Hello, it's Tony Howell and welcome to our Season Three Finale of The Tony Howell Podcast: Conversations with Changemakers.
This is one of my absolute favorite episodes to create because it's an honor to present you with the through lines, particularly in this episode of three different years of conversations, but also what's been going on in our world for the last 12 months.
So every single conversation whether it's with an artist and entrepreneur or someone who blends both worlds revolves around the central question…
How can you use your work to change the world?
So at the end of Season Two, in our recap episode, I would have said the number one thing I heard over and over and over was to be authentic.
We heard that from Nathan Lee Graham, Jen Waldman, Telly Leung — and you can hear that episode or those individual conversations with the link underneath this episode — but this year, expounding on that idea of being authentic, I heard a real underlying theme that you are enough.
So Tegan Summer, the world's greatest producer, librettist, and lyricist of bio-musicals says it this way:
“We're always folding ourselves into what we believe society wants of us, be it peer pressure, pressure from the screen, or with regard to, ‘I don't look like that. I don't sound like that. This is something that will never be in my life. It's 100% unobtainable, I will never achieve this.’ Ugh.
If I could go back or speak to actors today, it's all about what you are now is exactly what we need to see. So be yourself 100% and never stop, never look back. Eyes forward, eyes front, and you will get there. The insecurity of life where we always look backwards. Obstacle? It’s the biggest fear. But that's tough, especially when it's 3am thought waking you up. So we need like minded people to say, ‘You are enough 100% to the nth degree you are enough.’
The essence of you in your craft, in your lines, in the sides, in libretto, in a stanza, in a song, in the 11 o’clock number, and we will see you. We will see you.”
In my conversation with award-winning actor, author, and on-camera acting coach, Stef Tovar, he shares it in this way:
“You know, part of being a good on-camera actor, whether you're self-taping for Broadway, or you're self-taping for a television show, is trusting yourself, trusting that if you take a moment, and you don't have a line, and you're just thinking and being active in your mind, that you will be enough. That the camera will come to you and it will capture it and that you need to be able to trust yourself.
So many actors, like just move so fast through their auditions. And I'm like, whoa, whoa, whoa. And that's about trust, I went through the same thing. I was like, if I didn't say my lines quickly, I'm going to lose my audience.
No. You are just as talented, more talented, actually, when you're not speaking, than when you're speaking when it comes to self-tape. And it all goes back to that self-belief and mindset that you're capable of this.
So I would say whatever your art is, if you’re a designer, just believe in yourself and flip that mindset from what you think you might be capable of to ‘This is mine, it's already out there for me, I deserve to be and have a place in the world. And this is what it is.’
And it's really just about instilling that confidence in yourself. And you know, I know it sounds corny, but you really helped me with that. I don't think that I would be as confident as a teacher, as an author if I didn't go through this process with you. And now I look back and go, ‘Thank god I did!’”
Most recently, we spoke with Eli Zoller, a Broadway Musician, Music Director, and a Northwestern Mutual Financial Advisor. So someone who wears many, many different hats. Here's what he wants to remind you about how you show up:
“One general piece of advice of what I've noticed in the room, and from experience myself of what I've done right, and what I've done dramatically wrong, is that if you want to give yourself the best opportunities, not just in that room, but in future rooms, understand that they're not just looking for a person to cast, they're looking for a person to collaborate with, at least the rooms I want to be in anyways.
And that means we need to see who you are so that we can see who you can be as part of a team.”
Sometimes we are blessed to be working. Other times, the show closes and then… who are we? Jenn Gambatese, one of my favorite actors, writers, and producers shares this advice:
“I would say to fellow friends and artist friends, you know, yeah, don't forget the field. You can't keep planting in it and expect a good crop to grow. The soil has to rest and has to sort of do nothing.
You know, that's hard. I think, doing nothing. As you said in one of your dualities, you said doing versus being - that's an eternal journey for most of us to discover because ‘we have to do, to prove our worth, and to get the things we think we want.’ And like, none of that is true.
So doing all the different inner work that I've been doing and reframing this for myself has been really freeing. Really, really freeing, because I'm like, ‘Oh, I don't have to do, to prove that I'm good and worthy and valuable. I just have to connect!’
I just have to talk to people like you and to other friends and just be present and the rest will sort of take care of itself.”
