Nomadic Performer Interview Series: Sarah J. Halstead

Sarah J. Halstead is a Los Angeles-based actor, writer, and comedian. After more than a decade living in Miami, Florida, working sales for champagne company Laurent-Perrier, she decided in early 2015 to switch jobs and pursue a performance career and drove cross-country to Los Angeles. Halstead had received theatrical training in New York City two decades earlier, and over the past year she has booked both television and theatrical stage roles. Screen credits include turns as schizophrenic murderer Sheila Labarre in Deadly Sins on Investigation Discovery and as wholesome 1950s housewife Jean Carpenter in TV pilot Life in Kodachrome. Stage credits include turns as Kristine Urich in A Chorus Line and as Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray. Halstead also makes time to forge a stand-up comedy career, working both open mics and larger comedy venues around Los Angeles. 

Halstead also has a growing following on Instagram, where pictures of books she is currently reading have attracted the attention (and likes) of various published authors. She has written work for the stage, with the play "The Legends of Champagne" at the American Theater in Charleston, South Carolina, and she is working on a book about her professional transition from sales to performance. I recently interviewed Halstead about that transition, her dramatic and comedic pursuits, and her affection for books and paper.

On her dramatic training

"I think it's good for every actor to dabble in each technique, maybe amalgamate everything, and figure out what works for them as they're auditioning or acting. You'll eventually find that place, but it's important to explore."

I started to train seriously in New York City around 1995. I met an amazing iconic acting teacher named Sam Schacht who really took me under his wing. Today he is the dean of the Stella Adler school in New York City. But at the time, he was at the Lee Strasberg school, and so I studied with him for about four years. But I also dabbled in other techniques. I sat in a couple of Uta Hagen classes while she was still alive. That was really cool. I did a little bit of Meisner. I think it's good for every actor to dabble in each technique, maybe amalgamate everything, and figure out what works for them as they're auditioning or acting. You'll eventually find that place, but it's important to explore. For me, Strasberg was the beginning. Now, in L.A., I study with Anthony Meindl, and he's all about just being really specific with your intention while you're in the moment, and I think that makes a lot of sense too. Because a lot of these techniques, it's like 11 steps or six things that you have to think of. Even Strasberg, it's going back to that place to get to that intention, whether it be negative or happy. Sometimes it takes a minute, and sometimes you don't have a minute. Sometimes it just has to be instantaneous.

On doing stand-up

Image courtesy of the artist

"I had this alter ego named Carli with a heart over the "i," and I would dress up in these crazy superhero leotards with roller sneakers and a baton that lit up."

I did improv in New York City at Caroline's on Broadway with an improv group, and that was a great experience. I think I did stand-up once or twice. Just enough to know that it was petrifying. I just wasn't brave enough to do it back then. Then, in Miami, I was just bored and wanted to challenge myself, so I started dabbling in stand-up here and there on the down low. I wouldn't tell anyone about it. I was just going to these really obscure clubs and getting up. I had this alter ego named Carli with a heart over the "i," and I would dress up in these crazy superhero leotards with roller sneakers and a baton that lit up. She was just really kooky and energetic, and I would just have a blast. No one knew I was doing this. Meanwhile, I had this really high-falutin' and kind of pretentious job in the champagne industry, and on the side I'm doing this crazy stuff. It was really funny. I liked it, and then when I moved to L.A. about a year ago, then I decided to really get very serious about it and see if there was maybe something there. It's kind of like an addiction, once you start, because you just want to get better. That's just my personality. I don't like to give up. So I go out a lot, maybe three times a night on a good night. Different sets doing open mics, and then comedy shows whenever I can. 

On moving to Los Angeles

Halstead at Pecan Grove RV Park

"I liquidated everything I owned, rented a 30-foot RV, and just started driving."

I am not sure what drove me to make that bold move. I really don't think I realized that I was going to go back into the entertainment industryuntil I hit Texas. I liquidated everything I owned, rented a 30-foot RV, and just started driving. I was just really unhappy in Miami. Nothing against Miami. It's a wonderful city. I just wasn't fulfilled. The job was great too, but it just wasn't for the creative. It was sales, and I just was burned out. So I didn't know what I wanted to do and I kept saying to myself, "I'll figure it out. Just drive. Get the hell out of here." So I was in Miami for 12 years, and now I'm driving and I have a cat with me and two suitcases. It wasn't until I got to Texas, and I was staying in this trailer park called Pecan Grove and learning how to maneuver my electricity and water and propane and sewer pipesthat's kind of when a lightbulb went on over my head and I thought, "The last time I was really fulfilled was in the entertainment industry. When I get to L.A., why don't I dabble and just check the temperature and see what happens from there?" Now I'm so all-in. There's no going back now. But I had no idea that I was going to get this immersed in it, to be honest.  

