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Today’s blog comes from actress, writer, director, producer and Stage 32 member Veleka Gray from New Orleans, Louisiana. Veleka is a former soap opera star and in addition to the titles mentioned, has also worked as a script consultant, voice artist, and acting coach.
For today’s blog, Veleka discusses her incredibly versatile career up to now and explains how she managed to find tremendous success after being fired from The Young and the Restless. What Veleka’s blog shows here, and what many creatives find trouble accepting, is that to develop a fruitful career in show business, you need to remember that it’s exactly that: a business.
I thank Veleka for her contribution to the Stage 32 Blog.
Once upon a time, many years ago when I was an upcoming young actress, I was watching a television talk show interview with the famous comedian Carol Burnett, who was asked about her early years in the business. She pointed out that in those days, the network executives kept her show on the air because they felt that it was good and that she would eventually succeed, which she did magnificently. “But now,” she said, “ratings are all-important, and a show that is slow to win an audience is quickly dumped. Networks used to be in SHOW business. Now they are in show BUSINESS.”
I didn't know enough at that age to understand what she was talking about, but I never forgot it. And over the years as I went from being the lead in my school play, to being the lead in community theater plays, to being a leading lady on six soap operas and a few Broadway shows, I was forced to learn about that side of show business - the production end that is concerned about money - when all I cared about was acting.
Initially, that worked out. I didn’t have to think about business. I had some great agents who took care of that side of it, so I never gave it another thought and only focused on my acting training and my work. But after I got asked by the magazine Soap Opera Digest to write a column for them, for the first time I began to see there was more to show business than acting.
Part of my job on SOD was to write a biweekly advice column for people who would write to me about their woes, but the other side was to write feature articles on other actors from other shows in New York. Interviewing them and learning their stories and how they made their way into the business helped put some distance between me and my own experience instead of being just consumed by my experience, which I was beginning to realize was insular.
And then, disaster! After playing contract roles for fifteen years on six soaps, I was suddenly fired from The Young & The Restless. I was devastated. I had been a proverbial grasshopper, completely unprepared for this massive change in my life. I now realized that when rent is due, understanding the business end of the industry is vital if you have to make money.
I knew I didn't want to get back into acting. I was too shattered by what had happened. Fortunately, one of the writers on Love Of Life offered me an opportunity to work with her in a multilevel-marketing company that sold vitamins. I loathed selling those vitamins almost more than anything else I've done in my life. Asking people to give me cash money ran against everything that I considered “me” up until then… the part that had agents doing the selling, not me… the part of me that was a Southern belle who would never ever ask anyone for anything. There’s no Southern hospitality in that. But this terrible time did force me to take into account how money works in our lives, whether we are creatives or not.
What saved me and led me in a completely new direction was a photographer friend in New York who invited me to go into business with him teaching models how to act. My first response was, “What do I know about teaching?” And he said, “You've been performing your whole life. I know you’re in acting class three times a week. What don't you know?” So with trepidation I went into his photography studio one day and faced six lovely young women and began telling them how to act. And at the end of that first class we put them on camera and I played with them and drew them out, and they had a chance to see what they looked like being characters, and they loved it. And I loved that they loved it. And I especially loved the financial reimbursement I received for doing something that was joyful play to me.
Not long after that, life took me and my budding teaching credentials acrossthe country. While I was working another multilevel-marketing company, I was stationed in San Francisco as their National Training Director and felt drawn to teach at San Quentin prison. Not acting, of course. That wouldn’t be very useful for your average inmate. What I did teach them was sales presentation and how to adjust their posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other elements of presentation the way actors do to create characters, and that gave them tools to create a personal style that they could market when they were released.
I dearly hoped that I was helping them get out of the prison cycle. And I loved that work, which may be why when I later moved to Chicago, I was bold enough to send my résumé to every single acting school in the forty-two pages of the Chicago phone book. Amazingly, the College of DuPage, only a couple of miles away from me, needed a teacher for the upcoming semester. Although I was terrified about teaching college when I had never graduated from college myself, I went into the interview with the head of the Theater Department, who told me I'd be teaching a credit class.
And I did it! It was called “Audition,” and I was introduced to the book Audition by Michael Shurtleff, which has become my Bible for actors ever since. I was teaching stuff I had never actually known before, and I was watching all of these new upcoming actors learning it with me. It was fascinating, and many of my students and I became very close. I had private classes at my home with the best of my students for years until I moved back to New Orleans where I met with an agent and began teaching in Louisiana.
The next “mind expansion” happened while I was still in Chicago. One of my students told me that I should direct a play. Just like when the photographer talked to me about teaching, I was again saying, “Who, me? What do I know about directing?” But I ended up directing two plays at Rich’s little theater, and boy, did I learn a lot.
The most important thing I learned was that I didn't cast those plays. People auditioned for the roles, and I just saw which ones worked best together, and they got the parts. Casting didn’t demand critical judgment like when I judge competitions like the Emmy Awards. The shows cast themselves, and that happened again later when I started casting my own films.
Working as a director, I saw for the first time that it was the company that mattered, not the individual actors. Since I had usually been the lead in the productions I did, I’d thought it was all about me. It was a major revelation to realize that even the star of a production is only one tiny cog in the wheel. It is the stars, plus the myriad unseen elements in a production, that form the amazing experience we all have when we see a truly great show.
By this time, I began to understand that my education was not over, and when I became a producer in 2009, I began the next stage in my life. It came about when I heard of a filmmaker who lived in my neighborhood and contacted him to meet at the New Orleans Film Festival to talk about working with him. We met, and he suggested that I produce his next film, a ten-minute short that ended up winning awards. This was a sign to me that angels were guiding my each and every step.
The main thing I learned as a producer was that the most crucial people on a set are the crew. The gaffer who had flown in from Los Angeles told me that he was going to take three hours to light a set where the actors would come in and just speak for ten seconds. The sound man explained that if you can’t hear the actors, the viewers will change the channel.
Realizing the vital role of crew was stunning because I was truly clueless. When I would arrive at CBS or NBC for a soap, I had no idea what the crew was doing since they seemed to be sitting around a lot, whereas I was constantly running up and down stairs all day. I was so busy with my own work, I never had time to see what everybody else was doing. So after producing that first little short, I decided to produce films with my students, and so far, we’ve produced eight! It has been remarkable realizing how many things can go wrong when you’re trying to shoot a production and you DON’T have great a crew!
Currently, I'm continuing a teaching career. On the side, I’ll sometimes do some acting or write screenplays I hope to sell. But when I look back and reminisce on all these life lessons, I see the gestalt of this thing we call show business. When you get an insider’s view, you see that movies are made by tribes. And you better realize it’s a business if you want to be one of the players.
I think I’ve learned. And I’m so grateful I finally understand the importance of both the creative and accounting sides. It’s really what’s allowed me to survive in this business I love.
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As always, Veleka is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below...
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