Season Two shared the idea that you are not your job, that your identity should go beyond the work you do. We heard from entrepreneurs Christine Cole, Marie Forleo, and Dr. Susan Carroll Berck.
We also heard from Broadway Leading Ladies like Kathryn Allison, Krystina Alabado, Sierra Boggess, Desi Oakley, and one of my favorite UK buddies who crosses both worlds, Jamie Body.
Expanding on the idea that your identity is not your job, one of the things that I think is important to create is a sense of community. Five-time Tony Award Winner and living legend Susan Stroman shares this advice:
“I feel like I have lived my life through highs and lows. And not only in the theatre, but in my personal life. They seem to be extremes: extremely high, and extremely low. And same with personal and theatre.
And it is just the roller coaster of the choice of job and profession that I have chosen, that we all have chosen, for those of us in the theatre. It is precarious, at best.
And how one gets through all that I think is surrounding yourself with friends and people who are like-minded, love you, and that sense of people that you love. It's very important to have friends that will be there for your highs, but will also be there for your lows.
No matter who you are or where you are, there will be highs and lows in your journey as well. I loved my conversation with Hamilton's hero, and the registered Soldier of Love®, Antuan Magic Raimone.
“It's true friends that hear you most when you're silent.” So when you have people in your life that reach out to you because of your silence, those are people that understand your heart, that understand your spirit, and that want to support you and love you, regardless of how many followers you have, how many likes you have, how many Broadway credits you have, how many books you've written or sold, how many talks you've given. They don't care!
Antuan is not only an incredible and prolific artists, but he's also the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And continuing this idea of developing an identity, one of the things that I think it's important we continue to talk about is mental health. So here's Antuan's advice on one small thing you can start doing today:
“If you don't hear this today from anyone else, you're going to hear from me that you are love, and you are loved. And that is something I actually say to myself every day at least three times a day. Why three times a day? Because it's when I eat meals. So when I, you know, I kind of… I bless my food. And the first thing I say is “I am love. I am loved.”
And it's not that I don't know I'm loved by other people. But in my field, I could be in another city. I could go a whole day without talking to my partner. And you just may not hear that from someone else. And it's not because people in your life don't love you. But life happens. And you may not hear from someone else. So why not hear from yourself?
So if nothing else, know that you are love, and you are loved. And I invite you to tell yourself that at least once a day. Do it in the shower because that is a space you will more than likely have to yourself.”
If you grew up watching Little House on the Prairie like I did, then you'll recognize Ma’s voice in our conversation with Actor and Writer, Karen Grassle. And I asked her, “How can we destigmatize this conversation around mental health?”
“Oh, that's such a good question, and I suppose this is how we do it by saying, ‘Yes, I talked to my therapist last week. And here's the insight I got.’ You know what I mean, to make this part of the fabric of our lives rather than being in the closet and saying, ‘Well, you know, I don't want people to know that I need help or that I have problems or that I seek advice from other people.’
You know, I mean, these are such old ideas that people should be, you know, stoic and independent and not need anybody.
But the church used to fulfill that role. And even though we've learned a lot about the frailties of the church, still, that there was a role in society. There was somebody for people to go talk to, and as membership in the churches has gone down, we need some resources.
So I'm one of those people who needed all the help she could get, you know, and fortunately, I'm able to seek that help and pay for it. But that's another issue, you know, is making mental health services available to people.”
We need to make mental health services available, affordable, and non controversial. But there are also things that you can do every single day to take care of yourself. I love what Director/Choreographer, Tony Spinosa shares:
11:37 Tony Spinosa
“I thought about this a little bit. And, you know, I'm very much into my physical health. Exercising every day, I think is very important with keeping your instrument in tune.
And the other thing that I do often is connect with nature. I find nature to be you know, whether it's a hike, or whether it's a walk by the beach, or anything that connects me with nature really helps my brain to open up and spark new ideas and come up with new ideas. It's a very grounding exercise for me.”
Along the yellow brick road of life and business, we do encounter losses. So I truly love my collaboration, but also my conversation with Actor and Podcast Host, Dana Black. You should check out her podcast, I Swear On My Mother's Grave. But here's what Dana has to say about grief:
“We believe as a society that it's so scary to talk about grief. And we think by talking about it, it'll be worse—our grief will be worse, heavier, harder. But it actually lightens the load. It literally frees you and you move through the muck.”
