Mindy: As a theater performer, being reliable means you can be trusted to deliver good quality work. There are certain procedures within theater that exist, and part of being reliable is understanding and following those procedures. That has to be a given. But in order to be truly reliable, you need to make sure your body and mind are as ready as possible for each rehearsal and performance, and even the downtimes in between.

As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Syndee Winters and Mindy Kay Smith.

Syndee Winters made her Broadway debut as Nala in Disney’s The Lion King. Other Broadway credits include Motown the Musical, Pippin, and “working it” as all three Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton. On television, she’s been featured on NBC in Jesus Christ Superstar Live!, and on Law & Order SVU. As a recording artist, she has written and released independent music projects which include several singles and EPs, and her latest project as half of R&B Duo “Butterfly Black” with GRAMMY® winning bassist Ben Williams .

For over twenty years, Mindy Kay Smith has taught singers from beginners to Broadway stars, pianists from preschoolers to professionals, and actors in public schools, colleges, professional theater companies, and virtual programs. Recently, she expanded her offerings to include mentoring Teaching Artists in developing programs specific to their artistic style. BMUS, Music Education and MEd, Secondary Education (Ohio University) MA, Vocal Performance/Musical Theater (New York University)

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 watching game shows on Nickelodeon. I used to dream that one day that would be me- testing my knowledge and human strength to reach the ultimate prize of being slimed on national television. But I’m a kid from Brentwood, NY and Orlando Florida was a long ways away. My sister and I used to make up games and obstacle courses in our back yard after school or on weekends. We spent many weekends in Atlantic City. My mom spent her time and money at the casino while we stayed in the arcade playing games and collecting tickets to get random prizes. But what I loved the most about those childhood casino trips was the shows! I saw live performances by people like Joan Rivers before I ever saw my first Broadway show. And then, around 1992, Nickelodeon brought a live version of Wild & Crazy Kids to the Tropicana! Kids were picked to go up onstage and play wacky games. The winners of the games got the most prestigious honor of getting slimed. And I won! For this 90’s kid, that was the equivalent of winning a Grammy.


I have always been very musical. You know that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon likens his talent as a mathematician to a pianist who looks at piano keys and intuitively understands them? That was me. When I was six years old, we moved to a house with a piano left by the former owners, and “I could always just play.” My Mom was a singer, and she wanted me to be classically trained and not rely on my ear alone. So she got me lessons, and that was the center of my childhood. I was the girl who played the piano. I didn’t have to be reminded to practice. My parents were telling me to stop practicing and go outside. It’s not that I was antisocial or anything. I had a very typical happy Midwestern suburban upbringing. But I loved to play the piano.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?


My father was both a soccer coach and a concert photographer. Sometimes I got to go to work with him, whether it was on the soccer field or seeing concerts by inspiring artists like Lauryn Hill. Once, these worlds even collided when he took me to see some brothers who were former players of his perform a reggae concert. Their names were Damian, Kymani, and Stephen, but you might know them better as GRAMMY winning artists and sons of the late Reggae music legend Bob Marley. Seeing them up on stage and watching the way they interacted with the audience, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. After that, I participated in every performing opportunity there was at my school whether it was musicals, dance companies, or pep rallies. And I wasn’t just performing. I choreographed, arranged and directed as well.


Like Syndee, I was incredibly active in my school musical organizations. I was in band, orchestra, choir and any small ensemble offered. I didn’t necessarily have the most beautiful voice, but it was the most accurate. I was the hardest working member of any group I was in. So when career day fell on my 16th birthday, and “musician” was a choice, it felt serendipitous. I sat down in the auditorium that day ready to hear about my future. And while I don’t remember what instrument the man played, or even what he said specifically, the message was clear: I wanted no part of the lifestyle he was describing. It got me thinking, though, about what I did want out of a professional life, and what was important to me. I went home that afternoon and told my Mom that I wanted to be a music teacher. She responded with a sigh. “I’m so glad you finally said it so we can start talking about it now. I knew if I suggested it first you’d argue with me when it’s so obvious that’s what you should do.”

