I was lucky enough to work with Benjamin Howes on the national tour of Mary Poppins. When we got him, he was performing in Shrek, the Musical in a nearby city while rehearsing his track with us during the day. Once Shrek closed, he joined the company full-time.
This is because Benjamin is one of those Actors Who is Always Working.
Maybe you've never heard of him. But chances are you know someone who knows him if you've lived and worked in the City long enough. Yes, he's been on Broadway. But mostly he works in regional theatre across the country. Benjamin is cast frequently enough to make most of his friends jealous, but that doesn't mean his career has been without challenges. Read more to find out Benjamin's thoughts about getting discovered at every audition, not drinking, and trying to explain the business to one's Nana.
City Audition (CA): Where are you from originally, and when did you move to New York?
Benjamin Howes (BH): I'm originally from Sydney, Australia. I moved to NYC in 1999.
CA: Where did you study?
BH: My undergraduate degree was Bachelor of Arts with a Theatre Studies major at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. It wasn't an acting program, more of an academic course. I also studied singing at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, culminating in an Associate of Music diploma. I moved to New York to study acting at HB Studio, which is Uta Hagen's school. There I studied Technique, Scene Study, Voice and Alexander Technique.
CA: What was your first paid acting job?
BH: I was Kurt in the revival of The Sound of Music in Sydney when I was about 11.
CA: I can see you playing that part! How about in the States?
BH: My first acting job in the States was summer stock at the now-defunct Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach, Florida. I played the 76-year-old Jewish radical anarchist in Street Scene, a Protean in Forum, Rocky in Damn Yankees and Le Compte de Guiche in Cyrano. Yikes.
CA: What was your first paid AEA theatre gig?
BH: First AEA gig was Milwaukee Repertory Theatre's Route 66, put together by Roger Bean. I was a gas station attendant, a truck driver with hemorrhoids and the little old lady from Pasadena. Oh, the glamour.
CA: What was your first "day job," and when and how did you obtain it?
BH: Originally when I arrived I was on a student visa, but once I got my green card a few months later, I waited until after the holidays and applied to be a waiter at Nadines, a restaurant in the West Village that was a block from HB Studio. It's also where I met my husband. So it worked out.
CA: Tell me about a failure.
BH: I've been embarrassed plenty of times, and had a couple of "learning experiences". The one of those that I particularly remember was the time a small NY theatre company would do readings of new plays, and they liked me well enough to give me a standout role as a sleazy British director in a play that we were to read in front of Bernie Telsey and other notables. I realized later that I had been distinctly underwhelming, and I still rarely get seen by that office.
CA: Tell me about a win.
BH: All of them. I celebrate every day that I get to do what I do. I remember many years ago when I got a phone call from my agent about being cast in the Australian revival of Les Miserables at stage door right after a matinee of Beauty and the Beast. Our Belle said I looked like a dog chasing his own tail. Later I realized that she and others were all waiting for the same phone call. I'm a little more discrete about my victories these days. Honestly, just being able to avoid going on unemployment is something I celebrate.
CA: When did you feel like you "made it?" If you've never felt like you've "made it," tell me why or why not.
BH: I remember after I'd spent two years touring Australia in Les Mis, and 9 months with Beauty and the Beast, and the various productions of Grease that I'd done all over the world, I got a letter from my Nana saying "About your career: when are you going to make it?" It was all I could do to stop myself from writing back and saying, "Listen, I've earned more money in the last five years than Grandpa earned in twenty." But certainly, my first Broadway job was a huge stamp of approval. But then you wonder when the next one is going to happen. You need the validation that the first one wasn't a fluke. Having been on Broadway three times, I'm grateful and pleased that I have those achievements under my belt, but I am interested in TV and film goals now.
CA: Who were some people who helped you along the way?
BH: Every teacher has helped in some way, but I have to single out Graham Lewarne, the science teacher at my high school who encouraged me by using me in as many plays as he could, as well as choosing musicals around me. Also Ed Morehouse, who still teaches at HB Studio at the age of 93. Then there are all the private and personal supporters who regularly have to talk me down from the crazy fence.
CA: Did you have any bad habits that hurt you, either as an actor or as a person, or both? What did you do to overcome them?
BH: I love a party, and in true Australian tradition I tend towards being a heavy drinker. However, I am fully aware that I do my best work when I am clean and sober, when I eat right and keep my exercise routine going. I still struggle with wanting to socialize with my cast mates and keep them entertained off stage, knowing that my work the next day will be just a bit duller. Interestingly, as I age I notice the difference more, but that may also be because more is being asked of me as I do meatier roles instead of being able to blend into the background as an ensemble member.
CA: What did you feel not particularly well prepared for when you came to New York?
BH: When I left Australia I was still a dancer. I'd spent a year with a contemporary dance company, I had performed a dancing track in Beauty and the Beast, I had choreographed. I was maybe not in the top ten dancers in Sydney, but I certainly made the top 50! I moved to New York and went to dance calls and everyone had tricks and acro, and I simply couldn't compete at their level. That was disheartening because I love dancing and am so grateful when I get the opportunity.
CA: Did you ever have a moment serve as a wake-up call?
BH: I started working with a new agent and he asked me where I saw myself in 5 years. I remember saying to him, "At this point, it's starting to feel ridiculous that I haven't booked a Broadway show. So that's where I want to be." Around the same time, I remember asking myself "What more could I be doing?" So I did several things - went back to class, took an improv class - but I also stopped drinking. I said to myself, I will have my next drink on the opening night of my first Broadway show. Before the end of a year, [title of show] was playing on Broadway. I think I had a sip of champagne that night, but stayed off the booze for another six months and booked all sorts of cool things.
CA: Did you ever want to quit? What kept you going?
BH: I have never wanted to quit. I did voluntarily stop for a year because we wanted to buy our first home and I thought no mortgage lender would ever give a loan to someone who had a new employer every eight weeks. So I was a restaurant manager, and I was really surprised to learn that there was something else that I could actually do! The kicker was that our mortgage broker told me that I earned too much money as a restaurant manager to be eligible for first time home buyer programs, so he was going to use my income from my acting days, and that I could have bee doing that all along!
That's a cute-ish story but it doesn't get to the meat of the question. What keeps me going when I suffer a setback or get down on myself is the absolute knowledge that I have good work (and perhaps some recognition) ahead of me. I am still on the upward trend of the ladder, even after 25 years. I have always said that I seem to get discovered at every audition. Why shouldn't that keep going?
Here's hoping that all of you reading get discovered at your next audition. I hope you've found Benjamin's story inspiring as we move into 2017!!