I also spoke about death and loss with Jenn Gambatese who lost Doreen Montalvo during the run of Mrs. Doubtfire. But around that same time we lost Stephen Sondheim. And to be honest, we will continue to lose people. But here's what Jenn has to say about processing those losses:
“I would tell people not to be afraid to open themselves to continuing their relationships with people when they do depart from the woods. You know, my belief is that they're returning to where we all come from. The woods, our time here, is the short part. The outskirts of the woods, whatever that is in the non-physical, that's the eternal part. And that's where we all come from, where we're all all going to sort of return to.
Our people are our people always, so making the most of our time while we have it here, in this you know earth school playground is about sort of enjoying the things that are only possible here, right? Like, oh, I'm looking at this pastrami sandwich!”
So find the joy, my friends and embrace the present moment!
Another through line from Season Two was that as artists, we’re individual business owners and to stay open to where your artistry may go. To follow the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monáe — there's all kinds of possibilities for all of us.
So we heard that from Susan Eichhorn Young, Douglas Lyons, Jelani Alladin, Tyler G. Mount, and Joe Rosko.
But how does an artist become a business?
How does an artist become a healthy CEO?
Well, the first thing that I would say expanding on that idea this year is that you've got to go out there and make it happen! Here's some inspiration for you from one of my favorite Tony’s.
14:42 Tony Spinosa
“Do what you love to do. Life is too short to not live out your passions and live out your dreams. Like I said, we're always handed ‘No, you can't do this.’ And yes, you can do this. And I wish that the youth were instilled with that more often because you can have your dreams. You can manifest your dreams.
And just this past year, on the Tony Awards, I saw so many people, encouraging people to live their dreams. Go after it, because you will succeed. You will succeed with the passion, drive, and determination. Don't hold back.”
In case you didn't catch that, and that was Tony Spinosa. And here's Dana Black with even more inspiration for you to go out there and do the thing.
“If you dream it and you build the thing that you want to attend, that you want to be a part of, you will attract people who are craving spaciousness, and this opportunity. And that is what happened. And we sold out at the time in under a month.
And there were other people who still wanted to come and we're like, let me know when the next one is. Some people want to come back a second time from this retreat this October. So it's just it's so exciting. So yeah, Bali, Greece, Italy, Traverse City.”
Allow me to also share Susan's Stroman’s advice for you, the artist:
“Step forward with your talent, step forward with your ideas, find different collaborators, find places that you can show people what you have to offer. There are so many institutions around the city that you can knock on the door and be a part of it.
So I think it's that idea of opening up your eyes a little bit past your own myopic talent and finding out what else is out there. And then trying to be a part of it and trying to make a difference. Do something that makes a difference in someone's life, a singular person's life, or in the life of an audience.”
My right hand man (...my best man, to be honest), Jonathan Freeland, a Singer/Songwriter in Nashville, but also my longtime Associate, shared this advice for going out there and going after your dreams:
“I kind of toiled back and forth between auditions and working in restaurants and worked regionally for about, I guess it was like the next three or four years. And it was around that time, though, where I really was starting to have those, like the highs were high, and the lows were super low. And there were so many lessons that I learned there artistically in those lows when I wasn't working, that ended up really feeding that fire of okay, you don't have to wait on someone else to determine your career path as an actor.”
That can be quite difficult. So here's how he learned to become a healthy CEO, while juggling all these different pursuits.
“‘Okay, here are my ideas, how can I execute them in a way that makes sense?’ Instead of ‘I'm doing 6 million things, oh, I have to do this, oh, I have to put out the song. I should be doing all of these things’ versus ‘Okay, here's work time, here's music time, here's personal time.’”
Time management is so important. We heard that in our conversation with Eli Zoller, who expanded not just on money management, but time management.
“I love being busy. I love it. It's fantastic. I'm a dual career individual. I'll take six meetings during the day and then go play a show. And my body doesn't always thank me for it, but my mind does. And I love it. I love being proactive in multiple aspects of my career.
But you have to know that it requires time management.”
So now that you are stepping up as an artist, and you're going to be your own business, there's going to come a time when you have a team.
