At Downstage Right, we know there’s no one “right” path to becoming a professional artist. Just as we know there’s no one “right” way to live creatively. In honor of this ethos, we decided the best way to start off the new year would be to talk to real people about how they paved their own paths in the arts. We sat down with actors, directors, playwrights, producers, coaches, teachers, influencers, and so many others; and asked them to help our students by sharing their stories.
Today, we’re talking with Aleks Malejs, theater artist, actor, and teacher, who is currently getting certified as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor.
How do you answer the question — ‘What do you do?’
I identify as a theater practitioner because I do a lot of things. Mainly, I am a trained actor. I have an MFA and a BFA in theater with an emphasis on acting. I also have a passion for teaching and educational outreach. Prior to COVID, I was an education coordinator at the Theatre of Youth in Buffalo, New York, and I was also an adjunct professor at Buffalo State College where I taught voice and movement. Now I’ve decided to go back to school for a certification in counseling. I did a lot of thinking about my passion, and it always came back to recovery, which is also a part of my personal story. It’s my hope that sometime in the next year, I’m going to start doing this type of work in addition to the work I was doing as a theater practitioner.
What do you love about what you do?
I’m 45 years old, so going back to school was the last thing I anticipated, especially virtually. I think it’s important to be open to self-induced challenges. There are days of the week that I’m shaking my head and slapping my forehead and wondering what I got myself into? But when I get through a chapter, an assignment, a week, I feel like I accomplished something, and I can go to bed at night feeling purposeful.
Have you always been involved in the arts?
Not obsessively. I didn’t dream of being an actor when I was young. My cousins were very creative, so our favorite thing to do together when we were kids was creating plays with our Cabbage Patch Kids dolls in the backyard. I was also involved in church performances and community theater performances but never as a passion of mine. When I was younger, it was all about singing, and I did a lot of dance classes. But I didn’t really discover theater as an option until I went to a junior college right out of high school.
Do you believe there’s an ideal track for young theater professionals to follow? Why or why not?
There isn’t a specific trajectory that I’d recommend. I believe theater education is important in that there’s much to be learned in terms of skill and technique. I think that many young artists have this misunderstanding that a path in education is going to lead to Broadway or a film career in Los Angeles, and sometimes I have to break the news that that’s not necessarily true. The main thing I can recommend is to get involved in your local theater community and take classes without assuming that being involved is enough. Trust that the right path for you will present itself. School is expensive, and it’s not necessary for a successful career in the arts.
Do you have any formal education or training in theater arts?
Yes. I went to the University of Montana for four and I have a BFA in acting from them. Then, I did some training in classes and workshops in New York. In 2007, I decided to go to graduate school with the idea that it would give me the ability to teach at a collegiate level. So I spent another three years getting my MFA in acting from the New School of Drama.
What made you decide to pursue teaching?
I spent about ten years in New York, and I beat the streets with lots of classes and castings and workshops and going door to door asking for auditions. I was in my early 30s and working as a bartender and wondering what I really wanted to do with my life. I was thinking of going back to school when I got this internship with TADA! Youth Theater. I worked for them as a teaching artist, assistant, and intern, and it opened my eyes. I feel like as an actor, I learn so much through teaching because I have to articulate what it is I’m trying to get my acting students to do. I’m always underestimating people’s abilities, but being a teacher has given me the gift of being constantly surprised.
What do you wish you’d known before you got to New York?
I went to this office and laid down a few voiceover tracks for this agent, and he said — “I have 100 of you.” I don’t want it to be a deterrent because I think any experience in New York or LA can be super valuable, but it’s a hard lesson to learn. In cities like that, you will be a micro-cell in a sea of so many wildly talented people going after the same thing. It’s really not about how talented you are. It’s about the right moment with the right agent or the right casting director. There’s so much that’s outside of your control. I’ve worked more professional paying gigs in Buffalo, NY, as an actor and teacher than I ever did in New York City. I wish I’d known that I could make it elsewhere from the beginning, even though I don’t regret my experience there and what it taught me.
How do you teach students how to prepare for auditions?
I tell my high school students and my college students that they have to practice out loud. Deliver whatever monologue you’ve prepared to another person because it can help you get comfortable with people staring at you while you’re performing. Keep in mind that adrenaline and nerves do crazy things to your body. If you’re not anticipating that that’s going to happen, it can be alarming and throw you off your game. Be flexible. There’s a chance that a director or a casting director will give you an adjustment, so if you’re unable to budge from what you’ve rehearsed, they might overlook you, no matter how good your audition was. Dress professionally but still in something that you’d normally wear.
