off soon. One day, after hours of backbends, the class took a small snack break. One student, not me, thank god, decided to check the messages on her phone. Unfortunately for her, cellphones during yoga school happened to be our loving guru’s biggest pet peeve. Actually, it seemed far worse than just your average pet peeve. This one mindless gesture actually caused my teacher to spontaneously combust. Her face turned bright red, and I swear I saw smoke coming out of her ears when she screamed, “I can’t BELIEVE you just used your fucking cellphone!! What did I say about cellphones during yoga school?! Jesus Christ. What is wrong with you people?! Can’t you go for a few hours without using your gadgets? I mean, it’s just fucking ridiculous!”  The class went silent. The girl responded calmly that she had an emergency to check on, but my guru was too clouded with rage to listen.

When class resumed, everything had changed. I didn’t want a tea kettle of rage to be my guru. In fact, the whole class now saw our wonderful teacher in a much different light, and things were never the same. After the fact, she spent a lot of time apologizing for her outburst. I know gurus are only human, and to be fair, I agree with her about cellphones. But for some reason, a yoga instructor just cannot afford to lose her cool like that in front of a class.

Now I am yoga teacher and know I must treat this position delicately. People will look to me as a teacher, and perhaps some will call me guru down the road. But, unlike in acting, I am no longer free to express whatever wild emotion I am feeling. I must learn restraint. I must learn to control my anger. I must not lose my temper in front of those who look to me for guidance and peace. I must never become a guru gone wild.

Bar Stalkers And Crossword Puzzles

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Over the years, when I didn’t have an acting gig, I have been a part-time bartender. Actually, I started as a cocktail waitress and gradually worked my way up the bar ladder. I decided I wasn’t going to waitress anymore when some bitch pulled my ponytail to get my attention. At least bartenders have a partition separating them from their customers, which would serve to protect me and my ponytail. The downside to bartending is that you are trapped behind the partition for nine to ten hours a night, with no say in who might decide to keep you company by lingering at the bar all night long.

I have worked at a few bars, and at each one I acquire a new bar stalker. It’s normal for a bartender to develop a group of regulars who come to see you, including friends, a few locals, and the neighborhood drunk, but there is always, without fail, a bar stalker. Now don’t get me wrong, they don’t usually take it beyond the bar. That would ruin the fantasy. But, like clockwork, they always turn up for my shifts and sit in the same spot.

My regular non-stalker customers know I’m a yoga teacher/writer/actress who loves music. But the difference between a regular customer and a stalker is that a regular will kindly remember things about you, while a stalker will start taking yoga classes, give you a copy of a play he has written, or bring you a rare Devendra Banhart bootleg to listen to. Plus, they all manage to find you on Facebook.

Stalkers vary from bar to bar. Some are thirty five year old tech nerds with hipster glasses. Others are black men who think I have an exceptional ass for a white girl. Then there’s the older guy in his fifties, recently divorced, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, has lots of money, and tries to impress me with his knowledge of single malt scotch. The one thing they all have in common is coming to the bar with something to do that will require them to stay for a very long time. Sometimes it’s a book or a computer, but often it is the New York Times crossword puzzle. I can’t believe how many of them use this same method of flirtation, and they love asking me to help them finish the puzzle. When it happens on a Monday or Tuesday, I don’t mind that much because the puzzles tend to be easy and I can help them wrap it up pretty quickly. But when they bring in the weekend puzzle, I know it is going to be a long night.

Unfortunately, I have to work a Sunday shift tomorrow.