And so I wanted to pass on some leadership lessons that I garnered from this season. First up is leading lady, Eryn LeCroy:
“I was preparing to go do a production of My Fair Lady and I was playing Eliza Doolittle. And I had taken my music to Jasper, and we were working on the music. I remember he stopped and he looked at me, and he said, ‘Eryn, I want to ask you: what kind of leading lady are you going to be?’ He said, ‘Are you going to be the kind of leading lady that leaves her dressing room door open, that's welcoming and inviting, or the kind of leading lady that keeps her door closed? What kind of tone are you setting the moment you set foot into the building?’
And so that is something that I will often bring up with young students and young artists, to just encourage them to set a tone of kindness, set a tone of humility, and always lead with integrity.
And I think that's important, not just in the theatre, but in any aspect of our lives.”
Going back to Karen Grassle, around the time of our interview, she had just released her memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust, and within it, I love the fact that she honored every single person that worked on Little House on the Prairie.
But here are two leadership lessons that she learned from that successful series.
“Kent was an extraordinary leader who was never blowing his own horn but always seeing to the job. I describe in the book how he got out in the mud in the rain, trying to dig these trucks out of this mud on the ranch when we were doing the pilot and how the driver of the car I was in said, “Boy, you don't see a production manager doing that.” But he was all about getting the job done.
Well, I come from that kind of family. My parents were very unassuming people, very straightforward people. They were very frank and honest. So that was a work ethic I was raised with and respect. That is one thing my folks taught me and my sister was how to work hard.
I should also say that Mike was exceptional in that he had his eyes and ears on everything all the time. And he made it his job to try to create a fun atmosphere and keep things light. And he knew more jokes than anybody I've ever met. I mean, they just came out of him repeatedly, constantly over the years. And it was part of what he did to try to keep the crew happy. He did things for the children too - to entertain them.”
And I would be remiss if I didn't pass on some of the wisdom that I've garnered from Susan Stroman. Here's what she has to say about helming large multi-million dollar musicals.
“It is important to make the room comfortable. And in doing so it is all about respect. It is about respecting actors, it's about respecting designers, and even about respecting your producers. So it is all about respect.
Because I don't think people can do their best work if they do not feel respected. And you want to have that room filled with that feeling of being able to create and being able to fall on your face and get back up again — that no one is judging you. So it has a great freedom to it. And you want to be inspired by everyone in the room.
So I think respect is the most important aspect of that.”
So congratulations, my friend. We are being authentic, knowing we are enough. We are developing an identity outside of our work, creating community, and knowing that mental health is important. We're taking care of ourselves. And in the meantime, we're also realizing that we are our own CEOs as artists, and we are making things happen and taking leadership.
One of the other big lessons from Season Two was to be fearless that you have to do that in order to create change. We heard that from Douglas Lyons, Lea Salonga, Ken Davenport, Kate Lumpkin, Mila Atmos and Roma Torre.
I would tell you that between these different artists, writers, journalists, casting directors, and even my own experience as a brand strategist, something I believe is that we have to bridge worlds.
So we have to bridge:
Tradition + Innovation
Past + Future
Expectation + Surprise
Entertainment + Education
…in order to make change.
One big theme of our Season Three was this idea of “edutainment” — that we are doing this in order to influence change.
So I will go back to Tegan Summer, Producer Librettist, and Lyricist of bio-musicals. And here's what he has to say about creating art that does make change:
“It's not about what we'd get in documentaries gone by, it's not just about the sensational headlines.
You know, we often get in an email the subject line? I want to look at the body of the text: the man, the family. What you ate at breakfast? Cereals? How you spoke to your children? And what Malcolm X thought about growing up. So in an environment where he had to raise himself and become this leader, what's behind the smile? What's behind the gesture? What's behind the cause.
Especially as a Black man growing up in England and America, it's fascinating to me, that story. And it's taken a year to secure these rights, and we want to do it justice. And I'm blessed and proud to be on this story.”
Eryn LeCroy, cast member of the revolutionary revival of 1776, shares this about edutainment:
“I think one thing that our Co–Directors, Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, have really highlighted is: how do we reckon with our past in order to move forward and produce change?”
