Elizabeth Byland is a 29-year old actress and improviser that thinks and feels like a mature 12 year-old. She is based in Charlotte, NC and is involved in Film, TV, Commercial acting and Improv.
Ok Elizabeth, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Why did you decide to be an actor?
I grew up as a competitive gymnast. Gymnastics was my life. I was painfully shy at school and felt like I never fit in. I'll never forget sitting outside the cafeteria by myself freshmen year in high school because I was too nervous to go in and sit down. What table do you sit at? Which group do you hang with when you don't feel like you belong to any of them? I dreaded lunch. I dreaded everything.
That sounds nothing like the version of you that I know!
I remember getting picked on quite a bit, people called me names... I, even, got into a fight my freshmen year and was suspended for a few days. I remember playing sick more times than I can count. Actually, I missed school 9 times in the first semester of my Freshman year in high school (Aug- Dec)... not because I was sick, but because I hated it so much and would beg and plead my mom not to make me go. Finally, when my report card came, I had to face my consequences by receiving not D's and F's... worse... "N's," which meant NO CREDIT. I was going to have to take every single class again. Sooo... my Mom worked out a deal with the school: if I didn't miss any more days in the next semester (Jan- May) I would receive full credit for the classes that I took all year and pass. Meanwhile, my mom was going through a really hard divorce with my step dad, who was like a second father to me, and she was working two jobs and going to school at night.... Man, what a crappy time.
Yeah that sounds really rough. So were you doing gymnastics during all of this?
So, while all this was going on during the day, in the evenings I would head to the gym and it was like I became this different person. I felt alive at the gym, and felt like I had a sense of identity. I knew exactly who I was for four hours every single night... I was silly and fun and I had friends! And man oh man! I loved competitions! I craved that feeling of walking out onto the floor or on the beam in front of all these strangers watching me... judging me... and performing the routine that I had rehearsed over and over a thousand times in practice. I loved every ounce of that excitement!
Below, see proof that Elizabeth still has rad gymnastics skills.
Ok, that sounds more like the version of you that I know! I’m so glad that you found a place where you could be yourself in the midst of all the bad stuff going on in your life. Did you keep doing gymnastics all through high school?
By the time I was 15 going on 16, my body just couldn't take the pounding anymore. After three stress fractures in my back, a broken ankle, and joints filled with tendonitis, I wasn't enjoying gymnastics anymore. It just felt painful all the time. So I put my leotards away, shoved my trophies into a giant plastic storage container, folded up my gymnastics posters that neatly decorated my bedroom walls, and tried to figure out who else I was going to be in the world. And that's about the time that I took my first Speech and Drama class...
Ah, perfect. Talk about something coming into your life at the perfect time. Tell me more about this class.
Mrs. Heather Mastin, my high school speech and drama teacher, and the single most influential woman in my life, other than my mom, introduced me to the world of acting... specifically improv. Heather Mastin was a former Second City alum, and so much of our curriculum was focused on improv. She gave all of the angst-ridden teenagers, a safe place to explore, create, and call home. Before I knew it, I was speaking up in class, and not afraid to go into the cafeteria at lunch-time. She helped me discover my identity again. And that's when I knew, like I'm pretty sure on the first day I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life being an actor and try to change the lives of others through improv like Mrs. Mastin did for me.
That’s incredible. What an excellent to how influential high school theatre teachers can be. I got to experience some of that first hand when you were my improve coach at SCAD. But before we get to that, can you tall me what your undergrad experience was like?
For undergrad, I went to Northern Kentucky University and I loved it! LOVED IT! Their theatre program was top notch and still is to this day! I performed with their improv performance troupe called "This Side Up," which toured around local Cincinnati schools. It was at N.K.U. that I was mentored by the dept. chairman, Ken Jones, who gave me every ounce of motivation and confidence to go out into the world and be something great. He helped me understand that I'm not just a follower, but a leader and was bound for big things after undergrad. Every professor of mine at N.K.U. had an enormous impact on my life in some way: Be it Professor Michael King who gave me the confidence to dig to a whole new emotional level with my my one-man show, Professor Mark Hardy and Jamey Strawn encouraging me to sing out (even when we all knew I was a terrible singer), Sandra Foremon reminding me to speak with a dignified strength, the list goes on and on. Ultimately, they just all believed in me.
Wow, it sounds like you had an incredible time with some wonderful mentors along the way. Do you have thoughts about what colleges could do to better prepare performers?
It's hard to say, as every college has a different structure, and let's be honest our industry is forever evolving- what might be the industry standard this year, will be next year's "remember when" trend. I think technology is beginning to shape our industry immensely. How many musicals did we see on TELEVISION this year? TELEVISION!!! Not Broadway, but aired for Network viewing. WIZ, GREASE, Peter Pan, it's like there is this new digital trend, and I think actors are having a tough time keeping up. Honestly, most of my professional auditions now are taped. One school that is recognizing this trend is my graduate school, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). They have reshaped their entire program and course study to provide their actors with the tools needed to keep up with the current digital shift, which I think is great, and incredibly innovative on their part. This is what continues to keep SCAD such a cutting edge art school. I just fear that our society will become so enthralled with the whole "Netflix and chill" idea that they stop seeing theatre all together.
