Dancer, Singer, Actor – Mentor, Ronald Young
This mentor pursued his passion for dancing, singing and acting and was able to build a highly successful career in this competitive field. His mentor article explains that to succeed in a show business career you must constantly work on improving your talents. Throughout his own career, he never stopped taking classes for voice, dance, acting and doing whatever else it took to reach his career goals. He also explains the business side of show business so that you understand how professionals in these career categories can advance financially not just artistically. His story is a true American success story that demonstrates what can be accomplished by combining a person’s natural talents with a strong work ethic, a constant focus on your personal goals and a willingness to take risks that allow you to explore the opportunities that life offers.
Overview of My Career
Performing became my passion after seeing a musical variety show on television at the age of five. My parents encouraged me to pursue my dream. They drove me twenty-five miles weekly from the small rural town where we lived for dance lessons and music lessons. After graduating from high school, it was on to college for two degrees, Bachelor of Music Education Vocal and Bachelor of Music in Church Music. I then stayed another year and earned a Master of Music in Voice. During college, I pursed singing and dancing opportunities in summer stock, in addition to performing in campus productions put on by the university’s theater department. This experience in summer stock helped me in several ways when I headed to NYC after graduation in September of 1963 with only $500 in my pocket. Many of the people I met in summer stock became lifetime friends who told me about auditions and gave me introductions to people who helped my career. One friend I met at summer stock gave me a place to stay upon arriving in New York. Working in summer stock had allowed me to join the union, Actor’s Equity. So at auditions in NYC, I could attend the equity call rather than the open call. This gave me a little advantage at those first auditions, since being a member of the union meant that the performer had some experience and because the equity calls followed a set of rules where open calls could become chaotic.
My first audition on the third day after my arrival in New York City was for the new Broadway musical, “Hello Dolly!” starring Carol Channing, a well-known Broadway actress and comedienne. By attending both the singer’s call and the dancer’s call, my versatility was noticed and I was hired as one of the dancing waiters and put under contract after only two weeks in New York. With the show opened and running I began taking voice lessons and dance lessons in jazz, ballet and tap along with acting lessons all while doing eight shows a week. During this time I was able to move into a five flight walk-up rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village that I kept until I retired and left the city 49 ½ years later. NYC is an expensive place to live. Today many people in the theater cannot afford the rents in Manhattan and live in more affordable apartments in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Plus public transportation is so efficient that I never owned a car during my time in New York.
After two and a half years in “Hello Dolly!” Jerry Herman, the composer of “Dolly,” asked me to try out for his new musical “Mame,” starring Angela Lansbury. Angela was both a stage and screen actress who later became a well-known televisions actress in the long running series, “Murder She Wrote”. Because we worked closely together, we became good friends and still stay in touch today. Moving to “Mame” also let me get my first small supporting actor’s role. I also taught speech and disco dancing at the Power’s Modeling School during that time to earn extra money. Other opportunities arose in television on the Ed Sullivan Show to be a backup dancer for popular singers of the time like Lana Cantrell and Johnny Mathis. Angela also asked me to perform with her on the Perry Como show.
After two years working in “Mame”, I took another chance and joined the cast of “George M”, which was about the songwriter George M. Cohen. The headliner for that show was Joel Grey. The main reason for the switch was the promise of a larger role in a Broadway Show that would give me more exposure and advance my career. The larger role didn’t materialize, and after a year it was time for another challenge. This meant that after five years of working steadily in the Broadway Theater, I was unemployed.
Additional avenues other than Broadway presented themselves to help build my career - off Broadway, regional theater and cruise ships. One of my favorite jobs was “Dames at Sea,” starring Bernadette Peters. There were also Industrial Shows we called “take the money and run shows.” These were primarily musical shows for corporate advertisements. I was in these shows for over twenty corporate sponsors including all the divisions of General Motors like Cadillac, divisions of Ford like Lincoln, Cessna, RCA and Brown Forman Distilleries. These shows were financial lifesavers for me between theater gigs. I eventually went back to “Hello Dolly!”, which was still running and now staring Phyllis Diller, who was later replaced by Ethel Merman. For young people who may not know them, Phyllis was a popular comedienne and Ethel Merman was an icon in the field of musical theater. Good fortune took my out of “Dolly” for the male lead in “The Boyfriend,” with Judy Carne and Sandy Duncan. Then a very exciting event occurred, the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC with Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” Being cast as a vocal soloist allowed me to be on the original cast album. This, along with “The Boyfriend” album, gave me two cast albums in one year.
Then came a touring show with Shirley Booth and a summer stock show with the MGM musical singer and dancer, Ann Miller. That show gave me the chance for a larger role. Then in an unusual showcase I appeared in 7 roles in “Rachel La Cubana,”a PBS special that required singing, dancing, acting, mime and to round things out, trapeze work. I was able to do the trapeze performance because along the way I had taken gymnastics to strengthen myself for dancing.
Then came a major shift in my career when I added choreography to my resume for the play “Some Painted Pony.” That was right before another highlight performing in the International Touring Company of “A Chorus Line” and performed in London for six months. Along the way two movie jobs materialized, a dancing butler in “Annie” with Albert Finney and Carol Burnet and as the singer of “An Old Fashioned Melody” in “Hair.” More choreography and directing for regional theaters, Broadway and off Broadway shows and cruise ships followed.
These opportunities occurred with the help of something beyond talent - friendships developed over the years and maintaned. The theater, whether it is movies or Broadway, is a small community of professionals. You have to learn to try and maintain good relationships with everyone. While these relationships can help you advance your career, word gets out quickly in this small community if you are difficult to deal with or are someone who does not give 110%. Always remember that for everyone working as and actor, singer or dancer, there are at least ten other talented people waiting to take your place. It is important to develop a killer work ethic and not complain when the job gets tough. Remember it is a privilege to be able to live your dream.
