My coat is linty. It’s January and it’s one of the first cold nights we’ve had in Florida in years. This coat – my favorite – goes down to my calves, with a long lapel that makes me feel like Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, all dressed up for an ordinary dinner.
I try to get as much lint off as possible while I hustle from the parking garage across the street to Orlando’s new performing arts center. I want to look nice, sophisticated; I’m about to meet and interview a Broadway star, someone who originated Mary Poppins in New York and who’s played Belle on the stage, my childhood dream.
I press my hand to my chest, inhale slowly and hold the breath there, remembering last night, seeing Sound of Music at this very theater, when my breath was concentrated in that exact spot every time Ashley Brown opened her mouth to sing.
As I cross the downtown Orlando streets I inhale the people milling about, thankful for a moment to step away from home. I’ve been working from home for the last seven months, months that I thought would be glorious – months without travel or packing, with a solid home base and a comforting routine; months that have instead started to feel a lot like unemployment. When did I start to feel so irrelevant? I wonder. I’m not sure, but I do know this coat and walk is helping.
I’m supposed to get security to tell Ashley when I arrive, but to my surprise she’s already there to meet me, face fresh and primed for stage makeup, a loose cotton blouse gracefully revealing a sweet baby bump that was imperceptible in the Mother Abbess costume I saw her sing in last night. She smiles, making her instantly recognizable.
I tell her how much I loved her as the Mother Abbess in Sound of Music last night as we walk to her dressing room where we’ll do the interview; she thanks me genuinely. We get to her dressing room and as she opens the door a short, stocky, white ball of fur comes at me, shaking his whole body, big eyes staring up, begging to be greeted. Ashley apologizes and introduces me to her faithful traveling companion Eddie, a nine-year-old French bulldog.
I forget myself for a moment and crouch down to give Eddie the attention he desires, the attention I’m only too happy to give. It relaxes me. I don’t usually get nervous interviewing people – it’s one of my favorite things to do. I don’t get paid for this; there’s simply no other way I’d rather spend my time than hearing someone else talk about their life.
But it’s been a while since my last interview. And Ashley and I have never met, talked, or emailed until this very moment. Her manager arranged it. At this point I have no idea what she thinks about any of this, or me, or why she agreed (or was told) to do this interview in the first place. I hug Eddie close and suddenly feel like it’s going to be okay. Someone who loves and travels with a dog like this must be as lovely as I predict.
I peel myself away from the happy furball, secretly wishing I could plop him on my lap for the entire interview, and begin with my questions. “What does creativity mean to you and where you see yourself as your most creative?” I ask. As soon as she begins to speak, I exhale; I relax into what I love, listening to someone talk about what they love and how they work for it. I’m about to learn more about how this small-town girl from Florida made it to Broadway.
“I think creativity is just being able to make something your own,” she begins. Whether it’s brand new or whether it’s something that’s been done a lot. I think that’s what’s really exciting.” Ashley was the first to play Mary Poppins on Broadway, but she’s also played roles that have “been done a million times.” We talk about how creativity isn’t always just about what you do “first,” or originally, but how you “put your own stamp on it.”
How do you have the courage to put your own stamp on something? How do you know your “stamp” is any good? “It has a lot to do with being comfortable with who you are and being able to bring yourself to the part regardless of what it is,” Ashley says. “And sometimes it’s challenging. Sometimes roles just pour out of me and sometimes they don’t.”
I feel comforted to hear sometimes things don’t pour out of her. I wonder what she does during those times. I make a note to follow up on that soon and press on with more confidence to ask the next question I have carefully typed out in my phone’s notebook app: “What’s a particular – rurrrrrrrgghhhhhgggggg.” Eddie burps. Loud. Me and Ashley laugh. Louder. Ashley leans into the recorder to clarify: “That was Ed’s burp,” she laughs. “Not Ashley’s burp.”
