I’m so proud to share another powerful interview with another incredible person: Sandra Joseph. Sandra was the longest running lead actress in the longest running Broadway show, Phantom of the Opera. Sandra played Christine in more than 1,000 shows over the course of 10+ years. Despite her success, it wasn’t always like that for her. Sandra spent years as, in her words, a “scared kid from Detroit” that lacked confidence and experienced setback after setback. Her “PIVOT” to a confident, composed leading lady, singer, and keynote speaker is truly inspirational and chock full of learning! Sandra is also the co-author of “Your Creative Soul: Expressing Your Authentic Voice” with Caroline Myss. Learn more from Sandra at http://sandrajoseph.com/free-resources/.
I woke up with this wonderful feeling of anticipation for incredible conversation. I’m assuming that everybody also loves great conversation, especially when other people’s conversation translates into some opportunity for transformation for ourselves. I’m thrilled to be with somebody that has an incredible story. More than a story, she has a very inspiring life. It’s just something that every time I’ve been in her presence, I’ve felt more conscious. I’ve felt happier. I’m trying to be present to what’s come up for me in those situations. I feel joy in this person’s presence. When it comes to these podcasts, our audience, our communities come to expect this from me. I don’t do introductions anymore. To mean me they seem canned. They’re always like, “Here are the great things this person did.” I’ve been introduced and it’s been a joy to be introduced all over the world, to speak, train and share things. When I get on the stage, I’ve always started by saying, “It’s so great to hear all those wonderful things about myself. If you ask me who I am, I will say, first and foremost I’m a daddy, I’m a husband,” and then I’ll talk about my wife.
The most important things always bubble to the surface, and those things are not about the fact that I practice law or ran a company or any of it, even though those are important things because they are credibility for sure to know that the person in front of you has some experience in what it is they’re talking about. For sure, the most important things are life experiences and how it is that we navigate life in a way that is productive for ourselves and for the people that we get to serve. You are an elegant expression of that not just physically because you’re absolutely beautiful, but more than how you physically appear and show up. I feel like there’s an ease and a grace and a joy about your presence. That’s a product of life experience and also of God too.
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Practicing Presence: A Top Broadway Actress on Overcoming Fear & Doubt with Sandra Joseph
Sandra, thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you, Adam. That might be my favorite introduction ever, the non-introduction. I’m so touched by hearing you say that you feel joy and feel more presence in my presence and likewise. I feel connected to everything bigger than us when I’m in your presence. You’re certainly tapped into the spirit world. It opens my heart. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited for our conversation.
Would you bring our folks up to speed on some of your life experiences? You could touch on something personal if you want and also something professional. You have had some incredible “accomplishments” that are amazing by anybody’s definition of amazing. Would you catch us up to speed on some of those things?
I grew up in Michigan and Detroit. I’m a Midwestern girl through and through. I had high hopes of singing and acting. That was my great love from the time I was very young, but a very insecure, shy kid, full of fear and self-doubt and anxiety. Eventually, I went on to move to New York. After years of rejection and failure, I landed a role in a Broadway show that changed my life. I played Christine, the female lead in The Phantom of The Opera on Broadway for ten years and well over a thousand performances. I am in the odd, unique position of being the longest running female lead in Broadway’s longest running show. I did that for the majority of my splashy, professional, visible career. Now, I’m in the midst of a second career which is a pivot story.
Having three daughters and a son, our three daughters all took ballet lessons. They were in dance classes. They were even in pageants, which my wife and I were shocked that we were even involved in that. Our daughter, Lindsay, convinced us, and we’re having a bit of a joke with our youngest about this because Lindsay had this knack for when she wanted something, she’s very tenacious, like clever. She wasn’t trying to force things with us but she would write us letters where she would create a list of pros and cons. She has a creative approach to getting us to see things the way she was seeing them and what she wanted. One of those first things was to apply to a performing arts high school. “Why do you want to do that?” We as the parents, thinking, “She’ll get herself thinking that she’ll have a career in that space,” how tough that is, but we were open. It wasn’t our first choice but then she convinced us in this beautiful way. Sure enough, she got into this incredible local performing arts high school. It’s the same thing with the pageant. She convinced us, and then all the other two girls decided they wanted to do it too. They won their state finals and we used to go to the nationals. It was really cool. I remember that it was so competitive. In this pageant, they couldn’t wear makeup. It was all beautiful things about their ability to perform a talent and to speak well and all these great things that will help them in their life.
