Know why you started acting in the first place. Usually actors are able to pinpoint the moment when they either “caught the bug” or realized a life performing was their future. Even if they can’t, there is usually a vision or scenario that brings them inspiration or joy. Keep that at the forefront of your mind, so that even after one hundred auditions telling you “no,” you have your memory or vision to keep you focused and motivated to kill the next one hundred.
As a part of my interview series with popular culture stars, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Van Dam. Alison is a 22-year-old theatre and film actress taking the industry by storm in Chicago, New York, and LA. Known for her witty humor and vivid facial expressions, she is about to begin her senior year at Northwestern University, where she is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre, a Musical Theatre Certificate, Marketing Certificate, and Minor in Film and Media. When she is not in the classroom, she is auditioning for agents in several cities, working downtown Chicago, and keeping up a blog and YouTube channel.
Thank you so much for joining us Alison! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I really can’t imagine doing anything else. If anything, I think performing chose me before I even knew what it really was. I was obsessed with Thanksgiving and Christmas because it mean that I, as a three-year-old with a protruding belly my grandfather would be proud of, could write and direct plays for my cousins to perform. I remember being told what a magical place called “Broadway” was after blasting our living room stereo and using the kitchen as a stage. There are home movies of my sister reading, dyeing Easter eggs, snuggling with my grandparents… I’m usually half naked in the next room pretending I know how to polka to their cassette tapes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
The first lead role I had on set was for a silent film in which I played a pizza delivery girl who was diagnosed with cancer (yes, you read that correctly). The days were long and I was both the youngest and only woman on set, so it was a huge learning curve for me. I would film a scene where I was happy and healthy before switching to crying with my head covered in a stocking hat until 11pm, only to drive the hour home and be back on set at 6am the next day. I wasn’t paid for the shoot, and the film actually never got sent out to festivals because of a copyright issue. But I still think a lot about that set, and how much of a difference it makes to be working with a group of passionate people who believe in the story being told. The hours and the heat wave fade out of memory, and what is left is the feeling of joy and accomplishment when we all sat down in our director’s living room months later and watched the film just for us.
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?
Growing up in community theatre, we had to supply a lot of our own costume pieces. I remember being in the middle of a big dance number, halfway through the show, and my shoe went flying off my foot into the audience. Never in my life has “the show must go on” ever applied more. I kept dancing, finished the number, and then realized with horror that I would need to do the rest of the show without shoes. It actually became a funny bit — everyone in the audience had shielded themselves from flying patent leather — so they were able to laugh along as I literally slid in and out of every scene I was in, praying I wouldn’t wipe out while running in socks.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m excited for senior year because so many of my closest friends will be directing their dream projects. I have one friend who is producing a short film which I will be casting, and another who got the go-ahead to create and direct a Jodi Mitchell musical. I’m a member of Northwestern’s oldest theatre board, so I get a hand in producing and promoting shows such as Next to Normal and 9 to 5 this fall. I’m trying to soak up as many diverse, behind-the-scenes opportunities as I can before graduation.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Growing up, I was very blessed to be surrounded by influential people in politics. My parents helped run the campaign for Minnesota’s Senator when I was five and throughout my mother’s career I’ve been able to meet high-powered business leaders and even Condoleezza Rice. Something that I’ve always noticed about these influential — and sometimes famous — people is that they still treat everyone around them with kindness and respect. It is usually the people trying to become influential or famous that are rude, cold, and arrogant. You are more likely to stay grounded if fame is a by-product of your work, as opposed to the overall goal. It’s because of that that I remain focused on work that brings me joy, and have faith that living comfortably will follow as a result of pursuing ones passion.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think it’s important to remind yourself why you wanted to pursue acting, performing, or really any career in the first place. If you’re feeling burned out by voice lessons, sing your old favorite songs. If you’re feeling like you haven’t booked a role in a while, remember what initially inspired you to be an actor. More on this in my “5 Things” below.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My dream for several years now has been to start my own production company focused on telling stories written by and for diverse women. Growing up in an ever-expanding media age, I have been extremely influenced by what movies, TV shows, and even Instagram likes are telling me about who I should be, the type of woman that is most desirable, and how one should communicate with the world online. I wish that I could have lived longer in a childlike mindset, and have been naïve to some of the harsher elements of exploitation that can be found in the media today. I think we need producers that have that impact in mind when creating content.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You need an agent to book work, but you need to book work to get an agent. Student films! Community Theatre! Short films! Create your own work! Get something on your resume and ideally some footage for a reel in order to prove to agents that not only are you already booking work, you’re talented.
- Agents don’t get a cut until you book the job. There are a lot of agencies out there. There are also a lot of “agencies” out there. You do not pay an “agent” to represent you. An agent will get a percentage of your paycheck after you book a role through them. They make money only if you make money. Moving on.
- Find other tasks that bring you the same sense of fulfillment as being on set or stage. I have to give credit to my mother for this one. Knowing that auditions and jobs could be few and far between, she challenged me to find daily tasks or jobs that would give me the same sense of joy and accomplishment as acting does. It’s why I push myself to film and edit videos or write blog posts — that is my creativity on my own terms, without needing a casting director to dub me as “right for the role.” It’s also why I work as an event planner in Chicago — it is the same sense or organization, preparation, and thinking on my feet that makes my days on set memorable. Find activities or jobs that bring you joy as you hunt for your next role.
- Your job is to fulfill a need. I’m giving credit to my coach and mentor, Jen Rudolph, for number four. The second you start thinking about casting director offices strategically, instead of artistically, your world will change. This is a team of people whose job revolves around finding the right person for a role — you are here to bring them exactly what they need. Prepare your lines and walk in the room with that confidence. Don’t apologize for being in the room or taking up time, but rather pose yourself as the solution to their problem.
- Know why you started acting in the first place. Usually actors are able to pinpoint the moment when they either “caught the bug” or realized a life performing was their future. Even if they can’t, there is usually a vision or scenario that brings them inspiration or joy. Keep that at the forefront of your mind, so that even after one hundred auditions telling you “no,” you have your memory or vision to keep you focused and motivated to kill the next one hundred.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote actually came from a bellman at a New York hotel a few years ago. After talking about potential colleges and my uncertainty towards declaring a major, he relayed to me some advice he once told his college-aged daughter: “Pretend our country is taken over, and the new leaders tell everyone to pick one job that they will do for the rest of your life. You would not receive any compensation or glory for your work, but you must do it every day. What would you do?”
As he was speaking, I thought of the producers who have given me hugs at the wrap of a project. The makeup artists who taught me about true beauty. Co-stars who, at 2 AM, offered to quiz me for my AP English test between takes. All of these people created a world in which I love working.
I remember looking back at the man who had set my luggage on the floor and simultaneously helped me visualize exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And as he walked away and shut the door, he said: “Now do it.”
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?
I like to say that my mother is my inspiration, my father is my motivation, and my sister is my best friend. Watching my mom grow from a first-generation college student to a leader in her field makes shows me that anything is possible. My father, an engineer my trait, prints my headshots and drove me to an audition the day after my wisdom teeth got taken out and I was too drugged-up to drive. I could tell my sister that I had an audition to play a speck of dirt in a musical and she would be screaming in the middle of performing surgery. “Fam Bam (palm tree emoji) (sun emoji)” is the most active group message on my phone, and I hope that never changes.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
100%, hands down, Sacagawea. S, if you’re reading this, first round is on me.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Feel free to follow me on Instagram at @thatgirlalisonn and Twitter at @alisonvandam. My website is alison-vandam.com
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!