Looking Back, Looking Forward

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We hope you have enjoyed reading the monthly tales from our 2010 Take 5ers. We at Back Stage thank them deeply for revealing so much of themselves and writing so beautifully about the actor's life. It has been an honor to share their stories with you.

Are you interested in being among the 2011 Take 5ers? If so, contact Back Stage Executive Editor Dany Margolies at [email protected], with "Take Five" in the subject line.

Let us know a bit about yourself and your interest in writing, and include a headshot and résumé. We are seeking working actors from anywhere in the country.

Allison Strong, Union City, N.J.

A warm smile, a firm handshake, some small talk regarding the weird winter weather and last Saturday's ballgame—all components of a strong introduction. One year and 11 "introductions" later, I hope I've made a good impression on the person on the other side of this page. When I first saw the notice looking for Take 5 columnists last November, I was lolling about my kitchen back home before a night performance of "Bye Bye Birdie" on Broadway. I imagined my column would follow the ups and downs of my life as a young performer in New York City; instead, it became a monthly documentation of the joys and challenges of my life as a full-time college student and actor from New Jersey.

My location, among other things, has changed since then, but many things have stayed the same. For one, I still get opening nights. Tonight I make my musical debut here at Montclair State University in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." I am currently stuffing two French braids under the long, Rapunzel-like wig I wear as Johanna Barker, Sweeney's daughter. I get to sing to birdcages from 15 feet up in the air for eight performances. Once upon a time eight performances was all in a week's work for me—but then again, I didn't have 18.5 credits to complete simultaneously. Another thing that hasn't changed is my desire to learn and grow, whether in my Wednesday tap class or at an audition.

I hope that through each of my experiences, you may have learned a few things. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to thank those of you who have journeyed with me these past 12 months. No adventurer likes to embark on an expedition alone, and I have been grateful for the company as I transition into normal college life. In the spirit of Christmas, I want to give you all this bit of advice: If performing is your passion, don't treat it as a side job. Now, I'm not saying to go flunk out of school and run away to the city with no forewarning; whether you are strictly a performance major in school or a double-agent college student and auditioner like me, do your homework. Don't falter in your dedication to the craft to fulfill a general-education requirement, just as you wouldn't go to an audition without your lines learned. Respect the time of acting teachers and casting directors alike by being well prepared, whether it gets you the part or not!

Just recently I was in the final two for a role in the musical "SCKBSTD." Even knowing that my friend played the part in the previous workshops, I still arrived early to the movement call and sang and read confidently for the creative team. Did I get cast? No. Did I get a call from my agent with excellent feedback and a thank you for coming in? Yes. Keep the faith, friends, and with hard work and a little luck, rainbows will be in the cards for all of us sooner than later. In fact, just this week I got a callback for an Off-Broadway production at the Roundabout Theatre Company. The possibilities are endless in 2011, so let's pop the cork on the new year! I'll drink to that.

Derek Lui, Los Angeles

I still cannot believe it is already December. Very soon, 2010 will be history and a brand new year will be waiting to greet us. Last month, I got a part in the short film "The Conflict of Ms. Boston," directed by Ernest Pierce. It was a very fun project, and I got to play an outrageously over-the-top character. When I prepared for the role, I kept thinking how extreme I wanted the performance to be. In acting schools, teachers taught us to keep our performances real and natural. But when a role specifically requires you to be way over the top, how can you walk the fine line between overacting and understating? I tried various ways when I was working on the material, but I have to say it wasn't easy to find the right balance. Luckily, I suddenly remembered my acting teacher once said, "Try going with the boldest choice first. You can always tone it down if it's too much, but if you start with the safest choice, you will never be able to experience the possible routes you can take." Being the comic relief of the film, I learned a lot about comedic timing and pacing from my scene partner and our director. I really can't wait to see the finished film.

