They Did It Their Way - Now Who Are "They"?
March 10, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

Help me think of examples of performing artists who made their own big break, please!

I'm writing a series of articles to accompany a production of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney's PARALELL LIVES. In one of those articles, I'm riffing off the fact that Najimy and Gaffney got their start by producing their own work for themselves rather than starting out in others' shows, and that one show catapulted their career; and I'm doing a series of short thumbnail accounts of other performers whose big break was a similar DIY project.

However, I'm coming up with examples that are very film-heavy -- things like Robert Rodriguez doing drug trials to find EL MARIACHI, Ed Burns working as a PA during the day and then making THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN on the weekends, Kevin Smith doing CLERKS, etc. I'd like to also feature individual performers, comedy troupes or theater companies that have a similar Cinderella-story "we took a chance at doing things our way and it made us famous" apporach. (Warning: I already know about and feature THE STATE, as well as Vin Diesel's own short film.) But Google is failing me (while I GET hits for "Independent theater," they're mostly about tiny off-off-Broadway companies that no one outside of New York's heard of).

Anyone know any examples of actors/theater companies/comedy groups that may fit this description?
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The guy wrote Rent? The other guy who wrote In the Heights?

Don't remember either of their names though.
posted by dfriedman at 10:50 AM on March 10, 2010

Would Upright Citizens Brigade qualify? Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, Adam McKay, and others all came from there.
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:52 AM on March 10, 2010

Dane Cook built his fame through building a fan base on MySpace.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:53 AM on March 10, 2010

Best answer: Nia Vardalos, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding perpetrator.
posted by Skot at 10:57 AM on March 10, 2010

Jonathan Larson wrote Rent. He sort of did it by himself, though he had a good deal of insider help from a certain Stephen.

Runaways by Liz Swados, Metamorphosis by Mary Zimmerman, BLAST!, Avenue Q by Marx & Lopez are all pretty good examples of what you're looking for as far as Bway goes.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:59 AM on March 10, 2010

Guy Laliberté of Cirque de Soleil.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:00 AM on March 10, 2010

Brenda Withers & Minday Kaling's play "Matt & Ben" - but I don't know how their careers are going now, they aren't household names.
posted by rainbaby at 11:01 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: The guy wrote Rent? The other guy who wrote In the Heights?

They seem like more of a conventional story, though -- ALL aspiring playwrights get their breaks by writing plays, which is exactly what those two did. I want something more like "frustrated actor who can't get parts in other projects writes a play for HIMSELF, and surprisingly it's really good and Spielberg sees it and gives him a part in an upcoming movie." (That actually happened to Vin Diesel.) Jonathan Larson was already a playwright anyway -- if he'd written RENT so he could be IN it, that'd be more what I'm looking for. But I think he just wrote it.

Would Upright Citizens Brigade qualify?

I was wondering about UCB. I don't know enough about their history and what prompted them to form. If they formed because "there wasn't enough of XYZ out there so we made our own," that'd be one thing; but if it was "a lot of other people were doing improv comedy, and we're one of those groups," not so much. I'll research their history.

Nia Vardalos, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding perpetrator.

Ooh, that IS a good one. BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING did start out as her one-woman show.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:03 AM on March 10, 2010

Ugh, crud, you were asking for non-film examples. Sorry. Failure to read.
posted by Skot at 11:04 AM on March 10, 2010

Anna Deavere Smith?
posted by rainbaby at 11:04 AM on March 10, 2010

Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky and sold the rights with the condition that he get to star in the film version.
posted by electroboy at 11:08 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Nah, Nia Vardalos counts -- she launched an acting career. It's directors I've got scores of.

Not so sure about AVENUE Q -- that feels like another case of "playwrights who wrote a show that finally made it big". Now, if they were PUPPETEERS who wrote a show because "we can't get puppetry work any other way," that'd be something else again. But you've made me consider URINETOWN.

Not sure "Matt & Ben" would count -- I don't recall the play being much heard of outside New York, and the stars/creators also aren't household names, as you say.

Cirque du Soleil is a good example -- ooh, as is the Blue Men Group, now that I think about it.

In general: I'm looking for things like "actor becomes his own playwright/puppeteers become their own producers/actors form their own production companies" stories as opposed to "playwright writes unusual play that makes it big".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:09 AM on March 10, 2010

BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING did start out as her one-woman show.

Heh. Well, I didn't even know that. So along those lines:

Laurie Anderson
Spalding Gray
Eve Ensler
posted by Skot at 11:10 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Spaulding Gray is PERFECT!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:10 AM on March 10, 2010

Well, to be fair, Avenue Q was supposed to be a TV show and ended up as sort of a fluke. Marx and Lopez were english majors at Yale...though they were trying to create a show...

I don't know if TV is ok, but Rob McElhenney was basically an out-of-work actor working as a waiter when he wrote and developed It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

"Metamorphosis" was a graduate school project at Northwestern.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:29 AM on March 10, 2010

Matt Damon and Benn Affleck were college buddies who wrote a film together, then starred in it, catapulting both of them to fame.

