Nadia Quinn: Say Yes!

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On Thursday October 26th, I met with the hilarious, Nadia Quinn at Joe and the Juice in midtown. I met her two years ago when she and Douglas, my husband were in Robber Bridegroom together. With an extensive career in commercials, TV shows, Broadway, and concert circuits, I knew I wanted to jump on any opportunity to pick her brain. We chose an exclusive candlelit nook against what appeared to be Belle’s library. (It was just a very realistic mural). We sipped on hot coffees and noted how Nadia’s tenacity has gotten her to each open door.

 *Ideal cup of coffee: A light roast. Not a lot of people know this but the lighter the roast…the more caffeine. I think the more you roast the beans, the more mass they lose so there is less caffeine. (We asked Siri to confirm…)


 

AF: What are you drinking right now?

NQ: Just a regular coffee with a whole lot of cream.

AF: Describe yourself in 3 words.

NQ: Loud, tenacious, and creative. I don’t know that I would put loud first… I would put creative first, then tenacious, then loud. I feel like I only said loud because I know other people would call me loud.

AF: Are you an extravert or an introvert?

NQ: I think I’m an extravert. But I also think I’m both. Sometimes I recharge alone, and some times I recharge around people. Sometimes I get really anxious in big groups, but also, I think I work better with other people around. I like having energy to brainstorm off of… maybe because I grew up with a lot of children in the house and I had to be loud to be heard? I definitely have to put effort into talking at a quiet, normal level. Like right now, I’m trying to speak at a low volume.

AF: Tell us a little bit of your back-story…where you’re from…

NQ: Well, I was born in Wisconsin, but before I was a year old we started moving. My dad had a job that required him to move quite a bit. He was an electrical engineer and would renovate power plants and then move to a new one and then move to a new one. I think we moved thirteen times before I was in sixth grade. Every grade I was in a different school. When I was at the end of fifth grade we moved back to Wisconsin- that’s where my grandparents were living. We lived with them until my parents found a house, so I finished 5th grade at this school in the inner-city of Milwaukee. My Aunt taught first grade there and happened to be everyone’s favorite teacher, and I was the only white person in my class and everyone called me “white girl”, but like, affectionately. It’s a very fun and memorable experience from my childhood. After that school year my parents found a house in the suburbs, so I had a pretty suburban Middle School/High School experience… I did a lot of music and theatre in High School.

Ever since I was pretty little, I knew I wanted to be a performer. My parents say I was standing on tables singing for friends when I was two. Apparently I was singing before I was talking.

AF: It’s crazy how it’s just in you. It chooses you.

NQ: It does, doesn’t it? It definitely chose me…I remember watching Punky Brewster and thinking- I needed to be on that showFull House was my other favorite show and I actually wrote letters to the producer, saying I was DJ’s age and she and I could be sisters on the show… or the Tanners could adopt me. I wrote a lot of letters to people that I wanted to know or work with… including Jonathon Taylor Thomas who I draw a large portrait of on a piece of poster board and mailed it to him. I got a postcard back and it said, “Thanks for the picture, love JTT.” I still have it. Anyway…I always knew I wanted to be an actor. My family is tremendously supportive, but I do remember them initially thinking it was an odd thing to study or pursue professionally.

AF: So neither of them were/are performers?

