Stop AAPI Hate

16 – Douglas Lyons: The Business of New Works

In This Episode

Read Full Transcript

00:58 Douglas:
I would say the most important thing is: what are you trying to say? Not, oh, this really cool story happened where this guy flew out of a window and fell and then turned. Those are great details, awesome, awesome, awesome. But what's the take-home? A little bit, so that you know what you're writing towards, you know what the mission statement of your work is, if that specific piece is, that people know how to identify with you as an artist.

01:31 Tony:
Hey, it's Tony Howell. Thank you for listening to Conversations with Changemakers. In this episode, we speak with Douglas Lyons, award-winning writer, composer, lyricist, playwright, actor, and more.

His acting credits include the original Broadway company of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, The Book of Mormon, RENT, Dreamgirls, Pageant, and more. As a writer, his show Polkadots at the Atlantic Theater Company won “Best Family Show” from the Off-Broadway Alliance. Other new works include: the world premiere of his play Chicken & Biscuits at The Queen Theater, and the theatrical concert Beau, which is set to premiere Off-Broadway this fall.

Douglas is currently developing Five Points, an American musical, with Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler. Alongside his composing partner, Ethan Pakchar, his work has played or been developed at Roundabout Theatre Company, Lincoln Center, Paper Mill Playhouse, The Old Globe, Goodspeed Musicals, Seattle Rep, Joe's Pub, and more.

This episode is especially relevant for the performing artist, both new and old. I want you to hear Douglas's take on higher education versus real-world experiences, career, evolutions, or expansions, trying new things, and navigating from creative idea to first draft, to world premiere, to global licensing. As you listen, ruminate on how to use your gift, your voice, your story, to change the world. Stay safe and enjoy!

Douglas Lyons, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

03:34 Douglas:
Thank you for having me.

03:36 Tony:
We have a lot to cover because you are a multi-hyphenate. But I want to rewind: tell us a little bit about your childhood and when you decided to enter the theatrical industry.

03:50 Douglas:
I always admired singing, dancing, and acting separately, but in my junior/senior year of high school, it was brought to my attention that there was this thing called musical theater. I had an obsession with the stage itself, and I asked my parents in high school, and they got me tickets to see Wicked, and I took the train down by myself and went and saw the show and I was always obsessed with the lights and the makeup. Like, I did a production of West Side Story in high school and I played Tony. All the Jets were Black, all the Sharks were Latino, and I wore way too much makeup, but that's what I thought you had to do because it was theater. So I was obsessed with the world of theater.

And then I've been singing all my life in church, and dancing in dancing schools around New Haven, Connecticut (that's where I'm from), and then I auditioned very late in the game for the art schools (North Carolina School of the Arts, NYU, and Ithaca) by tape, and Hartt was the only program I got into, and thank God I did because I don't know what I would be doing. I got the theater bug later on in life. I was not a crazy theater kid with show choir, and dance lessons, and voice lessons, and piano lessons all my life. Did a lot of sports, was a math nerd, and then sort of found my people in the theater.

05:18 Tony:
I'm envisioning a very glam Tony [from West Side Story] in my mind.

05:21 Douglas:
That Tony, ooh, I still remember the riffs! THAT Tony cared not about Bernstein at all.

05:32 Tony:
He was an original.

05:34 Douglas:
He was an original Tony. It was more like “Tonie.” And I did it, it was great.

05:41 Tony:
I want to highlight this moment, because there are young actors in the audience, and then it's also something that comes up, but you actually took a year off from school to tour with RENT. So, can you share about that decision for future students who face this, whether they're in high school or college: what should the artist and what should their guardians do, if they're presented with this opportunity to take a sort of non-traditional path?

06:08 Douglas:
I mean, I think it's different for everyone. I'll never forget the call. When I got the call that I booked RENT, I called my father and I said, “Dad, you know, I booked it!” He said, “Okay, what are they asking of you?” I was a swing, so I covered six of the roles, [including] Benny and Collins. He said, “How long's the contract?” It was a year, and he said, “And [then] you're going back to school.” Those were the three agreements that we made. It was important to him that I would be the first in my generation on his side of the family to graduate school. So, it's very important. I'm so glad I went on tour at 19 around the country. I'm so glad my first job was swinging in a professional gig, because I learned so much on how to appreciate and understand swings, and all that they do, but also understand the workings of a well-oiled machine of a musical.

It's different for everyone. Some people leave school and never come back. I think leaving and touring around the country taught me a lot about why I was training, and what I needed to strengthen, when I went back to Hartt. And so, it was a great sabbatical for me to save money, to learn personality. I mean, training to be an actor is one thing, dealing with the actuality of the field is a whole other thing. So, dealing with personalities, and being on a bus, and being in different hotels, and learning my finances very early on, and how I was saving my money as a businessman: it was very informative.

