Natalie Michaels, Performance Artist
New York City
WFU Class of 2015
Majors: Vocal Performance and Theater Arts
Natalie Michaels catches us up since her graduation in 2015. The Performance artist describes her experiences at Wake, in the New York theater scene, and throughout everything in between.
DeacLink: Please walk me through your path after graduation.
Natalie Michaels: My second semester senior year I ended up doing the SETC conference, which I had done a couple of years before trying to find professional work for once I graduated, and I didn't. I had a couple auditions, a couple of callbacks, but I didn't really find anything. So what I ended up doing was applying to another program, and at that point I didn't see myself going to more school. I felt like I had graduated with my double major and was done, but I ended up applying to a different program through the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. It's called the National Theater Institute. They have a semester long program, and a lot of colleges offer it as kind of semester abroad during school. But what I ended up doing was the Fall after I graduated I attended for a semester as kind of a postgrad study. I got college credit through Connecticut College, but since I had already graduated I didn't really need it. It was just kind of more credit, but not really towards any degree specifically. I called it a fake grad school.
So I did for a semester, and graduated from that program in December of 2015. And then for awhile lived at home, I live in Connecticut, and I was auditioning a bunch and doing that New York grind. I was commuting from Connecticut into the city. I would go back and forth, go to auditions, and then I worked at a restaurant as a hostess.
And then one audition in April I sent a video submission to a resort in West Virginia to be a cabaret singer. At that point in time, and even still today, you kinda just submit for everything and hope it works out. This job was kind of one of those where I just submitted and like hoped to hear back from them. And I did. And they said we love your voice. We’d love to hire you for a cabaret, which they called Spring House Entertainers. So you do cabaret shows and you do waltzes in this big resort, The Greenbrier, in West Virginia. So that was the beginning of May. They said we'd love to hire you, we'd love to interview you, talk to you about the job. Can you come here in a week.
So within a week, I decided I'm picking up my life and I'm going to West Virginia. I was working there and that was a six days a week performer gig. You did cabaret shows all of the time and dances. I started in May of 2016 and then I finished my contract in January of 2017, so I was there for eight months, which is long for a performer contract. I really loved it. It was great to be able to settle somewhere for a little bit. And then after January I decided it's time. I'd saved a lot of money. I was going to move to New York. So I went from home to West Virginia, and then I moved to New York in March of 2017. So I lived here for about six months, again doing auditions. I did a few small festival and plays and things like that, cabaret performances in the city.
And then actually one of my friends who I'd worked with in West Virginia said, “Hey, we need somebody last minute. A soprano dropped out of our group really quickly. Can you come and do Christmas season?” So I lived in the city for about six or seven months, and was working the grind and doing the auditions thing, and doing a few things here and there if I got them. And then I ended up back in West Virginia for two months from November of 2017 to January of 2018. It was nice to go back to because I had already know the job, and a lot of the people were still the same, and it was nice to leave the hectic city for a little bit, especially at Christmas time.
So I went back and then came back again. I had somebody sublet my room. I came back to my apartment in the city in January and then in February I auditioned for this show. It was your typical “Oh, I'm going to go audition for this thing, we'll see what happens.” But I actually booked it. I'm working off Broadway at St. Luke's Theater right now. So that show, it's called It Came from Beyond. We started rehearsals in the beginning of March, and we opened in April, and we're still running. So that’s where I am now.
The show that I'm doing right now only performs once a week. So I'm still working full time and performing. You have to find that balance of how much work, how much to not, how much to audition, how much to take classes, things like that. It’s hard. Given that I was born and raised here, it was the logical choice after school to just landing here and see what happens.
DL: How did your time at Wake inform your career path?
NM: When I came to Wake, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I knew exactly what I wanted to major in. I knew exactly the plan I wanted to take. Initially I was looking for a musical theater degree, like a BFA, which a lot of people in musical theater gravitate towards. And then when I accepted to Wake, I realized it's a BA program. I decided to major in theater and major in music so I could make up my own musical theater degree.