I sink deeper into my chair, ready to find out more about how this lovely person with the burping bulldog got to where she is today, how she made a successful profession in the ever so risky rollercoaster of the arts. “I’m the youngest of four,” she begins, with a tone that makes me think she loves her family very deeply. “I’m from Gulf Breeze, Florida, and no one in my family does this at all. My mom and dad were always like, ‘I wish you came with an instruction booklet because we don’t even know where to begin.’ But they were so supportive. Ashley started singing in church when she was seven years old. But so did all her siblings, so she didn’t think anything of it. I laugh and tell her how I sang in choirs when I was seven too (nowhere near as good as her, I can guarantee). You’re not thinking anything of it then. “Exactly,” she laughs, “I wasn’t born and bred to think I was anything extra special.”
It took a little while for Ashley to start to take her voice seriously: “it wasn’t until…high school where I realized that I was something different, that I was unique in a way. Not that I was so extra talented but that I had a love for something that was not normal. ”
Ashley’s intense love for singing didn’t feel normal at her high school: “I went to a very sporty private school so there wasn’t really a place for me because I cannot play sports to save my life. But instead of lamenting her awkwardness or flailing through basketball tryouts she focused heavily on her music. “And what I loved about it and what I appreciate,” she remembers, is that her parents “never made me do it. I always did it because I loved it.
Ashley chose this and chose it early. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Ashley’s journey to success can seem obvious when looking back from the Broadway stage – but her path was not inevitable.
She could have chosen a million other directions. Being born with a great singing voice might make a musical theater path seem easy, written in the stars, guaranteed to succeed. But there are a lot of people with great voices; I’ve seen the thousands of television show singing competition auditions – a lot of people can sing beautifully. But what makes someone different? What makes them creative? What gets them to Broadway? To the stages they dream of?
At some point, there is a choice - the decision to go down a path that isn’t predictable and dedicate your life to work that will always challenge, often disappoint, and sometimes ask for more than you think you can give. If it wasn’t your choice to begin with, that might make the down times more difficult to weather. But for Ashley, the choice provided an armor of perseverance that would get her through the times to come. To ensure it was truly her choice, she and her parents reassessed annually: “every year…I was like, I want to go back to choir, I want to go back to voice lessons.”
She took voice lessons with Debra Ross, who she started with when she was 14 years old and still trains with when she returns to her hometown; Ashley’s eyes widen as she tells me one of the first things Debra said to her after one of their sessions: “‘you really have something.’” Ashley remembers being taken by surprise, and for a moment her face illuminates 9th grade earnestness as she tells me how she responded to Debra: “ I was like, ‘really!?’ I think that’s when I got the bug.”
I think about an essay on I wrote in 9th grade on Jonathan Livingston Seagull. My mom found in the attic a few years ago; it’s marked up in red – but a rare kind, the kind that’s all positive, an English teacher telling me what she saw in my writing and me –potential she believed in. Potential that propelled me forward.
There’s a scene in Jonathan Livingston Seagull when his mother is frustrated at his choice to fly higher, be different: “‘Why, Jon, why?’ his mother asked. ‘Why is it so hard to be like the rest of the flock, Jon?...Son, you're bone and feathers!’
"‘I don't mind being bone and feathers mom. I just want to know what I can do in the air and what I can't, that's all. I just want to know.'” Jonathan’s solution is to practice. And, with the encouragement of her first teacher, that’s what Ashley did too.
During her junior year of high school she attended a Broadway theater project in Tampa, put on by Anne Ryan King, that would change her life: “Thousands and thousands of kids around the country auditioned for this and only 200 of us got in.” Ashley’s practice was beginning to pay off, and during the three-week theater camp Ashley practiced even more, rehearsing all day to put on shows at night. It was intense. But Ashley loved it. “I was just in my element… I was like…‘normal kids would not enjoy this.’ That’s how I wanted to spend my summer? Dorkus dorkus.” She laughs at herself. It’s so genuine that I want to hug her.
I restrain myself. Instead I think about Malcolm Gladwell and his idea that most people we consider masters or geniuses were not born that way but simply put in ten thousand hours of deliberate practice towards their craft. I think about Ashley getting a job with Disney right after college, and how there is so much more to that story. There was singing since age seven, constant training and coaching and deliberate practice since age fourteen.
Deliberate practice, though, is different than just doing something over and over again. It’s about strategically honing in on weaknesses, spending hours a day in deep concentration, and paying attention what you’re really good at and then working hard to develop that to its highest capacity.
