Your responses have been coming in, which is great! Keep’em coming. I’ll continue to post as many as I can.
The 5th submission comes from filmmaker, actor, and “global advocate,” Masha Dowell who, as she notes on her website, “began her professional career as a scientist, and has morphed beautifully into a entrepreneur and artist.“
Below, Masha tells her own personal story:
1978: Born to two young people, one who was a young college beauty queen, and the other a jock slash actor. They were students at black college Winston-Salem State University.
1982: Starting writing short stories after my parents brought me my first notebook journal. I had a vivid imagination.
1983: I started pouring water into our family’s TV’s hoping that the TV’s would grow. As a kid, I wanted to learn more from the stories I saw on the tube.
1984: Although a deeply shy kid, I would also direct my childhood best friend and I in performances to Frank Sinatra, Prince, and Madonna.
1991: Fast forward to this year, my parents divorced, and I felt weird. At this time I starred in my first Shakespeare play b/c my art teacher asked me too. I auditioned and made it. I was then hooked to acting. So hooked that I asked my father who now lived in Atlanta to get me into performing arts school. I didn’t know if he could, but I asked anyways.
1992: I enrolled at Tri-Cities High School’s magnet program for performing arts in East Point, GA. I would start classes at 7am and end at 7pm, and I was in love. I was under the direction of acting teacher Viola Turner. I attended school with and was pals with a Broadway great Sahr Ngaujah, and Grammy award winner Kandi Burrus. There were many more now well known people in my classes (Richard Wingo from Jagged Edge, Grammy winner Antwan Patton from Outkast), but I only personally knew Shar and Kandi. I fell in love with black theater in Atlanta, but that love was short lived. I stayed in the program for one year before returning to North Carolina.
2000: My artistic desires were forgotten for eight years. When I moved back to NC, I followed the words of my mother to get a stable job and I did not know better to stand up for my inner artist. So the artist in me died, and I became a scientist. I went to a black college and I obtained my BS in Agriculture science. From there I worked in research for many years. However, when I made it back to Atlanta after college, I met back up with my desire to be an artist again. This time, I promised to never leave my artist, as crazy as this sound. However, it would take me exactly eight more years to dive into my acting/film dreams FT. This is why it deeply touched me when Viola Davis mentions in an interview about being an black artist within the black community. I deeply understood. But little did I know, I just needed to get a backbone as an artist and stand up for myself.
2007: By now, I had lived in Hollywood, my first experience was deeply disappointing, yet enlightening. I must remind you that I am a scientist, so I went with that ‘hat’ on. I felt like I went their to explore, and then make my decision on what I wanted to do with what I had inside of me. So I got to LA and I worked 3rd shift as an researcher, and during the day I interns and at times worked at various black production companies. I worked in TV development at Edmonds entertainment, I worked in TV at Simmons Lathan, and I worked in TV development at Revelations Entertainment a( Morgan Freeman’s company). I also took some private screenwriting classes in LA with this great, late teacher Bill Idelson.
I was disappointed when I arrived to Hollywood in 2003, because I felt like their should have been so much more advancements for blacks in Hollywood. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I saw loads of opportunity, and I did not see many taking a chance with the opportunity. I even remember at the time, I worked for a high profile producer, and she had a white guy brokering her deals for her. It was surreal. I was ashamed, yet I was enlightened. When I was in LA the first round, I never performed. I studied Hollywood, well black Hollywood. As a scientist. In 2005, I left and went to attend Howard University. I was yet, disappointed again, here I was in classes with people that had not ever worked in Hollywood or NYC, so its like how could they tell me how to make a living in the industry? Maybe I was asking too much I thought, or maybe I was not taking any action to be the change that I wanted to see.
2008: I turned 30, and I vowed to simply be the change that I want to see. That year, I starred in my first short play for black men and their families with prostate cancer. The next year, I starred in a full length play on broken black women. I played an alcoholic. The next year, I auditioned and booked a commercial. I did this all the while as I worked as a telecommuting scientific auditor. When I vowed to get to where I needed to be career wise, I knew that I did not believe in being a struggling artist, so I aimed for a job where I could work from home. And I did, it was a challenge to do both, but I did it for 3 years. Oh, I must add — I started volunteering for the ABFF at this time, and I took the Tasha Smith acting workshop.