If you are three/four months away from graduating, I would always suggest finishing it or figure out a way. I have a friend who booked Dear Evan Hansen, he was graduating from Hartt the second semester of his senior year. So, he left, but then over the next two years he finished, and now he has his degree and he's still in the show. So I feel like there's always a happy medium. But I also think there's a version in our business where you don't have to go to a BFA program and pay $200,000 and potentially be in debt to get good training. There are smaller programs. If you find a curriculum that you want to take seriously, and you build your curriculum in the city and you create your own curriculum, you actually could save a lot of money, I think, than going to an institution.

So, I think training for our art form, there's twelve different ways to do it. I have a friend who made her Broadway debut in Beautiful, and she never graduated from college, but she's one of the smartest people I've ever met. So, there's no formula, I would say, there's no formula to our business, but I think leaving for me was, for example, how nurses have to do a certain amount of time in the field. That's what it felt like for me, and I took all that training and I went back with that experience.

09:01 Tony:
So you graduated from RENT and then you graduated from the Hartt school. Tell us about your first few years in the business.

09:10 Douglas:
I've been very fortunate and very blessed to work consistently. I am a unique story and I'm very aware of that. So, in our senior year at Hartt, we went to Goodspeed over our winter break, and workshopped new musicals in their festival program. And there, I met Gordon Greenberg, and then we became really good friends and [he] was very supportive of my work and offered me, after auditioning; I ended up working with him and Dennis Jones on Pirates, which was done at the Huntington Theater Company in April of my senior year.

And we also had a partnership with the Hartford Stage Company and I was blessed enough to book To Kill A Mockingbird with Matthew Modine as my Atticus, and I played Tom Robinson. So, my second semester, I was in school for about six weeks doing [the show], doing some more classes because I was part-time. I finished all my academics and then I was off to Boston, I finished.

So I've been very, very, very blessed and I don't like to call it luck because we work for these things. So it's not luck, but I was blessed enough to have those two gigs as well as the Dreamgirls national tour I had booked at the end of senior year. So that was to start in the fall, which I did. And then I moved to New York City after graduation, passed out some flyers, I believe for Ken Davenport (because my roommate and he were dating at the time), and then I started rehearsals for Dreamgirls.

10:55 Tony:
Busy, booked, and blessed. (And Black!) So then, fast-forward: you make your Broadway debut in The Book of Mormon, also as a swing?

11:07 Douglas:
Yep, yep, yep! I joined the company. The day of the Tony nominations was my first day of rehearsal. So when I joined, there was not even a cast album yet. But I covered all of the Ugandans, both male and female, and was like an emergency cover for the general.

11:25 Tony:
So that's like 3,000 tracks. What do audiences and what do artists need to know about ensemble work as well as swinging?

11:37 Douglas:
I feel like the ensemble swings, they are the core. I mean, in Beautiful we had super swings like Sarah Shepherd (shout-out!). She was our dance captain. She also covered Carole and Carole's mother and she did it all flawlessly. Oh my God, it's amazing to watch. It's like a chameleon, who at any time would have to go into a costume and go on stage for any character, and I think those are the most talented people in the building. So swinging Mormon for me, luckily I had RENT already, which taught me a lot. But yeah, it was sort of a trial by fire. You didn't always get to put-in, you [only] had understudy rehearsal. One time, I went on stage mid-show and my first costume in that track (because it was at the end of Act One) was the Darth Vader costume. So I'd never done that track in an actual show, but I walked on stage. It was like, blah, blah, blah, but you just got to be ready. You gotta study. And it's one of the most difficult, but I would say rewarding, jobs in the business.

12:43 Tony:
I found it to be super stressful. So kudos and shout-outs to you, and all the other swings of the world.

12:51 Douglas:
Yes. Swing on!

12:53 Tony:
So then you go on tour with the show, the first national [tour], and somewhere in this story, which I want to crack open, there's a heartbreak, there's a guitar. And then there's a chance meeting with Ethan Pakchar. So, what's the origin story of Lyons and Pakchar?

13:11 Douglas:
Heartbreak happened [in the] top of 2012 while I was still in Mormon on Broadway. It's actually part of the reason I left the city because, I usually toured every two years between RENT and Dreamgirls. I felt like I needed to get out of New York City. There was an opportunity. So, my parents had got me a guitar for my 25th birthday, which I still cannot play, but I started writing some stuff and doodling and singing out the heartbreak, sort of oozing out and ringing out my feelings, which taught me a lot. And then I packed up my apartment, put stuff in storage and it went on the first national tour, and we were in Denver for a couple days after we had rehearsed here, and our band joined, and we had a traveling band of five people.