But sometimes, we need someone outside of ourselves to pay attention, to recognize our talent and tell us, in one way or another, ‘No, you are not delusional. You have something. You have a creative capacity, real potential, in this particular thing. Develop it. Share it. Spend your ten thousand hours here.”
At the theater camp, one of the top casting directors, Dave Clemmons, cast Ashley in his project for the week. After one of their first rehearsals, Dave pulled Ashley aside and said, “‘you have to do this the rest of your life.’”
I think of my first month in community college and the red “see me” that showed up on my first college essay, the one written not because my essay was terrible but because the professor wanted to tell me I should be in the college’s honors program. He also told me that day that community college could take me anywhere, that I could get a PhD one day if I wanted to. I think of the PhD acceptance letter I got last week. I think about how mentors and role models change trajectories. This moment with Dave Clemmons changed Ashley’s, especially because of what she did next.
When receiving the compliment from the casting director she didn’t laugh, self deprecate, question it, or soak it in thinking “YES I AM THE BEST AND BETTER THAN THE REST HA!” She did something that can make all the difference. She admitted that she didn’t know what the next steps were, and she asked a question: “I was like, ‘where do I go to school, what do I do, I don’t really know where to go.’” Clemmons told her about the number one school for musical theater, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. “‘If you can get in there for musical theater,’” he told her, “‘Go.’”
When the time came, Ashley remembered this moment and applied to Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Clemmons wrote her a recommendation. Months later she remembers her mom bringing her acceptance letter to the drama room in high school: “I was like, ‘It’s thick. I think it’s good.’” It was very good. Ashley got a full scholarship. The years of training was starting to pay off. To Ashley, though, “It was crazy” that “this little girl from Gulf Breeze, Florida” got this scholarship, especially up against so many people: “It was still just so weird for me.
No one in her family was in theater or any kind of arts or entertainment. No one she really ever knew, for that matter, outside of the mentors she met, did anything like this for a living: “There was nothing ever set up for me like, this is how it’s done.” There was a lot she would have to learn on her own: “I was with all these big city kids…I just remember being like, ‘Oh, you have to be like that to make it…her mom is on Broadway or her dad is the Tony award winning choreographer,’ and I’m like, ‘My mom is a stay at home mom. My dad is a rheumatologist.’ I remember in college being like, ‘am I doing what I’m supposed to do to get there?’ And I still have those moments of, am I doing what I need to do to get there?”
Ashley’s first instinct upon realizing she wasn’t like the other kids was not to let the nasty voice of inadequacy tell her that she didn’t belong. Instead, she lets another voice in, the one that asks: Am I doing what I need to do to get there? A question that diverts all the attention away from the frustration about what other people have that you don’t; it’s not that the inequalities aren’t real, it’s that maybe the best way to overcome them is to frame them in a way that propels instead of paralyzes.
The framing Ashley chooses – Am I doing what I need to do to get there – finds its way out of frustration and roots itself in faith, faith in what you’re capable of, faith in practice, in strategy, in determination. And faith that perhaps worrying about other people’s advantages is not the best way to ‘get there.’ Ashley’s question gives me something to hold on to whenever I feel paralyzed by the reality that I don’t reflect the “norm” in my creative aspirations. I cradle Am I doing what I need to do to get there in my hands like a baby bird and promise to make it a part of me.
I ask Ashley about how to figure out what you need to do to get closer to where you hope to be. Once you’ve asked yourself the question, where do you find the answers?
For Ashley, the first step was assessing her goals and truly thinking about where she measured up – not compared to anyone else, but compared to her own version of excellence. For her, that was Broadway, and she knew that would require more than just her singing voice: “I could sing a twelve-minute song for anybody and feel fine… [but getting up] do a twelve-minute monologue would send me into a tailspin.” Ashley remembers and shares with me what she said to herself to turn that initial dejection into hustle: “I just remember being like, ‘[when I go to New York City and audition] nobody’s going to care…what I’m good at and what I’m not. There’re just going to want me to be good [at everything].’” Despite Ashley’s great singing voice, her goal was not to “graduate a singer. I came in as a singer. I want to become the whole thing.”
