YOUR VOICE IS GOLD — Treat your voice well. Whether you’re a theatre actor or a singer (or a dancer who sings), vocal damage can be ruinous to a career. Take lessons and learn healthy vocal technique. Be cognizant of situations that may strain or damage your voice. It can be so difficult to be an advocate for your own voice, especially when you don’t want to seem difficult, but an aspiring performer needs to take care of themselves so that they can have a lasting, healthy career.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Melanie Gall.
Melanie Gall is a writer and performer who has toured in a range of productions all around the world. She has performed professionally for over 20 years, sung in over 40 countries, performed in touring Broadway-type shows and off-Broadway productions, and has recorded several albums, which have sold around the world. Melanie has sung at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York and at Royal Albert Hall in London, and has performed for royalty in Cambodia. She is also a vocal coach, giving workshops in audition techniques, voice techniques, and song interpretation, and she is the author of the recently published book, “Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a smallish city in Northern Canada. I always knew I wanted to perform — I didn’t ever really consider another career path. I loved music, and I sang before I could talk. Each year, I won first place in the local music festival, and those few minutes I felt onstage competing each year just felt right. I was meant to be onstage; I was meant to be performing. I remember watching Beaches, where Bette Midler moves to New York to become a star, and that was exactly what I wanted to do.
I went to French Immersion — so until I graduated from high school, all of my education was in French. There wasn’t a good drama or music program in my school, so I knew I would need to find the training I needed elsewhere. Luckily, my parents were both very supportive, and signed me up for singing lessons, drama classes, and dance, so when I did pursue a performance degree in college, I already had some advance preparation.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My mother is a musician, and her father (my grandfather) had the Jack Young Orchestra during the Big Band era of the 1940s. My great-grandfather was a cantor and sung professional in synagogues. There has always been a singer in the family, and it always just felt like something I was meant to do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom has always been incredibly supportive. I would not have made it nearly this far without knowing that she is always there for me. Half the fun of achieving something impressive is telling her and watching her reaction. Even though she isn’t always there to watch me perform (I mean, realistically, she doesn’t go into the office each day with my sister to watch her work, either), I always call her afterwards to report, and having that love and positivity behind me makes the frustrating moments a lot easier.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There have been a lot of experiences, from all around the world. I think one of the most interesting, though, was when I sang in Cambodia, and there was royalty at the concert. I ended up going out with one of the princes and his friends, and we ended up at a jazz club, where he arranged with the band onstage to have me come up as a guest.
Singing for Cambodian royalty in a jazz club at midnight is not the sort of experience I could have ever anticipated, but that’s the amazing thing about a performance career — you never know exactly where it might take you.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This isn’t when I was first starting, but it’s certainly a funny mistake (although it was less funny at the time…) So, I was singing a concert of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel songs in Brunei, a small country near Malaysia. As it was French music, I had thought I was being clever by taking promo shots for the show holding an accordion. Which I can’t play, but it was an attractive prop. Anyway, when I arrived in Brunei, I was asked about the accordion, and I made up some story about how it had been too heavy to bring. Well, on the day of the show, one of the government officials excitedly announced that he’d arranged a surprise for me — an accordion for me to play in the show, borrowed from the head of the miliary orchestra.
So the lesson I learned (after quickly working out a few chords and narrowly avoiding complete humiliation onstage), is to make sure that your materials accurately represent you and what you do. And I also learned about the value of investing in a few accordion lessons…just in case!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m always working on a bunch of different projects! At the moment, I’m preparing for a performance tour in Australia in February, 2023 and booking a UK tour for September, 2023. My book, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood has been bought by an audiobook company, and I may be hired to read the text. I’m also writing a new show for a North American tour next summer (to be announced soon!) and working on a CD recording at the Wash ’n’ Dry studio in Brooklyn. And whatever else comes up!
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
There is no one measure of success. Headlining in a Broadway show is an amazing goal, and it will happen for some people. But that’s not the only benchmark for success in the performing arts. When I went to opera school, it was made VERY clear to us that it was a career in opera…or failure.
But that’s simply not true.
A career isn’t just one amazing role, and there are many different ways to define success. So don’t let a preconceived notion of where you “should” be hold you back.