Ethan was one of those people. And so, we had sitzprobe and met everyone, and I went up to him. I was like, “oh my God man, I'm Douglas, nice to meet you. Are you going to teach me guitar? Because I have my guitar on tour with me.” He's like, “oh totally, I'll give you lessons.” And so we would hang out, and we became really good friends, and we'd take bike rides and then work on music. I don't even remember him giving me a guitar lesson, to be honest with you. But he started playing and I would just sing. And so, we would have jam sessions where we would write songs in Denver. And we wrote a couple, and then our next city was Los Angeles and they had a local musician that was going to be there for three months.

So, Ethan actually was not there, but we would FaceTime and write and keep in touch, and then he rejoined in San Francisco and we picked up, and so we started writing songs organically in hotel rooms and backstage and in between shows. We just had a vibe. It was just the vibe, and it was a way to pass the time. But I do not know what my life would be if I had not met him. So, that was the inception of what Lyons and Pakchar would become, but it happened in a very organic way, I would say.

15:15 Tony:
So as a team, what was your first big break and how did that come about?

15:21 Douglas:
Big break? Our first public appearance was in April of 2013. We were invited to do the Broadway Unlocked concert series down in TriBeCa. And we were actually on tour in Boston at that time, but miraculously it was on our day off. So we traveled [and] sang our songs in public for the first time, “Crush” being one of those songs, and it was sort of the moment where Andrew Keenan-Bolger was there, I believe. Nathan Tyson was there that night. There were some really cool musical theatre folks there, and so that was sort of our first dab into the musical theatre writing pool. And then we had a public live recording of our album, our debut album “#LoveLive” in August of that year, which was sort of our official launch. I spent all summer (because I left the tour in like May/June), emailing random agents and inviting people to come hear our music for this one-night-only event, which began a lot of things.

16:29 Tony:
Yeah. So I want to highlight how quickly that happened for you, but also all the work that you put in behind the scenes to expedite things.

16:37 Douglas:
Oh yeah. I mean, I spend, especially in the beginning and I still am this way, but you are your own business is my line of thinking. No one's waiting for you. No one's begging you. They're not looking for another new musical theatre writer, another actor, to show up. So if you want to take it seriously, half the responsibility is how you learn to advertise your own product. And so I went on every website of every major musical theatre artist that I looked up to, and I looked at their representation, and I would find a junior agent from CAA, or William Morris, or ICM, and invite them.

And we invited them to that August concert. We did another concert in April of 2014 and William Morris came a second time. They were one person that came a second time. And our current agent, Michael Finkel. I love talking to him, but I was standing behind him and he was mouthing the words to some of our songs. And I said, oh, well that's who we want: someone who's invested, someone who has taken the time and done the research. And he knew some songs from our album that we had done in August, and so we've been working with him now for about six years.

17:46 Tony:
So I'm going to applaud your agency there, the power that you took to say, that's who we want to represent us. And I think a lot of times artists cannot claim that power or that agency, or the power of choice. Y'all have done a lot, which I'm going to highlight. But what was the moment that you, and I don't know if you feel this way, what was the moment that you went from feeling like you were struggling to being successful?

18:16 Douglas:
I would say that moment has yet to completely arrive because: I was doing my taxes. I was like, “so wait a minute, what is the rest of your money for 2019?” He's like, “because you had all this money in 2018.” I was like, “no, no, no, that's…that's all we got.” Success is internal, I would say; it is not an external thing that you can calibrate and define by the world. It really has to be your own level. My level of success is like, in the past week, connecting with some students: one college student from Shenandoah, another kid who's a high schooler in Atlanta, who's singing our music and covering our songs.

Success is the ability to reach out to people and move people. Not necessarily like in a Broadway theater as a composer, because that show could close within a week or six months and next. The business keeps moving on. I think success is making an impact. And I think, in the past couple of years, there have been people that have reached out, actors of color, who have said, “we didn't think we had a place or a voice, and we found your music and we love it, and we're really thrilled at what you're doing.” And that, to me, is success. So that's happened in the past, I would say, two years or so.

A major moment for us is when we were commissioned by the Fifth Avenue [Theater] in Seattle, back in 2016/2017, to do a musical. And we had to write two spec songs and then got the call that he had booked the commission and that was like, okay, because as an artist, for me, when I got Mormon, I was like, “cool, I'm so happy to be here! This is awesome!” And when my manager called me about Beautiful that I got Beautiful, I was like, “wait, I did? This is not a mistake?” So I think feeling like it is not happenstance, and that you actually know what you're doing, and there's a reason to be hired, and you're professional, that turn has come in the past three years. So I would say that it felt more successful, if you will. But I'm still acting to pay my bills, to get my health insurance.