On L.A. comedy venues

I just wanted to perform in iconic venues. They're historical, with the stories and everything they represent. I also kind of wanted to get beat up a little. I think every comic kind of self-deprecates in that fashion. I didn't care if I bombed. I just went all-in. I thought, "Everyone bombs in the beginning." So I started with a lot of trepidation. I just went to the smaller venues around town, and I learned a lot. The smaller venues can actually be pretty cool with a cool crowd. Then, eventually, I was doing open mics at The Comedy StoreFlappers, and Ice House, and the bookers get word of new blood. I'm still at the very beginning stages in these main venues. I'm still what you'd call a "bringer," where they'll hire you for a show but they rely on you to bring so many people for a two-drink minimum. But there are comics that don't get these jobs, so it is a step forward, but I still have a long ways to go with the bigger venues.  

On booking screen roles

"People think that the good film and TV roles go to younger people. But now, as an older actor, I can't get over how busy I am and how much work there is for people who have lived and have a lot of experience."

What's really funny is, when I was acting New York City, I was very unsuccessful and I hardly booked anything. I really don't know why. I was real young and ambitious. People think that the good film and TV roles go to younger people. But now, as an older actor, I can't get over how busy I am and how much work there is for people who have lived and have a lot of experience. So that's been really surprising. I think the comedy has certainly helped with my confidence. I hardly ever get nervous at an audition. So up to this point, I've booked like 32-34 credits within the year. The majority are commercial and musical theater. I think it's a combination of confidence and just bringing life experience to the table, and passion.

The Life in Kodachrome project is a pilot. The director still has to sell it, and pilots are kind of a dime a dozen, but I was really impressed with the crew, the professionalism, the make-up, the costumes, the detail, and the storyline. It takes place back in the Kodak Kodachrome days. It's a great family-oriented story about a family back in the '50s. I think the beauty of the story is that it was just so pure, focused, and present. Back then, with what they focused on, it's really the antithesis of where we are today. This is just about a kid who was in trouble with the neighborhood kids with racing cars. I played his mom, and the story was just so honest and pure. A great crew of people, and I hope they sell it. 

Halstead as Sheila LaBarre in Deadly Sins

I work a lot with Investigation Discovery. They're very cool. The directors are always amazing. I love to watch them work because they're just so fast. They know exactly what they need, they know the exact shot, and they gave me a lot of autonomyespecially with the script. They basically give you the idea of what's happening and they just let you improv. So this show, Deadly SinsI played this really fun character named Sheila LaBarre. I shouldn't say fun, because she was a schizophrenic murdering seductress from the South, but she married into a horse ranch in New Hampshire, murdered like five guys, and stabbed two of them in the head with scissors. I mean, she's awful and pretty batshit crazy, but it was a lot of fun to play and I had a blast with it.

On booking stage roles

Halstead as Kristine in A Chorus Line

"Every single iconic performer has performed at the Orpheum, and just to be on that stagethat was really cool."

I just closed A Chorus Line, where I played Kristine, a comedic character who could dance but she couldn't sing. The irony is that in real life I can sing, but I can't dance. So it's really funny that I was cast as this particular character. The director and the choreographer liked my spirit, I guess. They had to work with me. I mean, I danced, but not at this professional caliber of doing the can-can with the cast. They were professional dancers. So it was very, very challenging and humbling to be in that crew of professionals, and I had a blast. I did have to get in shape. Rehearsals were three days a week for eight hours each rehearsal. So it was a lot of time, and after rehearsal I would eat just a loaf of bread. It was a great excuse to eat carbs, that's for sure. Then back in April, I was cast as Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray at the Orpheum Theatre, which was great. Every single iconic performer has performed at the Orpheum, and just to be on that stagethat was really cool. The character was a really crazy lunatic of a woman, so I had a blast with that, and it was fun for my comedic chops. 

Halstead as Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray

[The L.A. theater scene] is not as exciting as New York City's, but we do have a scene here. Some of our stages are absolutely amazing. My goalI hope I one day perform at Pantages, and I hope I one day perform at Hollywood Bowl. The Orpheum was phenomenal. Then we have some cool hole-in-the-wall stages that just have an interesting following. The indie stages. I think that every actor has to do theater. I just think it's important. You have to keep those acting chops fluid. Sometimes you don't get that opportunity when you're on set with the camera right in your face and you have the ability to say a couple lines before they yell, "Cut!" Then you wait around for another three hours for your next scene. It's different. That's a craft in itself. But with theater, you don't get a second take, and I just really appreciate that. I appreciate the authenticity. It's also pretty scary. A lot like comedyif you mess up, that's it. It's gonna stay with you. 

