Dan Callaway

Act | Sing | Teach | Write

You lost the plot, not the story

One thing we learn in music theatre literature class: the same story can have many different plots.

Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story have different plots, but they are the same story.

The original stage version of Cabaret varied greatly from the film version. Same story.

When I was twenty-eight years old, I made a drastic plot change in my choose-your-own-adventure tale. I decided to leave New York City and move to Los Angeles.

That decision proved to create a sizable tuition bill to the School of Life, and it also cleared the way for deep growth, healing, and miracles.

I still remember my agent telling me, “Don’t leave New York.” I did. And the following years saw me fighting morning traffic between mid-century stucco apartment buildings and strip malls in Van Nuys to get to my job at a mental health center–clearly an ironic plot flourish–and barely working as an actor.

I missed New York–the architecture, the seasons, public transportation (yes, even that), theatre auditions, and my friends.

After Melissa (whom I met in Los Angeles, thank you LA!) and I moved to North Carolina, I came home from work at Elon feeling ill.

I had just left a meeting where an alum several years my junior was sharing his experiences from Broadway shows and national tours.

Melissa held my shoulders and asked me what was wrong. As soon as her eyes met mine, I sobbed.

“I missed my window,” I cried. “I left New York right when I was getting callbacks for Broadway shows. I turned down a Broadway contract to stay in Los Angeles. I was so stupid. My ship’s sailed, and it’s my own damn fault.”

She hugged me and let me snot it out for a little while longer.

She got my gaze again, and with compassion in her voice she said, “Sweetheart, you did not miss your window. If you want to move to New York tomorrow, we can go. You can always dream a new dream.”

We did not move to New York the next day, but something loosened up inside me, and over the years I’ve come to see something–

Your plot is not your story.

The fine details of how you landed from points A to double-K are all workable and moldable–subject to the most miraculous of plot twists. The question we must ask is–what will my story be?

I want my story to be that of a man who loves well, kicks serious ass as a husband, and models for my sons how to honor the fire that God’s put in my heart to tell stories, to share music, and to add beauty and meaning to the world.

That’s what I’m working on.

How about you?

Please remember–there may be plot points you’d like to go back and rework. Me, too.

But your story–the theme of who you are–that happens when the shit piles we’ve stepped in and left behind get miraculously transmuted to gold. I know because I’m living the gold-from-shit reality right now.

And I’m praying the same grace that’s changed my life will fill yours, too.

Let’s determine today of all days to let grace in and to shed a little light:

When Your Wanter Needs Mending

I read somewhere that asking for a hug
From someone wearing casts on both their arms
Was much like asking cats to bark. A drug
Or magic potion (smartphones?) wields its charms
On unsuspecting minds, and we, the broken-
Appendaged think we’re Bolshoi-ready. Have
You ever found your sweet self there? Woken
To find that you were needing gauze and salve
And stitches stat? My hand is raised. A friend
Once asked, “What is it that you want?” Bemused,
I answered, “Hell if I know. Maybe lend
Me half your working wanter? I’m confused.”
He reached out his uncasted arms and squeezed.
And something in my chest and shoulders eased.

Life is too precious

Just after Christmas, a forty-eight-year-old friend and colleague died.

In the past week, another dear friend and fellow actor in Los Angeles, recently turned fifty, entered home hospice care after bravely battling colon cancer for several years.

Alarms all around me sound that life is so precious.

Last night my wife and I fought. When I’m angry, I function at the cognitive level of a below-average eleven-year-old. I said things I needed to apologize for. I woke up this morning sore and sad.

Then I remembered what Father José told us in our pre-marital counseling, recounting his own marriage mistakes–don’t waste one second of your precious life together staying angry.

I said I was sorry. I didn’t want to waste our precious time.

I look at our two boys. After miscarriages, invasive treatments, procedures, more shots than you can count, and two failed IVF cycles, we finally came to the very spiritual place of, “F*#% it, let’s drink.”

That’s when we found out we were pregnant with our first–whom we were sure would be our only. I look at both of them every day and quietly ask them, “Are you real?”

Life is precious. We are blessed, gifted, entrusted with being here in this moment, now, today. We’re blessed to be breathing. We’re blessed to be in reasonably good health.

Reading this on an electronic device connected to the interwebs means there are miracles in our lives that hold us up and allow us to worry about things like our art. Miracles like clean running water, roofs, beds, friends.

These weeks shocked and shook me. I just turned forty-two, and I am not guaranteed tomorrow.

I’m going to cultivate and share what God put me on this earth to nurture and give away.

And I ask you the same thing. What burns in your heart? What are you jealous that others get to do? What one thing have you been putting off until the stars align and you feel like you’re ready?

Write that down.

Now write down one thing you can do today to start moving one step in that direction. Something real small–a phone call, a Google search, a text message.

