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Episode 72: Have You Made It? Jen V. and guests from the DYBP podcast

On this episode, Take a Risk, we share a compilation episode from the 2020-2021 podcast, Ditch Your Backup Plan. This was Jen V.’s first podcast where she interviewed guests in the performing arts on what it means for them to follow a risky career path.

In this episode, each guest answers the question, “What has been your biggest risk?”  Some of their reflections may surprise you.  

This is also the exact episode that inspired Jen V. and JRT to chuck it all and resign from their positions in higher education to launch Voice First World®.  It was a huge risk and they have not regretted it for one single second!

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Read the transcript below

Hey, it’s Jen Vellenga with the Speak with Presence podcast. This is episode 72: Have you made it? This is a collage episode from the Ditch Your Backup Plan podcast. My first podcast, which was launched in 2020. If you want to hear more about that, go back to the previous episode, Episode 71, where I talk more about the DYBP podcast.

 In this episode, you’re going to hear from artists when I ask them the question on the podcast, have you made it? This is a question that can be really irritating for those who are in creative professions. Because you know, what is making it anyway? This is Episode 72: Have you made it? Also, Episode 41 from the Ditch Your Backup Plan podcast. 

You’ll hear from Becca Kötte who’s on tour with Rod Stewart. Do you think that you have, in quotes, made it? I mean, you’re singing with Rod Stewart. Oh. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that term is so bizarre. When people are like, when did you know that you made it?  I’m like, you know what? I’m doing what I love. I don’t have to do a million things to supplement that. In my mind’s like, that’s, that’s it. Yes. I think I’ve made it in that sense. As far as like made it, I’ve really done what I wanted to do in this career, in this life or whatever. I don’t think we ever get there, ever.

David Valentine, who works on Muppets. Yes, Jim Henson’s Muppets. I ask this question of all of my guests, so know that it comes with a little grain of salt.  Do you think you’ve made it? Yeah, I think that I’ve made it, because… you kind of, the way that you say it out loud, you define, like, what’s your ultimate job?  I want to make Muppets. Yes, I’m making Muppets. I guess I have. You know, financially, there’s two different worlds to that. Do you financially make it? No. I have a job. It pays me a regular amount. It’s not enough, but it gets me by. You’re not waiting tables on the side.  Yeah, that’s sort of the great side of it. I’ve never had to be a waiter and that’s partially because, you know, my parents would help sometimes in the moments where it was like too long of not having a job and that was partially because I lived at home until 2010. So, from 2004 to 2010, I was saving money just so I could come to New York City and lift myself up on my own financial stability.  You know, and it was hard in times when I was working towards that.

Lauren Hirsch, who’s a guardian on Broadway Productions, when I spoke to her, she was working on Disney’s Frozen on Broadway.  Do you think you’ve made it? I think I have. I think for me, making it is making a living. I own an apartment. I pay my bills and I’m working full time in theater. So, for me, I think that is making it. And I think I’ve done that for a while now. Yeah. That’s the goal. Yeah, for sure. For sure. That’s the goal.  And it’s hard. I think when you start out when you’re a PA and you’re making $500 a week to think that this is going to sustain me long term.  You know, but there is an end.

Clyde Voce, a Broadway performer. Do you think that you’ve made it? You know, I like to look at it this way. So yes, I do think I’ve made it. I think that depends on what your definition of made it is. For me, I’m a working actor in New York. I work at the highest of highest levels in the theater industry. I’m not necessarily like a household name, but I think that in order to become that, that’s something that’s out of people’s control.  You don’t get to decide that. And if that is to happen for me, wow, I’m so grateful for that. But to say that I haven’t made it yet, to me, would diminish all the things I’ve done before that.  I don’t see it that way.

Sarah Schreiber, who’s an announcer for the WWE Worldwide Entertainment Wrestling Organization.  Do you feel like you’ve made it? I really was hoping you would ask that question because… it’s so hard. I think that’s such a terrible statement that we make with our career. That’s why it’s in quotes. Yes, I recently had a moment with someone that I care about, and they actually asked me, did you move from L.A. because you didn’t make it? Oh God, that rhetoric is so prevalent and so wrong. Jen, it stays with me. And it stays with me because obviously it’s someone that I care about.  But that was really hurtful. They don’t know, Sarah what you have done.  And I think about all these performers I know that have a roof over their head, pay for food.  And you know what? From doing all this work and there’s moments where you’re like, oh, do you want to see my resume? Should I show you my reel? Have you gone to my website? Like, there’s moments you want to go back and like clap back. Because it’s either starving artist or celebrity. There’s nothing in between.

