Somewhere in her hectic work schedule between New York and Southern New England Elise Arsenault made time for coffee talk with me. Millions of young actors fall victim to the struggling Hollywood stereotype of the boulevard of broken dreams. But Elise is one who lights up a room in her own graceful way, exuding a comfortable confidence as she blazes her own artistic trail in the Northeast. Warm and welcoming, she immediately becomes your best friend while talking you through her roller coaster ride of hustle and bustle as a successful working actress.
Take me back to bright eyed, bushy tailed, 22-year-old Elise. What was that girl like compared to now?
Well when I was 22 I had actually just finished a yearlong tour with Missoula Children’s Theatre. Myself and another professional actor toured the country with sets, costumes, and lights to put on a 1 hour musical with 50-60 kids from the community. That tour took me all around the country to places I never had seen before. I was on Indian reservations, air force bases, small Mormon towns in Idaho. So already at 22, I was realizing… ‘Oh there’s more to this’. They call that company the peace corps of theatre!
It was a little less glamorous?
When people hear you’re going to be an actor their brain goes to New York, LA, bussing tables, and waiting for someone to discover you. That’s the Hollywood script. But there’s a whole other underbelly to being a successful working actor in the world isn’t there?
Yes, and when I first heard about this job (Missoula) I was like absolutely not. That’s teaching. My parents want me to be a teacher. Everybody wants me to be a teacher! I’m not going to do that.
But it turned out to be a life-changing job. I got to see what the power of theatre and acting could be when you’re working with kids who have never experienced it before and bringing that to communities that didn’t have a full time arts program. So already my idea was beginning to shift. But my plan was still as soon as I’m done with this tour move to New York. Move to DC. Move to where there’s a lot more opportunity for me to be performing.
And you did the circuit for a while, auditioning and waitressing. What was that experience like for you?
It’s a very degrading experience. Looking back on it now I’ve had to rebuild my confidence and power as an artist. When you’re waiting tables all the time you’re serving others. People don’t always look at you as another person pursuing their dreams. They might just look at you as the person who’s giving them their food or wine. But when I was in DC and New York I had this idea in my head that I had to do it that way. I was stubborn. I just had to be a waitress! I’m not sure why.
That’s how it’s done!
Yes because I didn’t want to be thought of as a teacher. I could have been teaching acting classes and maybe creating more relationships within theatres. I think the industry sees you in a certain way and you do need to be careful that they’re not seeing you as just a coach and just an actor. So I felt like I had to define myself as just an actor only.
Is there some type of stigma where, either you’re a working actor or you’re a coach because you couldn’t make it as an actor? As a student, don’t you want a coach who’s actively working? Obviously that means they have something to teach you that’s beneficial because they are working. Why can’t you do both?
I have been told by casting directors that you really want to keep that separate. That on your website you shouldn’t even mention that you’re a coach, so there is some extreme. But I can’t speak for everybody. What I’m really finding is that there’s a tribe of people you’re going to be working with who are telling the stories that you want to be telling. And it takes a while to find what that is. For me, I found that performing and coaching are both fulfilling ways to express myself and I hope that the people I’m meant to work with see the value of my experience in both.
I find that being a coach makes my work so much more real. And I’m in the craft all the time because as I’m teaching others I’m reinforcing my own direction. Years later, now that I’ve accepted I’m a good coach my coaching business is taking off because my acting career is taking off. So they’re growing together.
You’re not just performing. You’re a marketer. You’re an entrepreneur and your business is you. Is that something that gets lost in the shuffle for actors just starting out? Does the business side ever get translated?
I’ve taken some great courses on marketing and the business of acting…. post college. I didn’t learn that whole entrepreneur side while in school, which is basically what I do everyday! I had to hustle to find out where to get those tools. And yes I don’t think that’s something that is taught completely.
Are these the things you also offer when you’re coaching, the art form and the business side?
I have a few child actors that are finding great success on TV and in theatre. A lot of the business talk I have with the parents as far as where to look for listings, what casting directors they may want to reach out to. I like to give them headshot or resume advice, and help them with self-taping.
