BABE #215: CAROLINE DUNAWAY — Actor, Singer, Comedy Writer
Caroline is an NYC-based actor, singer, comedy writer, producer, and one hell of a hustlin’ babe. With a background in musical theater and improv and sketch comedy, her creative repertoire includes a number of impressive accolades, including writing and starring in her own sold-out dark-comedy musical. In a competitive world and industry where women are often pinned against each other, Caroline’s unmatched work ethic and commitment to female-focused art, conversations and camaraderie sets her work apart as something to be truly admired.
Hometown: Phoenix, Arizona
Current city: NYC
Alma mater: Loyola Marymount University
Degree: Film & Television Production
Very first job: Holiday Greeter, Williams Sonoma
Hustle: Actor, Singer, Comedy Writer
Babe you admire and why?
So many babes. I admire Tina Fey for breaking into the male-dominated world of comedy as the first female head writer of “SNL.” I admire my amazing sister, Rebecca, for her honesty and her ability to call it like she sees it. I admire my friend and entrepreneur-extraordinaire Vandana Arcot, who generously supported my art when I first moved to NYC. I admire my childhood friend, Megan McConnell, for her tireless social work with children from low-income NYC neighborhoods. I admire Susan Sarandon for her diverse career and her efforts to end the death penalty in America. I’ll cut myself off there—I could go on for days.
How do you spend your free time?
I try to create as much as I can. It’s both a compulsion and a wonderful stress-release. When I’m not working or auditioning, I’m writing a sketch. When that’s shot and handed off to the editor, I’ll work on my TV pilot script, or check in with my musical co-writers for a brainstorming session. I love that creativity is self-perpetuating; once an idea starts spinning in my head, I’ll get five more, and I need to see where they go. Taking an idea—no matter how small—and turning it into a reality is creating. There’s creativity in cooking, singing, connecting friends, flower arranging, learning a language, etc.
Current power anthem?
I listen to a lot of film scores to get pumped up, which friends have told me is not entirely normal. Right now it’s Craig Armstrong’s score for “Far From The Madding Crowd.” I’ve also been listening to a lot of Vulfpeck. The song “Wait For The Moment” is my current subway-ride jam.
What’s something you want to learn or master?
I’d love to be fluent in the Basque language, specific to the region my family is from in Spain. It’s beautiful-sounding but extremely difficult to master because its origin is completely isolated from other languages.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
The Monty Python guys while their “Flying Circus” show was running. Their comedy was ahead of its time in so many ways. At that point they were just getting started, and I’d love to watch their creative process unfold.
Dream show to perform in?
“Cabaret.” I would love to play Sally Bowles on stage or on screen. Come to think of it, I’d love to gender-bend and play the Emcee as well.
Tell us about your hustle.
I’m an actor, writer, producer and singer. I co-wrote and starred in a full-length dark-comedy musical called “A Self-Help Guide to Killing Your Boss,” which sold out its 2016 Hollywood premiere, its subsequent run at The Los Angeles Theatre Co. in downtown LA, and its 2017 NYC premiere at The Alchemical Theater in Manhattan. I founded a YouTube sketch group called Burnt Quiche, which focuses on highlighting women’s issues of today through comedy. Our work has been featured on sites like Elizabeth Banks’ WhoHaha and Digg.com. My comedy writing has also placed me as a finalist in the Women in Comedy Festival this year, presided by Paul Feig (The Office, Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters). I studied improv and sketch comedy at The Groundlings and UCB Theatre and grew up doing musical theatre, so blending comedy with singing is something I really enjoy. I write song parodies and perform them in comedic cabarets around NYC when I have time. I’m also finishing up my first musical TV pilot, which I hope to start pitching very soon.
What does your typical workday look like?
My day-to-day is a little unpredictable, with auditions often popping up at random. I work very hard to get into the audition room, a process that involves a lot of emailing, pitching and preparing. I’m at my laptop for a solid portion of my day, which isn’t very exciting—it’s a lot of focused repetition. I’ve been doing a good amount of commercials lately, which are always fun because you never really know what to expect once you’re on set. I recently got to travel to a beautiful brewery upstate for a multi-day shoot, which was such a treat. A lot of my time is spent meeting up with collaborators, whether it be for a musical, my sketch group or new projects that excite me. I love connecting over art and brainstorming ways to get things into the world.
Have you always had a passion for performing? Where do you think that passion stems from for you?
I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was about 7, and have been performing in various forms since around that age. As a disturbingly pale child growing up in Arizona, extracurricular options were somewhat limited for me, especially during those ridiculous Phoenix summers. Doing local plays, musicals and rehearsing indoors was a refuge and a no-brainer. On weekends I used to hide out in the only theater in town that showed arthouse movies at the time—a small, cozy cineplex not far from my house. I spent way too many afternoons getting hopped up on cookie dough bites and student matinee prices when I really should’ve been outside causing trouble.
Tell us about “A Self-Help Guide to Killing Your Boss.”
