Essay: The phone call that changed my life

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Matthew C. Donnell, Alana Niehoff, and Students of Prep

Matthew C. Donnell, Alana Niehoff (far right) and Students of Prep

“Five, six, seven, eight…AGAIN!!!” was the repeated soundtrack of my life over the last four years as I have lived and survived in New York City diligently traipsing from one audition to another.

There’s an old joke in the theater industry that says one moves to New York City in order to leave and work outside of the city. The cold, hard fact of the matter is that there simply isn’t enough work in that town to divvy out to the droves of actors. Yet, I persevered, waited for phone calls from my agent, kept my nose to the grind and held my head high — easier said than done.

It may be a cliche, but I have to agree that there is no place in the world like New York City. The vibrant energy of the town, the artistic refinement of its citizens, or the “devil may care” attitude that is seemingly the right of anyone in possession of a NYC drivers license. These combine to create the city’s alluring draw. But this intoxicating appeal doesn’t mask the reality — NYC is one of the hardest places to survive mentally, physically, spiritually, socially, and definitely financially.

Matthew C. Donnell with student Cat Harris Photo: Glenn Roberson

Matthew C. Donnell with student Cat Harris
Photo: Glenn Roberson

Despite the hardships, I was making it work, and, as things go in showbiz, I was doing pretty well.

The phone wasn’t ringing with performance opportunities as consistently as I would have liked, but the phone was ringing.

“Do you teach children? Adults?”

“Can you teach on Tuesday?”

“Hi! I got your name from a friend of a friend of a friend, are you available to sub at Broadway Dance Center?”

“Hi! Are you available to sub at Steps on Broadway?”

“Hi, can you teach….teach….teach……teach……teach…………………….”

I managed to achieve the almost perfect balance of artistic fulfillment and border-line poverty that is sustainable only in the most expensive city in the world. I could make it to auditions, teach wonderful students, and still have a little time and money for a drink with my friends.

A year ago, I received a phone call that changed everything.

“Hi, are you available to apply to be the new director of the children’s Preparatory Dance Program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA)? Yeah, yeah – that’s right. The place where you got your start. Um hm. The place that you owe almost all of your training to. Yep. Your first teacher — the director herself put you forward for the position. That’s right — you begin tomorrow. Thanks.”

Matthew C. Donnell with student Duncan MacMillan Photo: Glenn Roberson

Matthew C. Donnell with student Duncan MacMillan
Photo: Glenn Roberson

Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it sure felt like it then, and now, as we begin our second semester, I’m finally able to step back and take a look at it all.

This has been the transition of a lifetime, and I mean that both in a positive and frantic way — full of surprises and challenges from the moment the job became mine. I am constantly learning to adapt.

Getting to know myself in this new phase is odd.

I haven’t retired from performing, and recently I had the honor of playing the role of Herr Drosselmeyer on stage with my students in The Nutcracker. However, this has been the longest time I have gone without taking a dance class. I’ve had to learn a mind-boggling new juggling act of diet, exercise, and Microsoft Word. I traded in the subway for a car, and living shoebox for a loft apartment. I can grocery shop for more than a couple of days at a time, and life is a little bit slower here.

One of the biggest adjustments has been trying to find a peacefulness in the quiet. There was something calming about the bustle of NYC, but now, in the middle of the night, I often lay awake with my mind racing. “Did I accomplish enough today? Are the parents happy? How can I bring in more money for the program?” When I wake up and go to work, it’s not always that different. The challenge, while exciting can seem daunting causing me to doubt myself.

But just when I start to feel overwhelmed, I hear a small voice say “Mr. Donnell?”

Matthew C. Donnell with Student Mikayla Durham Photo: Glenn Roberson

Matthew C. Donnell with Student Mikayla Durham
Photo: Glenn Roberson

It’s no longer a name reserved for my father. That’s me.

It made me flinch at first. But now I realize, I am an artist repurposed.

I am where I’m supposed to be. This is now my home.

All of the moving stress, the organizing,  the fears, the daily challenges of being concerned for my faculty and partner — who is now my wife — soften when I see our students.

In a way, my performing career has just begun. My students are my audience, but it’s no longer about showing off. It’s about passing on all the lessons that were taught to me in the very classrooms I now preside over. It’s about sharing trade secrets to an 8-year-old so he can realize that his attraction to this ballet thing could indeed be a calling. It’s about helping refine the technique of a 13-year-old whose dream is to enter into the high school program of UNCSA.

It’s about training the entire person by training the entire artist.

After leaving Manhattan, I finally understand what it means to be successful in the city that never sleeps. It has nothing to do with the size of my bank account or how many shows I’m cast in.

Success depends on what you do when the phone rings and asks you redirect yourself.

Much of my success in NYC came from what I learned during my years training in North Carolina. Now it’s time to share with North Carolina what I learned in NYC.

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