Wake fully prepared me to pursue a career in theater and acting and music and all of that. I took all of the classes that I knew I would need - acting classes and vocal lessons and things like that. I really appreciated how much Wake not only trained me as a performer but also trained as a theater person. For the people who go to conservatories, that's all they do. With Wake, they train you how to be a performer, but they also want you to know every other aspect there is. You take design classes and history classes. I took D&P, scene design, stage makeup, and all of these things. So you learn exactly how a theater works. And I think that was the most valuable thing because I stepped out of my little performer bubble that I had put myself in and became a well rounded theater. Wake definitely helped me do that. So now when helping out with a festival or a recital, I don't only look at it from the performer's, point of view, but I look at it from the theatrical production standpoint. So I can say ”the lights here are weird,” or you know, “maybe you should try this staging differently.” And while I'm not the greatest director, at least I know how see something in a different way than just standing on stage and singing.
As far as Music at Wake, it was such a helpful training tool to get out of my head as far as solely musical theater. Like I said, I had a straight path. Nothing was gonna stop me. But the music degree is mostly classical music, which is great and I love it, but it made me open my head to something other than musical theater. So I studied a full classical repertoire all my four years and ended up doing a full honors voice recital, with all classical music. It opened me up to the world of Opera, which is definitely something I've done since and wish I could get more into because it is still theater. I also noticed how much my voice changed too from ages 18 to 21. It developed in a way that I didn't think it could.
DL: What could Wake have done to have better prepared students for life after graduation?
NM: I think they do a lot to prepare students for the outside world. That’s Wake’s nature, so the theater department just does that as well. The senior seminar was hugely helpful. I remember in that class and we'd have people come in and talk to us about different theater companies, different Grad schools, different cities.
I think they could help student find more performance jobs or tech jobs. I think it would be great if there were ways to incorporate musical theater into Wake’s curriculum. I think a lot of people in both music and theater like musicians. And I wish they would do more than one musical every other year, but that's just me.
DL: So what is your favorite part about working in the city?
NM: I’ve always been in love with the city. It's a catch 22. It causes a lot of stress, but it causes a lot of fun of not knowing what's next. You know what I mean? I've kind of lived the last few years not knowing where I'm going to be next, but knowing it'll be fun to find out. So I think that's my favorite part.
The theater scene in New York is no other. It's just fun to be a part of it, and fun to meet so many different performers. You can throw a rock in the city and find somebody who sings, or dances, or acts, or designs, or whatever. I think finding that community and meeting people who after the same goals, is great. It's hard because there's a lot of competition in the city, but it’s also important to set aside that competition and realize we're all after the same goal. It’s best to be a community that can come together to make a piece of theater, all go to this audition together, or all get drinks after a horrible audition. It’s nice to have such a large community that understands what you're going through.
DL: What’s your favorite part about acting?
NM: I used to say that my favorite part of acting was rehearsal process. I loved just playing around. You have a script or you have an idea, and you just play around with what it could be. That was my favorite part of acting - just being able to see what works and see what does it and watch, watch something come together. And I think for me it's still kind of that.
But for now, I've been in the same show for a couple of months and playing the same part. I'm doing an understudy for one of the leads, so I get to kind of step into that role once or twice. But playing, the same part in the same show for a long time is actually kind of fun because you know exactly what you're doing, you know the process you have to go through. But once you've done it for a while, you can start mixing things up. You can start saying, “Oh I don't want my character to think about that right now. What if she thought about this instead and that drove the scene? So now, my favorite part of acting is just the play of it. The not knowing where you're going to land, but figuring it out. Being able to think about a character and think about what they would do and what they want, but also realizing, oh, that was a horrible choice, I'm going to try something else. It’s not just settling with one option.
DL: So what’s next for you?
NM: The show that I'm doing right now just was extended to the end of September, so I'll probably be there at least till after that. Other than that, I’ll be living in the city for a little bit longer. Probably more auditions, more day jobs. Just the grind until that right audition comes along. You never know what's next, but you hope it’s good.
DL: What advice do you have for theater students?
NM: Fight your hardest for what you want. People at Wake would say “You can’t do that double major,” and would tell me I’m crazy for taking 21 hours every semester. If you know that you have a passion in the arts, go after it. Don’t let anybody say that will be too hard or that it’s impossible. Do it because you want to, and in the end, something good will come out of it.