NQ: Well, My dad is Middle-Eastern…and before moving to the US, he was actually an actor in Jordan. He is a very natural comedian and entertainer. He has all these weird masks… when new people are at the house he’ll disappear for a minute, and then come back with this weird rubber old lady mask on and start telling jokes in a funny voice. He always has a gag or a magic trick or a joke on hand. I had an incredibly entertaining childhood, but he didn’t pursue it as a career. Actually, before he came to the US he played the prince in a play that was performed for the king, They wanted to turn it into a TV show, but he turned it down because he planned to move to America and go to Engineering school. He was the only one of his 11 siblings to go to college. I definitely get my tenacity from him. My mom was a home-birth educator and doula while we were younger…and then went to college to get her nursing degree at the same time I went to college… I just think they’d never known anyone else to pursue art as a career in this way, but they saw how passionate I was about it and got on board. I applied to only one school— a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin—Viterbo University. It was a really great program. I heard about it because…I participated in the High School Theatre festival with a play my school did Senior year and actually won a statewide Best Actress award. The adjudicator was the Dean of Viterbo’s Theatre Arts program and he suggested I come to their school for acting. I applied, auditioned, and got in…so I went there. I didn’t really know that there were other options. I started as an Acting major and when I got my roommate assignment she said she was Musical Theatre and I was like, ooh, what’s that? She said, “It’s basically the same thing as the Acting program, you just take voice and dance classes, too…” And I thought- I like doing all that stuff so I’ll do that! I switched my major the first week of school. I think there were maybe twelve people in my class and I was always cast as the old people. I played Judge Danforth in the Crucible when I was nineteen. But it was fun. I probably won’t get to do that again, ever.

AF: What did your first few years in New York City look like?

NQ: I moved here in 2002. I’m a New Yorker now. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. The way I got myself to New York is actually a kind of cool story. So, I graduated college and knew I wanted to get to New York desperately, but I think I only had like five hundred dollars left after school. This plan to move to New York started to form-  My friend Michael from high school who went to Fordham, and we had another mutual friend from high school who was planning to move to NY to get a nursing job and so he connected us. He said to me, “You and Katie should move to New York and live together in this cool new neighborhood where everyone is living…in Astoria.” and I said, “Okay”. Katie decided she was moving in July and would find us an apartment, and I said, “great!” but I literally had no money to support this decision. SO… I had this idea to raise money by putting on a one woman show at my old high school. I got permission from the principal, hired an accompanist, and then…put on a show! It was August 2nd, 2002. Two forty-five minute acts of monologues and songs.

AF: Why does this make me emotional? It’s so sweet!

NQ: Haha- yeah, I think it is sweet, looking back. At the time, It was the only option. I needed to make several thousand dollars pretty quickly. This somehow seemed to me like the most reasonable way.

AF: And obviously people in your town remembered you!

NQ: Totally. And I also HUSTLED for that show. I put flyers everywhere. I think six hundred people showed up and I made $5,000 to move to New York. I had a U-HAUL already reserved. I just knew it had to work out. So I did this show and gave a curtain speech that was like, “I’m moving to New York, I’m going to pursue my dreams of being on Broadway, and by being here and donating to my cause, you are part of that journey.” At the time it didn’t feel that amazing but now looking back…I see that it’s pretty amazing. Bold. But I’ve always been strangely entrepreneurial- I loved planning and executing grand schemes as a kid. When I was in fifth and sixth grades I somehow got it in my head that I wanted to put on a Carnival in our backyard to raise money for the Battered Women’s Shelter of Milwaukee. I got a couple friends to help me— we convinced the puppy kennel across the street to bring a little pen with puppies so people could pay to play with the puppies for ten minutes. There was face painting and some basic carnival games…My dad barbecued wings, and I think I raised like three hundred bucks both summers to give to this shelter. I always had these wild plans and ideas— I mean, I had three separate babysitting clubs in three separate states. I started a lot of businesses as a youth… Oh, but anyway- the show. I was like, “I’m putting on a show, please help me get to New York.”

AF: I don’t think many people would have the audacity to do all of that. That’s incredible.

NQ: That’s where the tenacity comes in. I was pretty fearless. Oh, gosh it’s so silly now. I had a feather boa for the opening number, which was “Broadway Baby” and the show was called….Broadway Baby.

AF: So… is there a video of this somewhere?

NQ: Oh gosh- there is… but I’m actually afraid to watch it. I had this really short haircut, and felt like an adult woman and I was twenty. I presented this show like I was a thirty-five year old broad. I’m sure it’s on VHS somewhere.

