To create a successful career in Broadway or theater, a person needs to develop healthy habits. Physical and mental health are necessary for delivering the best performance. It can be a very demanding field and it requires a bit of endurance. While this is especially true of performers, even those behind the curtain cannot sustain their career with poor diet, lack of exercise, and irregular sleep. I used to think that I could power through everything: on long tours, I’d often work overnight after performances instead of taking additional time to rest but it would often lead to careless mistakes the next day. I thought I was being more productive that way, but it was leading to burnout.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Simon Tam.
As the recipient of the Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association and the Hugh M Hefner First Amendment Award, Simon Tam may be best known for winning a landmark case at the Supreme Court of the United States in 2017. The case (Matal v. Tam) was named Milestone Case of the Year from Managing IP Magazine. His memoir, Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court was named “One of the Best Books on the Constitution of All Time” by BookAuthority and won an award for Best Autobiography/Memoir from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.
Simon’s work in arts and activism has been highlighted in thousands of media features across 129 countries, including: The New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, NPR, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He is the founder and bassist of The Slants and is co-composer and co-librettist of Slanted: An American Rock Opera.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in raised in San Diego, CA. Growing up in the ’80s, I was absolutely obsessed with music. My parents have these home videos of me as a toddler where I’d grab my dad’s acoustic guitar, jump on the living room coffee table, and pretend to that I was a rockstar. And, I’d often fall asleep while making mix tapes on the home hi-fi stereo. Eventually, I got my first electric bass guitar at ten years old and haven’t stopped playing since.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
All of my life, I knew I either wanted to go into philanthropy or the arts — in either case, I saw both career paths as an opportunity to improve others’ lives. So, I spent most of the last few decades going back and forth between working as well as volunteering for nonprofit organizations and making music. It was only recently that I started getting into the world of storytelling. At first, it started with an artist residency at the UNC Process Series but then I started going into performing at Fringe Festivals. Now, I’m composing opera and writing theatre. Whether it is playing rock n roll, leading a nonprofit, or composing music, I see it all as centered around human expression and dignity,
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?
Ron Jesse was a choir and drama teacher at my high school (and eventually became vice principal). He was the one who first recruited me to play bass for the school’s show choir. That experienced opened up my world to songs from Rent, Les Miserables, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera.
I wasn’t very familiar with Broadway musicals before that class — I was mostly listening to punk rock then. As I got familiar with the characters in the songs, and more importantly, how that music affected audiences through connecting deeply, I saw how many of those stories embodied a punk rock spirit.
Mr. Jesse exhibited an unparalleled level of care for his students while also sharing a deep passion for the performing arts. He helped me understand the power of using empathy to create social impact in this world.
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?
Perhaps the most interesting moment was near the end of my touring career. I spent over a decade performing in an Asian American rock band called The Slants — it was one of the most fun and challenging experiences I’ve ever had, filled with its own share of stories that I detailed in my memoir. After dozens of trips around the world spanning weeks and months at a time, I was exhausted. So I decided to focus on my other passion of nonprofits.
In late 2019, our band decided to retire from touring as a full band and launched a new nonprofit organization, The Slants Foundation, to pour our energy and resources into that instead. Today, we help mentor and fund Asian American artists who use their work to create a social impact. As Eric Liu has often stated, “Culture is upstream of policy.” It allows us to create catalytic change at a source that can impact the world in other, profound ways.
Even though I was obsessed with music as a kid, I realized that my love was rooted in expression: telling stories and helping others find their own voice. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my career.
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?
I used to think that we’d some kind of outside validation so that venues, labels, and others would take us more seriously. So, I used to use a stage name, “Simon Young,” as the performer while “Simon Tam” was the manager. Sometimes, I’d mix up the two — and the fact that both names were “Simon” would sometimes confuse contacts too. Eventually, we started getting so much press that identified my real name that I didn’t think it would make sense to try and balance two different identities anymore. But I think it did help from time to time to be able to the “other Simon!”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My collaborator and I are about to launch the world premiere of our new work, Slanted: An American Rock Opera with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. We’re also developing a musical theater show for the Know Theatre of Cincinnati. And, our band is releasing another record later this year that’s going to feature many of our friends and artists that we work with through the foundation. In other words, there will be no shortage of new music being released this year!
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?
Imposter syndrome is not something that goes away with success. If left untreated, it often gets worse the more successful that you become because the stakes feel higher, and the rewards sometimes feel undeserved. In addition, any harsh criticism or negativity will often feel much, much worse. However, it isn’t impossible to overcome. It is important to develop self-compassion early on and to cultivate habits that improve your mental health.
It’s interesting that while imposter syndrome is often mindless, the solution is usually through mindful approaches. By being proactive in being able to know the signs, to feel comfortable with releasing perfectionism, and to exhibit kindness to oneself, a career in the performing arts can actually be sustainable and rewarding.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
To thrive, we first have to begin with a healthy mindset.
Sometimes, we are so hungry for “success” that we starve ourselves of what is truly needed to help get us there. It’s important to note that success isn’t a singular event or achievement — it’s a journey. What you do and who you are becoming as a result is the most important thing.
A healthier way to think about success is to think about it like health. You don’t “become” healthy because you’ve skipped enough fast-food meals or had a really good session at the gym. Health comes from persistence and consistency. And, you can’t always tell how healthy a person is just by looking at what’s happening on the outside. Success, whether it is making music or creating a social impact, is the same.