You made it if you’re a celebrity. You didn’t if you’re not a household name. So basically, like, I reflect on that moment, and there’s times that you want to be, like, sort of bratty, like, oh, should I show you what I’ve done? But it’s not who I am, and I’ve never wanted to be that person that spills out your resume. You just want to be the person that shows up for a job and is grateful.  Because I am grateful for every job I’ve gotten. And does what they’re supposed to do. You’re not bigger than that. You know, you’re not bigger than that, you’re human. Sometimes we make these stars so much bigger than they are. At the Bruce Willis thing, they wanted to put my shoes on wardrobe. And I said, no, I’m going to put on my shoes.

Ross Evans, a screenwriter. I mean, there is no making it, as much as you can as a writer.  You know, I’ve sold a bunch of movies and I get to write for a living and I have some really exciting projects coming up.  I’m going to be able to look like hopefully direct my first Indie film sometime in the next year or two.  So, I think as much as the success as you can be, I know I get to have a house. I get to support my wife. I get to have a baby. I get to have a life and I get to write.

Katie McClellan, an actor. Oh, definitely not. Well, I think, that whole concept is kind of dangerous. To think that there’s some specific “it” destination that you’re trying to get to. I mean, every actor you’re seeing on TV and in films, aside from that minuscule percentage, they’re all still wondering where their next job is going to come from. I’d be very surprised if those people would tell you even that they feel like they’ve made it. I think thinking of this career as a marathon and not a sprint is really important.  And I have to remind myself of that constantly.

What I used to tell people who would ask me, like my parents, friends and stuff like, when will you make it? Like, what does that mean to you? And I used to say it was if I can support myself just acting, you know, not having to do anything else for money. And looking at it that way, the last two to three years, I really have been able to do that. Which is amazing. It doesn’t mean that that’s not going to change at any moment.  I can’t say that I feel like that’s something I can count on. I don’t feel like I’ve made it, but I don’t know that I want to even strive for that, because I think it’s a dangerous idea to think about.

Tim Murray, an actor and stand-up comedian. I have not made it, but I think, people probably always feel that way. You know, I will say I thought when I was doing Fifty Shades, I really had moments of thinking that I’d made it. You know, it was really cool. Like we were in the New York Times as a critics pick and I got to sing at Broadway and Bryant Park with other Broadway celebrities.  And, you know, people were asking for my autograph when I left the stage door. And so that felt like I’d made it. And then when it was apparent that that making it doesn’t really mean anything, I felt so depressed and so sad. Like I said, when I had to go back to waiting tables. I don’t think anyone ever does. Either you feel that and it’s not helpful or you never feel it.  There is no real reason to reflect on whether or not you’ve made it. Because no matter what happens, you always have to keep hustling. You always have to keep going.

Grace Douglas, an Emmy award winning story producer. Oh gosh, no! And I never will! I don’t want to! I don’t want to! My question to that is, what is making it? The problem with saying you’ve made it, is what do you do next? Then what? I remember after she won the Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, someone asked Jennifer Lawrence, they said something it was in the press room afterwards. They were like, are you worried that you’ve peaked? And she was very graceful about it, but she should have said, how dare you? The audacity of that question. But, you know, yeah, she won an Oscar at what age, like 25, where do you go from there? If that’s your definition of making it.  But even if she says it’s not that I want to win an Oscar, I want to direct my own movie. And then I’ll have made it, is a dangerous clause to add on. Because what do you do once you’ve made it? And also, what if making it is not as satisfying as you want?