Now that I’ve accepted who I am as an artist it’s so much fun for me to see the unique qualities of all my actors. My students range from child to adult and I just encourage people to bring who they are to the table. This industry is looking for all types and everyone. I love the fact that I’m able to help people who embrace who they are because it’s taken me a while to figure that out for myself. But once I had it’s the most exciting way to live and be.
You don’t have to be Jennifer Lawrence to make a living as an actor.
Absolutely. There are only so many roles for her too. That’s one person. It takes all types to fill out the production.
What was the turning point for you? When did you start to get your confidence back?
I moved back to RI in late 2009 and began training with some great people here. I worked with Bob Colonna at 2nd Story Theatre for a while and then I found my current gurus, Thom Jones and Kathryne Jennings at Trinity Repertory who became my grad school, in essence. I also went to a program in Oxford called the British American Drama Academy. I really got some awesome one on one attention and my confidence started building. As soon as I got back from that program I booked my first show in Boston. And the next two years I built new relationships with 6 or 7 New England theatres so my career just took off with this new confidence.
When a lot of people hear “…and my career took off” they think you’re all set. But really what that means is you’ve been given the opportunity to work and there’s a hustle to that.
Talk about as a working actor between Southern New England and New York, the hustle, networking, constantly practicing and honing your craft. Just how many hours a day does that take? What type of dedication does it take to really make it?
My days are full whether it’s marketing, looking up listings for work or working out. It’s hard when people say ‘what are you doing today?’ Because sometimes there’s a doubt… ‘Oh…uh it’s hard for me to say because I feel like you’re judging me.’ I’m not in a typical 9 to 5 job. I do set aside business hours in my day but there are some weeks where I’m narrating an audio book and that takes up 40 hours plus the travel to the studio is another 5 to 10. I’m prepping the next book, going to an audition, starting rehearsals for a play the next week. Sometimes it’s nonstop. Sometimes there’s a break.
It’s exciting where I am now because I’m at the point where I need to make some choices. Do I take these roles in theatre or do I keep time open for these relationships I’m building in TV? So I’m at an interesting place and am actually looking to take on an agent or manager to help me make those decisions.
The other thing that’s interesting about you is the voice over work and audio books. Is that another avenue actors and actresses should be looking into?
That work has been so gratifying because narrating an audio book is like putting on a one-person show. I am playing the lead role, the narrator, and the supporting roles. I may have to voice up to 30 characters for some of these books! It’s been so much fun. And you don’t have a lot of time to prep these so you have to just trust your instincts. It’s been very rewarding to be narrating these books and other voice over spots. I get to use my voice in different ways. People don’t know what I look like from the voices so I’ve got even more possibility to play a greater range of roles. I think my acting has gotten better, my cold read audition skills, my improv.
What’s the end game for Elise?
I would love to be a series regular on a groundbreaking show. But I would also like to be consistently working in voice over. I want to be one of those go to people that gets called for animation, possibly video games. My husband’s a big video game fan so that would be a kick!
You could be a Disney character!
That would be amazing! But there are also some really great TV shows that are using music also. I really love Galavant. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. There are some shows like that I feel would be a fun fit for all my talents.
Currently I’m splitting time between New York and New England. A lot of things I still dream about. I’d still love to be on Broadway. That is still a dream. There are some musicals where actors play instruments and as a cellist and trombonist I’d love to do that.
So define success as an actor.
For me success as an actress is being a great storyteller. It’s working on stage, on screen, in the booth, telling stories that inspire change, bring people hope, and make people think. That’s what I’m looking for in my career. There’s so much more to discover. It’s a never-ending journey that presents new challenges every day. And as I go through the process of conquering them, I continually feel more successful.
You can find Elise’s demo reels, audio books and more at: www.elisearsenault.com.
Want a chance to see Elise on stage? Your opportunity awaits.
September 2nd – October 9th
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston
140 Clarendon Street,
Boston, MA 02116
Tickets are now available! For more information, click here.