Live Arts: Nicole Ruark On The 5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performance Art
Be a student. Taking class exposes you to current teaching artists who are always looking for talent. Taking class enhances your skill set, introduces you to new material, exposes you to people behind the table, and builds your technique. There is no better way to work toward your goal of performing.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nicole Ruark.
Nicole Ruark has had the honor of performing, choreographing and teaching throughout the country as well as internationally. Her work as a professional performer led to a successful career on the other side of the table, earning her awards at the Youth American Grand Prix and the Prix de Lausanne as well as medals at the New York City Dance Alliance, and others. Her many students have gone on to Broadway, tours, professional dance companies, recording contracts, film, and national television.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I am the proud product of a single mom who worked hard to bring a love of and exposure to the arts to her kids, even in our small town. I began dancing at the age of 3 and quickly fell in love with the creativity and joy in our dance studio. After training for many years to become a professional ballerina, an injury left me redirecting my skills away from ballet. My dance instructor at my pre-professional program steered me into musical theatre, where I realized I had the ability to integrate my dance technique with acting and vocal work to become a triple threat. I studied theatre at The American University before beginning my professional career on stage.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
There is not a specific story. Rather, I feel I was allowed to follow my passion and encouraged along the way. So many people can tell you why they didn’t take a certain path, but few can say they felt encouraged and supported during the journey. Nearly every child I have met fancies themselves a wonderful artist, a funny comedian, an inventive chef, or a dancer worthy of your attention. Then someone tells them they aren’t or laughs or stops watching. I am lucky that wasn’t my story.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My childhood ballet teacher, Ms. Betty Webster has been cheering me on since I stepped foot in the studio. She would tell us that she could train good dancers, but she could not give us the soul of a dancer. I can see her pounding her chest and saying “It comes from here and it can’t be taught. YOU have it!” Even now, many years later, she will call or write to me to see how I am doing and if I am still honoring my gift. When someone validates you early and often, it pulls you through the times when you are feeling like you are not enough.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I get asked this at most interviews and it is always a challenge to give the “best answer.” I have met a ton of fascinating people. I was part of a flash mob with Todrick Hall. Very fun. He is an amazing talent and a whip-smart businessman, by the way.
The people I have met are endlessly fascinating. However, one experience continues to resonate with me. I was working as a choreographer with a production transferring from the US to Russia. It was a lovely show portraying what I felt were uniquely American stories told by American actresses to English-speaking audiences. I enjoyed the show and was proud of the work we were doing. What I could never have imagined was how our show would resonate with Russian audiences. I was awestruck at the tears, laughs, and heartbreak felt by our international audiences. I knew how to entertain a multicultural audience with flashy precision dance numbers and catchy songs as a dancer, but our show was raw and understated. Without the glitz and tricks, the audience had no choice but to focus on the essence of the work. And that essence is universal. Well-written material told in an honest way and directed well does not need a common language. That experience changed the way I create forever. I knew how to entertain, but I learned in Russia how to create art.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh my. There is one that comes immediately to mind, but the sheer humiliation is still so raw and humbling that I think I will save the debut of this story for my first Seth Rudetsky interview. Seth, if you are reading, you can have the exclusive! What I can say is that it taught me that even though you may want the world to swallow you up, it won’t and you will survive. People will laugh and you might cry … a lot. But, you will survive. Really, nothing is as big as you think it is at the moment.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am thrilled to say I am in the position in my career where I can take on a million projects that excite me, or choose to pull back a bit and re-focus on things outside of the business. My only child is a senior in high school this year. Although I am still working on wonderful productions and coaching some brilliant young artists, the most exciting project to me this year is making memories with my child and helping her start her future career. Work-life balance has always been a challenge and I must say I often chose work over family. This is the year of family focus. That being said, there are some projects in the works that make my mind spin and set the world on fire. Stay tuned!
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
Always be the student. Early on I felt extreme pressure to hide the fact that I was raw and inexperienced. Looking back, I know it was my greatest mistake. Be willing to say “teach me.” People love sharing their passion and knowledge. Take that in and learn from the others in the room. Learn from artists outside of your field. Take a class to remember those techniques that your body may have forgotten. Always be a learner. Not only will you develop your skill, but you will find your life much more fulfilling.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Please see above! Honestly, if you are seeking new experiences outside of your comfort zone, I am not sure how you could feel burnt out. Drained? Absolutely, and then it is time to make sure you are taking care of the whole you. Fully live a life that excites you. If burnout starts to creep in, take a class or watch another artist in your field working. Let the brilliance of others light your fire. Also, learn to say no or not now. Even the best project is not right if you cannot give it your energy at the moment. Trust that it was not meant for now and that another opportunity will arise.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
1. Be a student. Taking class exposes you to current teaching artists who are always looking for talent. Taking class enhances your skill set, introduces you to new material, exposes you to people behind the table, and builds your technique. There is no better way to work toward your goal of performing.