Mariand Torres, a Broadway performer, you may have seen her as Elphaba in Wicked.  You know, I don’t even know what making it means. I think success is relative and it changes. Like your idea of success shifts and changes just as you shift and change as a human. I remember again listening to Sarah’s, and how she said the thing about somebody asking her if she left L.A. because she hadn’t made it.  And it’s infuriating. You know, I had a family member say, oh, so you’re still understudying. And I was like, do you know how hard it is to be a standby in a Broadway show? Like, also, do you know what my paycheck looks like? I mean, that’s the other thing too. Yeah, like I’m good. I bought a house. You know, in New York. So, whatever, make it means, I think we just need as a society to reevaluate what making it means. And also, maybe just like use a different phrase. I feel successful. I have a roof over my head, and I work with people I respect and I’m respected. I work and pay my bills and I’m proud of the work I do. I have a happy heart.  I’m at peace. You know, do I want more? I always want more.

Logan Jones, About Face Theater in Chicago. It means something different to everyone. For me, that’s always means that I am in a role where I feel very happy and I feel like I’m making a difference in the world, and I am fully working just in theater. I think I am 100% there. So, from my standards, yes, I have. And how long did it take for you to get to that point where you’re making your full living in theater? That was true within a year of living in Chicago. Is that after you said no to the corporate gig? Yeah. So that was about seven months into living here that I dropped that corporate gig.

Jenna Rubaii, Broadway performer. She was on tour with Jesus Christ Superstar playing Mary Magdalene when the pandemic shut that production down. No, not at all. I don’t know when I’ll ever feel like I’ve made it. Well, you had your Broadway debut and you’re on this amazing 50th anniversary tour playing the lead role and there’s not very many women roles in this production.

I mean, there’s lots of amazing women on stage all the time.  But you don’t feel you’ve made it? I don’t really know what that means to me anymore.  A professor asked me this the other day when I saw them.  They were talking about the inconsistencies of this life, and I said, you know, I think what we want most is just consistent work.  That means that you’re booking and working on things constantly and getting to explore your craft more and then also making money.

Alanna Saunders, a Broadway performer. You may have seen her in Harry Potter on Broadway. Have I made it? No, probably not. I don’t know. I don’t really believe in anything being the end. I don’t think that life continues. The thing that I’ve learned in getting older and what I would never give up, is that as you age, you just continue to gain perspective. Well, hopefully gain perspective and more views on the world. I don’t really think that there is an end goal. It’s not like once I’ve done this, then that’s it. I don’t think that there is a made it. Because even as an actor, you know, even if you work consistently for 10 years, you might reach a time in your life where you have two years of unemployment. I have made my living doing this, but I have been unemployed probably just as much as I’ve been employed. I really don’t take any of those steps for granted. As I said about even leaving Salt Lake City, I always joke every time I leave a job, I might never work again. And like, that’s part of it.  So, nothing means anything. There you go, Alana Saunders, nothing means anything.

Anne Cofell Saunders, who is a writer and executive producer. You may have seen one of her Emmy Award winning episodes on the television show The Boys or Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think I made it, that’s so funny. I think there are critical stepping stones along every career that are huge critical stepping stones. And I think I made it the day I was on set on 24 when I had written my first freelance script on 24 on an Emmy winning show. And I was standing when we were shooting at Paramount.  This was in 2004 or 2005, probably 2004, and I was standing there and there was a giant burning car behind me.  And there was all of the Paramount set, like an EMP blast had hit it, because that’s what had happened on 24. I’m there with my arm around Keith Sutherland and someone took a picture.  I have that picture still.  I feel like at that moment, I made it because I felt like I had written my first script that had been shot on television.  I think that was the day I made it. I think after that you will have new bars that you set for yourself. Like someday if I have my own show that I’m showrunner and creator of, I will feel like I made it. Again, you know you over and over again you do it at different times in your career. You have different goals, right?

And I have one thing I would love to say to anyone who wants to follow an artistic career of any kind. It is the truest thing I have found so far in my career, and I remind myself of all this all the time. Which is never let anyone tell you who you are. Don’t do it. Don’t let your parents do it.  Just because they were there the whole time and watched you the whole time.  And don’t let your spouse, don’t let society as the woman, if you’re a minority, if you’re, whatever your gender is, whatever, whoever you are. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are and don’t let anyone make you feel small or less than.  That’s the problem. They need a backup plan, as there’s an implied sort of because you might not make it.