Yeah, I think that’s a really legitimate fear! I love the idea of filming musicals to put on TV to give people an appreciation for the art form, but I also think it’s important for people to experience live theatre all in a room together with the actors. That’s something cathartic about that experience that is so different from watching something on a screen. I could talk about that for hours, haha. Can you tell me what a typical day looks like for you?
Well, as the Director of Improv at Acting Out Studio (A film acting training center in Charlotte), my days can be pretty busy, but I've never been this happy. Coffee is my first priority. Then, I usually sit down and answer emails, update our website, post on our social media page, design flyers, plan for our next improv show, etc. I try to keep a healthy work out routine, which involves my other boyfriend- Shaun T. Even though, he doesn't bat for my team, he sure makes my workouts that much more motivating when he takes his shirt off. I teach class every night at the studio from 5:30pm to about 11pm every night. So when everyone else in the world is going home, I head into work, which I secretly love. I loathe the early morning work routine. Somewhere in between all of this, I spend time with my partner in crime, Mr. Todd Murray. He's a full time working singer/songwriter, so our house is always filled with music or some sort of creative energy, which I love. Oh! and my dog, CeCe. CeCe is sitting on my lap as I type this. She says that enjoys a brisk walk on a sunny afternoon, nestling by the fire, and likes to hide her treats under the couch.
Hahaha, that’s excellent. Can you tell me about your current projects outside of coaching at Acting Out Studio?
I always love this question because I can answer this two ways: First, by saying: I am currently auditioning for every single opportunity that comes my way. Auditions are just as important as the booking themselves. No, we don't get paid to audition, but they are such a huge part of our job. So, currently, I'm auditioning. This weekend I put myself on tape for 2 pilots and one commercial. In my opinion, I think that the auditions are just as exciting as the booking.
Second, if you want to know exactly what I'm booking and specific projects already in motion:
I just finished filming two national SAG commercials. I am filled with so much gratitude and forever humbled by these and other opportunities. I am rehearsing with a great improv team in Charlotte called "Now are the Foxes," as we prepare to perform at the North Carolina Comedy Arts Fest in a few weeks. I am about to head to Toronto to teach an improv workshop for the TalentInc Acting Showcase. In the meantime, continuing to build my own mini improv empire and audition for as many professional opportunities as possible.
Incredible! I love that you are balancing teaching and building your own career. I think a lot of actors think it has to be one or the other, but you are doing both! Do you book these projects through an agent/manager, or do you use online submissions?
I am signed with Evolution in Charlotte, NC and I couldn't be happier! Shawn works so hard for his actors, and I couldn't be more proud to put Evolution on my resume. I primarily use ActorsAccess, but do have accounts with backstage, and 800casting.
Wonderful! I agree that even when you have a great agent, it’s important to still do online submissions and advocate for yourself. Do you have advice for other actors or aspiring actors out there?
If there's anything else that you'd rather be doing, then go do that first. If you'd rather be doing anything else, then no further advice can be given. I don't think a person chooses acting. I think it chooses you. We act because we must, because there is no other option.
Agreed. This isn’t a job for the faint of heart. You have to have SO MUCH self-belief in order to face the constant rejection. I think collaborating with other actors/artists has helped me to maintain my passion for the craft. There are just so many things about this industry that can be frustrating, haha. Is there anything in our industry that just drives you crazy?
The lack of grit in other actors.
Wow, yes. There’s a great TED talk out there about how grit is often the deciding factor in who makes it and who doesn’t. Not just in acting, in all of life. It’s often a more important trait than talent. Having specific goals is something that keeps me going. Do you have any goals for this year?
I want to launch an improv for special needs class at my studio; I want to teach improv in a third world country (probably won't happen this year, but maybe in the next five years?); create more of my own work; take more time to breathe the world in around me.
That’s excellent. I have no doubt you will achieve all of those. I also think that those goals really reveal your passion for others and making the world a better place. I really look up to well-known actors who are always doing things to better other people and society. Do you have any favorite actors that you look up to?
Well, honestly, my students. They teach me every single week and inspire me probably more than any professional screen actor. The way a student lights up in the middle of a scene because they finally just get it; the wonderment and vulnerability of a 9 year old doing improv; the fierceness and grit of a teenager who refuses to follow the social norm; the 60 something actor who walks into my class room and confesses that they are just tired of being normal. These are all of my favorite actors. I strive to be like every single one of them every day.
That’s so beautiful! My love for you as a human just multiplied. Do you have another passion along with acting?
No. Unless gymnastics is on television. Then, you might find me wearing my old bedazzled leotard, eating cheetoh's, sitting on my couch, and glued to the TV.
Hahaha, I would love to see that. Make sure to wash the cheese dust off your leotard when it’s all over. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. You are an inspiration and a powerhouse. Keep up the excellent work!
For more information about Elizabeth, see her website at www.elizabethbyland.com