2010: This is the year that I broke off from my codependency on a corporate job. It was not a planned departure, but it was time. It was this year that I planned out my next ten years. The goal was to look at my life and my passions and make a professional life out of it. I actually too a course with Success magazine to identify my strong areas — global culture, film, and art. So, my goal was to move back to Atlanta and dabble into art, and after I obtained what I needed — finally settle back in California.
2011: I was able to get an apartment and on the lease I put “actor” as my job. It felt good! At the time I was working at the Georgia Renaissance Festival as a performer. It was an utterly embarrassing job to do as an actor at 33, but it was acting FT and paying my bills. From there I joined the board of Women In Film and TV in Atlanta for a bit, and I directed two short films. I was surviving via unemployment from my layoff, and my contract acting jobs. In 2011, I was able to get SAG eligibility, and I was able to have the time to see where I wanted to go career wise. Atlanta was great for me as a re-launching pad, however, I deeply felt like I was not in a number one city for surviving with my art. Let me rephrase that — the passion that I had for film, was not like that in Atlanta — even with the Tyler Perry love, Rainforest films, and etc… I felt a void.
2012: A dear friend invited me to attend Sundance. I decided to go, and I was blown away. The people I met were as passionate as I was about filmmaking, and I learned from people that were in the game. I was no longer intimidated by people’s perceived fame or accolades, because from my first rounds in Hollywood, I deeply knew that I belonged and that I had to make my own way and define my own success. Two weeks before Sundance, I shot my current webseries “The Telecommuters”, and most recently, I booked a commercial in Charlotte, NC. I also relocated back to LA to settle down in my career and my personal life.
It took me a long time to build up enough confidence to believe that I had something to say as a filmmaker. It took me a long time to realize that artists are a needed people in society, just like engineers, scientists, and teachers… filmmakers/actor have a place in the world. Its taken me a while to respect myself as an artist as well. I am still working through that. I say this because many times art is confused with entertainment. We can have both. Its taken me a while to get to a place in my life where I understood where I belonged. For a black artist, that definition has been and can be twisted. So, although I have had the training at a performing arts high school, taken a load ass of classes, interns with some of the greats in black Hollywood…its up to an individual to make their own space, and simply start telling stories.
My biggest thing now is working on how to go from indie filmmaker/actor to a professional where all my bills are paid from what I create. I will get there, God willing. For the commercial that I just booked I will be making more than I did in the sciences per a day, yet, with the sciences the pay was a salary, not a contract. So, now, I am figuring out how to survive in life, while I create. I have created a business Global Culture Science Brands to support me, while I make films and act. Its all in the beginning stages, but I will not turn back, not after all I’ve been through to get to this place in life.
LESSONS THAT I HAVE LEARNED:
Make sure you define what you desire and how you want your career look for you. Its easy for people to tell you how black folks need to look in art, but they have not been in your shoes. Know your own story, and know where you’d like to be.
Do not let history deter you. I remember being a pee-on in a room filled with black producers making clever remarks about Tyler Perry back in the day. Now those same people are trying to work with him (just being honest). The point is, Tyler did things that had not been done before, that took a stubborn belief that is needed with us today.
Be okay with failure, because if you push forward many times enough — you will look damn right stupid. But art is so fickle, and right after you pick your face up off the ground, there sits a HUGE blessing.
Get around people that are supportive to your artist. For me, that can vary based on the city you live. True, you don’t have to be in NY or LA to ‘make it’ but that community helps.
Push your own boundaries, tell stories, use your clout to help other non art/entertainment causes.
Do the work, don’t over explain. I for one, have spent too many times explaining while I could have been creating or resting up after I have just finished creating.
Take care of your health and personal life. The life of an artist is so dramatic. The traveling, the in the zone moments, the life changing conversations that take a lot of energy from you — but in a good way. The education, the studying. The thinking. Yes, even the deep thinking can be draining. So we need to get proper sleep, handle stress well ( from bills, etc…), and support each other.
If you live in LA or NYC, know that life exists beyond those cities… we are story tellers of the world! But we have to get a life, in order to share our lives :)