This week, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Tony Award winner Michele Pawk. A Broadway veteran, Ms. Pawk’s resume covers an extensive range of characters in plays and musicals, television and film.
New York acting credits Credits include: HAIRSPRAY, MAMMA MIA, HOLLYWOOD ARMS (for which she won the Tony Award), CHICAGO, SEUSSICAL, CABARET (receiving Drama Desk & Outer Critics’ Circle Award nominations), TRIUMPH OF LOVE, CRAZY FOR YOU (Drama Desk nomination), MAIL, MAHIDA’S EXTRA KEY TO HEAVEN, FLYOVERS, PRAYER FOR MY ENEMY, THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, THE PARIS LETTER (Drama Desk nomination), REEFER MADNESS, AFTER THE FAIR, HELLO AGAIN, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, jon & jen, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.
In addition to her prolific career as an actor, Michele is an experienced director and a professor in the Theatre Department at Wagner College, exemplifying the advice she gives to never stop learning and growing.
I love this conversation with Michele and we go deep into the things we face as creatives and are working to make sense of. We get into failure, the ups and downs of the acting industry, and how to find fulfillment and longevity in this nomadic lifestyle.
We had an extremely rich and inspiring conversation, and I hope you enjoy it.
When did you first get bit by the bug and you knew you wanted to be an actor?
I grew up in a really small town outside of Pittsburgh, a long time ago. So much has changed about the business and the art form – especially where I grew up it wasn’t something that was in anybody’s consciousness. I had been active in all my school stuff, my high school stuff, taken dance lessons but it just didn’t really dawn on me. I went to a small liberal arts school in Pittsburgh area, Allegheny College. And, you know, at the end of your sophomore year you have to declare a major. It was my Dad who said, “What do you love to do more than anything?” I was like, “Daaaad….!” I was like, “I like to be onstage more than anything.” He said, “Well then, that’s what you should do.” So I auditioned a couple places and then transferred out of there.
After your sophomore year?
Yeah, so I spent three years somewhere else to finish.
You went to CCM, right?
I feel the same way that I was lucky to have parents that supported it. I don’t know if I’d necessarily be doing this if I didn’t have the encouragement from my parents.
I think it’s in your generation’s consciousness a lot more than it was in my generation. Just with, well, social media and all the reality competition shows, you guys are thinking about it. The fact that you can put yourselves up on YouTube and be creative…It’s changed everything.
It’s a little daunting sometimes because there’s so many people graduating and coming to do this now. It makes it more competitive but there’s also an abundance of opportunity, right?
I think the important thing to keep in mind and to continually check in with is WHY you do it. If those reasons stay true – and it’s not because you wanna get rich, cause that ain’t happening, or get famous or any of that. If you’re doing it because you NEED to do it and you have something to say, and you just wanna get better, you’ll be fine. Those other people will fall away.
Is there anything that you wish you knew when you were starting out that you didn’t get at school or that it took you awhile to learn?
It’s so funny because now, I’ve been teaching these last few years. You guys put so much more pressure on yourselves than I think my generation did – or maybe it was just me – I just was sort of stupid. I mean, I knew I was talented, but I didn’t take it personally, so I just kept getting back up and doing it. I didn’t take a rejection as, “Oh my god, that means I’m not good enough, and I shouldn’t be doing it.” I just, I wish you guys knew that a little more.
Resiliency is important for actors. That’s something I’m working on. I struggle with – if I don’t get something – I take it personally when in reality it’s out of my control, almost all the time. What techniques did you have to let it go?
If I could, I always tried to get feedback. Whether it was an agent or whether I had a relationship with somebody in the room, I tried to find out what was going on. I also tried to use, and I still do this, I try to use auditions as an opportunity for me to learn something. About me and my journey, and where I am right now. That seems to take away some of the other stuff that I can’t control. So I feel like if I give myself something very attainable and something very specific to conquer in the room, then if I do that, that’s all I can do. You know what I mean? ‘Cause then I’m outta there. I don’t know what they want and I can’t read their minds. Believe me, there was a year or so when I wasn’t getting jobs and I was second guessing everything I did in the room, which ultimately, just made it worse, and I realized “oh, fuck it.” You know what I mean?
It’s funny…You end up sabotaging yourself when you’re trying to make things better. Sometimes I find that if I say, “OK, I’m going to try connect to my breath during this audition,” and make that the specific goal — I leave the room and I’m like, “OK, at least I did that.”