AF: So then you raised $5,000, you move to New York…

NQ: I moved to New York, and I knew nobody. I lived in Astoria. My roommate was a nurse. I found a waitressing job my first week in New York and Carmine’s in Times Square. I remember sitting on the floor with my Backstage, circling the auditions that I wanted to go to. I was non-union when I moved here so my first audition was at a YMCA, for a production of Beauty and the Beast. It was in the evening. I went, and it was filled with a cast of characters rivaling Waiting for Guffman and I thought…something about this is weird. I sang my audition song, “A Little Bit In Love,” and got a callback for later that evening and so I sat there for a minute…and then I left and didn’t go to the callback. I remember sitting in the room and there were actors in the corner singing RENT to each other full voice and I thought, “I don’t think I want this weird job at the YMCA.” I didn’t know what else to do other than buy Backstage and give it a go, though! Oh-  I also bought those clear mailing envelopes where you can see your headshot through the window, and mailed out probably five hundred to any person with an address. I looked like a forty-year old woman in my headshots so that was outrageous.

The second audition I went to was for Theatreworks USA. I got a callback…and then I got it! It was a three month tour of the show, “Just So Stories”. Anyway, I went to quit my job at Carmines and the manager said, “You will never make as much money as an actor as you are making here.” And I was like, “Sorry! I didn’t move here to be a waitress!” I did the three month tour- mostly for young elementary school kids. We had to build and breakdown the set at each new stop, and we stayed in really random hotels in weird towns. At the time it didn’t feel like a big deal because it wasn’t “Broadway.” I just couldn’t see that it was one of the steps there. Now of course I’m like, “Holy Sh*t, that’s unbelievable! Your second audition you get your Equity card!?” So then…after tour I came back to NY. I had a friend that I had done summer stock with just move to the city, and we happened to live across the street from each other in Astoria. She was already in the Union and suggested we start going to auditions together. So for the next few months, she and I woke up at 5:45 every morning to catch the train by 6:30, be in line at the Equity building at 7:15, fully dressed in hair and makeup. We would have a plan where we would hit all these different auditions in one day. We got each other up early every morning- it was nice having a buddy. We would go at least four or five days a week. We were pretty aggressive about it.

AF: Did you have a job at the same time??

NQ: Yes, I started catering! I had to buy a tuxedo…I probably still have it. So, the following March my audition friend tells me she’s going to an call for Disney Cruise line and I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do but I went with her anyway, and ended up getting the job! I got to develop a brand new musical for the ship- it was a pretty fun job that lasted about nine months. I got back off the ship the following March- it was great! I made some wonderful friends, paid off all my credit cards, and saved a little money, too.

So then one of the girls I was working with on the ship had been working at this bar on ninth avenue called, Vintage. I was visiting her at work one day, and the owner was there, and I asked him if I could work there and he said, “Sure, when can you start?”

I worked there for six years! It was such a fun and iconic place. Working there totally changed my life. So many of my friends in the business I met because I initially waited on them. I met my husband at Vintage. I met the casting directors for the Roundabout theatre at Vintage. I asked them if I could be a reader at auditions sometime, and they said yes! I met so many people and got to watch so many incredible auditions during my time as a reader. It was invaluable. I was actually the reader for one of the plays that Alex Timbers directed…and when he was doing Bloody Bloody several years later, he remembered me from that experience. I was committed to staying in New York. I didn’t want to leave for a job again. I had my sights set on Broadway and in order to do that  I decided I needed to stay in New York. Working at Vintage, even though I was waiting on them, I was around people at the level I wanted to be at. In the mean time I started writing these funny songs. I’d written some in college, I’d pick up a guitar at parties and improvise a song. I was doing that casually on the side. I was auditioning still, but only in New York. I got close to a few things…but I wasn’t super confident. I thought those big jobs were so far out of my league… and then I started getting really nervous at musical auditions for some reason. Maybe I wasn’t getting the feedback that I wanted. I started to get really discouraged and my leg started to shake at auditions. I think it’s because I didn’t really know who I was. The material I was picking and singing wasn’t coming from me. I was still singing these old broad songs and my book was such a disaster and it started to make me feel terrible. I went down a hole of thinking I wasn’t ever going to be as good as I thought I needed to be to get the things I wanted.

