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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

Blog

On Mormon, On Acting, On Passion

Mo Brady

by Tommar Wilson


I was scared for a long time to admit that I lost my passion for performing.

It was all kind of an accident that I ended up in New York doing theater anyway. Of course I loved performing when I was in high school but way (way) back then I didn’t even think I could pursue it as a career.

 Tommar Wilson

Tommar Wilson

The first time anyone asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated was my senior year. No guidance counselor ever spoke to me about college or anything concerning life after high school. It was my choir director, Mr. Eubank, that sat me down and asked me where I was headed. I hadn’t even thought about it. I figured I’d go to a state school in Kansas and get some kind of general degree, and maybe move into management for Pizza Hut Corporate. Yep. I started working at Pizza Hut the day after I turned 16 (the manager wouldn’t let me work on my birthday) and became a shift manager within a year. That was what I knew and seemed to be where I was headed.

But my choir director helped me get into a music program at a local university. I loved music, but it turned out I didn’t love classical music or music education enough to pursue a four year degree. So when a friend handed me an application to Carnegie Mellon, I decided it couldn’t hurt to fill it out and send it in.

So it was an accident that I ended up at Carnegie Mellon, an accident that I went to an open call for Ragtime with a friend and ended up on the First National Tour when I was 21 years old and an accident that I moved to New York and signed with an agent by the end of my first week.

I say accident only because I didn’t plan any of it. Stuff seemed to just happen to me and I was along for the ride for a long time. Of course, I was in over my head several times in those years because I was surrounded by people that had prepared their whole lives for these things that I just seemed to be falling into.

I still loved every minute of it. I loved what I was doing and couldn’t believe people were paying me to do it. I really was passionate about performing. I couldn’t wait to be on stage every night.

Ten years later after a couple of tours, six Broadway shows and a handful of regional gigs I was burnt out. 2009 was the most stressful year I’d had professionally. I was working harder than I ever had before as the dance captain of a show with 24 people that hardly left the stage for two and a half hours. On top of that I was in the show, so my only chance to learn the show I was teaching and maintaining everyday was to watch bootlegs until 4 or 5 am. I signed up for the job because I knew I could do it and I cared about the show. More than that I cared about the people in the show. But I didn’t really stop to care about myself or take care of myself at all for that whole year.

So I came out of that experience completely exhausted, burnt out and broken. I had no passion for performing but I was scared to say it out loud because I had no idea what it would mean. No one really talks about working in the arts without passion. I didn’t really know who I was without performing and I was sure no one else did either.

Then The Book of Mormon came along. I already told myself I didn’t want to get involved in another big musical. I wanted to do a play, or something more intimate Off-Broadway. So I did that. But I realized (quickly) that I also needed to pay my rent, and Off-Broadway salaries were not making that easy to do.

One of my agents had been telling me for years to stop taking ensemble jobs. But I truly just loved to be a part of the storytelling. I never needed to have the last bow and I have never had any desire to be anybody’s star. On stage in any capacity, I felt like I was part of telling the story, which is what I wanted. So I never agreed with his advice to turn down ensemble jobs.

But here I was floundering, not sure if I loved being on stage any more. Maybe he was right. Maybe I needed to hold out for leading roles and stop doing ensemble work. But I’m not the type of personality that does well without a job. I need to be working in some capacity and why not be working in my field if I have the opportunity? So many questions and things to think about.

I took the job with The Book of Mormon when it came to Broadway. Mainly because so many of my friends were involved with the show including one of my best friends, but also because I needed to be working. I trained, I had experience, so of course I could perform even if I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing every second I was on stage. Plus it was a great show, and people loved it. But the show ended up being so much more than I could have known.

I was still that broken actor in 2011 when The Book of Mormon opened. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, all I knew was I needed a paycheck every week until I could figure that out.

