Tara Llewellyn: Create Your Own Way

TARA COFFEE

I met Tara, working on her new show “Under the Influence.” I knew right away that we should be friends and I wanted to pick her brain because she is a Connecticut native and Manhattan actress, writer, dresser, designer, and coffee lover! She has worked on a multitude of productions including Pretty Woman, Hadestown, and currently moonlights at Broadway’s Moulin Rouge in the wardrobe department. She was most recently seen in the developing musical #LoveStory, where she reprised the leading role of Zoe Tiller after originating the character at the NY Fringe Festival in 2015, in the U.S. regional premiere of The Body Guard at White Plains Performing Arts Center, and is currently in post-production for her pilot “Under the Influence,” which she wrote, produced, and starred in this fall! I took her to her very favorite neighborhood coffee spot, The Chipped Cup, where we officially met as it was our holding room on set for her show. How fitting, right? We sipped on pumpkin lattes and talked everything from wearing many hats to survival jobs to creating your own way. Get ready!

Drink of Choice: Autumn in a Cup with Oat milk from The Chipped Cup

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 TL: I just want to say, I love love LOVE what you’re doing.

AF: It’s very therapeutic…for both parties. From taking a look at the AMC feed you may be able to gauge or tell that I started it because I had nothing going on at the time. I was craving creativity and an outlet for connection. I believe each relationship is a form of networking and you lift each other up. Everyone’s story is important! And coffee is ESSENTIAL in our day as artists.

TL: It’s also such a common ground.

AF: Common Grounds.

TL: Literally…”Common Grounds.”

AF: Wait…! New show?

TL: There it is! I love it. It really is though. It’s a common meeting ground.

AF: It’s also a comforting ambiance! Regardless of the place, you’re going to sit and have conversation. I feel like it’s such a lost art! Coffee just feels different than meeting for drinks.

TL: Well- bars are also just not quiet any more…especially in New York. I need to be able to hear myself talk! What do you think? (gesturing to Annabelle’s PUMPKIN LATTE)

AF: I’m obsessed. I guess I should mention I ordered “Autumn in a Cup” because Tara recommended it and I recommend it now to everybody….

TL: It’s a really good alternative to the Pumpkin Spice. I’ve been coming here for five years now. They have always had a Pumpkin Spice latte. They used to do pumpkin ganache, it was so unbelievably good to the point that I couldn’t go to Starbucks to get it.

AF: Nothing could compare.

TL: What I love about this is that it’s not a ganache…

AF: It’s still a strong beverage.

TL: It has nutmeg, star anise, black pepper…and something else I forget! When a new manager came in he got rid of the pumpkin spice latte and wanted to create something new and I was kind of skeptical…but he is so lovely he let me try it and obviously it’s GREAT.

AF: You heard it hear folks…Tara she gave the approval. She gave that green light. They were like, “But does Tara like it? Because she’s going to be our number one customer for the rest of our life…” What is your drink of choice?

TL: I’m currently drinking an iced Autumn in a Cup WITH Oat Milk.

AF: Love Oat Milk.

TL: I almost exclusively drink Oat Milk. It’s such a good alternative to the non-dairy milks. It is also the most energy efficient…it uses the least amount of water.

AF: I actually reached out to Oatly to be brand ambassador…

TL: I love that. They’re great! I don’t think they knew how big they would be when they came to the U.S. Now that they’ve kind of found their stride, they’re making ice cream…

AF: They are a smart brand. SO… I always like to start by asking, what is your back-story?

TL: I’m from Connecticut! 203! I always loved performing growing up. I went to church and my church would do a huge Christmas musical every year so that’s where I sort of started.