I went to a career coach and he told me I needed to be in a scene study class to remember why I love acting, and also to take a commercial class. So I signed up for both… I hadn’t done scene work since college probably, and this class helped me remember that I really loved acting and I started to get my confidence back and remember who I was. It was really terrifying at first, but it gave me back some confidence. And then I took this commercial class and got a commercial agent…who is still my agent! The night after we presented to agents at the end of class he goes, “I like you! I’m gonna start sending you out on sh*t! I’m gonna call you tomorrow!”. I don’t think I believed him but he called me the next day, brought me in, and signed me. And then things started to fall into place. My commercial career happened much more easily than anything else. But of course I still wanted to be on Broadway!

So I took a Musical Theatre audition class with a casting director from Telsey and in that class after I performed she said, “Hey I remember you! You’re that really funny waitress from Vintage. You’re funny! How come when you sing, you stand up there, arms straight at your side, singing these serious songs into the distance with no personality?” And I was like, “I don’t know!” And she suggested I take Improv classes at UCB. That really changed my life… I realized I needed to find where the truth was within me as a performer and improv really helped with that. It’s such an in-the-moment art-form. It really helped me to find my voice. I started writing more funny songs, just for fun.

A boyfriend at the time encouraged me to sing a couple songs at an open mic at bar one night and it was really fun. Everyone responded a lot and they asked me back to play again. So then I found other places to sing…and I bought an amp…and then I asked Vintage if I could sing every Monday night at the back the bar. They said yes. It was fun- I gave out prizes from the dollar store. Maybe twenty people would show up, but it was really fun. I decided eventually that I wanted to do a show at the Laurie Beechman, I had started dating Aaron (my husband), so he played the guitar, and my friend Patrick who I wrote songs with played the piano, and two of my other friends sang backup. That’s how the band started. Summer and Eve. By the end of our run, we’d written probably forty songs. Aaron and I recently decided we’re going to start up the band again, just the two of us, since we have so much material. We’re calling it: Summer & Steve.

AF: I love it! How sweet to get to create together! So now we all want to know… how did you book Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?

NQ: Well, I auditioned with original music for BBAJ. I played guitar and sang a Summer and Eve song about Dame Judi Dench… and I think I felt comfortable for the first time in a long time because I was genuinely doing me. I wasn’t trying to do a thing that didn’t feel right. And then I also continued doing Summer & Eve, doing commercials…and then that job ended and I started auditioning again.

What I’ve realized through all of this is what’s always been the most satisfying to me has been creating my own stuff. In this business… people weren’t giving me what I wanted…and then I realized you can’t sit around waiting for people to give you what you want. I stopped seeing the downtime as failure, and focused on making things I wanted to be in. As soon as Bloody Bloody ended, I started writing a musical with my husband and best friend that we just work-shopped this year called, It’s the Bear. It takes a long time to write a musical! We hope to do a bigger workshop next summer.

AF: Congratulations!

NQ: Thank you! It always came from a place of wanting to do things that weren’t being given to me. Why not make it myself!

AF: It’s so easy to compare.

NQ: Yes. Many peers who I moved to the city with have huge Broadway careers and it’s a mind-f*ck some times. But that’s their path. There’s no “right way”. This career isn’t linear. It’s hills and valleys and nothing about it makes sense.

AF: With that said… how would you define success?

NQ: I think success is a bizarre concept that really doesn’t even mean anything. I still feel unsuccessful a lot of the time. I feel far from my ultimate goals.