 Tommar Wilson backstage at  the Book of Mormon  at the show's 2500th performance

Tommar Wilson backstage at the Book of Mormon at the show's 2500th performance

The hype of the show was exciting, but I didn’t feel like I had anything to do with its success. I was one of the last people to join the show, and all of the other “Ugandan” actors had been in at least one of the workshops. I’ll never forget the day we started staging the African Pageant. Everyone was excited rehearse it, and I asked if we could just sing it around the piano one more time which of course they were cool with. But about five measures in, people slowly made their way to the taped out stage area and just performed the full number, staging and all, as I watched from beside the piano. It was frustrating to play catch up, but I knew what I was getting into. Also I already loved all of these people and they were having a great time. I’ve never been one to deny my friends a good time.

So here I am surrounded by great friends in this hit show. My friends are winning awards and getting movies and TV shows and having the time of their lives. And I’m enjoying myself just because I like seeing the people I love succeed and be happy. But I still had no idea what I was going to do. I enjoyed doing the show every night. But it didn’t feel important to me to be on stage eight times a week.

Just to be clear, I don’t think you need to be passionate to do your job well. I think of myself as a professional, and I never step on stage without the intention of giving the best performance I can. Even if I crack, or fall, or don’t really connect in a moment, I always want to give a great show. But this was the first time that I wasn’t aching to be on stage.

So I started writing again. I had written two screenplays already with no training or coaching of any kind. And even though they were not great (they were pretty bad actually), I got some incredible encouragement from Oskar Eustis who read one and took me out to breakfast to talk about it. It was an inspiring talk, if for no other reason than the fact that someone I had so much respect for creatively was encouraging me to keep writing. Sometimes all it takes is knowing someone saw something good in what you’re trying to do.

So one year into Mormon I decided I was going to grad school for writing. And one day later I remembered I hate school and there’s not a chance in hell I would go back for three years in my 30s. So, yeah, that plan didn’t last long.

But here I was in this hit show that was in no threat of closing anytime soon (unlike most of the shows I’ve done). So I made a deal with myself. I would take a few years to get a foundation for screenwriting with private coaches and online classes, and then reevaluate and see if it was something I could pursue professionally.

Meanwhile I’m still enjoying my time at The Book of Mormon. I mean they throw amazing parties, they are incredibly generous with the cast, and everyone in the building is (mostly) happy and respectful to each other. So time just keeps going by and I don’t really notice.

One of the best parts of The Book of Mormon is people tend to stick around for a while. We had a majority of the original cast in the show for most of the first three years. Even after that the replacements usually stayed around for a few years as well. Except for a few rare moments, it didn’t ever feel like the show turned into something completely different because most of the cast was consistent. Of course things change when you lose Nikki M. James, or Josh Gad or Andrew Rannells. But those are also moments when you realize the strength of the writing can sustain great losses and you realize how great and hard working the support around the stars is.

2015. Four years in and I actually see progress in my writing. By this time I’ve realized that it’s an incredible creative outlet for me, but I’m not convinced that I have the skill or talent to make a career out of it.

The dynamic at Mormon is shifting slightly by now. Hamilton is the new pretty shiny thing in town, so the emails and facebook messages from friends of friends aren’t asking for Mormon tickets anymore, they’re more like “Hey do you know anyone at Hamilton that can get me backstage?” Also everyone at Mormon is settled into their groove.

So I decide this would be a good time to check the gauge on that missing passion for acting. I’ve been doing small parts on TV shows and movies since Mormon opened, but other than a few weeks at the MUNY in St. Louis I haven’t done much other theater. I’ve auditioned for things but nothing that I was very excited about, which it turns out was the issue with my auditions. (A story for another blog.)

So I auditioned for a production of a show that I had seen and loved called Murder Ballad. Four people and a band telling a dramatic story about love, betrayal, and murder. Ooooooh. It wasn’t like anything I had done before. It was hard, and dramatic, and required so much energy and focus and I loved every minute of it. I loved performing, but even more I loved getting inside this character and navigating him through this story. It was proof to myself that I still had some passion for being on stage.

Mormon was gracious enough to give me a few months off to do that show and I was able to return to Broadway with a fresh perspective. I was able to appreciate even more how hard everyone in the building was working (when you have to make your own wardrobe decisions on the fly in regional theater it makes you appreciate that there are dressers there to do EVERYTHING you could need. Ask me about the safety pins in my ripped jeans sometime and I’ll tell you about how I sang a whole song in tears that weren’t from emotion, but from being stabbed in the thigh every time I took a step. Not my finest moment.)