I pursued my teaching career single-mindedly, earning a bachelor’s degree in music education and a master’s degree in secondary education. Then after a few years teaching music in public schools in Ohio, I came to the heartbreaking realization that I hated it. I moved to New York City to pursue a performance career while getting a masters in musical theater from NYU. But teaching kept calling me back. I realized that I still had the heart of a teacher, teaching was my true craft, and that being a music teacher could mean so much more than teaching in a public school. I have spent the past two decades teaching in a wide range of environments, which has given me the opportunity to hone this craft far better than I could have sticking with my job in public schools.

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?


Theatre came into my life by way of a free five-week summer music program in my district. I learned that there was a place where you could sing, dance and pretend to be somebody else! I went to that summer program every year until my life changed eight weeks before the end of 8th grade. My Dad and Step Mom were separating and I was moving to Florida to live with my father and his side of the family. Fortunately, an extremely influential teacher named Bridget Barsch stepped in. She was a teacher at my middle school, and we had grown very close. When she heard I was moving, she said “If you ever want to visit, you are welcome to stay with me”. I wanted nothing more than to do that summer program again, so I took her up on her offer. Her willingness to open her home gave me the opportunity to continue pursuing something that was starting to have a tremendous impact on my life.

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?


I always wanted to meet Beyoncé. I was a huge fan, as so many are. But I didn’t want to meet her just as a fan. I dreamt that someday our paths would cross as fellow artists. In 2019 I was invited to perform at a gala for the WACO Theater. Their theme was “The Lion King,” and Trell Thomas & Ms. Tina Lawson asked if I could sing “Shadowland” to open the festivities. The live-action remake of the film was set to be released soon, and I couldn’t believe it when I discovered Beyoncé was there too. We were both representing different versions of Nala! We had a moment to connect, and we were genuinely peers in that moment. It was a literal dream come true.

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?

Syndee: There have been situations when I have not given myself the proper time and space to prepare for a job. I got a call to audition for a show on Broadway. I had four days to prepare but I had an assignment due for school and I was working late hours as a singer in a band. There was a singing/acting call and then later a dance call. The dance call required that I wear heels. I hadn’t read the audition breakdown carefully so I didn’t bring heels and had to dance in the audition with socks. During the dance combination, I slipped in my socks and fell right on my butt. They had to stop the audition, people were staring. It was embarrassing enough that I’ve stored that audition in my mind as a wicked learning moment. Now I slow down and give something I love the respect and time it deserves.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Syndee: I’ve been working a lot on my original music and am especially excited by my duo project with GRAMMY winning artist Ben Williams called “Butterfly Black.” It’s music that makes you dance, love, and feel inspired to live your best life. I also created an educational program called ROAR! which helps young artists present the best, healthiest version of themselves in the world of professional performing arts.

Mindy: I am really passionate about helping artists become teaching artists. While I don’t think a teacher needs to have all of the advanced degrees like I do, it is so important for the future of performing arts education that teaching be recognized and understood as its own craft. I’ve created a program called Teaching Artistry to help artists develop their own curriculum and learn some practical skills to take into the classroom, especially when it comes to Trauma-Informed teaching. In fact, ROAR! was developed through the Teaching Artistry program! Syndee and I are also writing an interactive journal for ROAR! and I can’t wait for that to be available to young artists all over the world.

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?

Mindy: Rejection is a huge part of having a career in the performing arts. The best thing an artist can do for themselves is reframe what qualifies as success- especially in an audition setting. Before every audition, I encourage my students to set a goal. Perhaps it’s to take a deeper breath, or be connected to the character, or show their physical comedy. But whatever the goal, it has to be something completely within the performer’s control. Booking the gig sometimes has nothing to do with an artist’s performance at an audition. So if an artist only sees success in getting the role they want, it is going to be one failure after another. That’s not a very healthy way to have a long career! Set your goal, work towards that goal, and the jobs will come.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Mindy: The most successful performing artists I know have deep personal connections to people both within and outside of their professional world. As exciting as it can be to perform on Broadway, it can start to feel like a grind doing the same thing eight times a week if a performer doesn’t feel connected to their castmates. At the same time, it’s important to have people and interests that are completely separate from that life. But that goes for people who work in any demanding field!