Another great experience I had last month was at Back Stage's very own Actorfest. I have attended Actorfest for two consecutive years, and it never disappoints. This year, I attended a focus session with casting director Mark Teschner of "General Hospital." He gave us a lot of useful advice and was such an inspiration. I was also amazed by his photographic memory. He remembered almost everyone he has auditioned, worked with, and networked with. The passion he has for casting is undeniable. I hope to audition for him someday.

Talking about auditions, I also got an audition for a guest-star role on an ABC series last month. Because the series was not cast in Los Angeles, I needed to send a video audition clip as requested by the casting director. I ran over to my friend's place, filmed the audition, and sent it to the casting director in less than half a day. Unlike a traditional casting session, I had more than one chance to read. So, like many actors, I filmed clip after clip, thinking that there were always room for improvement. Finally, I had to stop myself from picking on my performances and settled on one final version to send out. I must say the whole video audition experience is really very different from reading in front of a casting director.

With new experiences gained and goals yet to be achieved, I confidently conclude that my 2010 has been much better than my 2009. I am heading for a whole new direction in my acting career, and things are happening gradually.

In this very last Take 5 entry of mine, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you readers for your support this year, and I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Nick Martorelli, Philadelphia

November launched itself with a bang when I produced my third live radio show as part of First Friday arts programming in Philadelphia. The Chemical Heritage Foundation hired me to produce an episode for them, and, after only one night of rehearsal, we performed a solid show, "Chemistry…Noir!" which is now available on iTunes. Please download, enjoy, and share it with your friends.

The week before, I co-wrote and produced a short film for a local film festival. Participating teams were given five days in which to complete a short film featuring secret elements. Our movie was a World War II story in which two sisters on a journey encounter a mysterious stranger. And if producing isn't enough work on its own, I also played the stranger, and I'm very pleased with how it turned out. I got to work with some of my favorite people, and we are working on a longer version of the screenplay to produce as a feature film with an eye toward the indie film festivals.

After taking a weekend off to recover and relax, I launched right back into the game as a sound designer for a local high school's production of "Dracula." The director of the show is working with me on another project, and she hired me to work on this show because of my experience with old-time radio projects. She wanted to incorporate live Foley sound effects into "Dracula," so I created and designed those effects and then taught two students how to be live sound performers.

Those two students did an amazing job with their unique role in the show. Both freshmen, neither of them had done anything like what I was asking them to do. They were up for the challenge, however, and after only a week of rehearsals with me, they had nailed the sounds of a fireplace, a clock, howling wolves, thunder, and many others. They improved daily, gaining confidence in themselves, and, watching the show on opening night, I was very proud of them.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, that's three different projects in four weeks. During November, I also started producing future short films and radio shorts, and I'm trying to schedule a long-overdue studio recording of my original adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." As I write this entry, I'm on my way home from New York City, where I participated in a play reading, and I just booked a job as a photography model with a friend who specializes in period costuming. I've been bouncing around a lot over this last year, but as we head toward Christmas (and my birthday), I'm starting to feel momentum pushing me forward. I feel poised on the brink of success, as if it's right there for the taking, and my major challenge now is finding a way to ride this wave of success.

I'll miss these monthly status updates, but you can follow me on my personal acting blog at ScriptInHand.blogspot.com. Cheers to all, and I'll see you around the Internet.

Octavia Spencer, Los Angeles

Ah, November. This is usually my favorite month of the year because it's right after Halloween; then it's time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. But the operative word there is usually. In November I was busy professionally with meetings, while personally moving house. I should tell you that moving is my least favorite thing to do. Very least. Needless to say, this particular November hasn't been the easiest, nor has it been the hardest.

Now, if I were to write that article, I'd spend a great deal of time grumbling about traffic, legal decisions, furniture delivery, delivery charges, managers, auditions, fabric, paint colors—you name it. So I won't bore you with the minutiae. Instead, I'd like to focus on the big picture, the spirit of the month, and my old friend gratitude—and I'd list the things that I'm grateful for.

First of all, I'm grateful to have an amazingly supportive family and a group of talented friends who inspire me. I'm grateful for my relationship with the Man Upstairs. Allow me to clarify: He's not a neighbor.