It was competitive, very much so that I thought to myself, “What is it like for young men and women who are competing, in essence, for roles in plays on Broadway or off Broadway or they want to be in them or if you want to have a successful music career or any of these performing arts?” I hear stories but I had no experience of it. Then I got to meet you and I heard about your pivot story. We all have so many of them. Your story is profound. There may be people who have that dream or holding that dream or have in the past that your story would be incredible for them to hear. Would you share that pivot story with us?
I’m touched that you mentioned Lindsay and her fierce knowledge of what she wanted to do, and the ability to communicate that. For all of us, we have that young person inside of us to this day, that voice that was so present. When we were kids before, there weren’t any voices telling us, “That’s ridiculous,” or, “You can’t do that.” That desire to express something that’s inside of us, I had that desire too, as a young person but I lacked the confidence, and that was an ongoing challenge for me moving into that competitive world. I was blessed to have parents who supported me and it’s incredibly important to find someone who supports you in whatever it is you’re looking to create or to express. My dad encouraged me despite knowing what the odds were of making it in New York. He encouraged me to go and give myself a time limit. I went to New York with a five-year plan that I would audition for everything. If nothing happened, I would move back to Michigan and figure out what the heck to do.
At four and a half years into this five-year plan, I was living on a friend’s sofa. I was basically homeless. I had maxed out all of my credit cards. It was looking like it was time to call it quits, that it was not going to happen. I was working every temp job, survival job. I couldn’t get hired as a waitress, the typical out-of-work actor job. There are so many out-of-work actors in New York that the competition is intense for those jobs. I didn’t have the experience so I was rejected from survival jobs and rejected from auditions over and over. I was studying and training and coaching. That’s where the majority of my money went. I have always been a huge believer in coaching. I’m not a coach so that’s not a sales pitch in any way. I do believe so wholeheartedly, you need the support of teachers and mentors and people who can up-level your skill set and just be there to say, “You’ve got this,” and to boost your confidence. Those are the moments when we’re looking at all of our efforts and feeling like it’s over. “It’s not going to happen for me. It’s time to face the reality.” You never know what is right around the corner or what the next day or the next moment, the next phone call might be. I always encourage people to remember that.
In theater, we’re so used to rejection. We go to audition after audition. It can take 50 or 100 nos before you get one yes. That one yes can be the pivot, can change everything for you. I’m grateful I stuck it out, and I’m incredibly fortunate that at that four-and-a-half-year mark, my agent got me an opportunity to audition for Phantom. Even that did not happen overnight. I blew the first audition. My old fears and nerves got in the way and I ended up not expressing myself the way I wanted to. I had a second audition and I blew it again. I didn’t get the leading role because I went the opposite way and ended up being over the top and pushing and trying too hard. We can all do this. We can get in our own way. Even when you know better, you can screw up sometimes by either your fear comes in or self-doubt at the last moment, and you don’t show up the way you want to.
You had an audition and went out on stage. This was the thing you’ve been waiting four and a half years for, to audition for this Broadway play. It didn’t work out and you are disappointed, but then you’ve got a second shot in front of the same group of people. This time, second time out, you overcompensate or whatever you want to call it, the pendulum swung in the other direction. You’re in your head about it and it doesn’t work out. That’s incredibly devastating. I can only imagine the self-talk because you said already that your confidence was a little frayed anyway. Now, here it is. You’ve got to two auditions that didn’t work out. I can’t imagine how you beat yourself up at that point.
