In the fall of 2008, professional actor Claybourne Elder graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts. While attending the U, he learned valuable lessons that have stuck with him throughout his career. He learned the hard way that simply “being a good actor wasn’t enough.” The most important lesson he learned was to do your homework.
“A big part of my job as an actor is auditioning,” Elder said. “When you’re in a play, there’s a director and stage manager telling you what to do and when you need to be memorized, etc., but for auditions, you’re on your own. … If you are good at homework then you will be good at auditioning. It’s sad but true. As a professional actor, you have to get really good at prepping material quickly, memorizing and studying.”
After graduation, rather than diving head first into auditions in New York, he decided to spend the following spring “backpacking and volunteering in Southeast Asia.” He did this because he knew once he jumped into his career, he wouldn’t have the time to “travel and gain the life experiences [he] wanted.” This put him at a slight disadvantage to other actors his age, but he doesn’t regret a moment of his time.
Once he returned to New York, he “started pounding the pavement.” His hard work finally paid off a year later when he originated the role of Hollis Bessemer in the “Road Show” at the Public Theater. He worked closely on this project with two of his heroes, Stephen Sondheim and John Doyle. Some of his favorite projects have included being part of the cast of “Sunday in the Park with George” alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, playing actor Jason Alexander’s son in “Two by Two” and his newest project coming this spring, an adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days” that will premiere in Washington D.C.
One of the biggest challenges of being a performer is balancing your career with your personal life. Elder knows sacrifices have to be made on both sides, but ultimately he feels that you shouldn’t “just go full steam ahead on your career and give up everything.” He advises future performers to attend to their personal life as much as their career.
“Don’t wait for your first Broadway show or first big TV role to fall in love or travel or have kids,” Elder said. “So many people make rules for themselves like that, as if to say, ‘Once I feel successful then I’ll focus on my personal life.’ Here’s the big secret though: That day will never come. … In the end, there’s always going to be another play to do, so chase your life.”
Elder considers himself successful, but he also recognizes that in the performing business, “success” isn’t a constant state.
“I was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Actor,” Elder recalled, “My co-nominees were Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, James Cordes and Hugh Dancy. I sat at that table with them and thought, ‘Is this what making it feels like?’ But in truth, those days come and go. And a person that can ride that wave in a healthy and positive way is probably what I would call a ‘successful artist.’”
His final piece of advice to young artists everywhere is simple — be you.
“It’s not going to go how you think it’s going to go,” Elder said. “You can imagine the future you’re going to have, but I promise you it’s probably going to be completely different and way better. You’re getting a degree, that’s the first important step — so finish it. Then go and follow your curiosity and who knows where you’ll end up. I wasn’t the most talented kid at school. I didn’t star in all the plays. But I worked harder than everyone else and I was ready to be … an artist. And there is always someone better than you, and that’s okay. Someone else will sing higher, be more physically attractive, but you’re going to be you. And there’s no one else like that.”