And it is very nice to have supportive coaches and teachers and such, but realistically, you need to be your own support. You know you have talent, and you have something to give the world. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t. The world of performing arts is vast and varied, and there is almost certainly a place for your talents — it’s just a matter of finding that place.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is a difficult career path, and the past few years have been especially tough. The tips I would recommend include keeping things in perspective — not getting a role or struggling through auditions without an offer can be crushing, but it’s all part of the process, and each time you sing for someone, it’s a possibility. You never know what will happen. Also, be kind to yourself. There is no one definitely of success, and a career is a journey. I certainly didn’t start out planning to get exactly where I am now, and any successes I’ve had are the cumulation of years of struggling, learning, and growing.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1- BASIC SKILLS 101
Of course, there are certain “basic” skills that any successful performer must have: acting, movement, and, even if they are not looking to be a professional singer, at least a basic knowledge of vocal skills. A lot of eager young hopefuls feel that their talent is enough. Well, there are a lot of talented people out there. In 99% of the cases, natural talent isn’t going to be enough. Getting at least some formal training will not only hone the necessary skills, but they will also give an aspiring performer a good idea of where they are versus where they need to be to become a professional actor.
When I first began auditioning in New York, I couldn’t learn or follow a dance pattern. This wasn’t something that was taught in opera school, and I was at a distinct disadvantage, as I would often make it to the “dance” round of auditions, and then fail miserably. This is a skill I had to take the time to learn after my formal education had ended.
2- DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Realistically, there is always going to be someone out there who is more talented/prettier/younger etc. But knowledge is currency in theatre. When an actor is auditioning for a show, they should do their research. Know the performance convention of the genre. Be familiar the history of the show, if it’s a remount of a tour. Know the plot of the show, and the specific character that is being cast. You don’t want to, say, sing exactly like the actor who created the role, but also, if they’re looking for an ingenue, don’t bring in a power ballad.
I am by nature a researcher, and I love learning about different songs and shows. But even if you aren’t, having a more thorough understanding of the context of a song and of the character singing it will make your audition stronger.
3- IT TAKES A VILLAGE
When I was opera school, I had the misguided notion that it was just about talent. If you’re the best, you’ll get the role, and that’s that. However, that is not at all accurate. So much in theatre is about who you know, and getting past the gatekeepers can be as much of a challenge as anything else.
Often, young artist programs and summer festivals are a good way to work with rising directors and producers. A lot of them are available for private coaching sessions, too. It is a good investment to work one-on-one with someone, because not only do you get the value of their knowledge, but they get a chance to see what you can do and make a connection that is valuable later.
Nobody wants a diva. Be supportive of other artists, and in turn, you never know when they will recommend you for an audition or promote you to someone vital. But it’s not just the artists. The pianists, choreographers, and the assistants. Be respectful and make connections with all of them. Because today’s assistant is tomorrow’s Broadway director.
I have gotten both gigs and full tours because I have been helpful and supportive to others, and anyone who I work with knows I am a hard-working, consistent performer who is always prepared and works well with others. In turn, I have hired singers and actors for shows I produce, and if someone seems like a diva, it doesn’t matter if they’re the most talented singer out there — I usually keep looking.
4- MAKE THOSE MOMENTS COUNT
Once you get an audition, you have 2–5 minutes to sell yourself. So make every aspect of that count. Dress for the character you want to be — not in costume, but make it easy for the casting director or producer to see you in the role. I mentioned song choice above, but whatever you do decide to sing, it will likely only be 16–32 bars of the song. Don’t necessarily pick the flashiest part of the song, pick the part that best shows off your voice. If it isn’t a musical, pick a monologue that matches the tone of the character that is being cast.
But it isn’t just the formal audition that needs to count. Does the resume and headshot follow the current conventions and format? Are you early (or at least on time). Do you introduce yourself with confidence? Often during an audition, there is a quick exchange of conversation, and this is your chance to let your own character shine through. Do you seem friendly and enthusiastic and easy to work with? Give enough of yourself — singing, acting, and in the moments before and after — so that the casting directors want to see more.