AF: And you were the lead in all of the shows…

TL: Nope! Absolutely not! They would never cast me in any role! It was very bizarre. We always did a music camp over the summer with a show at the end and a show at Christmas time and I never played a lead. It was very sad. But it’s okay, it never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do! I kept trekkin’ along! I did all the school plays and I decided I wanted to go to school for theatre. I really wanted to move to the city when I graduated from high school. I think a lot of kids dream of that, and my mom really encouraged me to go to Western Connecticut State University because they were actually building a big theatre program and they were about to start breaking ground on a huge performing arts center when I was applying to schools. My mom was like, “Go here, do that” and I went kicking and screaming. I did NOT want to go. I wanted to move to New York. First I wanted to go to NYU, but it was way too expensive, and then I wanted to go to Marymount Manhattan, and it was also way too expensive, and my mom was like, “Go to West Conn…” I just didn’t like that idea because I’m from a town next door…

AF: Right – you wanted to go somewhere further away, explore, be somewhere new…

TL: Exactly. But, in hindsight, it was absolutely the best thing for me because I had actually never been away from home for too long and even with that twenty-minute drive, it was enough of a separation. I lived on campus. I had a life at school but was also close enough to home that I could see my family often. I’m so glad I did that because I’m super close to my family, so that was very nice. I only was a theatre major for a semester, transferred out of the department and ended up pursuing Music Education and then Psychology. I didn’t think there was going to be financial security in theatre and I think we all face that as actors.

AF: You’re smart for recognizing that!

TL: Well – I’m smart for recognizing that and then my fourth semester I turned right back around and went back into the Theatre program.

AF: “I don’t know what I want!”

TL: Exactly. I was studying Pyschology, and I had just seen the production that WestConn was putting on, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and I walked into my mom’s classroom, with a class full of students, sat behind her desk, started crying and said, “I just want to be a Theatre major.” And she said, “Okay. Do it. I’ve kind of been waiting for this….” I’m so lucky to have such an incredible support system.

AF: I forget that not everyone has that. My parents are also teachers! We have so much in common!

TL: I think when you have parents who are teachers, or if they’re not and they’re just naturally born teachers, you kind of have that logical side to you anyway; so I think that’s where I was going when I decided to pursue Music Education and possibly Psychology. I just knew I needed something that was going to be a good backup plan. Anyways, I ended up going back to the theatre program. It was the best move I ever made. What I love about West Conn and their theatre program, and I have to believe they still hold true to this – they really encourage their actors to be well-rounded; meaning they would like for their students to have some sort of design background and to also learn the technical side of theatre.

AF: So is that where dressing came in?

TL: Sort of! When I went back to the theatre program, it was Spring of 2011, I had missed auditions, and they told me I needed to fulfill hours for my costume class.  So I did costumes for a production of The Three Sisters, and when it was done, I remember looking at one of my friends dead in the face and saying, “I will never do costumes again for as long as I live. I hate costumes. I HATE them.”

AF: No. way.

TL: Yes.

AF: Isn’t it hilarious how we make these grand statements?

TL: I ended up taking a scenic painting class and I fell in love with it. I loved it so much. I’ve always loved painting and drawing and I just fell in love with it.

AF: You are an artist in all facets.

TL: I try to be! I ended up really taking a liking to that. I loved the idea of creating something out of nothing. I loved creating exposed brick…even though it wasn’t really exposed brick…that was really where the technical side of it started. I had always wanted to be an actor and performer. It settled the logical side of me that if I decided I didn’t want to become a performer, I also wanted to have something in my back pocket in case in the dead times…I could have something.  I should also say though that scenic painting is not high on the list of alternative careers. It’s hard. Being an artist of any kind if challenging!

AF: Well I’m sure when you’re an artist… it’s difficult being told the vision of someone else when you’re creative yourself and you have all the capabilities of doing your own thing but then having the restrictions of somebody telling me it has to be a certain way would be hard for me.

TL: I feel like we’re always going to face things like that…even when we are creating our own work…

AF: So true.

