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Ryan Michael James: the pandemic taught me that before we are artists, we are human

Credit: Anthony Joseph

I started performing professionally when I was 18 years old. At 19, I was offered a job dancing on an international tour, so I left college to travel the world.

That show snowballed into the next and the next — it was all very serendipitous. Before I knew it, eight years had passed, and I was still performing. Living in NYC, I was hustling as any actor does: standing in line at auditions, juggling multiple “survival jobs,” participating in workshops to be noticed by casting directors, traveling for gigs outside of the city, squeezing in classes and lessons to hone my craft.

It was an exhausting grind fueled by caffeine and catnaps on the subway. But for my entire adult life, my primary source of income had been from working as a performer. I’m very lucky because so many people are fruitlessly working to make it in this industry. While I wasn’t Brad Pitt, by any means, performing was paying the bills. 

2019 was a difficult year, and my performing career came to a screeching halt. I was still fortunate to be working, but that work came at a great cost to my mental health.

I was performing on a Broadway national tour with a grueling schedule of countless one-nighters, long travel days, and terrible pay.

“One-nighters” is a phrase used when the show only stops in a city for one night before traveling to the next. There were times we would perform in five or six cities in a single week, with a grand total of 86 cities in a short six-month contract.

While seeing the world may sound exciting, a tour like that usually consists only of the exhausting, tedious parts of travel (busy airports, cramped buses, terrible lunches at rest areas with limited food options).

There were very few opportunities to take advantage of the actual exciting parts of traveling. When my family says to me, “You’ve seen the whole country!” my response is usually, “I’ve seen a lot of hotels and Walmarts.” It was a battle. I was so poor and exhausted, but I was traveling, and I was on stage. Shouldn’t I have been grateful?

Immediately after that tour ended, I began a contract singing onboard a cruise line. That was cut short due to an unfortunate experience I had with a fellow castmate. I was a victim of a bad situation, and when I tried to report the incident and ask for help, management turned a blind eye, and the cruise line fired me without investigating the issue properly.

I felt helpless. I had no money to my name, and I had to move back home to Central Florida to stay with my family. I curled myself up into a pathetic ball in their spare bedroom and didn’t come out for almost a month. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. I had worked so diligently and had done everything supposedly right. What was wrong with me that I had let that happen?

Luckily, I have a wonderful support system, including a best friend who encouraged me to move to Fort Lauderdale with her. She promised to help get me back on my feet, find a job, scrape some money together, and decide whether going back to New York and back into the grind that had nearly killed me before was the right choice.

That’s when the pandemic hit.

At first, it felt like an answer from the Universe. It was obviously a sign that I wasn’t meant to return to performing. With that chapter of my life officially behind me, I was excited to start my new life in South Florida. During those initial few months of the shutdown, I found a job, enrolled myself back into college, moved into my own apartment, and adopted a dog and cat.

I was happy. I was finally able to do all the things that seemed impossible before. I loved spending time sitting on the beach. I cherished nights at home with my animals. I braved the bars and restaurants (when they reopened) in hopes of finding a new tribe of friends. For the first time in my adult life, I felt like a normal human being.  

But I felt empty. My artistic soul was not filled by my new jobs: bartending and answering a customer service hotline. I did everything I could to scratch that creative itch, though. I sang in the car, created silly little music videos, taught myself to play a few songs on my keyboard, watched movies, performed karaoke with friends… But I was nagged by that voice in the back of my head telling me I had given up too soon.

About a year into the pandemic, an audition notice for a small local theater production appeared on Facebook. Coincidentally, the audition happened to be on one of my very rare nights off, and the show was a perfect fit for me. I figured, “What the heck? The worst they can say is no. Besides, it’s not like I really do this anymore. What do I have to lose?”  

I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. That show was the most rewarding experience of my life. More than dancing on a Broadway tour; more than meeting world-famous rock bands; more than traveling the world. Performing on that tiny stage in that little Florida town and being part of that small production was like a shock to my nervous system — it was a euphoria that I forgot existed.  

That show was therapy. I channeled two years of repressed hurt, anger, confusion, and rage into that iconic role, finally able to release it out of my heart. I cried on stage every single night; the audience cried every single night. I somehow connected my own unique, heartbreaking experience to this character’s unique, heartbreaking experience, and the audience received it through the lens of their unique, heartbreaking experiences.  

Connection. Humanity.

Connecting to that thing that makes us all human. That is art.

I believe at the root of it, humans have more in common than we do differences. We all need love, crave support, and desire connection. We want to be understood, feel seen, and be heard. We thirst for shared experiences and those things that bring us together, especially in this time when our political climate is so ready to tear us apart. That is what art did for the world during the pandemic: it brought us together in a world when we felt isolated, alone, and divided.  

That one little show I did received positive buzz within the community. Suddenly, I had other directors contacting me. Before I knew it, I had shows lined up consecutively for the next year. Much to my surprise, I am back to being a full-time performer here in South Florida.

The pandemic was a wake-up call. It forced me to stop dead in my tracks. I was on a never-ending hamster wheel, tirelessly running, grinding, hustling, working myself quite literally to death. I was working so hard and for so long that I forgot my why. I forgot why I was doing it and what I was doing it for. I forgot who I was doing it for.

It made me take a moment to stop, breathe, and process everything that happened to me so that I may begin to heal. Without that moment of pause, I would have simply swallowed and ignored the pain because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Only, it would have resurfaced and consumed me the moment I felt overwhelmed again. I’ve now come to accept that those experiences will forever be a part of me. They have undoubtedly shaped me into the man I am and will become, but they do not define me.  

It made me reprioritize my values. My Instagram feed shifted away from perfectly curated photos of fake smiles in exciting travel destinations towards candid photos of slobbery puppy kisses and laughter with family and friends. I stopped counting followers and worrying if my posts were “on brand.” Making new friends in a new town introduced me to the kinds of people I want in my inner circle and reminded me of those I don’t.

It made me reevaluate my own worth. I know what I will tolerate from an employer, colleagues, and peers. More importantly, I know what I will not. I’m much more confident in those things and in who I am than ever before.  

Admittedly, I’m still a bit of a workaholic. But I now appreciate the importance of downtime and am quicker to demand time and space for those things that matter. I’ve missed so many important moments before — weddings, funerals, family time — all for the sake of “being a team player.”  

As artists, we’re conditioned to believe that we have to sacrifice everything for our art. We’re sold this “starving artist” ideology and told we ought to be grateful for any work we’re given because there are tens of thousands of people waiting to take our place. I do not deny the importance of gratitude, but I reject the notion of the starving artist who must risk it all. Our society is constantly consuming art, so we have to start treating our artists with more respect. Acknowledge their dedication, compensate them accordingly for their time and effort, appreciate their boundaries, and grant them the same quality of life we’d want for ourselves.  

The pandemic taught me that before we are artists, we are human.

And if we can’t prioritize ourselves as humans first, then there can’t be art.

Ryan Michael James currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Before the pandemic, he was an actor, singer, and dancer in musical theater living in New York City.