After an almost 30 year career as a successful actor and performer, I became aware of a significant decline in the quality and quantity of work being offered when I hit my 40s. The scripts coming in were droll and predictable and the roles uninteresting, one-dimensional and often demeaning. Accepting such mediocre fare would have lowered my standards and compromised my integrity.This was a disturbing reality that forced me to rethink my career and my life.
Standing at a crossroads and desperately seeking prospective, I had to ask myself some tough
questions and make even tougher decisions. How would I earn a living if I couldn't tolerate the acting roles being offered or how the game was played? Should I throw myself full time back into music? I had always been an excellent composer, producer/singer and actually started out as a child music prodigy back in Detroit when its music scene was big. I was still writing and producing strong tracks and doing concerts. But on the other hand, having been in and out of that business my whole life, I knew all too well the "hustle" it would require to go that direction.
Not to mention the motivated manager or agent it would take to get bookings, which at this time I certainly did not have. I had been warned in no uncertain terms that "Artists over 40 weren't getting gigs or selling cds unless they were doing jazz."
OK, Lonette, I thought to myself, "You can tear up that Billie Holiday genre." Then I thought about my one-woman drama with music off Broadway, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. It was a huge hit, but I worked my ass off doing eight shows a week and I didn't own the show.
Doing Broadway again crossed my mind briefly, but the thought of a long commitment, pulling an eight-show-a-week grind for greedy producers made me physically ill. My mind went back to concerts and club dates.
Was I willing to leave my friends, beloved animals, my life and farm to live out of a
suitcase on the road doing one-night stands? My heart answered a resounding "No!"
Truthfully, I was just tired of endless auditions, rejections, lack of financial security or tenure and always humping to find a gig that still meant working for somebody else. Where is it written in stone anyway that at 45 we're supposed to be thrilled about doing what we did at
25? Seemed like a natural progression to move on to new challenges and adventures, especially when everything inside me was aching for creative expression on a more cerebral level and yearning for ownership of my own career. Just the same, I was still smack-dab in the middle of a serious mid-life career crisis.
The turning point came when my manager at the time sent me a script to play the role of
a maid. Now, don't get me wrong, I want to be very clear about my feelings on this because I'm not a bourgeois snob. There ain't nothin' wrong with being a maid. My
mother did housework and I've browsed the Caretakers Gazette many times between jobs when money was tight and not right. In my opinion all work is noble work. But the question still gnawed at my mind and tugged at my heart: did we still have to
play maids to get work as black actors?
It was deeply troubling that not only me, but others in my position were facing the same
dilemma. Women of color, especially over 40 were being driven out of a profession we excelled in for a lack of substantive material and ownership. This unsettling trend wasn't going away anytime soon and I needed to find answers. Had I become the proverbial "angry black woman?" Resentful that white girls got all the good parts and made the long dough? Oh, hell yeah, damn straight I was pissed. But, the reality was that no amount of complaining was going to change one single thing about the way the business undervalued and often degraded us. It was an offshoot of underlying, bigger societal issues. Besides, you know that saying, "You can't fight city hall." Or can you?
My heart was quick to respond, "Yes, you can fight it!"... But my head was insisting on details explaining precisely how. I had long talks with God and long hours of meditation and finally figured out what I had to do. It was time to believe in my own abilities and talents again. Rebuild my confidence and step outside of the box to take charge of my career and my destiny. I started thinking entrepreneurial and dreaming bigger.
I sold my farm and moved into a small condo with my dog and birds. The sale bought my first computer and a good screenwriting program. If I was careful with the money I could make it last while preparing for my new life-journey.
That manager was sent packing and I made an announcement to my agents, "Not available
for any bullshit, tacky acting parts anymore -- only roles of substance and don't bother me
with auditions, only offers please!" They surely thought I had gone mad. But I knew what
they didn't... a plan had been hatched and I had found a new big dream.
Hunkered down with stacks of books, dozens of ideas and a million index cards, I put every ounce of my being and every waking moment into studying screenwriting, writing scripts and learning everything I could about independent filmmaking.
Three years later, I emerged from this self-imposed cocoon with my first screenplay,
Dream Street. I had crafted a powerful urban tragedy, featuring women and men of color and also had written drafts for several other features and treatments for television.
The dream became tangible when good friend, Nicole Franklin, a gifted young black woman, an award-winning producer-filmmaker in her own right and whose work I highly respected, jumped on board with passion, enthusiasm and commitment. We formed a core production team and she convinced me that I wasn't dreaming too big and that with perseverance we could make it happen. We went to work on strategic planning and put a package together for funding. And just like that... I became an independent filmmaker with a small but dedicated production team and we were all dreaming big.
Of course, I soon realized that women filmmakers of color faced the same sexism, racism and obstacles I had faced as an actress. But the takeaway at the end of the day was I felt better about myself having gone for the bigger dream. Even given the challenges, my confidence and belief in my own talents and brainpower were restored. It was more comforting somehow to take a chance than give my career and control over to others, even though it was still a struggle. I was rejuvenated and energized again about career possibilities.
This is one of the principles I share with my acting students. Think entrepreneurial. Think ownership. Think beyond the ego and quick payoffs... think about how it will feel to still be auditioning and working for others when in your forties and fifties. Scary huh? Damn straight it is! So where am I going with this? Fast forward to present day.
Technology has advanced and changed drastically in the film and entertainment business along with marketing strategies for distribution in all entertainment mediums. Entertainment has taken a new and exciting and more accessible direction... It's all about the Internet -- the web, podcasts, webinars, cross-marketing and branding in a global market.
Though I once again found myself at the crossroads pondering how to incorporate this vital new technology into my own brand, I recognized the opportunity to rethink, reinvent and empower my brand on a global level.
For those of us of a certain age in the business, it's time to get on board and chart a new course. Doesn't mean trying to be 20 again, who would want to anyway? But we don't have to allow ourselves to be thrown away like an old shoe. We can embrace this new wave of technology and get involved. It's empowering to become active participants in our own destiny. Share the stories, knowledge and wisdom that only come with veteran years of experience.
Nicole Franklin and co-founder Giovanna Aguilar have started a new cutting-edge, forward-thinking and progressive Company, Midnight Media Capture. We're presenting
The Lonette McKee Files, a podcast series of "My Story" that will be available for download in May. MMC is also presenting my webinar series, Actors Empowered course starting in June.
With both interactive platforms-blogging here and appearances on MMC-having a compelling, proactive and empowering role of a lifetime is no longer a dream.
Link to download my podcasts and
register for webinars.
New CD Lonette McKee Superstar is available on all major digital retail outlets.
Here are direct links for iTunes and Amazon
© Lonette McKee 2013