AF: As somebody who’s just starting out, I feel like that’s insane, because your career is so rich!

NQ: I know that of course, but I think what I’ve realized is….there’s no job, or moment, or thing that is going to propel you suddenly to being at this place where you feel more successful. I think it always feels like….what’s next? I think success is finding peace with yourself as an artist and a creator where you don’t depend on jobs to give you value.

AF: That is so good. I’m going to tattoo that on my arm.

NQ: You are an artist. I am an artist. I’m going to make art until I die. But that’s not jobs. I’m going to get some jobs and then those jobs are going to end, and in between I’ll need to find a way to still feel valuable. For me, that’s been writing music, going to museums, making stuff, reading, hanging out with friends. Realizing that life is worth more than climbing up the mountain. Maybe climbing up the mountain is part of the fun of it because what happens when you get to the top of the mountain? You’re just standing at the top of a mountain? Where do you go then? So…yeah…I totally dream of being a household name, but I can’t worry about that. Just gotta make the things I want to work on, and take it a day at a time.

AF: You have to be crazy enough to believe that it could happen.

NQ: Right, and why not? Someone else is already doing it…and the only reason they’re doing it is because they THINK THEY CAN DO IT… so why don’t we all just do it? I’m writing my own stuff because it’s going to be like this way forever. I heard a story that when Judi Dench gets a new job (can you tell I’m obsessed wtih her?), she keeps her purse on her lap incase they ask her to leave. I think those feelings of, “Do I belong? Am I good enough? Have I made it?” never go away. The parameters just change.  If you had told 21 year old me that I’d be on Broadway at 29 I’d probably think, “Oh wow! Then I’ll have made it!” But of course the show ended, and I felt back at square one… even though, of course, I wasn’t.

Keeping your brain in it in the right way is work. Mastering how you handle the downtime… Like this blog that you’re doing is helping you grow as an artist and human— making connections, keeping yourself busy. Tonight I am re-joining acting class just for fun! I’m shooting a couple days on a film in two weeks, I have a few other jobs here or there…but most days I am simply waiting around for auditions! I missed singing, so I started this “series” where I sing duets on my couch with friends. It’s just for fun, but it does bring me a lot of joy.

AF: I love that! What are your words to live by?

NQ: SAY YES! I’ve done all kinds of incredible things by just saying yes. You never know the opportunity that might be disguising itself as something seemingly strange. My grandma always told me, “Put your deepest desires out to the universe and then don’t say no to opportunities because they could be your answer coming to you. Just because it doesn’t look the way you were expecting it to, it could still lead to other things…”  You have to really stay open. I think I got caught up stressing that my dream was the same as everyone else’s dream and I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough space for all of us. The quicker you realize that’s complete and utter horse sh*t, the better. There is no limit on success. We are all completely different individuals and there’s no way to quantify or qualify what’s going to happen for you or know when or how it’s going to happen!

This is an analogy I came up with… I think of a project being cast as a chef creating a recipe. The casting director and director are making an omelette, for example… and all the actors coming in are all the different ingredients they could put in. And they’re like, “We’ve already cast eggs…but we need four other things.” They’ve been presented with strawberries, parsley, and feta cheese…like if somebody asked me to pick between strawberries or feta cheese it wouldn’t be possible because I like them both individually and in totally equal but different ways. Right? So this director sees all the ingredients and picks her four favorite ingredients that she thinks IN HER OPINION…match best with the eggs that are already going in the omelette. They love strawberries! But they’re not going in the omelet, you know? But, maybe they’re gonna make strawberry ice cream next and then you’ll be just the perfect ingredient! It’s all totally subjective. I try to walk away from an audition knowing the results have little to do with my work, as long as I am being authentic to myself. Be you, OWN your work, and know that whatever burning desire you have is unique to you. Also…take class. Stay in class! You can’t ever be too good.

 

 

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