 Nikki M. James an Tommar Wilson

Nikki M. James an Tommar Wilson

I digress. Anyway, I’m now five plus years into my Broadway run in The Book of Mormon. I changed tracks (roles) in the third year and had a few more featured moments. There aren’t many jobs that you leave and people on the street feel ok asking “How’s that scrotum feeling?” But strangely that was my job.

This was already longer than I had been involved with any show. It was longer than I had been in one place ever in my life. I was a military brat so I never went more than four years in one home or school. But this had become my family.

When you spend so much time with the same people for so many years you start to think of them as family. You see their kids being born and grow up, you see them lose parents and family members, and amazingly you see them all come together to support each other when it’s necessary.

That’s the part of the Broadway community that I love the most. Whether it’s everyone bringing their families out to the park to watch a game of softball, or people taking up a collection to send flowers when one of us has lost a loved one, or singing a mash-up of "Love on Top/God Only Knows" with your castmates for the wedding of a friend. It truly is a family. And I love them all.

But six years in, I had rediscovered my passion for acting. I was ready for other challenges. I just didn’t really know if I still had it in me. I mean when you do the same show for six years you start to doubt that you can still make choices, or learn something new, or retain something new. Fear is kind of my life partner. I’m still learning how to deal with it and finding ways to co- exist and make the relationship work. But sometimes it can be a real asshole that I don’t know how to deal with.

That’s part of the reason I have had some terrible, I mean embarrassingly bad auditions. I can do the work and feel great, but I get off that elevator and see other actors and the fear overshadows any confidence I had when I woke up. It’s a real thing that I don’t think people talk about enough, or maybe other people don’t deal with it as much as me. But I have stood there as directors give me notes in an audition and not heard a single word because I’m using all of my energy to suppress the fear and insecurities that are trying to burst out of my body.

But at some point in my sixth year of Mormon, I made a choice. I decided I was going to move on to something else creatively and not let fear ruin it. It was hard. It’s still hard. I didn’t know what that was going to be. Was I going to try to make a living as a writer, or try to get another acting job?

It turned out that I had opportunities to pursue both. The writing of course is a longer road because I’m so new to that world. But I had another opportunity on stage as well.

My first audition for Hamilton was back before the developmental process. I did some material for the king and a few of the raps. I wasn’t ready for it. I knew the words but that was about it. I knew the people behind the table and I could actually see in their faces that they wanted me to make it work so bad, but I just couldn’t. It was another case of fear stopping me from going where I needed to go.

But this time I was ready. I knew the material, I’d worked on the things I wasn’t as comfortable with and after a week of auditions ending with an hour and a half Skype session with the creatives I was offered a job!

Just before the seven year anniversary of the beginning of my Book of Mormon journey, I was saying goodbye to the show that had been there for what I think was my creative low period. I needed time to figure out where I wanted to go creatively and this show had been there for me. It didn’t need me, but I needed it. I needed the comfort of a piece of theater that worked, that felt good, that I was proud to be a part of. I needed the security of a show that would let me take the time to deal with my own creative issues in my own time. Mormon was all of that.

But it was also my home. It gave me a whole new family. It gave me confidence, and let me build and strengthen muscles that were weak. It gave me a safe environment to grow. It was the birth place of my new creative self. And every person in that building played some part in creating the new artist I was trying to become.

So this very long, over-written blog post is mostly to say thank you to The Book of Mormon. Thank you for letting me rediscover my passion. Thank you for letting me be a part of an historic piece of theater. Thank you for helping me through some creative and personal lows with support, love, and financial stability that I couldn’t have even dreamed existed in theater.

I think a job is what you make it. You don’t have to love what you are doing, but you can choose to use the opportunity you have to grow and learn. I fell in love with my job and got to grow at the same time and I wish that for everyone, but I also only realize that on the other side of the journey. I’m forever grateful because I’m happily, once again, an actor that is passionate about being on stage. 

 Tommar Wilson and the Chicago cast of  Hamilton

Tommar Wilson and the Chicago cast of Hamilton