I think what might be more beneficial from a parent is, I have zero doubt that you can do this. It could be incredibly difficult, and it could be crushingly difficult.  But I have 100% faith in you and your judgment. And I think it’s so hard to have your own internal compasses about right and wrong, about artistic choices.  It’s so hard to hone that inner compass.  But as soon as you can support your child to reinforce their internal compass and say, if you feel that that’s the way to go, then you should do that. You should follow your instinct. If your smarts tell you I know you’re smart and I trust your judgment and I’m going to be the first person to have faith in you. I think the parent needs to be the first person who’s like, you’re brilliant and I believe in you and have the courage to do that. That’s for an artist, I think that kind of support is a safety net. 

Lindsay Levine, a New York City casting director. You know, in some ways I do. I make a living in the theater, and I’m able to have a family, and we go on vacations, and we have a good quality of life. So, in that sense, I do. I think there’s always more projects to be working on and more ways that I could be involved in theater and I think some of the next steps would be combining what I’ve learned in the world of commercial theater with education and what does that mean and how can I unlock that. I definitely don’t feel done. Which wasn’t the question but is another way to interpret it.

Carrie Compere, a Broadway performer television actress and Emmy Award winner.  No, you know, no I have not. And I’m very clear about that. I have conversations with people and they’re like I’ll lift you up. What I do on purpose is because I won an Emmy. I’ll take the Emmy with me and I’ll show the kids because I’m like, I didn’t have anybody in my life coming to my school, talking to me and showing me like real life awards that people win on TV that I could touch and tell me that I could actually do this. I wanted to make that tangible for the kids in my area, and these inner-city schools.  Let them know I came from where you are, and you can absolutely do this. And even with all of that, I know I have not made it. No, I have not begun to even touch where I want to be and what I want to be doing.  I’m definitely on my way. I like to think. 

Julie Fleischer, a writer in Hollywood. You’ve seen her work on Will and Grace and the Big Bang Theory, among others. In my mind, making it is being an artist. So, in what I do, yes, I’ve made it.  And I do get calls and I don’t think I will ever have to want for work.  That sounds conceited, but no, that’s the truth. You know, you’ve been around long enough, they trust you. I always think making it in any industry, in any art industry is you become an artist. You are an artist because I think that is the hardest thing ever to do in the world. You could be the most creative, talented, wonderful person, and you may never make it.  So, when you have all that and you do make it, I think that’s fantastic.

Joshua Henry, a multiple Tony Award nominee who played Aaron Burr in Hamilton and many other productions.  You know, I have to answer in two ways. By everyone’s standards, yes, I have made it. By the industry standards, I have made it. In my standards, the way I think about it, I am making it, and I will always be making it. I try not to believe in destinations because they are cages. So, I always say I’m making it.

Josh Fiedler, a producer at Bucks County Playhouse. I guess I’ve made it. I’ve been working for 16 years in the industry that I wanted to work at the highest level of that industry. Some would say. So, I guess to a certain degree, I’ve made. But again, you know, I think you always think there’s someone who’s made it farther than you. You know, there’s always something to strive for. I don’t get complacent, and I don’t think anybody ever should.

Travis Cloer played Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys in Vegas and has his own show. You know, that’s a good question. Whatever that means, right?  I sure felt that way the first day I walked into rehearsal in New York. I was like, this is it. But it’s funny because no matter where you go, no matter how high you climb up that ladder, there’s still drama. There’s still challenges, there’s still people trying to get in your way. Even more so with the more success you have, the more cutthroat it gets. I feel like I’ve had some success. I know that there’s other things that I still want to accomplish and that I’m trying for.

Nick Francone, a scenic designer who designs for Broadway and television. I’m always on the one hand and the other hand, and this is a question that is definitely in line with that.  So, on the one hand, I designed New Year’s Eve for NBC. I stood there in Times Square and waved to the people on the set that I designed. So, what’s better than that, right? Like I did it. That’s making it. Yeah, like I did it. But on the other hand, like, I haven’t read all the books I want to read, and I haven’t gotten all the projects I want to get. I feel like there’s a ways to go, you know what I mean? Like I’m in demand. I work a lot. I turn down more than I can do. So, on that hand, yeah, totally. And on the other hand, maybe I wish I was getting a different kind of phone call, like every greedy artist. What I’ve decided that I’m not anymore is emerging.  I think I’m in the middle spot.