20:31 Tony:
Yeah. I want to highlight that. It's a little bit earned that you start to accept that “this is what I'm here to do” and it's all coming back to me.

20:44 Douglas:
Yeah. There's an exchange, also just, I've learned the business. Being in a couple Broadway shows now, seeing who really makes the money in our field, I was like, “ah, oh yes, I might need to reevaluate some things for the longevity of my life.” I love being an artist. It is so refreshing and sweet and I connect with so many people, folks like you, and you keep in touch, and we all grow and change and bloom in different ways. That's the beauty, [it] is the connection that lasts, but it's also about “how are you going to survive as an artist?” That's the business aspect, which I never let go.

21:19 Tony:
Let's switch gears, businessman, and talk about Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical. I want you to share if you would, the creative catalyst: this idea that sparked, how you got the idea, and then fast forward to how it makes you feel today, seeing it produced all over the place.

21:40 Douglas:
So, I pull a lot of my material from real life events and or experiences I've had, or family or friend stories. And I was on YouTube one night, and there was an interview with Phylicia Rashad talking about growing up in the Jim Crow South, and she said, “I was a little Black girl near a white only water fountain, and I had the curiosity to go taste that water, and I did, in Houston, Texas, to only find that the water was the same.” And she said, “At that moment, I realized that humanity had tricked itself into trying to divide the races, how ridiculous that was.”

And I thought, “how innocent, the child's mind. How innocent that children don't see the racism and the issues that we place upon them, place upon the world.” And so that was the impetus. And I wrote a seven-page manifesto. I tapped Melvin, whose work I had seen in his musical In Bloom, not too long before that. And then I had just met Greg Borowsky, who's in the states working on his Mandela musical. It's so funny; with Greg, I was like, “I have this idea and I really want to work on this musical, how do you feel?” He was like, “Ah, I don't know.” I was like, “Great! So we start today,” and I didn't really give him time to say no.

And that story bloomed into this story of this little girl named Lily Polkadot whose skin is all polka dots. And she's moved into this square town of Rockaway, where everyone else has square skin. And she's the first of her kind being integrated into the school of all squares. So there's a square sprinkler, and the polkadot pump, to represent the black and white on the water fountains, and the kids figure out through an experiment that the water is the same. They create this dance called the Squaredot, which is a mixing of both square and polka dot. And they change their school because they're able to love one another and teach everyone.

And so, the Avington Playhouse took a chance on us after our one reading, and then a year and a half later, we were at the Atlantic Theater Company. We won the Off-Broadway Alliance in 2018 for best family show, and it's been done, I want to say, at least 50 times around the world. It won what is like the Tony equivalent in South Africa for best family show. They had a big production and it's been the gift of my life to be able to honor my own civil rights history, and the Ruby Bridges’ and the Little Rock Nines of the world, but also to pay it forward in theater for children; to let them know, regardless to who your president may be and what he may say, y'all can love one another and push on.

24:24 Tony:
We'll include the recording and any other things you want to send over in the resources with this episode. With that, let's fast forward, and Chicken & Biscuits, your playwriting debut, opens in New York, which I hear was inspired by some real life events in your family. So I want to know how you decide what to focus on right now, and then what's the next project? You get all these ideas.

24:58 Douglas:
Well, I call them mosquito bites. I call ideas “mosquito bites,” and sometimes they swell and you have to pay attention to them or sometimes they go away. They're very small, and Chicken & Biscuits actually had manifested itself as a different idea a year earlier. And then I put that page down for a while, because Beau came about. And then when I got some inside information about a family secret, I was like, “hahahaha and I picked that page back up”

And The Director's Company, I've been in residence there for about three/four years now. The way I work is: I always workshop with actors. I'll only write 5-10 pages at a time. Call actors in a room, I'll hear it, it'll teach me a lot, I'll rewrite, and then I'll build. I will not write an entire musical or show without having ever workshopped it. Because what if on page 10, everyone hates that character, and they're the lead and you've written them to be this whole thing, but people are turned off? You've wasted so much time.

So Chicken & Biscuits, we had a series of four readings in a four-month period actually. And the second reading was at the Queens Theatre, and some producers had seen that reading that they had co-produced, and came on board, and the rest is history.

26:25 Tony:
Shazam! And the future, you ARE the future, my darling. And I know you're going to continue to inspire many, many artists as well as audiences. So, for someone listening who has an itch to do songwriting, who has an itch to create their own work, what is your advice for navigating from mosquito bite to licensed productions? Give us maybe your best tips from idea, to draft, to world premiere, to licensing.