TL: So I moved to New York in January 2014, I was waiting tables and I absolutely hated it. I lasted a few weeks. I was at a bar with some of my college friends and I was talking with my friend Nicole, who worked at Sleep No More…I told her I needed a job that wasn’t serving and asked about any scenic painting jobs and she was like, “We don’t have any scenic painting jobs right now but I just got offered this dresser’s job and I’m not a dresser…” And I’m thinking, “I’m not a dresser,” and thinking back to that time in college I did costumes and how much I hated it. But I needed a job and said I would do it. I hated serving more! It was for the Off Broadway production of Heathers the Musical! I had a resume drenched in lies and gave it to this girl who was the wardrobe supervisor at the time and she hired me! I don’t know why…I got hired to work on the Off-Broadway Heathers production as a dresser, and about three days in, that girl who hired me got fired. So, I got to stay on, and they had this guy come in who was a Broadway supervisor and he kept me on. Heathers actually ended up launching me into a bunch of other shows like Songbird and Lonesome Traveler. It opened me up to so much. What was great about the job was that I could audition during the day, work at night, and stay acclimated, and keep my foot in the door. There were definitely dry spells where I would not audition because I was so comfy in this job. You kind of sink into it even though it’s not exactly what you want to be doing but you’re part of the industry and social circle…

AF: You’re needed somewhere. We just want to be needed!

TL: Absolutely. I had some touch-and-go moments where I wasn’t auditioning as much as I could have been. There were other times when I was really pounding the pavement! This whole dressing thing was really picking up. About two years later, Spring of 2016 I was in a really dead dry spell. I could not find work as a dresser, I was auditioning my tail off but also couldn’t find work. It was really tough because I thought about going home. I actually sat in this place and cried to my friend.

AF: That is SUCH a thing. That is such an artist moment.

TL: The discouragement…feeling like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m just trudging through. Why am I here? What is my purpose? I think we all go through these moments. It was dark. To think about actually packing up and going home was hard. I want to say a couple days later I got a Facebook message from John Furrow, who was the Broadway supervisor who I’d met on Heathers, and asked what I’d been up to.

AF: And this was a few days after you had your dark moment. Wow. That’s how it always happens. Ask and you shall receive.

TL: Things happen right as you’re about to give up. The universe goes, “Here’s why you shouldn’t give up.” So he messages me and says, “I’m getting people together for my next project.” I said, “What’s your next project?” He goes, “The Broadway Revival of Cats.”

AF: And you were like, “I could do that.” What a show to dress! Are you kidding me!?

TL: That was my introduction into the Broadway circuit. In a matter of months I had joined the union, moved into my own studio apartment, which I still live in today, working full time….

AF: Stability.

TL: I had insurance. I had set myself up for some success down the line. I just didn’t realize how important that would be. A couple months before Cats closed, I went through a really bad breakup at the end of 2017. We had been dating on and off for about 8 years. It was really tough. We were doing that long distance. He was never with me and I was never with him. That was really rattling. Simultaneously, the hair supervisor was also going through a breakup and so we got really close, and she ended up bringing me on to do Pretty Woman. It’s crazy the things that happen to us. Pretty Woman didn’t start until summer 2018 so between end of 2017 and the summer, I worked sporadically. I worked on Desperate Measures at New World Stages. I had a lot of fun! The production manager of Songbird brought me on for DM.

AF: Tara this unbelievable. Everything leads to something!

TL: Every connection you make is so important. You just never know the people that might introduce to the person that could change your life.

AF: Why a door closes… it’s almost as important as a door opening.

TL: I completely agree. It’s just as important. We need to have those lows to appreciate the highs. We need to remember where we came from to really appreciate where we are and to appreciate where we’re going to go and to also give us the reassurance that when we do have those dark moments, which will inevitably cycle back, we sign up to be artists, we sign up for those moments…. Having those low moments and continuing to revisit them will feel lighter than the first time because you’ll know that something better is coming eventually. But the first time you experience that… it’s truly so hard. That was one of the darkest times in my life. It didn’t even last that long. It was for a month of two…but I felt so defeated.

AF: After you experience that you’re able to identify when those lows are coming and what they are and it’s like, “Wait a minute, let me ride this for a minute and feel the feelings…I will get over this.”

