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How to Break the Mold as an Artist

That old question, "What have you done lately?," can mean very different things to different artists. If you're doing work you love and it's exactly what you want to keep doing, that's great.

But what if what you've been doing felt terrific for a long time, but now you find yourself wanting to travel down a new creative road? Or what if it's time to make a change for practical reasons?perhaps there are more opportunities in another area.

How do you break the mold and get agents, casting directors, backers, even your friends, to see what you see, and convince them that you can do something they just don't picture you doing?

Back Stage spoke to actors, dancers, and writers who've shifted gears. Some became directors or producers. Some flow back and forth between several roles, seeing them all as part of an artist's overall creative expression. Some find greater success and/or satisfaction in a particular new incarnation and stick with it. Some switch between different "branches" of the same genre?actors seeking to escape "typecasting" by turning from dramatic to comedic roles, for instance, or writers trying their hands at completely new kinds of scripts.

Stepping to the Business Side

Some artists moved to the business side of "the business." Don Grody left a Broadway musical career--he appeared in several hit shows in the '50s and '60s--to become a lawyer who served as executive secretary of Actors' Equity. For a while, he left show business altogether, working as a labor attorney, arbitrator, and administrative law judge. In reviving his early dreams and returning to the stage, he beat the odds against both the "what have you done lately" attitude and ageism. He has played Arvide in "Guys and Dolls" and Poole in "Jekyll & Hyde," among several other roles, and has also been at work as a playwright and a composer for a musical drama he longed to write for decades, "Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius," which conveys the life of black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who was a sensation in 19th-century Europe. The show is, Grody says, "nearing completion."

When AnnMarie DeAngelo became a dancer as a teenager, she was "told I was too short for ballet," she says. Even so, she went on to become a principal ballerina for the Joffrey Ballet despite having been rejected by Joffrey himself at her initial audition. Her "break" (a bit of a bad pun in this case) came about when a lead dancer literally broke a leg one night and DeAngelo--who is a virtuoso in terms of the powerful movements she can perform--went on, dancing a male role that first time around.

"I was also outside the norm because I wanted to mix street dancing, ballet, and modern at a time that wasn't done," she says. While still young enough to have continued in her by then secure role at Joffrey, she chose to head for Europe, Cuba, and then Mexico, all in pursuit of her vision. DeAngelo's artistic travels--as a dancer, choreographer, director, and artistic director (at one point for the Joffrey)--eventually led her to become a producer.

DeAngelo is in the midst of three projects. She is producing "Shall We Dance?," a gala that's part of the Richard Rodgers 2002 centennial. Slated for City Center this October, the production is a tribute to the role of dance in the composer's musicals, and will be a benefit for Career Transitions for Dancers. DeAngelo's ever evolving "Variety Show--Jugglin' Styles," which features ballet, hip-hop, and circus performers, premiered at Philadelphia's Annenberg Center for the Arts. And, in collaboration with East Harlem's Boys Harbor, she is producing a projected Hamptons Dance Festival, co-directing with Cynthia Gregory.

Grody and DeAngelo's stories are particularly striking tales of branching out. Every artist's story is different. Even so, virtually every artist Back Stage spoke with--those with "big names" as well as "working artists" with solid, but less well-known credits--agree on four points.

Each spoke of feeling the need to keep growing creatively, each stressed the importance of taking the initiative in establishing a new direction, and each emphasized that both hard work and persistence are musts.

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