It was devastating and I was so ashamed of myself, embarrassed, disappointed, heartbroken. The worst part of it was I knew better. I knew that the most important thing in any audition or performance or connection with a person is your presence. It’s that quality of authenticity and the ability to be real. That’s what moves an audience, when you see something real up there. We know that those are actors playing roles, but there has to be a ring of truth so that you feel it in your heart. You connect with them because of the believability. That’s acting 101. That’s the most important thing and somehow that went right out the window. When I was thinking about, “I’ve got to get the part, I have to prove myself, I have to be perfect,” trying to dot every i, it just made me trip over my own two feet. I was angry at myself and depressed for a while.
Most of us have been there. For all the effort, even the intention, we just trip over ourselves. You’re in that state. We can all feel that energy. What do you do from there?
I had some time to process the loss of this dream. I had to come to terms with the fact. After the first audition, I did get a part in the show. I got cast in the chorus, the ensemble, but not the leading role and not on Broadway. I was in the ensemble on the national tour, several rungs down the ladder from where my big goal was. I was in the show when I had the second audition that I blew again. As I was processing it and realizing, “This is over. It’s never going to happen for me,” I had to let go of it. I recognized I have to find a way to be okay with the fact that it didn’t go the way I hoped. I screwed up. How can I move on from this and live with it? I’ve been on the spiritual journey and self-improvement journey. I knew enough to know that gratitude was important. I started getting serious about my practice of gratitude and writing down in my journal all the things that were going well in my life, all the things I had to be thankful for so I could shift out of this depression. Here I was still in the show. I’m a working actor now, at least there’s that. I needed to embrace where I was.. I didn’t enjoy going to the theater anymore. I was depressed about being in the ensemble when a year prior to that, I would have been thrilled to be in the ensemble. It’s easy to lose sight of how far we’ve come when we’re always focused on getting to the next rung on the ladder.
I hope everybody takes a moment to breathe. Take a deep breath. That’s something that’s prevalent. It’s something many of us do, if not all of us do. It’s certainly something that’s a part of a culture, at least in North America. People are addicted on some level to the chase after things. It definitely creates suffering and it’s a part of a struggle. We can get addicted to that struggle and to that suffering.
In some regard, a part of it was thinking that if I get there, whatever there is, then it proves in some way that I’m worthy. The fact of it is, now on the other side of it, I can say for sure getting there is no different than here, because wherever you go, there you are, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has taught us. It’s the same that’s at the top of the ladder or in the middle or at the bottom. Up there doesn’t mean anything in some way. Achievement is wonderful and I have a great story to share because I was able to get to that summit. What I learned from it ultimately is the journey upward is nothing compared to the journey inward. That’s where we find all the things we’re seeking. That’s where we recognize our inherent worth that has nothing to do with the climb. I’m all for pushing yourself and achieving your goals and all of those things, but never hanging our self-worth on that. I was certainly guilty of doing that. I believed that the confidence and self-worth I always was seeking would be waiting for me in the star dressing room on Broadway and some would regard that it was at the end of the road of achievement. There’s no pot of gold there. There might be some other external accolades and financial gain and all of those things and that’s great, but the ultimate work for most of us is an inside job that has nothing to do with the externals.
It’s not waiting on an envelope that they hand up to a celebrity on stage to announce the winner of the Tony Award or the Oscar or anything else that you’d put at the top of the list of things that you could be achieving or known for.
It’s not in the corner office. It’s not with the letters after your name, the PhD, whatever it may be.
Or the balance in your account. I was thinking about how many of us have spent time equating our self-worth with our net worth, confusing those things.
Addicted to the chase, “It’s never enough.” We can race through life that way and never see where we are, which is how we got to this point in the conversation, to stop for a moment and look back at your life. How often do we do that and say, “Look at how blessed I am. Look how fortunate I’ve been to be breathing and to have made it through what I’ve made it through?” We’re all faced with incredible challenges and suffering throughout our lives. To still be present and connected to your heart and able to look up and see the sky, the smallest things can bring us back to the present where we step out of the chase and we get off the treadmill. That’s where, in many ways, the richest parts of life are found in those moments.