TL: One of those for me was at the end of Cats and the beginning of 2018, feeling that silence. I felt like I was standing in an abyss. I had just lost a job and a relationship. I didn’t know which road to take. Eventually life will lead you down the right path.

AF: This is like a song. You are writing a song!

TL: We’re writing a song! We’re writing a show! So! At the beginning of 2018, I had gone through this breakup at the end of 2017, and we decided to stay friends, but in 2018 I realized he was dating somebody new. Not only was he dating somebody new, but this girl knew exactly who I was, and I found out about because I saw she was watching my Instagram stories. I had no idea who this girl was, and so I clicked on her profile and the first picture that came up was of her and him. It was so strange. It was like a punch in the stomach. I felt like we had made all this progress but then seeing that changed everything. We had made such a point of being honest with each other and then this… So I immediately called one of my friends and asked if she knew this girl and she said yes because she followed my friend ON my birthday. And she actually asked him who the girl was and he brushed it off. She had a feeling. She had been following me and watching my stories since my birthday. It was so creepy. A couple days later I was with my friend and he asked about [my ex-boyfriend] and I said it was all good until I found out he was dating somebody and he asks me to pull up a picture of her…and she had followed him too!

AF: She followed all of your friends… what point was she trying to make?

TL: I think she just wanted us to notice her! I was baffled by it. I felt uncomfortable because my social media was being watched! It became this whole weird game of cat and mouse on social media. It became so apparent how integrated social media is in our lives.

AF: Yes.

TL: We can use social media as a means of communicating, flirting, black mail…I told my mom about this and she pointed out that if social media didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel this way. Eventually I’d find out, sure, but when she was growing up, they didn’t have to go through it like this…that stuck with me so deeply. And while simultaneously not knowing where to go artistically, and pounding the pavement, and trying to convince people I was right for their puzzle, and trying to sell myself with sixteen bars…I was so tired of it. I decided I wanted to start writing for myself and I wanted to write a show about social media and thus, “Under the Influence” was born. It took a minute. I started writing it and I was very passionate about it. And then I started working for Desperate Measures…and then I started working on Pretty Woman, and you know these all started to take off, but it sort of pushed this project to the back. I’m grateful that it did because it wasn’t nearly as flushed out as it would soon come to be. My friend Hailei Call, who I worked with at Cats and Pretty Woman, is just this incredible visionary and incredible hair and makeup artist, but she has such a beautiful mind; an artist in her own way…and we were getting dinner one night in February of this year and we were walking through Times Square and looking at all the posters for new TV shows and I said, “You know…I actually wrote a pilot.” She goes, “You did?!” and I started telling her about it and by the end of our conversation she was having Raven Symone visions of what it would look like.

AF: I just got chills again.

TL: I know right!?

AF: She was the person you needed to make it happen.

TL: Yeah.  We started plotting and planning and I knew this was going to be something. We started filming in October as you know…

AF: I was there! I was an influencer for a day!

TL: Oh yes. We started filming on October 18th, which ironically was exactly two years to the day my ex-boyfriend and I broke up…which inadvertently inspired the show because of his crazy girlfriend who had to insert herself into my life via social media. It just really instilled in me that has become so integrated into our lives…which it isn’t necessarily a bad thing…but I wanted to write a show about the ramifications about putting your life on the internet and what that can do and the relationships that we all have with social media and the insecurities it creates. The reality that not everything is as it seems and not everything we put online is always what’s happening…it’s not always a physical representation.

AF: Half the time it’s to make yourself feel better.

TL: Absolutely. It’s so affiliated with our self-esteem and self worth. I really wanted to talk about that.

AF: I think it’s brilliant. I honestly feel like there’s not enough of that out there. I think people are cautious about commenting on the reality that social media can be dangerous and toxic. We are all obviously addicted.

TL: We are all addicted in some capacity! Another thing that inspired it…not to constantly bring it back to my ex-boyfriend…but he would always say, “I keep myself so adjacent to social media.” Just because you’re not posting doesn’t mean you’re not constantly watching and observing.

