Ever since her mom took her to see "Rent" on her 16th birthday, Ashley Harrell's dream has been to be on stage. So in the summer 2008 she made the big leap. She left California to be on Broadway.
This tall, stage-trained, young woman had been working for a financial newsletter in Santa Barbara for more than a year, when her boss agreed to adjust her job so that she could work remotely from New York City. This gave her flexibility to go to auditions during the day, perform with some off-off Broadway productions, and get involved with improvisation comedy.
Everything seemed to work smoothly for her until the economic downturn began. The newsletter lost a lot of subscribers, and one day in early November 2008 Harrell's boss told her that she was out of a job. "I felt lost," she said. "But in a strange way also relieved."
Harrell was jobless, living in an overcrowded apartment on 93rd Street and 2nd Avenue. She was speculating whether her move was worthwhile. Then she decided to turn the tough situation into a success.
"I'm taking this as a sign to get off my chair in front of my computer and get out to wait for auditions," she wrote in her blog 'Ash in the City' on November 30, 2008, two weeks after she got laid off. "In the next few weeks," she continued, "I have plans to hit up a variety of Broadway auditions, including Mamma Mia!, the new musical Spiderman, Mary Poppins, and Avenue Q. I feel good to know that there is the smallest fraction of hope for me to actually make it in the activity I love most."
In the meantime the 26-year-old was frantically searching for another form of income, even some sort of a waiting job. She had little luck, so she turned to volunteering.
In December 2008, she started volunteering with the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless (ACE), which helps people from all over New York City find and keep a full-time job. A month later she was offered a position on their development team, and in June 2009 she was promoted to director.
Although she knew fundraising was not her dream job, she enjoyed being able to make an impact, much as she wanted to make an impact on stage. At the same time after her regular job, she kept doing improv comedy with "Zamboni!", an independent, musical improv team that formed from some classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater.
Then on September 20, 2010, Harrell got an email from a friend with a casting notice which looked tailored just for her. A company called The Ride was looking for an accomplished soprano opera singer/improv comedian.
"When I actually was in front of the casting director, I told them that this part was basically for Ashley Harrell," she said. "They were just smiling ear to ear; I felt like it was a mutual love."
The Ride is an interactive tour of New York that takes people on a special bus around mid-town. Harrell plays a street performer, singing opera in front of Carnegie Hall. People's reactions can be bizarre.
"I've had people trying to sing with me. I've had people dance with me. I've had people trying to kiss me while I'm singing," she said. "It is comedy at its best."
Harrell loves being part of the show, but has not yet given up on the idea of being in a Broadway musical one day. For now she has a New York City block as a stage.