Fresh off of her run as Eliza Hamilton in the national tour of the blockbuster musical Hamilton, Shoba Narayan is now preparing to play Wicked Witch of the East, Nessarose, in Broadway’s Wicked. Narayan says she knew from a young age what her professional goals were. She wanted to be an actress and would perform nightly for her parents and four siblings. Getting roles hasn’t always been easy, but Narayan has broken barriers on Broadway so that others can follow in her footsteps.
Giving back has always been important to Narayan. During her time playing Eliza Hamilton on the Hamilton tour, she chose to honor Eliza’s legacy (the real-life Eliza Hamilton co-founded the first private orphanage in New York City) by taking time out of her schedule to partner with a different orphanage in each state to work with the children she met on music education.
She opens up to Thrive about the biggest turning point in her life, how she stays focused, and the steps she takes to reduce stress and connect with others.
Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
SN: I get up, make coffee, sit down at my favorite work spot (where I can see boats passing by!), open my notebook where I have my goals listed, and I make a plan to tackle them.
TG: What gives you energy?
SN: Exercise. A healthy diet. Music.
TG: What’s your secret life hack?
SN: I’m quite regimented when it comes to my health and endurance. My pre-show routine includes one hour of exercise, a 45-minute vocal warm-up, a healthy meal, a hot shower, and making tea to take with me to the theater. I drink more than half my body weight (in ounces) in water throughout the day. Post-show, I jump back in the shower, take my makeup off, and get all the product out of my hair. Then I have a whole skin, hair, and vitamin regimen that helps keep my body in check. I also have a humidifier going at night to help my voice.
TG: What was the biggest turning point in your life?
SN: When I gave myself permission to fail and stopped caring about what other people thought. One story comes to mind: I played it safe artistically for most of my college career. I didn’t give myself permission to own my individuality, my talent — everything that made me special. I also think being raised as an Indian-American girl, there was an added challenge of being conditioned to be reserved, well-behaved, and polished — someone who couldn’t make mistakes. I couldn’t get out of my box. I didn’t sing something in public unless it was approved by a teacher. I accepted the social cues from my classmates that I wasn’t one of the strongest singers in the class.
Then my final year hit and something happened. I reached a point where I became no longer interested in wanting to be like every other person in my class. I was so fed up with not being me. I decided to sing an ambitious pop song for a cabaret. Everyone’s jaw dropped. It was the first time in a long time that I trusted my gut and embraced my individuality, and what I could bring to the table. It was a life-altering realization.
TG: Name a book that changed your life.
SN: Steal Like An Artist. In very simple terms, it manages to break down what I, as well as many artists, grapple with when it comes to creativity and finding ideas. It explains how creative work is actually building on what came before you, and to take off some of that unnecessary pressure we put on ourselves.
TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
SN: This is tough. I try to establish some separation from my phone, though I find it constantly helping me in several facets of my work life — scheduling, replying to emails, recording voice lessons, editing self-tape auditions, reviewing multiple Google docs regarding various projects, connecting to my social media platforms — the list goes on. That being said, I try to practice unplugging from technology as much as I can, because phone addiction is a very real thing!
TG: How do you deal with email?
SN: Emails have become the center of business, so it’s important for me to try to stay on top of them. It can be hard when I’m constantly on the go, so I’ve made a habit of creating a “reply email” list on my notes app. While I’m on the subway, for example, I’ll check in on the list. I try to at least draft the email while I’m under no WiFi (#subways) so I can send it off once I’m above ground.
TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
SN: Because I need emotional and physical stamina for the show at night, I try to be mindful about how I take care of myself during the day. If I happen to have 15 minutes, I shut my eyes and try to focus on my breath.
TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
SN: I’ve noticed that I can reach burnout in different capacities in several aspects of my life. Sometimes it’s from the grind of auditions. Sometimes it’s dealing with relationships and people. Sometimes it’s the physicality of getting through the dreaded Times Square area to then do eight shows a week. I’ve realized over time that the reason I get to a place of burnout is mostly due to me not giving myself time to process how I am feeling. I’ve had to figure out when it’s right to press pause and give myself a break. I recently felt burned out at the end of 10-show week during the holiday season. On my day off, I spent the whole day working on my couch in pajamas.
TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
SN: I try my best to think of the word “fail” as an opportunity, whether it went my way or not. I try to keep the mentality that “doors closing” are actually just a guiding force taking me down a different path. Performers face a lot of rejection, but I’ve learned to reframe the word “failure” to the phrase, “not my journey.” I don’t punish myself. I try to learn and grow from the experience so I can be stronger and make better choices in the future.
My answer is, I fail all the time. For me, reframing failure is the key to staying sane, so I can continue to go after what I want.
TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
SN: “Don’t forget to drink water and get some sun. You’re basically a house plant with more complicated emotions.”
TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?
SN: I’m a visual person. I write down everything I need to do in a notebook. I then group them into categories and try to re-list them in order of priority. I set goals like, “It would be great to get at least five of these done today before this evening’s show.” Nothing is more satisfying than drawing a big line through a task. I have a bit of downtime during the show, so I usually bring my laptop to the theater so I can complete some tasks while in costume!
TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress?
SN: What’s meant for you will not pass you by.
TG: What’s your personal warning sign that you’re depleted? When you notice you’re getting too stressed, what do you do to course-correct?
SN: The sign I am depleted is when I feel overwhelming physical, mental, and emotional fatigue. Nothing else course-corrects for me quite like a hot shower, comforting meal, and a good night of sleep.
TG: What’s a surprising way you practice mindfulness?
SN: I love taking time to stretch on the floor. Life can be stressful, and when you add a strenuous Broadway show into the mix, your body will start to feel it. Stretching allows me to release toxins muscularly and mentally. Breathing is a huge part of this too, as with every expulsion of breath, I can close my eyes and surrender more to whatever muscle group needs attention. It’s almost spiritual, in a sense. It’s silent time I get to spend with my body, to mend it, and thank it for what it does for me every day.
TG: How do you reframe negative thinking?
SN: I ask myself, “What are the things I do have? What did you do to deserve those things? Hasn’t the universe given those to you when you were ready?” Trust the process.
TG: What brings you optimism?
SN: Being around kids brings me optimism. They dream big. They see the world with wonder. They want everyone to be happy. They remind me of who we are at our core. I love that my job allows me to see kids everyday at stagedoor after the show. Hearing their excitement about how the show changed their life or how it inspired them, is a daily reminder of why I do what I do.
TG: Fill in the blanks: People think I/I’m _______, but really I/I’m ______.
SN: Reserved. Extremely goofy.
TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your sleep.
SN: This is not a practice by any means, but I do think that finding the right sleepwear that allows your body to peacefully rest can change the quality of your sleep. Invest in comfort. You spend a third of your life sleeping!
TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others.
SN: I put down my phone or task and I try to ask about people and their days / lives. I try to make eye contact with them and really listen. It sounds simple (because it is!), but when you have so much going on in your own life, it can be tricky to be present. At that moment, I put myself second and give my complete focus to the other party. It gets me out of my head. If the conversation comes back to me, cool. If it doesn’t, cool. The more you give, the more you receive. It’s important to be human — there’s more to life than the grind.
TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus.
SN: I commit to a task, but I let myself take breaks. I used to think if I glued myself to a desk for hours, all of my work would magically get done. That’s not how I work. I am usually hyper focused for a period of time, even if it’s for 30 minutes. I’ll then take a five to 10-minute break and head back into hyper focus mode.
TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep?
SN: I always take a hot shower before bed. It helps my muscles relax post-show and the steam helps my voice. I slip on cozy pajamas and I am all set for a peaceful night of slumber.
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