Theresa Squire, a Broadway costume designer. I mean, I’ve designed two shows on Broadway, so I will always be a Broadway designer. I think the fact that I have found a way to do the job that both sustains and challenges me without wiping me out, in a way, is kind of making it. As opposed to being, I may not be doing a million shows a year, but I don’t think I could do a million shows a year.  I think I would lose my mind again. Finding my own, my own way and my own path has been making it.

Shaun Brown, television actor, writer, producer. You may have seen him in the Netflix production of Jeffrey Dahmer. The short answer is no. The long answer is, of course, I’ve had those moments where like we said, the undergrad, Shaun’s perspective. Like you would think, oh yeah, bro, you quote/unquote made it.  But for me, making it is …  What is making it? Is it a financial thing? Is it a creative thing? Like, yes, financially, I’m great.  There are still so many stories that I want to tell. There are so many hurdles I have to jump to get to tell those stories.

Maya Lynne Robinson, multiple television credits.  At the time I spoke to her, she was on the show, The Unicorn. Again, what does that mean? I’m not answering it probably the way that you want. I would say yes, in the sense of fulfillment.  And no, because I have so much more to give.

Michael McElroy, Broadway and television performer, now leading the theater unit at Howard University.  It’s just no rival. I think as artists, as long as you’re living and breathing and open and have empathy and curiosity, you’re still shifting and growing. You know, as I get older, I feel like I’ve gained a kind of freedom in risking and failing in my work that I was a little bit more careful about when I was younger.

Qui Nguyen, a writer and director, you may have seen Raya and the Last Dragon. He wrote that, plus Strange World for Disney. Man, yes, it’s interesting.  I think if you were to ask 19-year-old me, for sure I’ve gone way beyond what I ever thought I was going to be doing. If you ask probably a lot of people in my field, I definitely am quote/unquote doing alright. If you ask me, it all feels about like life, right? Like you think that there’s a goal to get to, and then once you get there, you’re not even close to what you actually want. And so, have I made it? It’s a hard thing, because that all feels like a definitive location, or definitive place, and I definitely don’t feel like I haven’t got there yet.

Chantal Bilodeau, a New York City playwright who focuses on climate change. Do you think you’ve made it? I don’t know. Do people ever say yes? I’m going to do a collage of all the answers. I think it would be really fun. If you feel you’ve made it, then you retire, right? Yeah. I mean, a couple of people, I guess it. It really always goes back to how do you define making it? So, how do you define it, and how have you made it? There’s definitely some things I’m proud of, some achievements I’m proud of. I think I have, not just by myself, but I have contributed in bringing awareness of climate change into the arts. Certainly, and in the theater and opening up that conversation. I am doing with the Arctic Cycle something that hasn’t been done.

Bliss Griffin, who is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant for the entertainment industry. There’s no such thing as made it. Are you able to pay your bills and save a little? Do you have healthy, happy relationships? You feel engaged and fulfilled when you do the work every day. Made it, is somewhere in those things.

Kiki Rivera, a writer and actor. I don’t know what that means. What does making it mean? I feel like I’m on the road to making it. I’m traveling on that path.

Laura Camien, a Broadway producer and co-host of The Spark File podcast. No, no, there’s no making it. There’s only realizing in the middle of a day that I have created a life that I enjoy and I’m getting to express myself and feel joyful and fulfilled on a daily basis.  I guess, if that’s making it, then yeah, I’ve made it.

Vince Cardinal, a playwright and former chair of the University of Michigan Musical Theater Program. Well, I just don’t buy the paradigm.  I make it every day. I’ve made it every day. Still here, still doing it. Still making it.

Thanks for listening to the Speak with Presence podcast and the Ditch Your Backup Plan podcast. I’m Jen Vellenga. I’ll be back next week with my co-host, Jennifer-Rettele Thomas, with an interview from one of the great leaders in the Kansas City area.


Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL