For the Love of Acting

Posted by Sonal Shah
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today's guest post comes from actress and Stage 32 member, Sonal Shah. Ambition, in the truest sense of the word, courses through Sonal's veins. Through her successes and setbacks, Sonal's energy has remained the same. The result: Wisdom beyond her years.

Sonal hails from Wheaton, Illinois and graduated cum laude from Loyola University of Chicago with a major in theatre and a concentration in pre-medicine. Sonal performed at Theatres in Chicago including the Tony award winning Goodman Theatre, Collaboraction, Running With Scissors, and Stir Friday Night. Along with some friends, she started Rasaka Theatre Company and supplemented her acting education at Improv Olympic and The Moscow Art Theatre School at Harvard University.

After moving to Los Angeles, Sonal was quick to start testing for pilots and booked her first series regular role in a sitcom for ABC Family, The PTA. She has studied with John Rosenfeld, Lesly Kahn, The Groundlings, Margie Haber, and also graduated from The Second City Conservatory. Sonal has performed with The Lonestar Ensemble, Artwallah, CAPE, and was selected to participate in the NBC Diversity Showcase. She also presented the "Best Comedy Magic" award (with Neil Flynn) at the World Magic Awards.

Sonal filmed 8 episodes as a major recurring role on Scrubs as new intern, Dr. Sunny Dey. In the same role, she was also in the web series Scrubs: Interns and provided DVD commentary for Season 8 episodes.

A peace and human advocate, Sonal supports many organizations that are doing a lot of GOOD. She was recently invited to host the South Asian Network Gala, NBC Universal's Diwali party, the North American South Asian Bar Association Gala, and the Chicago Foundation for Women: Asian American Leadership Council Achievement Awards. She was a guest speaker for SASA at Harvard University, served as a panelist at the Kriti Festival, and delivered the keynote address at Loyola University's commencement ceremony.

That's a ton of experience and achievement piled into a short period of time. It's also a testament to the will of the creative spirit - staying positive, driving forward, never looking back (except to learn from the past.)

I thank Sonal for her contribution to the community.

Enjoy!

RB

So who is Sonal Shah and why are you reading this?

I'm just a gal in the entertainment industry. Everyone is on his/her own path and has a story to share. As an actress, here is a bit of mine.

I've been a bridesmaid 15 times. FIFTEEN!!! Yep, I'm the little brown version of Katherine Heigl. Wait a second, does that mean I only have to be in 12 more weddings before I get to marry James Marsden??

Albeit, I don't have a husband...I am married to my acting career. Sound like a clich'e? Well, "laughter is the best medicine." And that is what I am here to create. Not here in this blog. I mean here on this planet.

I've ALWAYS been a performer and have always strived to make people laugh, but I did not necessarily want to pursue it as a career. I thought saying "I want to be an actor" was like saying "I want to be a quarterback." (I AM pretty ripped by the way). Clearly, I'm extremely sarcastic - I figure I should mention that.

It all started when I was in 2nd grade and was nicknamed "Ak-Tress" by my family and friends. I'm a professional improvisational dancer (yes, that exists). I consistently performed dances in various competitions, shows, etc. Growing up, like many of you on Stage 32, I was heavily involved in school plays, community shows, musicals, variety shows, speech team, and show choir.

I went to Loyola University as a bio/pre-med major and took the MCAT. Naturally, life had a different plan for me because I won a best actress award and immediately switched my major to theatre. From that point forward there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do. After college, I immersed myself in wonderful Chicago theatre. I saw, directed, rehearsed, and/or acted in plays constantly. That's how I met my agent. Eventually, I fell into the sketch comedy scene where I worked with my close buddies Danny Pudi (Community) and Parvesh Cheena (Outsourced).

I LOVED Chicago theatre. Working at amazing houses like the Goodman, I never desired a move to LA. I started doing student films in Chicago and one of my directors said I should consider moving to LA... He connected me to a girl and I met her once for coffee. She later called me and said, "I found an adorable house in Echo Park. It's two-bedrooms, but we can make it four...and live with two girls I know. Are you in or out? Our lease would start in 30 days." Mind you, I had only met this girl ONCE! But, I said "sure, why not?" Then I said, "what am I doing??" I'm someone who has always lived in the moment and I have a large amount of trust in the universe. With that trust, in the next 30 days, I bought a car, packed it up, said bye to Wheaton, Illinois and drove across Middle America all by myself. The three girls I moved in with ultimately became my sisters.

My agent in Chicago helped me get meetings with agents in LA. I signed with one commercially, but not theatrically, and a week after I moved here, they sent me out on a Nickelodeon pilot seeking minority female improvisers. Needless to say, I almost booked it ...and got to improvise with Jason Alexander at the audition. Since it went so well, my agent signed me and I tested for the next few pilots I went out for!!! My move to LA was turning out to be a great decision.

And then the roller coaster began. Things were going great, and then I didn't have an audition for months. Later, I booked a series regular role in a pilot for ABC Family called The PTA...then it did not get picked up. (But I worked with some lovely peeps!) Then...nothing. I couldn't get an audition for the life of me. I waitressed and scrubbed floors and...struggled. But you know what, the struggle has made me the person I am today. The struggle has made me strong.

After some auditions here and there, I finally auditioned for Scrubs. The first round was a pre-read for the casting directors, the second round was for the amazing Bill Lawrence (executive producer of Scrubs), and the third was for Bill Lawrence plus the rest of the producers. I was truly grateful for the experience. After the audition, I never heard back from them.

Short story long, on a random Thursday THREE MONTHS LATER I got a call from my agent telling me I was going to work on Scrubs the next week. I was like "F*ck you...Really? No way. I don't believe you. Really? ...Really?" And then it started...and it was crazy, fun, nerve-wrecking, emotional, and amazing all at once. I ended up shooting 8 episodes in the final season of the show. I also shot a web series that was based on the new interns in Season 8. I'll admit that I was very sad when it ended. And then I became overwhelmed with fear and insecurity.

I didn't get many auditions after that, but I did test for a few more pilots. Testing for pilots is just...heartbreaking when you don't get the job. It's so close you can smell it, but then when it doesn't work out...it just...sucks. I feel like I'm the queen of 2nd place. Meaning, I've almost gotten a role SO MANY TIMES. What this tells me is that I am on the right path. And that it's just a matter of time before I get back to work. I think that is what keeps me going. I have no doubt that it's going to happen. That being said, believe you me, it's not always sunny in Sonal-delphia, I definitely have days without hope. I have days (sometimes weeks) where I think it's never going to happen. TRUST ME.

On one day, a person will stop me on the street to take a photo with me, and the next day I will be that person's waitress. This business is just plain weird. I think it is very important to stay grounded with a good sense of perspective.

Nobody ever said life was easy. Not that it is hard. I mean, compared to many of our brothers and sisters on this planet...we have it so easy. Not to say that we don't struggle- we do...just in a different way. I'm not only talking about actors here. I'm talking about all humans on this earth and their search for the meaning of life. What is everybody's mission and why are some people destined to do one thing and others destined to do another? For some reason, I know I'm supposed share my light and I know that acting is the thing I know how to do better than anything else. So that is what keeps me doing what I do.

This is an unpredictable field. It's up and down and up and up and down and down. Personally, I have sacrificed SO much. I'm really close to my family. And they are in Illinois. I hate being far from them because it's...well, it's my family. They're amazing and I love them. I'm out here all by my lonesome. I have amazing friends here and a wonderful support system, but I still miss my family. I'm constantly missing important events (I'm Indian... we have a lot)... and it sucks. It just sucks. I'm not there to take my 3 year old nephew (the love of my life) to school nor am I there to take my parents out to dinner. And I cry. Believe me, I cry. A lot. Life is nothing without relationships...and nothing without the small moments that create life. So why don't I just move back? What keeps me here?

The dream.

The dream is what keeps me going. And what is supplemental to this dream? ...The journey.

The journey of being an actor is difficult and is definitely a roller coaster, but no matter how hard it gets, the fire within me to continue the ride never ceases. (Well, I admit it ceases every once in awhile, but you know what I mean.) The biggest thing I've come to realize is that the journey itself IS the destination. If we stop to just wait for something to make us happy... we are doomed. As artists, we all have the power and ability to create at any time we want. We can collaborate and connect and DO IT. And that's that. My dream (aside from making myself/my family happy) is to connect with people from all walks of life and inspire them to laugh or cry or feel something... acting is the vehicle (for me) to achieve that. The bottom line is that I have never been in this because I desire fame or fortune. Unfortunately, this may be my biggest setback. But the truth is that I just simply love to act.

As I mentioned earlier, after Scrubs I went back to auditioning (but didn't get too many). Then, I started being asked to be in a short film here and short film there and before I knew it...I became a shorts slut. Hot. These short films have given me an opportunity to gain experience, learn a thing or two, and work with a variety of really talented folks! I think that work breeds work and relationships can lead to opportunities, that's why we are all here on Stage 32, right? A recent short film I acted in, The First Date, won the audience award at Outfest and then went on be a semifinalist for the NBC Shortcuts Festival. How cool!

I also somehow fell into a stand up workshop. Performing stand up was on my bucket list of things to do before turning 30 and now I've done it a whopping total of 5 times. I want to do it more and I want to become really good at it... but it's scary!!!

Also, I've been asked to host and be a guest at different events. Most recently, I co-hosted the NBC Universal Diwali party with my best friend, Parvesh Cheena. I also traveled to Harvard University and was a guest speaker at a South Asian Students Association event. The North American South Asian Bar Association and The South Asian Network invited me to host their annual galas. At the end of the day, I pretty much will always say yes to anything (within reason). I strive to be open, available, and live in the present moment...because that's really all we got!

I WORK REALLY REALLY HARD!!! I am pretty much always doing something for my career...whether it's acting just for the sake of it, writing, rehearsing, breaking down scripts, reading scripts, watching performances, coaching other actors, marketing, networking, auditioning, creating, workshops, working to support my acting, blah, blah...I just plain and simply LOVE. It.

I have to go tutor now. Oh yeah, I tutor. Math, science, Spanish, English, test prep, etc. I always want to be of service regardless of wherever I am in my career. Oh, and I just got a call for an audition for a movie. After that, who knows? I don't plan anything... how can I? Live in the moment. That is what I do.


Sonal has been profiled and praised by various magazines, newspapers, and critics. Anokhi Magazine featured Sonal Shah as one of the most Sexy and Successful people of 2010. She was also most recently named one of the Top 50 Coolest Desis in the world as well one of the top 10 Fascinating South Asians of the year.

Sonal is admired for creating versatile, grounded, bold, and layered characters in comedy, character comedy, improvisation, and drama. She desires to connect, create, inspire, and share love, peace, and laughter with anyone and everyone. Feel free to visit her at www.sleepingwithsonal.com

Sonal is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.