5- YOUR VOICE IS GOLD
Treat your voice well. Whether you’re a theatre actor or a singer (or a dancer who sings), vocal damage can be ruinous to a career. Take lessons and learn healthy vocal technique. Be cognizant of situations that may strain or damage your voice. It can be so difficult to be an advocate for your own voice, especially when you don’t want to seem difficult, but an aspiring performer needs to take care of themselves so that they can have a lasting, healthy career.
It took me several years to learn this, and I consistently lost my voice on tours, croaking my way through high-profile events and even temporarily damaging my voice, because I didn’t want to be “difficult.” But being an advocate for yourself in a respectful but way isn’t being difficult, and is far better than months of vocal rest.
And no matter how difficult and disheartening things may seem out there — and it can seem impossible sometimes to find success — it’s worth it. You’re doing what you love, you’re being true to yourself, and you’re following a wonderful, exciting path.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
In TV or film, the acting needs to be more nuanced — you reach people at close range, through the camera lens. A scene will likely be shot several times, with the smallest movements under close direction. In the end, it just needs to be perfect once, and that moment will be the one everyone sees — at close range from their televisions or computer screens, from the angle it was shot.
In a theater performance, you are reaching several people, sometimes thousands. They will be sitting at different distances from the stage and at different angles. Although the acting doesn’t need to be as intricately nuanced, you need to be able to effectively communicate characterization and emotions to all of the different people, who are each seeing you a bit differently — from the front row to the back of the balcony.
Also, in theatre (when it’s not being recorded), you often have a bit more artistic freedom for interpretation, but you need to be able to repeat that interpretation and communicate the emotions in every performance. It’s not just once and then “print,” it’s often several dozen times in a longer run, and you need the same energy and commitment throughout.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The performing industry is incredibly competitive, and it isn’t always fair. That’s just a given, and it’s always been that way. But the formal, advanced education we receive as artists (in my case, 5 degrees in Opera Performance) doesn’t prepare us for the practicalities of our career.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be for the training we receive to have more practical elements — not just how to sing and act, but all the elements needed to build a success career.
There should also be supports in place for artists — almost all performers, even the most successful ones, have a side hustle. For many of us, being in New York is vital to our careers — it’s where most auditions are held, and where may performances take place. But to be able to afford a decent standard of living there is almost impossible. We all work so hard, and if there was a movement (perhaps sponsoring an artist) where we could afford a comfortable place to live and be able to focus on our art — that would bring so much good to so many people.
I am 20 years into what is, objectively, a successful performance career. But I still can’t afford to live without roommates. For me, all I want is my own little apartment, so no matter where I travel in the world, I know it’s waiting for me. In almost any other field, if I had achieved this sort of success, that would be a given. But in the performing arts — where we give so much of ourselves to others — this bit of stability is almost impossible to attain.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is this, from Francis Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 book A Little Princess:
“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
Even when you’re exhausted and struggling and you’re frustrated, working at your catering or coffeeshop job to pay rent. And when it seems that all around you are people saying how you aren’t the best singer or the most luminary actor or the right fit for the part…
You still know you’re a performer. You know that you have something valuable to give the world, and the light of your talent and ambition must still burn brightly inside you, even if some days the career path you’ve chosen seems insurmountably hard. Yes, it’s easy to be a proud, confident actor when you’re center stage, “dressed in cloth of gold,” but even if that hasn’t happened yet, you’re still a performer inside. It’s a wonderful part of who you are.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet a Broadway producer — the shows I write are toured all around the world and have won several awards, but I would love to take them to the next level, and the guidance and support of a major producer such as Jeffrey Seller, Eva Price, or Kevin McCollum would be invaluable.
I would also love to speak to arts funders. I know that several people donate large amounts of money to major arts organizations, and I see so much need and the potential for so much good that could be done for artists on an individual scale — I feel like if I just knew someone eager to support artists, I could make some helpful suggestions about how that could be done to make a lasting, significant impact.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
Probably the best way to follow me online is on my webpage: melaniegall.com. I’m always happy to respond to emails, and even though a lot of my social media involves pictures of my pet sparrow, I always post upcoming performances and tours on Instagram and Twitter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!