At this point, I was ready to graduate from Ohio State. I did what I had to in order to finish up a BA in theater on time. It consisted of taking a couple of acting classes, some theater history, costume design, play analysis, and being involved in a few productions. I got it done, but it didn't prepare me at all for a career in the theater, or even for one of those Old West shows at Cedar Point amusement park. In this business, the smart way to go about building an acting career is to go to a reputable theater school. You graduate after having done lots of school productions, so when you're out job hunting, you get a hand up from the schools' alumni. If you come from Juilliard or Yale or Carnegie Mellon, there are a lot of successful alumni who will open a door for you. Plus, all of your classmates are up-and-coming writers and directors who know you and will cast you in their productions in New York. I didn't have any of that at Ohio State.
After I graduated, I really didn't know what I was going to do. So I went back home and got a job as a waitress at a local Cleveland restaurant that had a slight whiff of the mob to it. I was the sorority girl wearing a Peter Pan collar and pearl necklace among hardened old gals with bouffant hairdos and blue eyeshadow. I couldn't get a drink order straight to save my life. On my second day of work, my high school pal Kathy called me and said, "Hey! Let's move to New York!" Without a second thought, I wrote a note and left it at the hostess desk for my boss, saying, "I quit—I'm going to New York." And I never looked back. This wasn't quite a baby step, but I knew it had to be my next step.
Well, first I had to have one more big conversation with my dad. This one wouldn't be as simple as the last one. I announced to him that I was moving to New York and he said, "Oh no, you're gonna stay here and I'll get you a better job." In that moment it dawned on me that I didn't need his permission anymore, and I gently replied, "I'm not asking you, Dad, I'm telling you." He was a bit taken aback, but I remember I detected a slight smile on his face. And he said, "Well, in that case, I'll give you eight hundred dollars. Good luck." And with that, I was off to the Big Apple!
(Side note: Today, I simply could not imagine letting my kids go off to another city without knowing where they were staying, who they were going with, or what kind of job they were getting. I'm not sure which kind of parenting style is better...I suspect my dad's is.)
Kathy arrived in New York before I did and got us a fourth-floor walk-up in midtown with no air-conditioning in July. The only other person I knew in New York besides Kathy was my brother Michael, who I saw very little of the first year I was there. As far as getting a career going, I knew nothing. I had no agent, no manager, no headshots, no acting classes, and no real training—just a little bit of raw talent and a whole lot of passion. I didn't know what I was doing. At all. I think the lesson here is that when the steps you are taking only make sense to you, when you go against everyone's better judgment because you simply can't function on this planet otherwise, when your passion pushes you to seek your fortunes in a place you've never been before, then maybe that's really what you have to do. Now, if you can do it in a way that makes a bit more sense than the way I did it—like possibly have an actual plan or make some connections first...well, that would be good, too. But when you're on your own like I was, you just say a prayer to your guardian angel and head out the door.
I guess you could say I was operating on a wing and a prayer, minus the wing. But I figured if I would just keep moving forward, doors would open that needed to open, and the ones that stayed closed...well, I would pound my head against them until I was bruised and bloodied, and then do it some more. It took about fifteen years before doors actually started opening, but I did get little bits of encouragement along the way. And though there were often times when the flame inside of me sputtered, it never completely died out.
What also made it difficult was that everyone I had grown up with was getting married and having children, buying homes, and finding jobs—basically being normal people with normal lives. I was living with two roommates in an apartment in Hell's Kitchen, sleeping on an old crappy futon, next to a dresser I picked up at the Salvation Army. (Incidentally, stripping that dresser and re-staining it was great therapy for me at a time when I couldn't afford a human therapist.) But not only did I not have a career in acting, I didn't have a career in anything. I was either hostessing at various restaurants, running the Xerox machine at People
magazine, or proofreading in mergers and acquisitions at Morgan Stanley. I would do anything I could to stay afloat. But you know what? I was okay with that. I was poor but mostly happy, pursuing what I loved. At Morgan Stanley I was surrounded by Wall Street types who drove out to their houses in the Hamptons on the weekend, while I toiled away with my little theater company, trying to produce a play. I never felt any envy or jealousy because I was doing what I loved and didn't need a house in the Hamptons or a car to get there. When I got to my happy place—the stage—I actually felt like the richest, most successful gal in the world.
Even now, I think, What if it hadn't worked out? What if I hadn't become successful? What if I had spent fifteen or twenty years going down this path and I hadn't gotten Everybody Loves Raymond or The Middle or any of the other shows that led me to where I am now? All things considered, I think I would still have been happy that I pursued the path that I did. The fact is, it would have killed me to do anything else, like work in an office. The few times that I did have an office job, I had an internal time bomb that would go off around the six-month mark. I would start self-sabotaging—show up late, call in sick—I just couldn't do it anymore. I'd end up getting fired or quitting. I much preferred the variety of working in a restaurant or temp job, where every day was different and I would meet new people constantly. As it happens, that's the perfect temperament for someone in the entertainment industry—new scripts, new actors, new shows—it's ever-changing. So even if I hadn't been successful, I still would have been glad I gave it a shot. Thankfully, things started to happen for me, little by little.