26:59 Douglas:
Well, it depends on what medium you're writing for. Now, I'm getting into trying to write a little bit more TV/film, and working on a couple of pilots, potentially a screenplay.

So first, you have to know what medium you're writing for. I always think as a businessman: Polkadots taught me one thing. It's a four-person cast; itt makes it easy to produce, and a really small regional theater in South Dakota can put on, if they have a TYA slot, they can put it on because it doesn't take many people. And so, Chicken & Biscuits is eight [actors]. Beau is eight (seven plus a drummer), and then The Moon and the Sea, which is another new musical, is six.

Packaging-wise, I know that, regionally, I'm already setting myself up so that these stories can be told in an economic way that doesn't break the bank of the theater, but hopefully encourages them to do a new work. So that's something I always think about.

When it comes to creating your world, I would say the most important thing is, what are you trying to say? Like not, “oh, this really cool story happened where this guy flew out of a window and I fell and then turned it.” Those are great details, awesome, awesome, awesome. But that’s the take-home, a little bit, so that you know what you're writing towards, you know what the mission statement of your work is, of that specific piece. That people know how to identify with you as an artist.

So I would say, knowing what you want to say is very important, not being afraid to put pen to paper. Like, even if it seems really stupid, write the characters down, write the dialogue. I think what happens is, a lot of people judge themselves too early on and are like, oh, this is already not good. Well, you don't know that just yet! You might be right, but you might be wrong. So, something I do very early on in my process is I find a director that I trust, so I'm hearing another voice.

Theatre is collaboration. As an actor, it feels a little singular, because you're always prepping for yourself and trying to get a job. But as a writer, it takes 13 different departments for your work to even see the light of day correctly. And so, you have to honor all those departments. And one of them is direction, for me.

Very early on, I will lean on a director to go, “how does this sound?” I have a core group of friends that I can send songs and text to, who will read and give feedback. I would say, don't go too far along alone. I would say, reach out to people, you know? So that it's not a lonely process. And if it doesn't go well, you're not like, oh, it's all my fault, because that can happen, too. But usually if you collaborate with people, you won't get to that point where it stinks.

29:48 Tony:
I think that's brilliant. What are misconceptions about the work?

29:56 Douglas:
The work, or the politics?

29:58 Tony:
All of it.

30:03 Douglas:
The work is always possible. You can always get things. You can always write something. It does not mean someone's going to read it or take you seriously or understand you or understand your voice. And you have to be, it's as if you're running for president with your own work and you're your own campaign manager. You can only email so many times, you can only take so many meetings. But my personal point of view is: visibility is key as an artist. The one thing that an artistic director or literary director cannot take from you is your ability to self-promote yourself. And so, some people are like, “well, no one's responding, so I'm just going to wait until someone reads my play.” They may never read it.

So how do people know that you exist as an artist? That's why social media, I think, is a really smart thing. I use it strategically, honestly, but also as a business. I use it as a business, and some people don't, and some people are annoyed, and what's funny, right now, is [that] with this pandemic, everybody has social media and that's it. That's all you got. So, navigating the system and sort of waiting your turn: here's 12 playwrights or musical theater writers in front of you and sometimes you’ve got to wait, but it's worth it.

31:29 Tony:
Speaking of social media, what do you think is a waste of time?

31:38 Douglas:
Waste of time… This is not artistically related, but sometimes really intense conversations on social media I've learned don't really go anywhere because if we're both at home arguing our point through a computer screen and people are watching, it feels like an episode of Jerry Springer, and so I've learned to just either have a private conversation, or to not take the time to voice certain things on social media because it's usually a dead-end in some way. But I've kept in touch with family, friends, and people around the world that, if I didn't have Facebook, I wouldn't know when their birthday was. So, I think it's beautiful that way. Because you keep people in your orbit and you can keep tabs on the world. I like it.

32:30 Tony:
And then as an artist and as a businessman, what have been the most effective things that you've done on social media?

32:37 Douglas:
I mean, part of the reason Polkdots took off: Brittany Johnson, who's a standby for Galinda in Wicked now, was our first Lily Polkadot, and we did a demo recording of that first reading we had in August, 2015. Within a couple of days it had over 8,000 views and it was being shared around Facebook and I've met people who are like, “oh yeah, I remember seeing that first video and being like, what is the show?” I just did a production of Five Guys Named Moe at Westchester Broadway, and one of the kids was said, “Oh yeah, I found you when I was in college on YouTube, you sang this song that I put in my book, it's booked me work,” and I was just like, “WHAT?!” You never know who's watching or rooting for you, and if you're trying to build community, it's the best way to do it.