AF: I think it might be worse to watch and not post. You’re keeping tabs!

TL: He was totally keeping tabs on me…and when we got back together, we weren’t even affiliated on social media. I wanted to tell him about my day in person.

AF: It’s such a thing now when people break up… should you still “follow” on socials? It gets so confusing!

TL: We read into all the social media tactics.

AF: It can be caddy.

TL: It can also be so ambiguous. We become so addicted to it that it can hinder relationships with people! Sitting down to have coffee with someone is how life should be. It’s created a stigma that if you want to post something…it needs to be curated. There is nothing wrong with taking a picture and posting it and feeling good about yourself. There’s such a stigma attached that sometimes I feel insecure posting wondering, “How is this going to go over…what time of day should I post?” So I wanted to create a show, to explore my own work.

AF: You wrote your own story. You allowed your voice to be heard through something you created instead of trying to fit into another narrative.

TL: There are so many wonderful women in this industry that it has become that much more challenging. It was so interesting being on the other side of the table in that regard because I was creating the mold and in watching submissions it was educational to find so many amazing women and artists that I wished I could create work for everyone!

AF: Okay so we’ve touched on your highs and lows…I want to know what your words of wisdom are. You’ve given a lot already but…

TL: Create your own way. Create your own way.

AF: The name of your first novella!

TL: I read Jenna Fisher’s book….

AF: Who also… played PAM. Full circle back to “The Office.”

TL: I’m also listening to The Office Ladies Podcast… which gives you a behind the scenes look into each episode and I listened to the first episode about the pilot the first day we started shooting MY pilot!

AF: That’s so serendipitous!

TL: It was so inspiring. I needed to remind myself that letting the work happen… is important. Sometimes you have to just let the work create itself. I had a lot of artistic voices coming at me for the pilot and it absolutely lent itself to the creation of the process but…

AF: At some point you have to trust your gut-

TL: Yes and trust the journey. I have a t-shirt that says “Create Your Own Way” but it shrunk in the wash… so I don’t wear it as often…

AF: It’s fine… we love a crop top!

TL: It’s a shirt I wear with pride. I really believe what it says!

AF: That’s what it’s all about.

TL: To wait around for something to happen for you… takes patience. It will happen a lot sooner if you write for yourself! There’s no shame in that! I remember feeling a little selfish as we were approaching the filming of the pilot and wondering, “Am I actually right for this? Should I have cast someone else in this and taken a step aside?” And the answer is always no. Even if the show goes on to be filmed by someone else with someone else, I can still know and own that I built the foundation for this character and as artists sometimes we need to have that in our back pocket. People do twenty-nine hour readings and then don’t go on to do the Broadway production. That doesn’t make them any less capable, it’s just being in the right place at the right time with the right people.

AF: It’s also allowing the work to continue to evolve. There are so many factors!

TL: I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me since seeing what I’m doing… who are thanking me because it reminded them they are capable of doing it also! I never considered myself a writer, but this friend of mine who I met doing Grease told me on the subway that she wanted to take a step away from performing and get more into writing. You can’t limit yourself to be one thing. You have to explore the other facets of your artistry! If I were to say, “Just be an actor or performer,” when I arrived in the city, I would probably not be sitting here right now. I wouldn’t work where I work…

AF: You’ve created far more opportunities for yourself by being multi-faceted. That is NOT weakness- that is a super power.

TL: I used to think it was. I used to have so much shame in being a dresser. But there is no shame in that… if you’re well-rounded which is what WCSU taught me…because I wouldn’t be the person that I am today!

AF: Yes just look at you! You’re doing it all!

TL: Cheers to that!

AF: Cheers!

TL: It’s important to let yourself be inspired by other people. I hope by me doing this, it’s not only creating work for myself, but for other people, and to inspire others to create their own work. Because that’s how it happens!

AF: Well! You’ve inspired me.

TL: Thanks, queen.

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