I might have freaked out an audience. I went from Hawaii where we were with our son, Max, for his rugby tournament. Randi and I were there, and then she went home to San Diego with Max and I went to San Francisco for a speaking engagement, a sales conference. The first five minutes that I was on, and I was only given 45 minutes, I started the group off breathing, just breathe together. It was out of place at the moment. I still marvel at how quickly, even in a context that is not about personal growth or development or presence practice, even in a business group like that, how quickly people will drop in to what is real simply by what you expressed, which is to breathe. I have this mantra that I’ve adopted through a reading of a book called The Presence Process by Michael Brown. I recommend it. It’s a spectacular book. The mantra is, “I am here now in this.” It coordinates with breathing. It’s breathing in “I,” breathing out “am,” and breathing in “here,” breathing out “now,” breathing in “in,” and breathing out “this.” Fully embody this moment, embrace this moment. Share of those intimate moments where we’re most vulnerable and most insecure, where a pivot is, what’s there, right there is an inflection point where our life gets the opportunity to change, to evolve, to embrace that in the midst of those other things that are also coursing through us, along with the cortisol, the fear, the doubt, the self-loathing, the shame, all of it that is sometimes present at inflection moments. It’s so powerful and it’s living. It’s rich soil in those moments.
That’s all there is. We’re in a culture that’s addicted to doing and busyness and chasing, getting to the next moment. If we’re not mindful, if we miss these moments, then we miss life. We miss out on our own life. What’s the point of any of the rest of it if we’re not inhabiting our life?
Could it be anything more counterintuitive and ironic on some level than wasting through life? Whether you like it or not, we take ourselves with us wherever we go. Where are we all wasting to?
There’s nowhere to go ultimately. It sounds contradictory but it’s the paradox of, “Yes, we all want to.” I encourage all of us to keep blossoming and achieving and going for your goals and all of those wonderful things, and at the same time recognizing there’s ultimately only here. There’s nowhere that’s there. There’s only ever here. Wherever you go, there you are. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s wonderful title of his book is Wherever You Go, There You Are.
You spoke about something that you called the practice. That’s a perfect opportunity because in the work that we love doing these days, we’re so committed to this Pivot practice and the idea that we’re all pivoting, we’re all changing, evolving, growing, innovating or we die. We’re either growing over time or iterating the next version of ourselves, the V 2.1, 2.2, 2.3. If we’re not doing that then we stagnate and stagnation is death. We’re called to express that in many ways as we can find that will resonate with people. Sometimes we need to hear things again and again and again, and sometimes hear it in very different ways before we go, “I get it now. I get what Sandra’s talking about.” While you were processing your disappointment with gratitude practice, embracing where you were, that seemed liked your practice, and I would say even your ritual, at the time to move yourself past the point of self-loathing or pity or feeling sorry about the squandered opportunity or any of that. I would love for you to share about that practice or practices that you even use today. Then we’re going to fill in the punch line how it was that you went from that place to the point where you got to show up again and show up a bit differently than you had before, and the pivot entered its next phase.
I’m so glad you asked about the practices because that practice of gratitude, journaling, that I have been doing for a long time especially helped me through that disappointment and self-criticism and heartbreak. I am super passionate about a continual gratitude practice. It’s crucial for me because I am someone who, by nature, leans into despair. I’m an empath. I’m very sensitive. I see the suffering in the world. I can be swept under by the suffering and sadness and tragedies of life. I’m one of those people who have to be very careful about the news I take in and protect my sensitivity. Gratitude practice is incredibly helpful to me for that. I do it morning and night. I need it. I start the morning with a particular journal that I use. It’s a positive-focused journal and it’s a whole journal full of the same five pages, five questions. The one I use is written by a woman named Sandra Selby. It’s five questions that set the tone for your day. That’s what I start with first thing in the morning, writing down what I’m grateful for. There’s a question about celebrating your successes and the successes of others, which I love having a moment to focus on the people you love. If I’m thinking about our conversation, I might write down “Adam’s PIVOT Podcast” and what you’re doing in the world and celebrating that success. That fills my heart with something positive that’s happening in the world in someone’s life. We talked a lot about schadenfreude, feeling good about someone’s misfortune, but there’s also a word for taking joy in another person’s joy. I start my day with that and the last thing I do before I go to bed is write down however many things come to mind that I’m grateful for about that day.