The musical started in 2015 as a collaboration between myself and three close actor-friends of mine, Justin Small, Sam Neagley and Chris Brochu. We were all living in the same apartment complex in Studio City and wanted to create something together. We’d each had so many bizarre experiences working in both the film industry and the LA self-help world, so we decided to blend them into one cohesive story that would make people laugh. After an unbelievable amount of work, we ended up with a dark musical-comedy that comments on self-help culture, sexism in the workplace, toxic masculinity and our varying definitions of “happiness” in the modern world. I’m really, really proud of this show. It’s a female-centric dark comedy with kickass, dynamic characters. It’s been described as "the millennial's musical" by critics, compared to “Avenue Q” and “Book of Mormon,” and placed as a finalist in numerous competitions. We’re in the middle of rewrites right now, and planning to stage it again in NYC in 2019. Keep an eye out!
How do you keep up with deadlines and organization within such a demanding industry?
Caffeine keeps me going and guided meditations calm me down. They’re all over YouTube and they are wonderful. I’m pretty simple and tactile when it comes to organization. All those “timesaving” apps and programs tend to make me feel more cluttered mentally. I make lists, and I have a massive dry-erase calendar in my kitchen that I refer to constantly.
What’s your advice for someone at the beginning of their audition journey?
Oh, boy. I have a lot to say. I’m still figuring it out myself, but I have learned a few good lessons. Here goes: Don’t wait for someone to book things for you. Free yourself from the self-defeating idea that some magical unicorn-director will “discover” you or “save” you from the tough life of a working actor. Get moving! Get on the casting sites (Backstage, Actors Access, CastingNetworks, etc.), and submit yourself for those roles. Learn what works and what doesn’t when pitching yourself. Don’t sign with the first agent or manager you meet if it doesn’t feel right. Surround yourself with people who are just as hungry and hardworking as you are. Support each other; be a good friend. Start creating your own content the minute you get the chance. You can create content on a micro-budget, and it can be awesome. Know in your heart that, soon enough, you will start booking regularly. When you do, it will feel right because you earned it. (That being said, if you have industry connections, by God, use them!)
What’s been your biggest career milestone to date?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t feel like I’m old enough or experienced enough yet to have a “milestone.” Writing, producing and starring in a full-length musical that sold out on both coasts feels very cool, now that I look back on it. But at the time, I remember being so hard on myself about what we could’ve done better. It’s a shame that we creatives tend to nitpick like that. Why not celebrate the accomplishments of the moment? So many different, amazing people had to come together to create those shows, in the right place at the right time, and we’ll never have that exact team again. How cool is that?
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
I think we all know it’s a tough industry for women, and the recent groundbreaking exposés and the #metoo movement have thankfully started to shed light on so many crucial issues in that regard. One thing I’ve personally witnessed is the very intriguing “bitch vs. boss” double standard. It’s a very real, very scary attitude that allows for certain men to pull moves on set (and beyond) that women could never pull without getting called “crazy” or “bitchy.” An example: I was once in a rehearsal where a male actor disagreed mid-scene with a director and interrupted rehearsal to tell him so. The two talked in the moment, and the director eventually commended him for being a “thoughtful actor” and doing his character research well. About an hour later, an actress in the cast approached the director, uncomfortable with a phrase in the script she felt had racist implications. The director was beyond dismissive. While she was talking, he pulled out his cell phone, checked his texts, and finally said, “Look, let’s not cause drama with this, OK?” Where was her “thoughtful actor” medal? No high-five for character research? Writing a woman off by using words like “dramatic,” “crazy,” “bitchy,” “pushy,” “high-maintenance,” “diva,” and the like is not only dangerous, it’s unfair. When I hear descriptors like these, I try to ask myself: “Do I know the details of this situation? Have I checked in with both sides of the conflict?” The mentality I described is certainly not shared by everyone in the industry, though. I really do believe progress is being made in massive ways, especially in the past year.
Are you involved with any other community organizations or side projects?
I’m incredibly inspired by the work done by the Innocence Project, a national organization that works tirelessly to free wrongfully convicted men and women. I’m also a member of the Women’s Art Collective (WAC) here in NYC. Ladies, if you’re an artist in the city, join up on Facebook! It’s a wonderful place to support your fellow creatives.
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
The whole concept of an “overnight success” is very wrong to me. A lot of Hollywood-made studio films push that narrative (think: “La La Land”) and I find it a little irresponsible. Even the concept of a celebrity being “discovered” at a shopping mall or waiting tables is usually dramatized for effect. That is just not what happens, 99 percent of the time. Most of the actors I know with credible careers have had to audition, prepare, study, network and self-promote persistently and steadily for years to get to that point.
What advice would you give to a babe trying to break into your industry?
Brace yourself for a lot of rejection that truly has nothing to do with you. Do some serious self-work to find a way to be at peace with who you are, what you look like, and what you bring to the table. Once you do this, the world will open up in many ways. If you’re growing impatient, create your own content. Reach out to other women! Support each other. Know we’ve chosen an industry that has historically emphasized female competition and pinned women against each other. That doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. Reject that paradigm. Be aware of people who try to reinforce it, however subliminally. Remember, there is enough success to go around. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, one thing that helps is to remind myself that, at the end of the day, it’s just acting. It’s a wonderful artform and a beautiful way to share stories. But at the same time, no one is going to die if you and I don’t ace every audition. Another one will come along.
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