2. Do your research. Be aware of upcoming projects and who is on the team. To better prepare your material, find out more about the project you are auditioning for before you walk in the room. Be able to speak intelligently about your craft. I was once in an audition where the choreographer had taken us down to a group of 24 for 10 roles. He was making conversation to get to know us while we took a break and asked us if anyone could tell him what the first musical was. I had recently been reading a book on theatre history and answered “The Black Crook.” I got the role. He later told me he appreciated that I had taken the time to better understand where “all of this” came from. Do your research.
3. Appreciate the talents of those around you. You have no idea how much it helps you and others in this business if you have a genuine appreciation of the contributions of everyone in the room. Understand what goes into the jobs of those you are working with and seek out experiences with people who do their job well. Really, it is a good way to get ahead in all business ventures, but especially in the arts. Be kind and thankful for what each person brings to the project. Not only will people want to work with you, but you will enjoy the process so much more.
4. Learn about the business. This is my complaint about many higher level education programs for the arts. Of course students need to learn about the techniques involved in their craft, but it is essential that they also understand the business end. Knowing how auditions work, what you should expect in a contract, how a union is structured, how to file your taxes, and what is involved in becoming a self-employed artist will save you a lot of headache and help you parlay those contracts into a sustainable income.
5. Define success. Define what “being successful in theatre” means to you. For me, it was never about being on Broadway or being a failure. I always said I wanted to make a living doing my art exclusively. I did not want to wait tables or deliver food or work retail. I graduated college with a professional gig already booked and worked four years straight before I had my first lull in employment due to an injury. I consider that successful. Your journey is like no other. Maybe you work on Broadway for 15 years, but you never get a Tony nomination, or you get five and never win. Is that not successful? Know what it means for you and pursue that goal with absolute focus.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different from the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
I will not pretend to be any kind of expert on film work. I will say that theatre actors are called upon to keep material live night after night for months. It is not a period of filming and then your work lives on for eternity. Theatre performers must keep it fresh and honest even when you have sung that song or danced that dance 100 times. That kind of professionalism is tough. It requires rolling with the ins and outs of live performance, adaptation to different people, changes in venue, even slight variations in tempo that night or the energy of the house. You must be very, very, competent to deliver your best performance and tell the story with authenticity each night.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have always held Edith Wharton’s quote “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it” close to my heart. I can choose every day to be the source of joy/art/love or to spread that created by others. As a performer, I often felt the privilege of reflecting the brilliance of the creative team each show. I got to share that amazing material with others and expose them to something that might ignite a fire in them. As a choreographer, I get to create the light myself. Both are valid and not mutually exclusive ways to live and work.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I love this question! Can I choose an intimate brunch with a handful of creatives? I love a team! I love the energy that comes out of a few people throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. It is those small pieces of inspiration that work together to create something truly unique. Okay, that wasn’t the question. I can pare it down to two.
The creative in me would find tremendous value in some one-on-one time with Susana Tubert of Disney. Susana has consistently shown herself to be a brilliant businesswoman in the arts. I would love to be a part of the team and learn more about her advice for being relevant in so many facets of the performing arts. It would be very insightful and inspiring to hear about her balancing act between commercial art and humanitarian projects. Plus, I REALLY want to work on “The Princess Bride.” Please call Susana!
The fangirl in me who was once a ballerina, then a musical theatre dancer, and now a creative would realize a dream if she could spend just a few moments with Chita Rivera. Our paths crossed once at the Tony Awards and I was absolutely awestruck. I couldn’t speak and certainly would not approach her. Never before have I seen someone whose presence you could feel before they entered the room. Can you imagine the advice and inspiration from five minutes with Chita? Yeah, that would be a really, really good day.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
Please feel free to visit my website at www.NicoleRuark.com and follow me on Instagram @NRuark and on Facebook at Nicole Ruark — Choreographer/Teaching Artist.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!