The Business of Show Business
Agents and Mangers
An agent is paid 10% or your salary to help you find auditions and negotiate your contracts. They only work with union performers. You can go out and try and find an agent once you have some experience and are a member of the union. Agents get their roster of clients by auditions and by attending the theater. So most often the good agents approach you rather than you going to them. I had one agent for almost thirty years. It was a big relief for me not to have to negotiate my contract with the producers. My agent did this for me and got me better terms than I believe I would have by myself. In my case, his 10% fee was well worth it.
A manager is not affiliated with any union and manages all aspects of your career. They are also paid between10% and 15% of your salary. A good manager will help you chart a career path where you gain experience and receive larger and more financially lucrative roles. There is no right way to find a manager. Some will approach you. Others you can contact based on referrals. (Cut this next line. Like your relationship with your agent, your relationship with your manager is a very personal one. A good manager can be very helpful in advancing your career.
As I mentioned, I joined Actors Equity while I was performing in a summer stock production during college. The unions are valuable in the theater. They help set pay scales and working conditions and also require the producer contribute to a pension fund. In addition to my parent union, Actor’s Equity, other unions had to be joined just to work in various aspects of the business:
Screen Actor’s Guild
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
American Guild of Musical Artists
American Guild of Variety Artists
Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers
Local 802, the Musician’s Union.
You probably know about royalties for songwriters and recording artists. For actors, the main source of royalties is from movies and television shows. Although they are small now, royalty checks are still coming in 35 years after appearing in “Annie” and “Hair.” If a move or television show becomes a classic and is shown on TV or is sold as a video for many years, royalties can become a significant source of income. Always make sure that any contracts you do in the movies or television contain provisions for royalties.
Your Spending Habits
For theater people, there will inevitably be ups and downs with periods where you will be between jobs. It is important to set some money aside for these times and to live within your means if you want a long-term career. I was able to find some kind of work to keep me going when I was not in a long running musical. But if you do not have some financial cushion and live in a fiscally responsible way, you will not be able to persist when you hit a dry period. My claim to fame is that in a career in show business spanning 33 years, I earned a living solely with jobs in “the biz.”
My Transition to Another Career
Age catches up with everyone. A ballet dancer usually cannot perform after forty. Broadway dancers can go another ten or so years longer. Some tap dancers can perform into their seventies. In my fifties I began to question how much longer I wanted to continue in show business. I also found myself having to audition for directors and producers younger than me and with less experience in the theater. Okay, it was time for a career change. There is a wonderful focus group called Career Transitions for Dancers. The counselors there helped me do a self-evaluation and made suggestions about how my experiences in the theater could be applied to a business situation. CTFD showed me that the skills learned in the theater would be useful in the corporate world in communications and marketing. I was hired as one of the docents of the historical museum of a major financial services firm where I gave tours and interacted with the public, eventually becoming the firm’s archivist. I continued to do this job and live in NYC until I retired at 66. During my years in the business world it became possible for me to purchase a home on a lake in Oklahoma near the golf course my father helped build and where he eventually became the golf professional. Then in January of 2013 I made the big move, giving up my apartment in NYC, renting a U-Haul truck and driving across the country to come back home to Oklahoma. This is also an area with friends and family.
Here is a list of some of the most important life lessons gleaned from pursuing my passion and my dream. Hopefully some of them might resonate with you as you choose and navigate your own career path:
Follow Your Passions
Explore all the Possibilities
Develop a Killer Work Ethic
Roll with the Punches and Don’t get Discouraged
Excel in Time Management
Utilize Your Own Uniqueness to Stand Out
Work at Maintaining Friendships that Matter
Never Complain When You Have the Privilege of Living Your Dream
Take Educated Chances
Approach a Major Life Change from All Directions
Always Remember That You Are In Charge of Your Own Life
Ronald Young maintains a website where you can learn more details about his career and where you can order a biography he has written about his life: www.ronaldyoungentertainer.com
Salary Statistics for Dancers, Choreographers, Musicians, Singers and Actors based on US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Dancers and Choreographers
The median hourly wage for dancers was $14.16 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.50, and the top 10 percent earned more than $33.34.
The median hourly wage for choreographers was $18.33 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.41, and the top 10 percent earned more than $39.28.
Schedules for dancers and choreographers vary, depending on where they work. During tours, dancers and choreographers spend most of the day in rehearsals and have performances at night, giving them long workdays. Some work part time at casinos, on cruise ships, or at theme parks.
Although choreographers who work in dance schools may have a standard workweek when they are instructing students, they spend hours on their own coming up with new dance routines.
About 25,000 people were working as dancers and choreographers in the US in 2012 according to government surveys.
Musicians and Singers
The median hourly wage for musicians and singers was $23.50 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.81, and the top 10 percent earned more than $65.24.
In May 2012, the median hourly wages for musicians and singers in the top three industries in which these workers were employed were as follows:
|Performing arts companies||$26.72|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||20.46|
|Religious, grant making, civic, professional, andsimilar organizations||19.43|
Rehearsals and recording sessions are commonly held during business hours, but live performances are most often at night and on weekends.
About 167,000 people were working as musicans and singers in the US in 2012 based on government surveys.
The median hourly wage for actors was $20.26 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.92, and the top 10 percent earned more than $90.00 in May 2012.
Work hours for actors are long and irregular. Evening, weekend, and holiday work is common. Few actors work full time, and many have variable schedules. Those who work in theater may travel with a touring show across the country. Actors in movies may also travel to work on location.
About 80,000 people were working as actors in the Us in 2012 based on these government surveys.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that growth in all three categories is expected to be at the average of all job categories.