I'm grateful for my life, health, and strength. It's funny how we humans tend to take these seemingly abstract things for granted—that is, until the absence of one or more of them upsets the balance of life. A few weeks ago, I hurt my back while working on a film with only two days left until wrap. Ironically, I'd spent the entire 14-week shoot avoiding fun excursions or any exertion where I could possibly get injured—including but not limited to: rafting, canoeing, zip-lining, four-wheeling, and adult slip-n-sliding. Oh, I hurt my back…lifting…a very small picture. And no, it wasn't heavy.

Writing this article each month has been such a highlight. I count it among the things I'm most grateful for. You see, writing doesn't come easy for me. I actually hate it. I hate the extreme solitude, and the discipline it takes to sit down and face the blank page. By having a deadline each month, I'm forced to take the time to put ideas into practice and exercise self-discipline.

I'm grateful that change has made it to the White House, and not for the obvious reason, but because the glass ceiling has been broken. All children—whether African, Latin, Asian, or Native American—can dare to dream that they, too, can hold that office.

I'm grateful that a dear friend taught me the phrase "the year of yes," I'm learning to get out of my comfort zone and take on things that are bit more challenging. I'm grateful for assembling an amazing team to steer me professionally.

Most important, I'm grateful for life's lessons and blessings and all of the opportunities that presented this past year for spiritual, professional, and personal growth.

Richard Rella Jr., New York City

So many individuals collaborate to make a performer's career what it is, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge those fine folks who have held my hand as I plod along this precarious and oftentimes frightening path. First and foremost, I want to thank all of my coaches who work tirelessly to enrich my choices as an actor, singer, musician, and dancer. Without your ongoing dedication, my skills would have deteriorated long ago. I also have a special thanks to my manager and my marketing team for all of their efforts in 2010, especially BetterBizWorks LLC, CLR Printing Plus, and John DeMato, who takes world-class photographs.

Next I would like to thank the production team of "Tony N' Tina's Wedding," who have not only employed me consistently for the past three years but continue to stretch my growth and development as an actor, businessperson, and, most important, human being. I have performed across this entire country because of this show, and I am ever so grateful to them for their unwavering support.

I would also like to thank all of the casting offices in NYC that continue to believe in my talents and abilities, especially Barbara McNamara, Tara Rubin, Merri Sugarman, Bernard Telsey, Meredith Tucker, and the production teams for "30 Rock," "Boardwalk Empire," "Jersey Boys," and "South Pacific." Thank you for all of the opportunities that you have given me to perform. I look forward to working with you in the years to come.

Next, I would like to thank Monmouth University for inviting me to join their phenomenal staff this semester as an adjunct professor. It has been a wonderful opportunity to extend my knowledge to the young men and women of this fine university.

I want to thank my family and friends who support and encourage me. You were the first people who watched me perform as a 2-year-old as I would sing, dance, and bang on my dad's baby grand piano. Without your continued guidance, I would have given up long ago. I also want to thank my wonderful wife, who endures the ups and downs of this career with me. As we go through this life together, she has shared in the ecstatic joys of callbacks and the introverted dissection of lost opportunities. Thank you for always listening and challenging me to make wiser choices in all that I do. You are always my light in the darkness.

I want to extend my sincerest thanks to the Back Stage staff, especially my editor, Dany Margolies. I was so excited one year ago when I got this job offer on set at "30 Rock," and I am filled with sadness as it comes to an end today. This has been an emotional and memorable experience for me, and I am grateful to have been given this opportunity.

And finally, I want to thank you, the reader. Without your friend requests on Facebook, your emails of encouragement, and your dedication to this fine publication, I would not be here. As varied as we all are, from different social and economic backgrounds, we all share one thing in common: our undying love for the performing arts. As I close this chapter of my life, I would encourage each and every one of you to believe in yourselves and to always have the courage to share your gifts with the world. With that in mind, you can overcome any adversity. God bless you all.

To continue to follow Richard's story, please visit www.richardrellajr.com.