Their Oscar acceptance speech together was also memorable.
posted by I am the Walrus at 11:41 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: mmmm....Again, "Metamorphosis" doesn't seem like quite the right fit either.

Actually, let me give a couple of examples that I've already written about, so you get a better idea:

* Vin Diesel had a lot of trouble getting cast as an actor early in his career, because some casting directors seemed to have issues with his being multi-racial (he was having a whole weird "we don't know what ethnicity you are" problem). He got fed up and wrote his own film -- also about a multi-racial actor having trouble getting parts - called MULTI-FACIAL, and got a screening at Anthology Film Archives here in New York. MULTI-FACIAL was such a huge hit it went to Cannes in 1995 -- where Stephen Spielberg saw it, and was impressed enough to offer him a role in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. And the rest is history.

* Robert Townsend was annoyed at the stereotypical roles he was being offered as a black actor, so he wrote and produced a starring vehicle, HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE, which satirized the issue. It enjoyed modest success, and he went on to get his own television series. HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE also launched someone else -- Townsend had collaborated with Keenan Ivory Wayans, who was having similar problems; Wayans won the chance to develop IN LIVING COLOR on the strength of his work with HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.

* Then there's Ed Burns, who was a frustrated PA on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, and began working on a film of his own on the evenings and weekends. Then, when he'd finished, ET did an interview with Robert Redford -- and Burns slipped him a copy of the film and begged him to consider it for Sundance. That film, THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN, was a smash.

In all those cases, you have a person who's not having luck taking the traditional approach (actor not having luck getting cast in others' work, filmmaker having trouble breaking out of the PA role), so they make their own luck (actor/PA writes, stars in, and produces his own film) and it's an instant smash that makes them a household name.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:43 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Matt Damon and Benn Affleck were college buddies who wrote a film together, then starred in it, catapulting both of them to fame.

I'm actually on the fence about Matt and Ben, because they were already kind of established at the time that GOOD WILL HUNTING started.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2010

Not a specific person, but many excellent theater actors have launched their careers with Steppenwolf, a Chicago theater company founded by actors.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:57 AM on March 10, 2010

How about Tyler Perry? Read the personal life section of the entry.
posted by I am the Walrus at 12:04 PM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thought about Steppenwolf -- that's another "let me delve into the company history". I mean, a lot of theater companies get founded, so I'm not sure that counts -- but if there's something unusual about the founding (i.e., "no one else was doing FOO or doing things like BAZ, so there was a niche and we filled it"), that's what I'm looking for. (The State actually started out that way.)

Will check out Tyler Perry -- and another AskMe gave me the idea of David Sedaris, who first started out as a visual artist and then thought to try performance art, but was at a loss as to what he COULD do as performance art and got the idea "hey, maybe I'll go to clubs and read some of my diary entries about when I was an elf at Macys."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:12 PM on March 10, 2010

I get more of what you're asking now, I think (?)

I think Rob McElhenney does fit that pretty well - frustrated actor writes, produces and stars in his own project which becomes a smash hit.

Are musicians ok? You could consider someone like Miles Davis, who basically couldn't play the accepted style at the time (beebop), so he was like, 'fuck it. i'll just invent something new I can play,' and then there was Birth of the Cool and the rest is history. Tori Amos sort of did the same thing - she was a piano student at Peabody, couldn't/didn't like playing other people's music so she said fuck it to Peabody and just did her own thing, with good results.

BLAST! I think also works. It started as a drum and bugle core in Iowa/Indiana. They had their own thing going on and weren't making much traction in the DCI world - so they invented their own, very unique thing. It ends up going to Bway, has a Tony award created just for it (because nothing else fit), toured the world, etc.

Perhaps these are not it at all.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:02 PM on March 10, 2010

Cirque du Soleil is a good example -- ooh, as is the Blue Men Group, now that I think about it.

I'll throw in STOMP as another.
posted by Skot at 1:22 PM on March 10, 2010

Trey Parker, Matt Stone started southpark as a small piece and are, realistically self made - did their original piece, Jesus vs. Satan; which was sold as a christmas card (without their names) and literally made the first episode by hand.
posted by filmgeek at 9:04 PM on March 10, 2010

Ani Difranco. Started her own record label to release her music and has been doing that ever since. I wouldn't say she's "made it big"(tm), but she's still putting out records, still touring, still running her record label and has a loyal fanbase.
posted by snwod at 4:18 AM on March 11, 2010

How about a blog? The woman behind Orangette got a book deal, a husband and a restaurant, and I can't be sure, but I think it's all because she started writing about food online. She's not particular famous, but I think she's been successful.

And I'm sure there are other examples online, including people that may be more famous.
posted by Gorgik at 6:03 AM on March 11, 2010

Not exactly a performing artist, but Anderson Cooper, despite being born into wealth and privilege, kind of created his career by reporting in a home-made sort of way from Myanmar and later Vietnam, selling his pieces to Channel One.
posted by edlundart at 9:40 PM on March 11, 2010

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