I met Summer Dawn in 2006, when I played her Mother in Sanders Family Christmas at Cumberland County Playhouse. When I found out she was leaving NYC and starting a theater company in Sarasota, I wanted to pick her brain. Meet Summer Dawn Wallace.
When did you move to NYC and why?
I moved to NYC in the fall of 2003. I had befriended and connected with an actress from New York during a production of Parade down in south Florida earlier that year. She called and said the now infamous, “I need a subleaser”, and at the time I was just finishing up a contract and had nothing on the horizon. I was scared to death, but said yes, and moved to the city with one suitcase and $3,000. It was a difficult decision as I had worked quite steadily regionally and in the Florida market, but knew it was now or never. So I made myself take the NYC plunge.
My first sublease was on 33rd and Ditmars in Astoria. I’ll never forget my first day in Queens. I was walking to ride the subway for the first time and there was ancient old lady sweeping while the Godfather theme song was playing from a local restaurant. I managed to get on the subway and I was very nervous and made the mistake of smiling at a man who then flashed me. Welcome to New York!
Do you have any advice for a NYC newbie, or someone contemplating a move to NYC?
To a first timer or anyone thinking of moving to the city, my biggest advice would be to wait and save up some money before you come. It will make life easier and the initial hustle less of a struggle. Use your resources! I just got an actor friend a job at a place I worked for 5 years ago. If you don’t ask for help, no one will know you need it!
Also experience the city! Be a tourist!
You left NYC for grad school and then came back. Was there a readjustment period when you returned to NYC?
I left the city to go to graduate school in 2010 at FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. My background had been in musical theatre, but I wanted to shift into classical theatre, and really develop a craft. Graduate school isn’t for everyone, but leaving the city for 3 years just to focus on myself, and acting without distraction was an amazing opportunity.
Coming back to the city after graduating was a huge transition in that I had been on this amazing artistic journey, surrounded by people who were deeply committed and passionate about their craft, and then it’s back to reality. No one in the industry in NYC cared that I went to grad school.
It also took me a second to realize that I was free, and I got my life outside of theatre life back.
What was your favorite thing about NYC?
My favorite thing about NYC is that I could go to an audition, see a show, take a class, discover a new coffee shop or boutique, see a man walking around with a cat on his head, and hear amazing music all in one day! There is access to everything.
What was your least favorite thing about NYC?
My least favorite thing about NYC was the lack of connection with my environment or people around me. Also as a female, the day-to-day stuff you have to hear walking on the street is dreadful.
ALSO grocery shopping!!! Praise Jesus for Fresh Direct!!
What made you decide to go to Sarasota and start a new theater company?
Prior to graduate school, during and after, I continued to have the overwhelming sensation to take control of my own artistic path and my life.
After attending an NYC EPA where I got to Equity at 8:30am in the morning, and couldn’t get an appointment until 4:30pm, it truly hit home that there had to be a better way than this. That moment was the beginning of the push to listen to what I really wanted, artistically and in my day-to-day, and I knew that was not in NYC. I was just as scared to leave NYC, as I was to move to NYC in 2003.
Creating my own artistic opportunities and well-being became much more important than auditioning. So I made the goals of financial freedom and artistic freedom, and then followed my gut. I turned down a season of acting work to take a brand rep/sales position on a cruise ship which in turn I paid off all of my debt. I wanted to quit that job so many times, but I made a vision board with my goals on it, and would repeat to myself, “financial and artistic freedom”, every day. I made my first goal, and left the ship. Then I made my second gold when my fiancé and I came to Sarasota on a long overdue vacation, and decided to stay.
I began to pursue acting work in the Florida market, signed with an agent, and began the process of creating artistic opportunities. I had a hunch that the Sarasota community was in need and open to a theatre space that would offer contemporary works and more cutting edge material, so I pursued it.
In exploring renting possible spaces to rent, I developed a relationship with a real estate developer. I reached out to a fellow Asolo Conservatory alum, and together we started a 501 (c)(3) theatre company, Urbanite Theatre. The developer is donating the use of a black box theatre space that will begin construction later this summer.
The biggest advice I can give anyone is to make things happen for you artistically. Mr. DeMille nor Broadway was going to call anytime soon, and as opposed to languishing, I just did it myself. I may fail, but the learning experience thus far has been worth every sacrifice.
Regional theater has been in a state of flux with a thinning audience and disappearing funds. How will you tackle those issues at Urbanite Theatre?
In starting the company, we had to ask ourselves does the Sarasota community need another theatre and how can we immerse ourselves into that community? In order for the Urbanite and theatre itself to be successful, we must develop new theatre goers. Ticket prices must be affordable, material must appeal to a younger generation, and all should feel welcome.
One of the most exciting things about the London theatre scene is that it is just that, you are part of a theater and social scene. You go to the pub, see a show, grab dinner, and so on. As a company, we are hoping to become part of that social scene in Sarasota.
It is going to be an uphill battle and a balancing act, but we believe we can do it. This will require us networking with every young professional group, meeting young people, business owners, and pounding the pavement in a different way.
What does Sarasota have that NYC doesn’t?
But in reality, I love Sarasota as it’s a beautiful city. It has fabulous restaurants, shops, a healthy lifestyle, slower pace and a TREMENDOUS SUPPORT for the arts. There is so much art to choose from. We have Sarasota Opera, Asolo Rep, Florida Studio, West Coast Black Troupe, two amazing community theaters, Ringling Art Museum, art galleries, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Circus and the list gives on.
But, for me the biggest difference is a huge sense and responsibility to the community itself. It is also an affordable city and a wonderful place to raise a family.
What was the craziest thing that happened to you while living in NYC?
What didn’t happen at one point?!
One of my funniest memories was when I was moving to go to grad school, and I gave my furniture to a fellow actor. We were too cheap to rent a truck so we dollied everything from 28th and 5th over to 43rd and 9th straight through midtown. We made 7 trips! I wanted to yell to the tourists taking pictures of Time Square that we were the real NYC, not the flashy lights. I also shared a cab with Martha Stuart during the transit strike. And I almost killed Jane Fonda with my umbrella when I got blown across the street during a downpour!
Check out Urbanite Theatre (click on the links below):