At the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM) Ashley decided to work on her weaknesses. But not just any weaknesses; she didn’t work on her jump shot (we’d laughed earlier how neither of us were athletes in high school). She identified the weaknesses she had in her creative field…the ones that would be required to be on Broadway. The acting. The dancing. And it paid off. By her senior year Ashley was in the advanced acting and dancing classes. She credits her CCM experience as crucial to helping her get to where she is today in every sense; in addition to making her a triple threat, she also learned the kinds of things that help turn art into a career – the business side, which for her was learning how to manage the politics of the audition process and develop the interpersonal skills required to perform with a team: “I came in as this southern girl who wanted to be on Broadway, I left as a business woman.”
I ask Ashley about some of the scarier parts of the business of art, and she starts talking about her talks with high school kids, how they often ask her, “‘What’s the scariest part?’” and she answers, “‘you don’t want to know.’” She laughs, explaining how she thinks her naïveté was a gift, shielding her from some of the harder parts to come. We talk about how it is important to look before you leap, but that forecasting the painful parts before you’re equipped to handle them might keep you from something wonderful. There is boldness in naïveté, in youth; maybe sometimes that’s a good thing.
I wonder to myself what you do, though, when you do know the risks, when you do know the hardships ahead, or when you’re in the thick of them and all the preparation in the world can’t keep the doubts at bay, the little voice whispering that everything you’ve invested in this creative pursuit is a waste…that it’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made…that you’re a joke. How do you know if you should go on, or try again? Ashley unknowingly offers me an answer: “…but just loving something so much that I couldn’t imagine living without it.”
Ashley and I start to talk about the challenges that come when you begin to pursue what you love in the ‘real world,’ a phrase that used to annoy me in its condescension towards young people. However, I realized the term ‘real world’ is simply an attempt to put into words the transition from an insulated school system, one in which adults are generally there to help you succeed, to a bigger, wilder, colder system – one with hidden rules and gray areas, where “A” work can still get an “F,” and where for the majority of adults, your success is not their success – it’s their competition.
“Nobody cares once you’re out in the real world,” Ashley says like she’s been hurt before by the ones who don’t care. “Whether you’re in theater or not, no matter what you’re doing, nobody cares.” We laugh at the hard truth of it. I’m also laughing in relief. I’d been feeling the sharp pang of this reality lately…that no one seemed to care, that no one would care about my dream as much as I did, the pain of how true and how lonely that can be. Sometimes the truth, even when you wish that truth were different, is still comforting when you say it out loud, when you can say the unfair thing and laugh, knowing that the laughter won’t change the reality, but also feeling that maybe naming the injustice is the first step towards changing it.
Ashley remembers her first revelations about what she would need to do to prepare herself to meet the harshness of the real world. Despite all her training and talent, she was not cast in the college’s spring musical; she was crushed; “‘I’m never going to live again!’” she remembers thinking. But instead of letting that get her down for too long, she renewed her determination by saying to herself, “‘Do you think people care once you’re in the real world?’ They just want you to show up and they want you to be good. It doesn’t matter if you were never cast in college, if you’re good when you walk in that room, that is all that matters. They don’t care if you were…in the spring musical.” Ashley reminds me that while I can’t control every rejection, every person who says no, every person who does not care, I can control how good I become. I think about that Steve Martin quote, also the title of one of my favorite books: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
I tell her how I wonder how many people might read her bio and think, ‘Oh she got a job with Disney right out of college and has always been working; she obviously just ‘has’ it…she was born with a good voice and the rest fell into place for her.’ I tell her how much I love that that’s not the story, how she had been training with a coach since she was fourteen years old. “I still train,” she says in a way that gives me goose bumps, and connects dots: “I still work with an [acting] coach…and I’m still working on my voice. Because it’s constantly changing. Because you’re constantly changing…you can never be too good.”
I love this. But I also wonder about the times when I’m unsure if the work and sacrifices and the vulnerability required to become good will be worth it, when I doubt if I have any creative worth or potential at all. For a second I think maybe Ashley Brown never feels this way, that her proof is in her voice, that her creative worth is undeniable. But when I ask Ashley if she ever deals with this kind of self-doubt she says this: “Of course I have.” She explains how raw creative work can make you: “It’s ourselves. It’s very personal.”