33:28 Tony:
So Douglas, interesting question: I hope if you're willing, can you share the biggest failure you've ever made and what you learned from it? Mistake?

33:43 Douglas:
I wouldn't call this one a mistake, I would call it a learning curve. I had to learn: the emotions that I use as an actor, and we're encouraged to release, are not so encouraged on the writing side, as far as personality goes, and being emotional. So I've had to learn, even when someone has offended me, or hurt my feelings, or done me wrong, how to capture and package my emotions and [give] a response that is respectful and professional, but also sound, and I'm not reacting emotionally purely because if they're in a place of power, I lose.

So there have been moments in the past where I have maybe reacted not in the best way and it's turned people off or ruined deals or whatever, but sometimes I've also had to stand my ground in a way that was non-negotiable and it panned out to my advantage. My agent said something to me, he was like, “Your passion is brilliant. It's the thing I love about you. You have to learn how to channel it so that people don't try to use it against you.” And when he said that, I was like, “uh huh, okay.” And I learned like, cool, cool, cool: if I send this email and say those things, you are going to interpret it a certain way, although I may be right. So how do I respond in a respectful manner, but also, respect myself? So that's been the lesson and I think I've learned it well. So I tend to react, [but] even if I have a moment, I don't respond with the emotions of my reaction.

35:32 Tony:
Take the time. So you've played, in this lifetime, thus far, many roles: swing, ensemble, leading man, original company, replacement, lyricist, composer, playwright, producer, on and on and on. What are the biggest myths that you see about the entertainment industry that you just want to poke a hole in?

35:54 Douglas:
That Broadway people are rich. Broadway people are not rich. Broadway people are not rich because, between federal and state tax, you are seeing maybe 50% of your paycheck every week.

36:07 Tony:
That's a hard job.

36:10 Douglas:
And you are performing for it, and it's prorated. If you learn how to save your coin, you can do alright. But New York City is a very expensive city to live in, I think, in comparison to Hollywood. Because Broadway is so flashy and it is the pinnacle of our profession, people assume the treatment and the fabulosity of it all is the same as Hollywood: it ain't. It's SO not, but the art is. I would say the compensation [is] not, and that's tough because in some ways, we're always in that building, the actors are always on that stage and giving their bodies, and sometimes for years. So I think that's a slight misconception.

“Oh, you're on Broadway. You should be happy.” Yeah, but people still gotta pay their bills, too. The other thing that hit me, being on Broadway off and on for eight years, is that you get one day off and you miss a lot of birthday parties and you miss a lot of funerals and dinners and babies growing up. There is a sacrifice to it that I think when we're training in high school and college, we're not thinking about that. But as an adult, you will sacrifice putting your children to bed sometimes, or missing - I missed one of my best friend's weddings because I would've had to miss five shows, which is half a week’s salary, and that was going to hurt my pocket, which broke my heart to have to say that. But that was the reality.

37:55 Tony:
Inside all of that, you have many high-stakes or high-pressure moments, you're going on for the lead, you are going on to The View, or Good Morning America, or whatever it might be, as an artist, or on the side of composer, lyricists, what are some of your ways that you handle these high-stakes, high-pressure, big moments, big presentations?

38:18 Douglas:
I remind myself that I'm a professional and that I'm not here by mistake. And I have to say that to myself over and over again. Because when I started training, I was not a theater kid like a lot of the people in my college who had been the lead three or four times at their high school musical. I had done one musical in high school. And I had no idea what I was doing. So I've always sort of been like, I'm happy to be here. I'm lucky to be here. And in the past four or five years, it's like, no, no, no, no, you're no longer lucky, man. You've worked for this. People think that you know what you're doing. So you owe it to yourself to own that you know what you're doing. And so it's like, let's hit it! Let's hit the gig. Let's hit the step. This is what we trained to do, and there's pride and beauty and growth in that.

39:12 Tony:
On the flip side, you've talked about it a little bit with writing, but when you face rejection or loss, whether it's a role, whether it's a deal that you are really hoping for, how do you cope? How do you handle those moments?

39:29 Douglas:
Well, it took about three or four years for me to learn that I was being protected from things that were not meant for me. And that sounds cliché, but during Beautiful, there were at least two other shows that I was in final callbacks for, and did not get. Those shows closed years before Beautiful will have ever closed. And if I had been so anxious to move on and do the next thing, I would've been unemployed [for] three or four years more than I was having Beautiful. So I've learned to trust rejection as a gift, and [as] protection for things that are just simply not meant for me. I'm in a negotiation right now for a thing, and I'm like, “if it pans out, I'm going to scream and be so freaking excited. But if it doesn't, it was not meant [to be].” And I just have to be okay with that. Because you have to start trusting your journey and your winding road.

