Sarah Adams is an actress, writer, director, and improviser, both independently and in The Monthly Junk with co-creator Maggie Rieth Austin. She was also my level 1 improv teacher! As an improvisor who wants to dip her toes into acting, I wanted to get Sarah's thoughts and advice both for myself and for anyone else interested in this field. Sarah and I met up at Loco Cafe in Denton to discuss how she got to where she is now, and where she wants to be going next.
Emily: So talk about how you got started, like did you fall into it or was it intentional?
Sarah: It was intentional. I acted as a kid, it was the only thing that kept my focus and attention. It was back in the 80's and 90's so it was a lot of theater and community projects, because you didn’t have the internet. Now you can look up all these agencies and castings and stuff like that, but back then your parents just put you in a theater group. My initial intention out of high school was to study acting in Chicago, but I ended up going through a couple of majors at UNT and getting my degree in Public Relations. So, right out of college I got my first job at an advertising agency. It was a great environment. It was a creative job which I loved, a lot of type A clients, and working with a team which I love, but it wasn’t quite the right fit. I worked for a few different amazing companies over the next five or six years, but I kept asking myself, “Why am I not liking this as much as everyone else?” Finally I was like, “Oh, it’s me! I’m the problem!”
So in January 2011, I decided to take an acting class. I talked to my husband and was like, “I need to do something I enjoy. I love acting and I haven’t done it in awhile. I’ll take an acting class.” I had done the actor training program at Dallas Theater Center before college, so I went there first. And I loved it! It was like riding a bike, right? Like I’m rusty at it, but I love doing it so much. When the class ended, they started another adult class for acting on camera. I walked into the class and I was so dang nervous. It was so fun to feel that feeling! Like "Oh, I care, and I want to do well, and I’m here to learn. Like as an adult, finding that desire to learn?" After that, I learned about other adult acting classes in the Dallas area, leading into summer. I started taking private studio acting classes, and then got a headshot done because everyone has one, I should too. And then I submitted to agencies, and then got called up, did an interview, and got an agent! And I was just like, “Oh, that’s neat.”
And then I started going on auditions! I didn’t know that was going to happen, I just thought once in awhile I would go on auditions, but then a few times a week I went to Austin, and my third audition I got my first job. I was like “Oh, I can get paid to do this, that’s awesome," but at the same time I had a full time job, and I was using all my PTO to go on these auditions. So eventually my bosses sat me down and were like “Hey, this is cool and all, but you can’t do both.” So I quit my job at the end of 2011, and I started doing this full-time at the beginning of 2012. And fortunately, I had signed up for improv classes at DCH before I quit. Had I not, I would have been too worried about money and I never would have done it.
So starting January 5, whenever that first class was in 2012, I started level one. And it was the biggest blessing to have improv classes combined with my new world of “I can’t control anything, I have no idea what’s going to happen," because it taught me how to handle it. It was like this huge gift. It was amazing and I loved it. Nick Scott was my teacher, and I walked into improv thinking “Oh we’re just gonna laugh, and have fun, but I remember I didn’t make him laugh until like, the showcase. That showcase was one of the best experiences I’ve had in improv. This was the first time we got to get onstage in front of people, and to hear laughter. It was this high I’d never felt. Now when I teach level one, I’m like “It’s gonna be scary, but when you get onstage and hear this immediate feedback, it jazzes you!”
So, that’s the long story of how I got here.
And improv wasn’t part of my plan, like I wasn’t gonna take level two. But Chad Haught, the lovely man that he is, emailed me like “hey you should really think about it.” Once I took level 2 with Terry I was like “oh my gosh, this is wonderful, I’m gonna keep going through level 5.” It was never a performance thing, like I never intended to get onstage. I never intended to teach. And I think that’s the beautiful thing about improv: if you keep saying yes, life just opens up for you.
Emily: Do you think getting into a community of other comedians and freelancers helped, too?
Sarah: Absolutely. Improvisers are amazing humans. There’s something special about an improviser. There’s an innate support system built in where you just completely feel enveloped. It also allows an actor, improviser, comedian – whatever your schtick is – to feel fulfilled. You can use that juice that you’ve been given. You’re not just sitting there in your apartment or home walking around in circles, wondering when’s the next time you can use it. And I think DCH has given that outlet to people so they can develop and create while all the other stuff is working itself out, and you can still feel successful. I think that’s the biggest gift it’s given me, among other things. Like [leans towards microphone] Maggie Rieth Austin. Huge thing.
Emily: So, what are the best avenues for people who are wanting to get in touch with an agency?
Sarah: Okay, great question. I think the first step is to understand what you want. For me, right now, I have an agent so that I can make money with my gift. Commercial work is my bread and butter. I know some other actors who see it as a stepping stone or don’t think it’s highbrow, but I love it! It’s easy to do, you meet fun people on set, it’s usually pretty painless, and I love that it’s always different. Some of my other actress friends, their goals for their agents is to help them get auditions to further their career, right? So you have commercials, you have industrial work, you have spokesperson work, and you have your TV. Now TV, there’s 5 liners (basically roles that are five lines or less), supporting roles, guest starring roles, co-starring roles, all those things just within the TV platform, and then you have film.
A lot of times those types of jobs can only be attained through an agent, so you sit down and you decide what you want. "Do I want to do this just to make money, like commercial work, because I’m doing all these other things? Do I want to try and advance my career in TV or film, and if so, will this agency really support that?” Or another option is a hobby, right? Like I don’t want to do this for money, I’m not looking to advance my career in any way, I just like being on set and having fun, which is okay too. Success looks different for everyone, right? No big deal. I think that’s important to remember as you step into this industry on a more professional level, and by professional, I mean you’re getting paid.
One way to get an agent is to self-submit. I would start by simply researching agents in the DFW area. However, be careful, because I would recommend SAG franchise agents, and SAG online actually has a list of recommended agents in DFW. Each agency has its own prerequisites to submit. Usually, step one is submitting a demo reel or whatever you have, and step two is getting a referral from an existing client.
Let’s say you’re just starting out, you don’t have a resume, you don’t have on-camera experience, you just have an improv background. What I would highly, highly recommend, is just getting on set. There are valuable lessons to be learned from just listening. In any other job, if you want experience, you would intern, and so from my perspective an “internship” in acting is being an extra on set. Everyone is always looking for extras. There are two benefits here: one is that you get to meet people in the business. The second is you get to learn how a set works, and it blows your mind all the people that are involved. You can also see what kind of talent gets booked, but most importantly make those connections on set. I would definitely start with your on-camera time, but extra work can only take you so far, so in turn you could start to self-submit.
There are a lot of casting agencies in DFW (also in Austin) that send out mass casting notices, and self-submitting to those with a headshot and resume is so beneficial. Because if you fit the specs, they’re probably gonna bring you in. And now you’re in front of a casting director, and they’re going to know who you are, and you’re going to do a great job because you’re prepared, you look professional, you’re dressed for the part, you know your lines, and that’s all it takes! You just have to be prepared. And then you’ll meet other people in the waiting room and stuff like that.
This concludes Part 1 of this wonderful interview. Come back next week for the conclusion, Part 2.
Emily Ball is a writer, improviser, and stand-up comedian based out of Dallas, TX. She likes to spend her free time looking at pictures of horses and prying dangerous objects out of her dog's mouth. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @emmballs.