Yes. “I did that. Good for me.” This is like an out of body – the whole audition process is bizarre. How grounded can I possibly be? How can I connect to that lyric very specifically? Who exactly – am I having a moment with that person today? You know?
Cool. When you were starting out did you have any survival jobs?
I’m curious to find out how you navigated those worlds starting out.
This is gonna sound crazy. So I go to this fancy program, and then I take this job in Florida right out of college because they paid a lot of money at Disney. I sang at a nightclub there, so it was awesome, I saved some money. Then I went to LA. Which seems ridiculous because the business was very different out there. I wasn’t making a living, so I sang in gay bars. That’s what I did. I put it together with a friend of mine who was my musical inspiration, the two of us lived together and put these shows together and that’s how we made a living. We sang in these bars in LA when there really was such a thing, when you would do two shows a night. It was different. The 80’s was different – and let me tell you, the cabaret experience is very honest. You’re not hiding behind some sort of character, some sort of play. In a way, that was really good training. You couldn’t hide.
You mentioned that you did TV work when you were starting out. How did you find it different from approaching theater work?
Only the size of it. I don’t find the work of it, the preparation, any different. What I find different is the style, the medium – if my face was going to be the size of this wall, I wouldn’t be as animated as I am now. You just get smaller and smaller and smaller. It’s in the eyes. You have to be more still.
How do you manage being conscious of that that while being as honest as possible? Is that something you learn by doing?
Yes, and anyone can figure it out. Go get a camera and tape yourself. Put yourself on tape doing whatever and make yourself really big and be like, “OH, I look grotesque!” Then it just gets smaller and smaller.
With people who are naturally inclined to theater, does it feel like way less? That’s just the way you have to do it.
It’s funny, when I first started out in television, I was in LA for a chunk of years so I did a lot of TV because I was trying to make a living. The sitcom medium in those days – it was three camera, live audience…It was very similar to what we do.
So you were getting the live responses?
You did, and you fed off of that. You knew if it worked in the moment. Nowadays, you tape, you know, ‘Modern Family’ and there’s no audience there. So the skill set is different.
On preparation – do you have a certain process that you like to take to your roles? For example, in HOLLYWOOD ARMS, when you were playing a real life person – how much did you depend on real life accounts and how much did you bring your imagination? Is it a balance?
It is a balance, but I have to tell you, when I think about almost anything I’ve done – History is huge for me. Research is huge for me because it grounds me. When I find I’m losing focus, which is easy to do, I come back to the circumstances and all of that. So when I think about CABARET, or even DR SEUSS in a weird way…
Seussical! That’s so true, I hadn’t thought of that…
Yeah, I went back to Dr. Seuss. Even though it was larger and they’re animated in a sense, the circumstances were very real for them. For Carol’s play [HOLLYWOOD ARMS], that was a gift in a lot of ways…I had Carol [Carol Burnett] there. She gave me total freedom. She said, “Yes, I’ve written this…but I’ve written a play.” I wrote a play, do what you wanna do with it. It’s now a piece of art — I’m not looking for you to recreate my mother.
That must have been very liberating for you. Takes the pressure off a little bit.
That was a gift. Well, especially because she is who she was, I felt a certain obligation to get it right for her.
Was that at a certain point during the rehearsal process?
Right in the beginning. I would go to her with questions at the end of the day, and be all, “Tell me about your mother…Tell me about it!” Very early on, she said, “Don’t worry about it. Take what’s written and then bring yourself to it. We responded to you” – boy, that was a gift. That was a gift.
Speaking of HOLLYWOOD ARMS, what was it like on Tony Awards night?
I didn’t think I was going to win. It was no pressure. My play had closed in January and those awards came out in, I don’t know, April or May? So, I was already onto another project. I was stunned and honored to have been recognized. I really mean that. I was like, “This is awesome!” And my husband was also nominated that season, so there we are — no pressure, just having a good time at Radio City Music Hall. Then, my family, unbeknownst to me, had all bought tickets. I could have killed them. They all were in the balcony at Radio City. I was like, “I’m not gonna win, don’t spend the money…”
How could they have missed that though? It must have felt so good, afterwards, that they were there.
My husband [actor John Dossett] was like, “They called your name. I think they called your name.” And then I could see him literally turn around and wave to my family up in the balcony.
Wow. That must have been just magical. How did winning the Tony affect what came after in terms of your career?