And I've never gone without. And I think part of that is just not pressing, but letting, the universe sort of take over. Being like, right, God, do what you gotta do. And you never want to be in a room [in which] you're not desired. It's like, you don't want just the job, I just want a job. It's like, no, you actually want a job where people want you in that track, or you in that role, because they want to work with you. You don't want to get a job just because you can hit the note, because they're not going to treat you like you're special. They don't care. You're replaceable. So for me, it's like, if you didn't choose me because you didn't see me in that, that saves me because you would be aggravated if you cast me anyway. You want to be there. Remember: there's a team of people that have to want you to be there. And if they're not investing in you, and they don't see it in you, you'll probably have a horrible time.

41:15 Tony:
You've hit a couple of things. But I want to hear from you sort of a roundhouse: what skills are essential to succeed in the entertainment industry?

41:26 Douglas:
Determination, drive, patience. Oh my God. Patience. Oh my goodness. So that is the one, because it's probably not going to happen in your time, and just sort of taking the reins of your own career. I have a lot of friends who are like, “my agent isn't, my agent isn't.” I'm like, “guess what? Your agent gets 10% because they actually are only doing 10% of the work.” Take what you want into your own hands. Don't be afraid to email people. Don't be afraid to connect with people. Even if you don't hear back. I mean, I've sent hundreds of thousands of emails (maybe not thousands) that have gone unanswered, people do not reply, and I had to get used to that. Guess what? That's not personal to you, but that's how we hustle. Hustle, determination, [and] patience, I would say, are essential, more than talent and personality.

When I teach kids, I teach a theater confidence class. When I am casting a show of mine, I'm not just looking at the talent of the actor, but the personality. Are they goofy and silly? Do they take themselves too seriously? Do I want to be in a room with them for six weeks building a character? Not just “can they do the thing” and people assume, “oh, I can do the thing so they want me!” Well, no, but if you're kind of crazy or mean-spirited, we can feel that. And we're creating a community of artists for this project. So personality is very important, I would say as well.

42:57 Tony:
Hustle, drive, determination, patience, and personality. Boom. Douglas, how do you cultivate those skills in yourself? What do you do daily, weekly, monthly? How do you maintain that?

43:17 Douglas:
I think it's a little bit innate to me. I think I grew up having that drive a little bit; I didn't realize. I'm an only child. Officially, I have two beautiful God-sisters who are like sisters to me. But technically I'm an only child and it's been me. I've had the time to go for things and try to get things done. So I mean, I email a lot. I seek things out. During this quarantine I've been compartmentalizing my time and resting for a certain amount and then like up and like working for a certain amount of time. Also I think investing in people is a big thing and not just yourself, helping your artist friends. And that comes back to you, when you're weak or you're having a rough time. So you have to sort of pull yourself up because this business just won't. There's just too many of us.

44:21 Tony:
I was not going to ask this question, but now I am going to, and it doesn't have to be sort of traditional, but can you talk about your team? And when I say that, I mean: you just talked about investing in people. So if you want to throw shoutouts to your actual reps, great! But if you want to talk about the people that you love, that help keep Douglas happy, then great. But who is your team?

44:44 Douglas:
Well, see, I think “team” is interesting. There are folks, pretty much everybody at Beautiful, over the five or six years that I was there, did a table read for me or read stage directions. So the team are the people around you, and so when there's a new song or something, I'm like, “listen to this before we put this out in the world.” You want that camaraderie. And little people along the way, like Rebecca Covington, when we were doing Beautiful; I asked her to come and do this table read of Chicken & Biscuits. And she was like, “Douglas, listen to me: you have to keep going.” Because I was like, “oh, I don't know about this.” She's like, “listen to me, keep going.” And so there has been, this maturation with the show and I thank her. Often I'll just text her and be like, thank you for telling me to keep going, and it's that little nugget.

And people have done that. I mean, yeah, one of my best friends, Christine Dwyer is one of the first to sing our music and everyone who's just been like, “it's good, it's good, trust yourself” - that pushes me forward. So I would say: friends and family. My parents have been so sweet, and especially in the past six months just encouraging. And they show up to everything. So in March 2016, we had our first sort of public performance of Polkadots. Carnegie Mellon did a one-night performance. They drove 12 hours, round trip, from Connecticut to Pittsburgh to see that show for an hour and a half, to drive back that night.

46:43 Tony:
Dedication and drive and patience.