I ask her about this balance of vulnerability and strength – how do you remain open enough to grow without getting pummeled by the rejection and criticism that inevitably follow? “Honestly I have to thank my family,” she begins. They’ve raised me to be a very strong, confident person. But at the same time, I break too.” Ashley’s solution? She doesn’t read reviews: “If you believe the good, you’ve got to believe the bad.” Of course, that doesn’t mean Ashley never has to deal with criticism: “There’s times when you have to hear really harsh things.” Like most creative endeavors, no matter how many times someone says ‘it isn’t personal,’ it still feels personal – it hurts: “[When we go into an audition room, we’re bringing ourselves. We’re bringing our art. And when somebody rejects that, they’re rejecting us.” That mentality, Ashley learned, can be paralyzing: “I’ve had to learn, ‘that’s [just] their opinion, now I have to move on.’”
But moving on does not mean it doesn’t hurt, and I’ve come to understand that the idea that creative rejection and failure don’t hurt might be the worst lie, a lie that’s caused me to chastise myself when hurt – as if the tears mean I must be doing something wrong, that I’m not strong, that this hurt is a sign I can’t hack it, that I should give up. I can feel my heart growing stronger as Ashley shares the truth: “Sometimes I’m like… I’m going to cry about this all day today and then I’m going to pick myself up tomorrow and we’re going to move on. I’ve learned to let myself be sad if I’m sad.”
I swim in this. I realize my crying days are turning into months. I’m not sure how to pick myself up. I’m still not sure how to move on. I’ve been inert with a sense of failing to be where I thought I was supposed to be. Then Ashley reads my mind: “There’s going to be times you’re ahead. There’s going to be times you’re behind. You can look at it like, ‘this is my path.’ I went through a period…where I was like, ‘I’m supposed to be doing this, and I’m supposed to be doing that.’ And I’m like, ‘no I’m not. I’m supposed to be doing exactly what I’m doing.’”
That attitude – along with her mentors, years and years of training, and a belief that you can never be too good – led Ashley to sell out Carnegie Hall. Ashley takes me back to what she was thinking in that moment, about to perform at one of the most prestigious and iconic venues for music in the world, with the New York Pops, and her family in the audience: “‘this is what I’ve worked for my whole life.’” As she assessed all the sacrifices she’d made throughout her life to get to this point, she came to one conclusion: “‘Ok, it’s all worth it.’”
I think of the song she sang that took my breath away last night: Climb every mountain…’til you find your dream. I turn off the recorder and tell her how much her voice meant to me last night, how I postulate that years of training not only give a person the chance at a Carnegie Hall moment, but also become a gift to all the people who get to benefit from that person’s well-honed talent. I tell her how I could hear her nineteen-years worth of training in that final note…I tell her how grateful I am for her dedication to her craft. We hug goodbye and I give Eddie the frenchie one last snuggle.
I walk back to my car and I think about the way another song she sang made me cry a few days earlier, her version of “Feed the Birds” as sung in a Richard Sherman PBS special.
I’d wept like I’d never wept at a song before, let alone a song I’d already heard many times. But I hadn’t heard her version yet, and that, made all the difference.
Come feed the little birds, show them you care…
I notice a little white hair of Eddie’s on my coat. I smile, leave it there, and keep walking.
Do you take sugar with your tea?
After I do interviews I often ask myself questions related to my own art, and I’ve found it sweetens the whole experience (see what I did there?).
In case that’s your thing too, I’m including a few of the questions I asked myself after meeting Ashley.
Since Ashley does her art for a living, I asked these questions as I thought about my writing, since that’s the creative craft I pursue professionally (vs. a hobby). You might answer a few in your head, or ask them of someone else, or – wait for it – ponder them with someone over tea. Boom.
*What creative things have I received validation on?
*What do people compliment me on?
*What did I love as a kid?
*What do I love a lot, more deeply, more than most people…so much so that I can’t imagine my life without it?
*What are the weaknesses in my craft I could still improve on?
*Who are the people I most admire in my creative field? Where did they go to school? Who are their coaches? Where do they train?
*How do reviews effect me? Should I experiment with not reading reviews? How would that change the way I create?
*Am I doing what I need to do to get there? Do I ask myself this enough?
Special thanks to Ashley's manager David for being generally wonderful and for providing pictures for this article courtesy of Ashley Brown.