What’s your advice for choosing material for auditions?
Unless it’s requested, I don’t want people to ever choose material from the show they’re auditioning for. Pick something in the same vein, like if you’re auditioning for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, choose something from another Tennessee Williams play. Look for a connection to whatever words you’re speaking because if you don’t feel connected to it, it’s going to come across as disingenuous. Find an emotional connection, and that will come through. Don’t necessarily learn something new. That can be a lot of unnecessary pressure. Don’t pick a new monologue to learn days before an audition unless it’s required.
How do you find work or opportunities for yourself?
Here in Buffalo, it’s a lot of word of mouth. The community is so tight that when producers or directors are casting, they already have an idea of who they want to work with. I’ll also email theater companies that I’ve worked with before to tell them that I’d like to audition for them for their upcoming seasons. For example, Sweeney Todd was being done in town, and I wanted a shot. The producer doubted me, but I just kept asking to try singing for them. I worked so hard on that audition that I walked out of that room thinking that I was proud of what I’d put into it, and it didn’t matter whether or not I’d gotten the part. They called me hours after the audition and told me they wanted to work with me!
How do you balance getting paid vs. nurturing your creativity?
I just recently learned how to say no. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been cast well and have been paid for have been really incredible roles. I’ve come across a few scripts that haven’t spoken to me, they’ve been someone else’s passion project, and I just didn’t know if I was right for them, but I’m such a people pleaser that it’s sometimes hard for me to say no. I’ll say, this seems like a really good opportunity, but I can’t afford to take away from the other things that make me money right now.
To join a union or not to join a union? Which union?
I was in New York, and there’s the lure of Equity there. You can’t get in an Equity show unless you’re part of the union; you can’t get an agent unless you’re already in an Equity show. In 2011 I was cast in a production of Bus Stop at the Montana Repertory Theater with my union friend. Then he got cast in the national tour of Rock of Ages and had to leave before we started rehearsals. I wildly took it upon myself to email the artistic director and said: “I heard that so and so is leaving the show, and would you consider giving me their Equity contract?” They said yes! So I’ve been a member for ten years now. In Buffalo, I do generally make a higher wage than other non Equity members and have the overall protection of the union.
What has been your most formative professional experience?
It was a one-woman show called Grounded by George Brant. When the offer was made to me, I was like, “are you sure that people are going to want to watch me for an hour and a half?” I never thought I could do anything like that. Do I ever want to do it again? I don’t think so, but there was no one to save me but me on that stage. So in terms of staying the moment, forgiving myself for errors, keeping it moving, trusting myself, trusting the script, trusting the direction, I think I changed as an actor after that experience. Everything after that was going to be easy because it took all of me jumping off a cliff every night to make it through. That role earned me an Artie award for outstanding actress in a play.
Favorite project thus far, and why?
A recent favorite of mine was a play called Sive by John B. Keane (Irish Classical Theater Company). I’d never done an Irish dialect on stage; I’d only learned it in a class during grad school. The character I played was spewing venom throughout the entire play, and through the process, I discovered why. She was a damaged woman, and she was so nasty to everyone else because she was hurting. I fell in love with her, and I didn’t expect to because I felt like I knew a secret about her that I got to reveal slowly to the audience every night. The reason why I loved that play and her is that it was a surprise how connected I became with her and how much compassion I had for her.
What’s your best piece of advice for young actors?
I would say, stay humble. Don’t get caught up in the romanticizing of this profession. Those people that you see on TV and on Broadway are only a fraction of the multitude of incredibly talented artists out there. Get clear on why you’re doing this. Is it because you want to? Because you have to? Or is it because you want to be recognized for it? Why this for you?
Aleks Malejs has a BFA in Acting from The University of Montana and an MFA in Acting from The New School for Drama in New York City. She has an insatiable passion for Theatre Education and Educational Outreach and is currently an adjunct professor at Buffalo State College and has had opportunities to teach with many local theatre organizations. She is also the former Education Coordinator at Theatre of Youth Company & Irish Classical Theatre Company. Due to the impact of COVID-19 on the theatre industry, Aleks finds herself in the midst of a career pivot and is directing her attention towards addiction and recovery. She intends to fold this new path into her menagerie when the industry reopens.