The gratitude practice is huge for me. I also love the HeartMath Institution’s meditation. It’s a bio-feedback thing about getting your heart into coherence. There’s an app called Inner Balance. I meditate with little ear clip that monitors my heart rate. I sit outside, whenever possible, and look up at the sky and look at the trees and get my heart in a coherent state. The opportunity to connect with our hearts and the opportunity to feel gratitude are real life-giving practices. Life has a lot of negative charge, a lot of suffering, difficulty and challenges that we’re all experiencing throughout our lives. These practices can tune us into the frequency of the heart and what is beautiful, good, wholesome and exciting about life. These practices for me are sustaining and absolutely essential.
You mentioned something too which was letting go. I was thinking how we can be attached to something. It is that paradox that you spoke about where it’s the ‘wanting something’, the desire, the dream that’s in your heart for a reason. My language doesn’t have to be yours or anyone else’s. My language is that God put that dream in our hearts. I’m not saying it in a religious context, but it’s in a way that is so purpose-driven. I know that we were born, every one of us, for a really important purpose. It’s no accident. It’s not random. Nobody is an accident. It’s not anything other than what’s divinely ordained. To have that in your heart, we don’t want to reject or deny our dream or our desire or our goals. We want to have them, and yet the paradox is not holding on so tightly to what we think that makes it so worth thinking. It’s supposed to be a red Cadillac or a red Rolls-Royce or whatever. We think that’s the form it should take. That’s the dream, like it should be, “I’m a Broadway actress,” or it should be whatever you fill in the blank for yourself, look that way. It’s impossible for us to know the true divine purpose other than what we want. This is what we’re called to do. We’re called to serve in this way.
You were serving in the choir. You were singing. Your voice was being heard. It wasn’t going to waste. You weren’t waiting tables or driving a cab or doing some other thing where you have to figure out, “Maybe I can sing in the diner. Maybe I can sing to people while I’m driving them around town.” This was not that far a field. You were in a show and you were in fact singing and your voice was being heard. You somehow, also in your own practice, had let go of the attachment to it having to look a certain way or be a certain way. Something may have shifted in that short time frame, where you were able to serve and not be so disappointed that it didn’t look the way you wanted or thought that it ought to look. Take us back to that time where these practices were supporting you. You were grateful and you were present and you’re processing consciously what was going on in your experience, and you’re even letting go on some level which is never easy, no matter what the Sedona Method says. Yes, it’s easy and yes, it’s hard.
I was heartbroken and disappointed and all those things, but the gratitude leads you eventually through the door of surrender. That’s where your gratitude brings you to I find. I did feel a sense of, “If this is as far as I ever get, if I never played the leading role, if I never accomplish another goal, if I never lose another pound or gain another award or accolade or whatever it is, can I be okay with exactly who I am right now and what I have right now?” I got to a yes with that, and that’s an ongoing practice to this day. If nothing were to change, we can practice this moment by moment, whatever is up for us right now, “Can I lovingly accept whatever it is right now?” It’s not easy for sure, it’s a process, but when we can drop into that place of surrender and letting go of our attachment to what we think life should be or who we should be, then there’s a release, there’s a surrender, there’s a quality of openness that I find puts us in that flow where our energy is different. We show up differently. Life looks different when we’re in that space.
I did get to a place of surrender and gratitude before that final audition. They called me a third time and said they still hadn’t found someone. That’s not even that many. I know people who audition twelve, fifteen times before they got cast in a role. That’s important to remember too, how many of us give up too soon when we’re pursuing something and think it’s never going to happen. We love to use those words like, “Never. It’s over.” You never know what’s right around the corner. They gave me another shot in that third audition, in large part, because I didn’t walk in there with the same clinging, desperate, “I’ve got to get this part,” energy. I was in that space of flow. I had more at ease with it. I was still nervous, I still wanted the part, but I did try to walk into it in a space of, “Not my will but Thy will be done, may this play out for the highest good of all concerned.”
The surrender, but not surrender in resignation.