On being a playwright

Image courtesy of the artist

I wrote and produced a play in March 2015. I had been in the champagne industry for about 12 years, so I wrote a play about the history of champagne. My employer at the time was so cool. They let me produce it on their dime, and it was a full house in Charleston, South Carolina. The characters were Madame Clicquot and Dom Perignon and all the champagnes you see on the market today. It really talked abut the poetry and story behind champagne. I worked for a company called Laurent-Perrier, and it was so cool that they let me do that. It kind of gave me the bug, and I thought, "Wow, I really miss being on the creative side," and I think that was kind of an "Aha!" moment. I knew that I didn't want to be in sales for the rest of my life. Since moving to L.A., I've thought about getting more entrenched in the playwriting scene. But L.A. really isn't the right scene for playwrights. Not really. I would just like to make money, to be honest, and money is actually in TV. So right now I'm writing a webisode. I wrote a short, and I produced my first short [Meet the Roommate], which was a great experience. I learned a lot. But I would ultimately like to get into television. 

Image courtesy of the artist

On web options and social media

"Because of the probability of getting your material and content in the right hands, you can build your own audience through social media. It's really kind of amazing the power that it has."

It just seems so much more tangible. Because of Amazon and Hulu and Netflix, we no longer necessarily have a pilot season as a result. So it's a great time to be a creative. It's a great time to be an actor. It's a great time to be a writer. Because of the probability of getting your material and content in the right hands, you can build your own audience through social media. It's really kind of amazing the power that it has. So whether it be film, webisode, or whatever people are going for, it's easier to get the content and to build the audience even if it's just on YouTube. You get a following and hopefully you'll get the attention of a producer who would like to lend a little financial help. 

"In my opinion, Instagram is a platform to really build your brand."

I love Instagram. I just had a show at The Comedy Store on a Sunday, and half of the people who showed up for me were via Instagram whom I had never met, and that is so cool. I like Twitter too, but Twitter can be a tool to rant, and a tool to maybe work out some jokes or just to retweet interesting material. In my opinion, Instagram is a platform to really build your brand. I don't get Snapchat, and I don't get Vine. The reason I don't get it is because it doesn't last. It disappears. So I don't see how you can build anything based on it. 

On books

I love to read. I've always been a huge reader. That's another thing about Instagram. I have somehow acquired a rapport with some really interesting authors. There's this group on Instagram called #bookstagram, which is just this broad group of really interesting people that are constantly suggesting works. I'm also on Goodreads. It's a platform for readers and authors. So what's happened is, I took a couple selfie photos with some of my favorite books, and then authors started to send me their works kind of hinting that they would like me to take a photo with their book. Some of the books I would never have thought to really read because they weren't necessarily in my genre. But I ended up really becoming a fan of certain genres as a result of Instagram and the rapport I have with the authors.

One of my very favorite authors right now is James Fahy. He's out of England and he writes paranormal fantasy, which I would have never really thought was my thing. There was this book that he wrote called Hell's Teeth, and I could not put it down. It was so gripping. That's going to be the beginning of a series. Then he has another book called Isle of Winds, which is very different from Hell's Teeth. It's more whimsical, with whimsical characters, and it kind of had a Harry Potter feel to it. I just loved it. He's just a very captivating writer. Then I read romance novels sometimes, because it's just kind of easy reading, and I appreciate the art behind the writing. I really pay attention to it because I would like to publish a book soon. So I really like to pay attention to successful writers and their writing style. 

"Right now I am working on not really a memoir but a little slice of my life—the journey from being in the corporate world to becoming a creative."

Right now I am working on not really a memoir but a little slice of my life—the journey from being in the corporate world to becoming a creative. I've received so many inboxes from people from my previous life in sales, and just people that are kind of in the rat race, a little bit stuck and they're asking how did I have the courage to do it. A lot of people have done this. It's called a midlife crisis. I don't think it's so unique. But I think a lot of people have a hard time making the move. They fantasize about it, and they would like to do it. Maybe they have kids. That would be a lot harder. I don't have kids, so it was a little bit of an easier transition for me. But because I've received so many letters asking, "What was that "Aha!" moment?" or "What made you do it?" I just figured, "Well, I'll just write about it, publish it, and see where it goes. You never know." So that's gonna be my first published work, hopefully.

On paper

I like to hold paper in my hand. I like the smell of books. I like to go to bookstores and just hang out. That's what a nerd I am. In New York City, I would go into The Strand on my Friday night and I would just find a warm corner, hover, and read for like four hours. I was in Heaven. It's so nostalgic, the smell of a bookstore. 

"I never memorize my lines from a screen. I usually will take it to bed with me, and I'l try to memorize right before I go to sleep."

[With scripts,] they send a digital version and I make a printout. I never memorize my lines from a screen. I usually will take it to bed with me, and I'l try to memorize right before I go to sleep. It's kind of a two-day process of memorization for me. I try t get a general idea of the story in my head, and then the following day I kind of clean it, and I can memorize it verbatim. But I'm not one of those actors that can memorize on the fly like that. Comedy actors for television, I hear, do that very much. I mean, it's a muscle. I would imagine if I were under that circumstance, I would learn how to do it. If they're paying me that kind of money, I would. But I like to have the paper in my hand and memorize from there.