If we approach our careers with that “health” mindset, we know we can stop comparing ourselves with others or engaging in activities that will burn us out. We know it’s about the long game and therefore can focus on building our muscles for strength and endurance.
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.
I love that the question is phrased with creating a career because it’s all-too often in the world of performing arts that we assume success is determined by others (an agent, a show opportunity, and so on). We have more in our control that we realize!
The first thing that someone needs is grit. One of my favorite books is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. In it, she argues that “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.” This is often counter to what we think of in the performing arts — we assume that the most talented artists are the ones who thrive. However, in all empirical studies, it shows that those with perseverance and discipline end up outperforming those with innate, natural talent. Grit helps an artist approach their career as a marathon rather than a sprint. And most importantly, grit can be cultivated. I’ve learned this myself many times over — I’ve sometimes had power through dozens (if not hundreds) of rejections to finally get to a yes that mattered. It makes success that much more sweet.
The second thing that is needed is a community of support. I think we often forget that we can’t do this alone. In fact, the very nature of performing arts requires an audience (not to mention all the administrative and technical staff that puts a production on). More importantly, we need a community of fellow creatives who challenge us to do better work, to be consistent, and who don’t have a lackadaisical approach to their careers. Studies have shown that our potential is often dictated by the attitudes of those closest to us. And, many performers need the right kind of support as well, such as having a representation and management. For me, I’ve relied heavily on my publicist, Alex Steininger, as well as my creative partners to get the work done.
Third, a person needs to have the basic necessary equipment and the discernment to know where to invest. Depending on what someone does, they’ll require a minimal amount of hardware, software, and other assets for the work. It might be composition software like Sibelius First and Finale or music instrument(s). We all generally know what those items are but many of us have a hard time making difficult decisions about resource allocation. For example, sometimes performers overinvest in things that don’t make a significant difference (i.e., a higher end laptop, cell phone, or instrument) when those same resources could be invested in other ways. Something that I’ve encouraged many people in the performing arts is to consider living in smaller, less expensive towns and only commuting to major cities for meetings, auditions, performances, etc. That significantly drives down their biggest overhead expense (mortgage and rent) so that money could be used elsewhere and it improves overall quality of life.
The fourth thing that someone needs to succeed in the performing arts is flexibility. Schedules, casting, and details frequently change so it is important to approach these with a positive and productive attitude. In many of the performing arts (especially opera), the daily schedule and call sheet is published the night before so performers have to be continuously ready. At the same time, it’s important to know where to draw the line and choose your battles accordingly. For example, I recently attended an opera workshop where many of the hired creators flew in but were not given any details about the hotel — many didn’t find out until they called after they landed. That’s simply not professional or appropriate. You don’t want to be disruptive, but you also don’t want to be disrespected — if you find ways to navigate it as a pleasant professional and you’ll enjoy a longer career as well as enjoy better mental health.
Finally, to create a successful career in Broadway or theater, a person needs to develop healthy habits. Physical and mental health are necessary for delivering the best performance. It can be a very demanding field and it requires a bit of endurance. While this is especially true of performers, even those behind the curtain cannot sustain their career with poor diet, lack of exercise, and irregular sleep. I used to think that I could power through everything: on long tours, I’d often work overnight after performances instead of taking additional time to rest but it would often lead to careless mistakes the next day. I thought I was being more productive that way, but it was leading to burnout.
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 television and film, cameras can capture a more intimate performance — subtle facial gestures and changes in speech are greatly magnified. However, stage performances are often larger-than-life because audiences throughout the theater need to be able to connect with the performer. Those exaggerated performances on stage simply don’t work on screen so it is important to know what fits the medium of delivery.
In addition, sometimes film allows for greater improvisation because timing/delivery isn’t dependent on a live orchestral score accompaniment (TV is often scripted exactly because of commercial breaks and limits on timing). On the other hand, some live performances, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch are almost entirely improvised.
Performers need to understand when they must be absolutely true to the script and when they have the opportunity to bring their own creativity to the performance.
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. 🙂
I firmly believe that culture is upstream of policy. But policy determines our systems — systems that might be designed to discriminate or systems that lift up the marginalized (whether intentionally or not). These systems are all around us: in our government, how organizations like employers or education is run, and even in theatre houses. So, I would advocate that we be more intentional about shaping culture in a way that transforms our systems in a more just manner. Many live performance organizations have loft goals about equity and inclusion, but it is exceptionally rare for them to have a leadership (board and staff) or policies in place that truly reflect that spirit. In fact, it is often the artists that shine a lot on those practices, challenging them to live up to those values. I think creatives often forget that they have more power than they realize. We can, and should, use the power of culture to make a more just world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is “Excuses, no matter how strong, do not lead to achievement.” In fact, I used to carry this on a card in my wallet and look at it every day. It’s easy to make excuses about things we know we need to do: exercise, to reduce screen time, to rehearse, and so on — but excuses don’t make us better in any way. The same thing is true for those that we work with. We can all give each other grace but at some point, we need to be able to deliver. It’s true of work in diversity and inclusion and it is true in the arts: either we perform, or we don’t. Execute, don’t excuse.
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’d love to speak with Lin Manuel Miranda. @lin_manuel, we’ve got some ideas!
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
My website is simontam.org, my opera can be found at slantedopera.com, and I’m @simonethetam on most social media platforms.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!