Donate Your Bio

Artists, especially actors, have a reputation for being self-centered. I work with artists all day, every day, and I can tell you without a shred of doubt that actors are empathetic, caring, and, in many ways, altruistic. So why the disconnect?

Have you opened a Playbill lately? When you get to the bios page, all you see is:

“Me! Me! Me!”

“Look what I’ve done.”

“See how accomplished I am.”

No wonder there is an appearance of selfishness and narcissism.

Let’s set the record straight and do something about it!

When I was acting, I was just as guilty of sweating over the proper 70 words to include in my bio. And 100% of my acting bios followed the traditional format. Nobody told me that I was allowed to be different, so I conformed. Then, later in life, I learned better.

So, here I am, telling you NOW that you are allowed to be different. You are allowed to be generous. You can use your 70 words to make it about something other than yourself.

But Jen, the production contract states: “The parties agree to use best efforts to limit all biographies in the program or Playbill to biographical data and professional credits.” Doesn’t that mean I have to follow the traditional format?

Nope. It means that you need to stick to biographical data and professional credits. It does NOT mean you need to make it all about you.

Let’s explore this idea.

(A quick note: most contracts don’t contain language this specific to the content of the bio. That being said, I always default to Production Contract because it is considered the gold standard.)

There are three examples of donating your bio that are forever imprinted in my mind. Here’s George Abud’s bio from the Broadway playbill of The Band’s Visit.

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Clearly, he is donating his bio to other Arabic kids so that they can know they are not alone and, in fact, that they belong.

Here’s Susan Blackwell’s bio from the NYMF production of Volley Girls:

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She shares her past work, stays generous, and sums up WHY she does what she does. She is donating her bio to those of us who feel stuck, who are struggling to slay the vampires, who are ready to experience freedom.

The extraordinary Caitlyn Caughell played Lucy in the Engeman’s production of Jekyll and Hyde. On paper, the role is a stereotypical victim, “a hooker with a heart of gold.” But Caitlyn saw an opportunity for the audience to take a different view.

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Not only was she helping the audience to see Lucy for something more than a cliché, she was LITERALLY donating her bio. I remember feeling sucker punched when I read this. I had done TWO productions of Jekyll and Hyde - one as a director, one as an actor, and it never occurred to me to make a statement in my bio about my own perspective on the content of the play. I assumed that my perspective was coming through in the production itself. What a missed opportunity! I was so grateful for this aha moment because now I could share it.

So, now that you know, what will you do about it?

If you are unsure where to start, I’ve decided to write a couple of donation bios to help you out.

ACTOR A (Sophie in Mamma Mia) - When I was a kid, it was my dream to study theatre in college. The only reason I am here on this stage tonight is because of my training. And the only reason my training was possible was because of the scholarship I received through the National YoungArts Foundation. To learn more about them: youngarts.org. To learn more about me: actora.com

ACTOR B (Usnavi in In the Heights) Actor B is delighted to portray a character whose experience as a son of immigrants is full of hope. To prepare for this role, he relied on the research conducted by the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (immigrationadvocates.org). They helped him to better understand that others who have immigrated and are living in the same Manhattan neighborhood are sadly struggling with a very different outcome. actorb.com

So I challenge you, write a new bio. Donate it to something you believe in, someone who needs it, or something that inspires you.

Here’s to less “Me! Me! Me!” and more “Us! Us! Us!”