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.


Mindy: As a theater performer, being reliable means you can be trusted to deliver good quality work. There are certain procedures within theater that exist, and part of being reliable is understanding and following those procedures. That has to be a given. But in order to be truly reliable, you need to make sure your body and mind are as ready as possible for each rehearsal and performance, and even the downtimes in between.

Syndee: The Broadway schedule is intense: eight shows a week, rehearsals, and rigorous publicity, to say nothing of auditions for new opportunities. So one of the hardest things to manage on a schedule like that is balancing work with rest. I have countless examples from my journey of when I haven’t done this well and my down time has gotten away from me, but a really embarrassing one happened when I was playing Nala in The Lion King. It was after a scene where Nala confronts Simba about returning home. They get into an argument, they storm off going their separate ways. Simba stays on stage, Nala exits. I went backstage to the female dressing room to talk with a friend about dinner plans after the show. Meanwhile, onstage, a huge musical number happens as Simba decides to return to the pridelands. I heard raucous applause and then silence. As I was talking to my castmate I thought “whew, it’s quiet, now I can speak at a normal volume rather than competing with the full company singing.” Immediately after, I heard “Syndee Winters please report to Stage Right!” I realized the scene directly after that huge musical number was my scene with Timon and Pumbaa! I sprinted down to find Timon & Pumbaa asleep on the stage. They had been waiting for two minutes or so to be woken up by Nala! Two minutes might not seem like a long time in the real world, but on stage it feels like an eternity.


Syndee: I was obsessed with the Lion King growing up. As soon as I realized that there was a role in that musical that I could play one day, I started imagining myself onstage as Nala. I even created a vision board and put it on my wall so that I could physically see the picture of my goal every day. I didn’t think that that would be my literal path, but every opportunity I got to perform, whether it was for a small group of people or a huge crowd, I performed it as if I was preparing to play Nala on Broadway. And because I treated every opportunity like that, opportunities continued to come my way. They kept getting bigger, and eventually I got the chance to audition for Nala. To this day, my optimism serves as a tool for me to use each time I enter a new space. It gives me the freedom to dream big and do my best work.


Syndee: Being authentic was what eventually got me my dream job. I love wearing a leather jacket and combat boots. It makes me feel like a fierce woman who can conquer the world. It’s my armor. But in college, I thought my leather-jacket-wearing, hip-hop- dancing, reggae-music-loving, R&B-singing self wouldn’t fit into the musical theater world. (This was before Lin-Manuel Miranda created the hit musicals In The Heights and Hamilton, expanding people’s definition of who was “right” for Broadway.) So I hid who I really was and tried to fit the mold as I understood it. When I was asked to audition for The Lion King I chose what I had been taught was appropriate audition-wear. I put on a modest dress, modest heels, and modest make-up. I presented myself as a blank canvas and hoped the producers could see the potential Nala lurking within. Despite my nerves, I performed well. But I left feeling like something was missing.

I didn’t get a callback.

Almost two years later, I got called in to audition for Nala once more. But this time, I had three years of college behind me, and was spending more time in the professional world. I was picking up gigs singing and dancing here and there, while making friends with experienced, amazing artists. Two days before the audition I was at lunch with one of those friends. I told him about my upcoming Lion King audition. He asked me about my wardrobe plans. Without even thinking about it, I told him I’d wear what I wore to every audition: a modest dress, modest heels, and modest makeup. I was going to be a blank canvas.

He stopped me.

“Syndee, how can you expect people to see who you are if you don’t show them? They need to be able to see who Nala is through you- through the choices you make. You only get one chance to show them the artist you are.”