46:45 Douglas:
Yeah, support and love. The secret ingredient is love and you have to really love what you're doing. The more recent lesson for me is: a lot of notes for the writing. Oh, a lot of notes. And you have to figure out how to navigate it and hold onto your voice but really enjoy the work because it's going to be tough. It's not always a party.

47:10 Tony:
So we haven't even gotten to talk about Beau or Five Points or all of these amazing things that are happening for you, but can you just tell us what you are allowed to say is coming down the pipeline?

47:26 Douglas:
Beau is COVID-pending, it's supposed to arrive in New York City this fall. And I can say that because there was a thing that went out on Broadway briefing that we're coming Off-Broadway. So that's supposed to happen this fall. I'm crossing everything that we can start rehearsals and everyone is healthy, and the world is safe. Obviously everyone's health is more important than a musical, but that is supposed to happen. Five Points had a very successful reading with Paper Mill Playhouse in January of this year. So that was awesome. Yeah, there are other things happening, which I cannot talk about yet, but I can say that I'm trying to get into the TV/film business and those conversations are successful right now.

48:17 Tony:
That's very exciting.! So I've never asked this, but I'm curious to hear from you, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

48:28 Douglas:
Hopefully we'll have had a show offer on Broadway as a writer! I want a life, and it doesn't have to be New York City. I want to travel, but I want to be an artist of all facets. I don't want to be stuck. I think that's what I've learned this year is: love the theater, adore the theater, but being an artist means you can be all these different things. I was telling a friend of mine last night, Janelle Monáe, Lady Gaga, theater girls: they were theater. Ariana Grande: theater artists who have become pop artists. So anything is possible for any of us. And just being open to your artistry, and not necessarily the lane that you thought you had to be in, I think, is important.

49:31 Tony:
I'm going to include whatever you would like to include with this episode. But what is the best way to get connected with you?

49:41 Douglas:
I would say douglyonsproductions@gmail.com (my email), or you can hit me up on Instagram at @ChocolateHipster or @DouglasSings on Twitter. I also have a Facebook account that you can reach out to me [on].

49:55 Tony:
We'll include all of that. Douglas, thank you for being on this show. You're a delight. Congratulations. Thank you.

50:02 Douglas:
Thank you! And listen, I’m gonna plug: we have the Beau Sony Masterworks album right now on all the platforms. So check that out.

50:14 Tony:
Thank you so much Douglas. And thank you for listening. Since this show is about using your gifts to change the world. I want to highlight just the few things that Douglas said:
What are you trying to say? Anything is possible. We live in a world full of opportunities. Stay open to your artistry and the agency that you have.
That being said, get to work, create the thing, your product or production. However, don't go too far alone or give up too early.
Then you've got to share the work. Self-promotion is not a bad thing. And you can think of it in the business lens of branding, marketing, and sales.
Take a note of Douglas's skills (determination, drive, and hustle), and then check your patience and monitor your personality. Every business is built on relationships, partnerships, and collaboration.
Beyond that, you never know who's watching, who's listening, and who's rooting for you.

I know Douglas and I would both love to hear from you. So take a screenshot of this episode, and share your favorite moment or biggest takeaway, tagging Douglas Lyons and Tony Howell.

If you want to hear more inspiring episodes with other changemakers, be sure to subscribe. And I would love it if you would leave a review.

Now, our website is currently under construction, but I have created a special page to feature Douglas and some of his work, not even all of it, but if you click on the link in the description, you'll be able to see some of his incredible acting production photos, watch videos, listen to the music, buy the albums and learn more about his shows.

While you're there, in the footer, I would hope that you will join our Changemaker Community: artists around the world, working to change and make a difference. If you sign up, you'll get my free Brand Bootcamp alongside the latest and greatest. Things like this that I make just for you.

Thank you for listening to Conversations with Changemakers. Now, use your work to change the world. Maybe you and I can have a conversation about it very soon.

On this episode of Conversations with Changemakers, we speak with Douglas Lyons: award-winning writer, composer, lyricist, playwright, actor, and more. Especially relevant for singers, songwriters, and performing artists (new and old), listen now to discover Douglas’ take on:

  • Higher education vs. real-world experience.
  • Career evolutions or expansions: trying new things!
  • Navigating from creative idea to first draft, world premiere, and global licensing of new works.

As you listen, ruminate on how to use your gifts, your voice, your story, to change this world.

Click here to access bonus resources from this episode.

Connect with Douglas Lyons:

Connect with Tony Howell:

Episode Credits:

If you enjoy this episode, please leave a review! Be sure to check out our past conversations and subscribe for next month’s special guest.

Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices

SUBSCRIBE TO RECEIVE OUR LATEST NEWS & ANNOUNCEMENTS

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This