Still setting intention and praying and hoping and all of it and doing the work, but also having a sense of trust and faith that, “However this goes, I will be okay. It will be okay, and may this play out in the highest good for all concerned.” If that means the role goes to somebody else and that’s their karma and that’s their destiny, and it’s my journey to go in a different direction, I will accept that. I know that I will be okay. That is huge and it allowed me to walk in and bring an open heart and be much more present and much more authentic because I wasn’t trying to prove something. In Tibetan there’s a word wang tang that means authentic presence. It also translates to field of power. The Tibetan teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, said, “The cause or the virtue that brings about authentic presence is emptying out and letting go.” You have to be without clinging. That was a huge part of what made me ultimately give the best audition of the three. I wasn’t walking in the same clinging, trying to prove myself, trying to make a certain outcome happen. It allowed me to be in a space of more ease in that final performance. That’s how I ultimately got the part, after all that gratitude and surrender. I always try to make it clear I’m not suggesting that all we need to do is let go and surrender and be grateful, and then we’re going to get what we want. It’s not a magic formula for making a particular outcome happen. It doesn’t work that way. It is a magic formula for getting what we ultimately long for, which is a sense of grace and ease and presence.
Authentic presence, you being emptied of your attachment and every clinginess or your worthiness issues or any of the stuff that we bring, all of our broken parts to the table, to be emptied of that, to let go of it, to release it even for a moment. We are truly ourselves in that moment and that is ours to keep.
That is ultimately far more important than whether or not we get what we want. We are ours to keep; inhabiting that space of truthfulness, aliveness, oneness, presence. That is ultimately the whole gig. I’m so grateful truly that I got the part in the end and that I have this story to tell. We might not be sitting here, I might not have the opportunity to share in this way if I didn’t get that prize at the end. Truly, the much bigger prize is that whether or not I had gotten the stupid part, I tasted a moment of authentic presence, and that’s the real goal. That’s what we want. That’s why we do all the things we do. It’s to inhabit our aliveness, not to get the pot of gold at the end of the journey. What we want is to be completely who we are and to be completely present. That’s when we are in the flow of life, when we know what it means to be alive and to be who we’re here to be 100%. When we taste those moments, that’s the whole gig.
What’s incredible about that is we are seen and heard in those moments. You got to that place that could easily be a state of presence when we’re in our backyard or in any conceivable place. You happen to be standing on a stage in The Majestic, this classic theater that’s probably built in the ‘20s or something, an amazing theater. You’re on a stage in front of these other folks, you were in there two times already, and then you show up as you. You show up with your authentic presence and you’re seen in that moment. What’s incredible, a plusing of that moment for yourself, is the fact that others were witness, and that’s why they hired you. There is an opportunity to still stoke the coals of that dream when it’s this harmony between the being okay no matter what and the idea that you still put yourself out there to be seen.
When we are allowing ourselves to be seen in that way, then people connect with us. There’s a resonance. Every single person has a gift that brings them alive in their own authentic presence. When we are able to drop the mask and let ourselves be seen in that vulnerable, open, truly who we are plays. It’s like the veil is removed. We see the essence that’s there. We feel the heart. We feel that we drop into that place where everything touches everything else. This is the bigger message of The Phantom of the Opera. It’s the most successful show of all time. It’s the most lucrative entertainment enterprise ever. There’s got to be a reason that that story resonates with people all over the world. For me, what it is is there is something to that mask. It’s not a subtle metaphor. We all know what it is to feel that we need to cover up some part of ourselves. What we crave is to drop the mask with each other and to see that, “I am you and you are me and there’s no separation here.” Thomas Merton, the beautiful poet, said, “If we could see what’s true,” and I’m paraphrasing that part but he said, “I suppose the big problem would be we would fall down and worship each other.” That’s what resonates onstage in a performance, that authentic presence, in a conversation as I’m feeling with you. When we enter that space where everything touches everything else, then we’re getting closer to life and to what it is to be here.
Thank you. What a beautiful opportunity to breathe. I’m glad we created time to breathe. Have an incredible blessed now.