For this Have You Met we are going back to Broadway as we meet Broadway star and musical theatre performer Tess Ferrell.
So tell us what’s your name, where do you come from, and where do you live now?
My name is Tess Ferrell. I was born in Los Angeles, California, and I currently live in New York City.
Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
I’m a Broadway actress who specializes in musicals. I am currently performing in WICKED on Broadway. I’m a singer swing who also understudies the principle role of Nessarose.
What is a typical day in the life of Tess like?
Totally depends on the day. There are days when I have to wake up at 8am, am out of the house by 9am, teaching a bunch of students music and dance from WICKED, followed by a trip to the gym and then a quick sandwich on my way to do two shows, getting home at 11:30pm.
Then there are days when I wake up at 10am, workout and eat, then have rehearsals from 1pm-5pm, followed by an 8pm show, getting home at 11:30pm. Then there are the really nice days where I don’t have to be at the theater until 7:30pm. They are few and far between, but they give me the opportunity to catch up on life; things like doing laundry, cleaning the house, catching up on emails, etc.
Throw in a few auditions here or there, a dinner with friends, and life can seem exhausting. People often assume Broadway performers have all day free until their evening show, which is totally not the case. We only get one day off a week, and perform 8 shows during the next 6 days. We savor every moment we can.
NYC from Annie at TUTS – Theatre Under The Stars.
So you are currently on Broadway in WICKED, what was your journey like to get there? Where were you when you got the call from your agent?
I was doing a show in Los Angeles when it was announced that WICKED would be auditioning in town. It’s fairly rare for a Broadway show to audition in Los Angeles, so when they do, everyone in town is fighting to get in the door. I asked my agent if they could get me an appointment. They got back to me and said the casting agent didn’t give me an appointment after they submitted me. I asked them if they could double check because I couldn’t go to the open call due to rehearsal for my other show. The agents said no. My boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, thought that was ridiculous, so he called his best friend who had been in WICKED years before. The friend turned around and called the casting agent, telling them that they should really see me. That was how I got my appointment.
I went in on a Wednesday for the swing position. They had be do the Nessa scene and song, as well as a belty ensemble line from the show. They also had me sing a very high soprano song of my own. I was called back to dance on Friday morning, got through the first round, and was asked to stay that afternoon to do lifts with some men. Throughout that day the creative team was very receptive to me, and very complimentary. I was pulled aside by the casting agent at the end of the day, asking if I would be willing to move to New York. Of course I said yes. Then the next Monday morning, after an early morning performance of the show I was doing at the time, I came back to my dressing room to a voicemail from the casting agent. I put my notice in for the show I was currently doing, dropped my agent, did all my own negotiating and was on a plane two weeks later.
Is Broadway what you thought it would be?
Yes and no. Obviously it’s the greatest thing ever to have fulfilled my dream of performing on Broadway.
As a swing though, sometimes it can be difficult covering so many different people in the show. I had this dream that everyone who performs on a Broadway stage is perfect. Every move is perfect, every vocal line, every look, glance and moment is perfect. As a swing, sometimes you’re flying by the seat of your pants and unsure of where you are supposed to go next. At first that was very hard for me. To be on the Broadway stage and not feel 100% certain of what I was doing really got me down and made me feel like I was failing at the dream that I had always wished for. I’ve since gotten over that feeling and find pride in getting through a show with no mistakes, but there are mistakes, and we’re all just people trying to give the best performance we can.
Tell us something you love about the city you live in.
New York is Broadway! There is no where else in the world you can go where this form of art is so highly concentrated and valued. It is a Mecca of artistic people coming together to create something wonderful and new and exciting. There is always someone developing some project, or doing a workshop, or performing in some new piece, and there is such excitement in that. That is what I love most about New York.
Did you train at a conservatory program? If you so which one and is this a route you would recommend?
I went to university at UCLA, and studied Theatre, but it was not a conservatory program. For me, I found most of my training and performance experiences outside of my formal schooling.
That made my climb to Broadway slower than those who went to conservatory programs. I had to work lots of little jobs all over the world, each slightly closer to Broadway than the last to finally get here. I feel like many who went to conservatory programs are trained and packaged up so nicely with a little bow around them and presented to the Broadway community in their showcase at the end of their final year. This is a wonderful leg up, because right out of school all the casting directors and agents get to know them. I obviously made it here to Broadway, and I’m stronger for the fighting I had to do along the way, so I can’t say that I would change the way that I did it. But I would recommend that if you are SURE that Broadway is all you want, go to a well respected conservatory program
Can you tell us your best and worst audition?
I would say my best audition was WICKED. It was one of those situations where everything that they asked me for came out exactly the way I wanted it to. Everything that they asked me for, I was able to perform without question. It really seemed as if they heavens opened and the path to getting this job was just one step in front of the other. It was insane.
The worst, oh man, there have been a lot. There was the one time when I had completely memorized the words to this new song they sent me, but when I went into the room, I forgot the words and had to start the whole thing over not once, not twice, but THREE times. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.
There was also the time I had definitely perfected this one song for a show, and when I went into the audition room to sing it, it was as if I was singing in a vacuum. The acoustics of the room made it sound like literally no voice was coming out. Then I started freaking out and singing this soprano song in a belt, and when it got too high for me to belt it, ugh…. It just went really badly. Needless to say, I did not book either of those jobs.
What did the little 5 year old Tess want to be when she grew up?
Five year old Tess would be very very happy, because all she wanted to be was a Broadway performer. Never a question.
You have toured and worked internationally. Do you prefer touring or staying in one location?
There are pluses and minuses to both. Touring is amazing because you are being paid to travel and see the world. I have been to all 50 states, I’ve been to 4 of the 7 continents. Also, on a contract like WICKED’s touring contract, you can save a TON of money. You don’t have to pay rent on an expensive New York apartment. You are given a per diem that you can almost always pay for absolutely everything you need with, housing, food, beverage, gym, phone, maybe rental car. So with that, you can completely save your salary. That’s how my husband and I were able to save up enough money to buy our home.
But performing in one city is preferable for me in this time of my life. I’ve traveled a lot, but I really like sleeping in my own bed, cooking food in a kitchen I know and has everything I might need. I love being in the same city as all my friends, and being able to have a social life that is not only connected to my job. Best of all, I get to actually live with my husband instead of having a relationship that mainly takes place over Skype.
Do you have any pre or post show rituals?
I mouthwash before every single show. That’s pretty much it.
Any words of advice for aspiring performers?
Take every class you possibly can, fill your back pockets with every trick in the book, train yourself within an inch of your life, and never hold back on putting yourself out there. Most importantly, be a nice person. This business is SO SMALL. You never know when you’re going to walk into an audition room and one of the people behind the casting table is the person you’ve been opening talking trash on for the last number of years. That kind of stuff gets around, and people will always choose the nicer person to be stuck in a small dark theater with than a jerk. ( Hey folks Jamie here, listen up readers ! This is great advice, I couldn’t agree more! )
Where can we find you online or see you perform?
You can find some videos on my website at www.tessferrell.com. You can also see me performing nightly in WICKED at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway. You can also follow me on Instagram at @tessferrell and Twitter at @tess_ferrell.