Cutlets, Casting, and Karate: An Interview with Betsy Struxness

Betsy Struxness (photo by Ronnie Nelson / via Betsy Struxness)

Recently, I got in touch with Broadway veteran Betsy Struxness. While she’s currently performing in Hamilton, Betsy’s career has taken her through many national tours and Broadway shows. Her journey is one that many people pursuing show biz can relate to; she started performing at a young age and from there it’s been a long journey with lots of hard work. Although Betsy’s hectic schedule in a smash Broadway hit prevented us from meeting up, she was gracious enough to answer my questions by email. She gave some excellent, in-depth answers about what it was like to come from a performing arts background and make it all the way to Broadway.

You got your start dancing – where did the singing come in?

The singing came fairly swiftly on the heels of dancing. I started performing at age 6 and was in my first musical by age 7. I’m quite a good mimic, so I just tried to sing like other people and that’s how I learned.

Do you remember what the college audition process was like? How many colleges did you audition for?

I only auditioned for three colleges, all in NYC. I had to submit applications for all three, and then upon my application being accepted, I scheduled auditions. I wasn’t able to go in person to NYU, so I submitted a video. For Juilliard and Marymount Manhattan, I went in person. Both began with ballet classes and then went into modern dance combos. If I recall correctly, both programs were looking at solos as well, so in the months leading up to the auditions I had one of my ballet teachers teach me a variation from Giselle and then I choreographed a contemporary number on my own.

When did you start auditioning for Broadway or NYC shows?

My freshman year of college. Technically we weren’t supposed to, but I just didn’t care. I went to an open call for RENT up at the Apollo Theater. That’s where I first auditioned for Telsey Casting, and they are the casting company in NY that has cast me in the majority of my shows: All Shook Up (tour), Wicked (Chicago, San Francisco, Broadway), Memphis, Leap of Faith, and Hamilton (Off-Broadway and Broadway).

Any audition horror stories/mishaps?

Once when I was auditioning for Rock of Ages I had a wardrobe malfunction. For anyone who knows the show, the women are scantily clad, and so at the audition we were scantily clad. There are inserts that women sometimes use in their bras that we like to call “chicken cutlets” in order to enhance cleavage. Well… one of my “chicken cutlets” fell out of my bra and onto the floor while I was dancing. I laughed and I’m fairly certain others did too, although I don’t totally remember.

What about the time you felt best in an audition? Did you know that you booked the role right away?

What’s funny is that one of the best auditions I ever had I didn’t actually book. It was for the 1st National Tour of Aida. I was brought in to audition for the ensemble and Amneris cover (again, for Telsey). After my initial audition and some callbacks, I was in the final 8 women they were choosing from. We danced and then after sang from the show. Upon finishing the opening number, the musical director threw down my resume and said, “Damn! I have never heard a Juilliard dancer sing rock and roll like that.” I didn’t get the job. Months later I was called in for an invited dance call and immediately got cut. The casting director pulled me aside to tell me that for that call they were looking for something VERY particular, and that the team liked me for Amneris but thought I was too young, but also thought me too cute, too short and too caucasian for the ensemble. That brief look into casting helped me cope with rejection immensely. That casting director is also the one who hired me for Hamilton. This business is ALL about relationships.

We talk a lot about “type” with young actors. Did you ever feel that you had to fit into a certain box in order to be cast?

I absolutely did. And for years I would go into auditions trying to be what I thought casting directors and creatives wanted. There is NO WAY to know what they want. And once I cut my hair and bleached it blonde, and once I started allowing myself to wear my nose ring and bare my small tattoos at auditions, I booked far more work far more easily because I finally felt authentically me. BE YOU! That is my advice. Don’t try to be what you think they want. That doesn’t work.

You mentioned in an interview with Dance Magazine that a summer of karate during college really boosted your confidence in your abilities. Why is that? Would you suggest young people find some kind of physical activity outside of theatre?

Find ANYTHING outside of theater that boosts either your physical confidence or your artistic confidence. Taking karate finally gave me the strength and stamina I needed to be the dancer I’d always wanted to be. I didn’t even know I was lacking that until I took karate for a few months and went back into class feeling like a rock. While I don’t take karate anymore, I have developed my love and passion for photography as another artistic endeavor outside of theater. At the same time, it’s made me better as an actor. I observe people while I shoot them. I can tell when they aren’t breathing or trying too hard. I also have a better concept of lighting and the mood it creates. All artistic endeavors will feed all other artistic endeavors if you find the connections.

Does your life suddenly change and become glamorous when you become a Broadway actor? Or do you feel like a pretty normal human being?

Ha! Actually, I’ve never been more tired than when I’ve been working on Broadway. Outwardly I totally see how it can look glamorous, but trust me, it’s VERY hard work that is sometimes very painful, both physically and emotionally. That being said, I was never more fulfilled as a human being than when I finally got on Broadway and worked to stay here. More goals have taken the place of being on Broadway, but there are also other Broadway goals of mine that exist that I have yet to fulfill. I will never stop being ambitious and wanting more than what I already have, so I’ll pretty much always be tired… but I’m ok with that. The moments of glamour DO exist, but they are few and far between, but I do love shopping for a dress for a TONY party or for an opening night. 🙂

You’ve been in a lot of ensemble tracks for many demanding shows. How do you keep up with your health?

I eat really well pre-show and try to get a good amount of sleep. I do allow myself junkier food post-show in order not to deprive myself too much. I don’t drink alcohol very much at all as it ruins my voice and takes a toll on my body, thus not leaving me with as much strength and stamina as I like to have while performing. So for me, alcohol makes my job less fun, because I’m not as good. I take epsom salts baths after two show days and I go to physical therapy at the theater as well as acupuncture once a week to help me maintain my body health.

The shows you’ve been part of have been a mix of hits that run for a long time and short-lived runs on Broadway. Do you feel any sort of pressure for either yourself or the show to succeed when you open a new show?

None. My only job is to do what we made in the studio and maintain that. It doesn’t change in a hit versus a flop. And that outcome isn’t up to me. You learn different things from both experiences too, and I wouldn’t change my flops into hits to save my life. Those lessons are equally as important as the lessons learned in a hit.

How do you keep a show fresh after performing it hundreds of times?

I remember how I felt when I wasn’t on Broadway but went to see Broadway shows. I remember seeing people who clearly loved what they were doing and others that were just phoning it in. The ones phoning it in and marking really made me angry because I wanted to be up there so badly. So if ever I’m feeling tired or disengaged from the show, I think about those times and I light a fire in myself to pay attention to the action and give a show for the people out there who want to do what I’m doing. I never want to let those people down, because ultimately I’m still one of them.

Favorite celebrity you’ve met/selfied with?

Our President. Barack Obama. Met him… twice. Selfied with him… once.

Do you have any advice for young people pursuing a career on Broadway?

Don’t take “no” for an answer. Take it as a “not right now.” I auditioned for Wicked multiple times before booking the show. Same with Memphis. Same with Leap of Faith and same with Hamilton. Keep going in and auditioning for the same people. Show them good consistent work and they will find the right place for you.

Any advice for a younger version of yourself?

Breathe. There is time and you haven’t even begun to dream yet. You won’t REALLY start to dream until you’ve experienced some success.

Bonus question: Care to weigh in on the recent cell phone debate? Cell phones in theatres, the distractions they cause, etc.

Turn them off. Turn them off. Turn them off. At this point they are less of a distraction than they are in indication of a rude patron. We’ve been living with cell phones now for too many years for someone to “forget” to turn them off in a situation like a performance. We all know the drill. TURN. THEM. OFF.

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