So I thought about how fierce I was, how fierce Nala was, and how fierce I felt in my black leather jacket and combat boots. I went into the audition wearing that armor, along with black jeans, red lipstick and my head shaved in a mohawk. The casting director asked me, “What happened to the girl who was here a few years ago?” I had to break the news to him that she was no longer with us, RIP. I realized in that audition that I’m at my best as a person and as an artist when I can create from an authentic space.


Syndee: When I left the Lion King tour, I moved back to New York City with hopes of getting right back onto Broadway. That didn’t quite happen! I made enough money to get by singing in a band at private events, but I really wanted to be in another show, telling a story. A friend challenged me to use this downtime to create my own show sharing a story that hadn’t been told before. I was intimidated by the idea, but I had read plenty of scripts, so maybe I could try my shot at writing one! I decided to tell the story of American icon Lena Horne, a woman whose work in entertainment paved the way for me to exist as a young female performer of color. I read books, watched interviews and got to work. Once I had the script finished, I still needed music, stage management, publicity, and of course money! Someone in the wedding band I was singing for was a musical director on the side, so I asked if he could help me find a band and an arranger for the music. I asked stage manager friends to help me keep the project on track. I reached out to the publicity agent from a past show to help me create a press release. Then I launched a crowdfunding campaign, shared with everyone I knew that I was making this project, and they donated! I shared my self-made press release and a local news station invited me to perform a snippet of my show. Finally, the night came and I performed my show about Lena Horne in front of a house that was packed with my best friends, my family, people who participated in the crowd funding campaign and people who saw me on the news! I had to dig deep to find all of the resources I’d need, but I did it!


Mindy: Universities can feel like magical places. In healthy situations, graduates leave with knowledge, skills, and a support system that feels like it will last a lifetime. But once they have entered the professional space, they often burn out for lack of emotional and professional support in incredibly demanding environments. To further complicate things, not every collegiate environment is a healthy one. In these situations, students may be leaving with distorted views of themselves and their potential roles within their fields. Syndee and I are so lucky to have a working relationship that started as student and teacher, developed into mentee and mentor, and eventually grew into a collaboration. Long careers are built on relationships. Successful performers stay connected to the teachers and mentors who know how to support them, and effective teachers are able to recognize when that relationship has developed into an equal exchange.

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?

Syndee: While it’s all acting, it is largely a matter of the size of your choices. In theater we’re taught that we have to reach the back of the house. In film you have to learn how the camera can reach the back of your mind.

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. 🙂

Syndee: I hope that ROAR! becomes a movement! We want young artists to understand that there are healthy ways to participate in this field.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Syndee: I was once performing in Miami when a poet known as Butterfly pulled me aside. She said “You’re really talented, and if you want to make this happen, you can. The pie is big enough for anyone who wants a slice.” I think of that moment any time I feel myself backing away from my dreams.

Mindy: George Bernard Shaw said “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” I have had some enormous unexpected life changes in the past few years that really knocked me down, because I felt like they were so out of my control. Sometimes our circumstances really just are what they are, and things happen that we couldn’t have anticipated! But once I shifted my focus to what I wanted for myself and what I could make happen rather than what was happening to me, the change was almost immediate. I woke up each day ready to do what I could to have the life I wanted!

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.

Syndee: Debbie Alan. She is a fantastic example of a strong woman in the industry who has made her own way. I’d also love the chance to chat with philanthropist Felicia Horowitz.

Mindy: I have a few podcasts I love and am pretty convinced that if given the chance, I’d end up being close friends with both Kim Holderness and Hilary Rushford. We have a lot in common including similar professional missions. I’ve had really brief online interactions with each of them before, but I’d love to have longer conversations about mental health, trauma-informed teaching, and even marriage.

How can our readers continue to follow your work online?

They can follow our individual work and our collaboration on instagram: @ROARArtist and @syndeewinters. For more information on the Teaching Artistry program, visit momentummusicct.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.