It opened doors that otherwise I wasn’t gonna get into. I’d already done some television, but way more film all of a sudden. Bigger doors were starting to open. It’s like I said to you earlier, Johnny, I had primarily done musical theater, so those film doors didn’t open quite in the same way that they did after that, which was nice.
The Broadway WarmUp is all about being at our optimal states as performers. Sustaining 8 shows a week, especially when working on a vocally challenging musical – How did you keep your voice in shape for eight shows a week?
The thing I always like to preach at college [professor at Wagner College] – the big misunderstanding about doing eight shows a week, or doing a musical in general, is people think, “Oh, it’s just three hours a day.” It is your entire day. It is everything you do. You get up, *lip trills* – and think, “Ok, I’m gonna be alright tonight.” Everything revolves around that.
That’s such a scary feeling when you wake up and it’s not there.
Oh no. Then you’re like, “How much time do I have?” Let me warm my body up to see if then my voice – they’re all connected – let me steam and see. Everything is about the wholeness of that performance. Depending on the size of the role, it’s like an Olympic event. If you’re doing a vocally demanding part in a Broadway musical, your entire life revolves around that…
That scares me. I feel like that’s a lot of pressure, but you’ve found ways to manage, clearly…
The other thing – how do you do it when you’re not 100%? How do you do it when you have allergies? When you’re sick? Your job is to show up.
Exactly. Do you have any “go-to” remedies for a quick fix?
I’m not a big antibiotic person. I find that unless I need them, they set me back. I’m a little more in tune to my body now then I was at your age. But man, if you can listen, your body sends you signs early on. You feel the tickle, you feel the scratch before it hits you. I get this wellness formula. It’s like a multivitamin. When I feel something coming on, I hit three every three hours. I load up on Vitamin C, then I start snorting saltwater. And sleep. Usually I can fend stuff off.
It can be a crazy lifestyle sometimes — staying out late, talking loud at bars, things like that. How have you managed living in New York?
I gotta be honest, when I was younger, I could do a lot more than I do now. I could stay out, then get up and go to rehearsal. Then I got to be in my late 20’s, and I could still do it, but I couldn’t do it and then go do a matinee. Friday nights and Tuesday nights, I wasn’t out. I got into my thirties and it was even more… “Oh, crap, now I really can’t.”
So it requires a different kind of discipline then?
Yeah, you have to really be smart. You think, “I’m lucky enough to have this job, these people think I’m good enough and they’re counting on me. It would be disrespectful for me to not take it seriously.” So, sacrifice.
You seem to be good at managing your emotional health in this business that can be somewhat — you know, when you’re playing a heavy character or intense role, how do you leave that in the theater and balance your personal life in a way that’s healthy and sustainable?
You know what? Take a look at your top five priorities. In your life. Your career will be up there. Sometimes, your career will be #1. Let me tell you what, if your career stays #1, you’re gonna die. It doesn’t feed you in the way your family will, that a love life will – that kind of relationship with someone – even a pet, you need to have other things that feed you. You know, like, your physical wellness. Are you a yoga person? A gym person? That stuff feeds you in a way that show business is not going to feed you. It’s important to have them. Your spiritual life? Where does that fit into all of it? You’re right, sometimes your career will be at the top. It’s intense right now, but keep in check. You know what I mean?
It’s hard because I have this ambition to do all these things. What’s funny, too, is that having a balanced life only enhances your ultimate goal. Drawing upon things like relationships and family – those can only make you a better actor. I have to realize that there’s so much BEYOND this, and maintaining that sense of play.
Oh yeah. Oh yeah yeah. When you stop having a good time, that’s the time you stop doing it. That’s why what my Dad gave to me was a gift. My Dad was a dentist, and my Dad, he was crazy into looking at fungly mouths – he loved it! He was obsessed with it. It was his passion, so when he said to me, “What do you love doing more than anything?” It wasn’t about making money, it wasn’t about fame – I loved getting up and doing it. I still love it. It feeds my soul in a way. And now my family feeds my soul.
There are certain things you need to prioritize.
And they change. And allow it. They shift. Right.
I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Michele Pawk as much as I did. At first intimidated by the awesome scope of her career, I was admittedly nervous to chat with Michele, but I was blown away by her humility & authenticity. She’s so down to earth. Generous with her experiences and wisdom, I learned so much in so little time. The Broadway Warm-Up community strives to be at our best in work and life. Michele Pawk is at the top of her game onstage and off. I think we’ve got a new role model.