“I think what was really cool, is they had these questions available for audience members who came to see our production at the American Repertory Theatre, hence, combining I think education and entertainment to result in creating theatre that challenges—because you're forced to reflect and really grapple with some of these questions and reckon with our history, where we have been, where we are now, and where we desire to move forward in the future together.”
I was honored to have the conversation with Susan Stroman about how she creates art that influences change. And here's what she had to share.
“I do think we need both. We do need good old entertainment for people to lift their spirits. We absolutely do. But I do think too, it's a time to think about making theatre that's going to touch people in a way, to make them think. That is very important. Making people think in a new way, in a different way. Make people understand something they never knew anything about.
So it's finding those stories, too. That when an audience leaves the theatre, they talk about that particular idea or show for several days, that's when you really have success.”
Whether you’re creating new works or interpreting the classics, keep your eyes on this blend of education and entertainment. Here’s some intel from the creator of Singing Revolution: The Musical, Tony Spinosa:
27:09 Tony Spinosa
“In writing any form of entertainment, you don't want it to feel like it's an education. The education sort of has to be the aftermath of what the entertainment is. It's tricky. It's a fine line, because the very first version that I wrote of Singing Revolution came out like a history lesson. And I was like, “No! This is bad. This is just bad.”
And that's when I brought on my co-writer, James Bearhart to come help me write the book, make it a character driven story, you use all the nuts and bolts of an American musical to turn it into the entertainment that it is.”
Notice that part about teamwork? Don’t try to do everything on your own my friend - and I’m talking to myself here, too!
Our final through line of Season Two was that success is personally defined. We heard that from Broadway Black’s Drew Shade, J. Robert Spencer, and so many others.
But I loved, this year, the truth bomb Jonathan Freeland shared in our conversation about success in the music business:
“I want the songs to elicit emotion. I want the merch to elicit emotion. I want people to feel things.”
You have brilliant ideas, and you might even invest the time, money, and energy required to execute those beautifully. But while you’re in your own head and creating things from your heart, don’t forget to focus on the emotions of your audience. How your art makes others feel is the best way to influence action or create change.
So you’ve probably heard, “Success is the journey, not the destination.” For me, putting this all together, success lies in action, it is a pursuit… but it can’t be all about you. So perhaps redefine success as the actions you take, as well as the actions you inspire in others.
And that, my dear, is the end… at least for now. So I want to repeat these big ideas, but if you are a visual learner like me, make sure you click on that link that goes with this episode because you’re going to see this and it will help you remember these big ideas.
So after 34 conversations and three years, the biggest takeaways and lessons are:
Trust You Are Enough.
Your Identity ≠ Your Job
Explore Who You Are Outside of What You Do
Prioritize Mental Health
Talk About Your Grief
Get Out in Nature
Develop a Community—Support in Highs & Lows
Artist = Business Owner / CEO
Make It Happen
Learn Leadership for Teams
It’s Required to Make Change
Tradition + Innovation
Entertainment + Education
Ideas + Feelings
You Define Success
Now, to increase your efficacy as an Artist, Changemaker, and CEO, yes, keep taking action and keep moving forward! However, take time to stop and reflect.
Take a moment to look back at how far you've come. That is why this year's season has come at the end of every month, because I hope that every single month, you will take a moment to “Honor your past. Present your present. Design our future!”
I hope that you found this recap helpful to glean the wisdom of all of these incredible changemakers. If you want to listen to more of these conversations, including just the people whose names I mentioned, click on the link below this episode.
I do need to let you know I am going to take a pause on the podcast at least for the next year to create NEW self-paced online courses and make sure articles I wrote in 2013 are updated to reflect the world we live in today.
Throughout the year ahead, I'll be holding LIVE Zoom calls, classes, and workshops. So make sure that you are subscribed, hop over to TonyHowell.co to get all the details. And I hope to see you your face on Zoom very soon.
But I do want to hear from you today! Who or what spoke to you? What was your biggest lesson this year? Take a screenshot of this episode and tag me with your thoughts or leave a review at RateThisPodcast.com/tonyhowell.
Thank you so much for listening. Thank you to Antoinette Placides for guiding and editing this show, to Gertrude Pillena for art direction. Thank you also to all of the incredible guests for your contributions, and Broadway Podcast Network for amplifying so many voices.
But now it's up to you. How can you use your work to change the world? I hope you and I get to have a conversation about that very soon.