In the musical I’m writing, the protagonist sings in Act 2, “Life’s filled with weakness-filled power.” We’re so vulnerable and so resilient. Like the voice. And like the voice, we can allow the breath through and create something beautiful.

Go to it, y’all. Someone is looking at you and needs you to show them what to do with “(their) one wild and precious life.”

When your brain committee says, “Can’t you just be grateful for what you have?”

Do you ever ask yourself questions that begin with the phrase, “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”?

Like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could rent a castle in Ireland and our family and friends could come join us periodically during our extended adventure-cation?”

Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if brownie brittle and vanilla bean ice cream with salted caramel was a superfood?”

Or, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I were thriving as a creative?–working on exciting projects with terrific people and making very good money?”

Too much? That last one? The brownie brittle with the sugar-fat dairy deliciousness seems a little more feasible?

Ya know, you’re not alone here. Confession time.

Sometimes I will sit at the kitchen table and share my wouldn’t-it-be-cools with Melissa, and in the next breath, a chorus of several well-meaning, reasonable, and loving relatives who moved to heaven several years past will say something like, “Why ain’t you just grateful for what you have?”

And I have a lot. My life is stupid blessed. Like, miracle crazy full. So, these voices in concert seem to have a point; and I feel a little ashamed.

The committee will then collaborate with my imagination and paint a scenario in which my selfish dreams send me careening down a path of folly and destruction for my family, and all the time, the well-meaning fear guides are shaking their heads saying, “See? If you’d’ve just been content with what the Lord’s already blessed you with, you wouldn’t be paying the price for all your greedy grabbin’.”

I actually deal with a particular voice that says to me if I reach too far, I will lose all the wonderful things I already have because, clearly, I didn’t appreciate them enough.

This one’s tough, y’all. And even as I write it I’m having one of those, “Oh, I haven’t come as far on that one as I thought I had.”

I’m convinced I get to be a teacher because I need the lessons I teach.

One student of mine is brilliant, and he regularly hides. He makes his energy small, and he looks down. I tell him how I got the note, “Dan, stop looking down at the stage,” well into my mid-thirties. It’s still something I have to be very vigilant about.

I tell this student, “Who are you to decide that you can’t be brilliant? You didn’t make you. You arrived on this planet with these aptitudes and a passion to cultivate them. When you hide, you are cheating all of us out of the one and only you!”

When I turn these words to myself, I feel a challenge in my guts, and I see the places where I’ve decided to hide.

When we expand, the territory is unfamiliar. Read: discomfort. We become trustees of more. Read: responsibility. Then we can give more. Read: generosity.

When we appreciate what we have, we build a foundation to support more and therefore contribute more. And that is humble and kind.

We acknowledge that the things we already have are precious gifts. Who are we to cut ourselves off from more?

Tomorrow it’s December. Let’s commit to open our hearts and minds to all kinds of delightful possibilities in the final month before we say hello to 2020.

And let’s commit to breaking down big dreams into small, manageable chunks. And let’s commit to showing up every day and doing the small things with appreciation and care.

And let’s say to ourselves, “Who do I think I am not to let all the good stuff come to and through me?”

People need your story, your song, your dance, your words. Our privilege is to share them.

What are you going to bring into the world this year?

I’ll go first. I’m going to produce the first developmental reading of the musical I’ve written, Across.

And I’m going to put my body back in the audition room this year.

I want to hear from you. Please share a dream or two that you’re going to start letting through in the comments below.

Or email me what you’re heart-ing about—dan@dancallaway.com–and tell me about what your personal committee says when you dare to say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if….”

Because yes, it would be so cool.

Padre Poem

When I played the Padre in Man of La Mancha with Triad Stage last spring I went full Uta Hagen and asked stage management for a lil Moleskin that I could write in.

Our version was set in a detention center on the US/Mexico border in the near future.

Here’s the vibe:

Great cast, terrific production.

We had a pre-show in which we were living that detention center life, and I decided to fill much of it like any rogue Franciscan: writing poems.

It was a needed exercise in point of view, and Padre preached to me to examine my own cozy life in relation to what so many experience.

I’ll share one of his poems here:

I’m sitting on a wooden bench inside
A prison on the border where I came
To help the stranger and the cast-aside–
But helping is unlawful now–the same
As feeling empathy–code for weak.
Compassion stands for failure these days. God
Forbid we have to suffer so the meek
Might come to own a portion of the sod
We suffocate with asphalt, demarcate
With walls graffitied forty layers deep
With spray-can prayers–acrid incense–late
Laments to test God’s ears, while Christ’s eyes weep.
Inside these painted walls we wait and pray
That more Thy-Kindgom-come would rule the day.

Letting Good Things In

I’m talking about it again, y’all. Trader Joe’s opened here in the Greensboro.

We packed up the babies, and we were those people in line before the doors opened on the second day.

There was PARKING, which my LA compatriots know is seventy-five percent of the battle. Get behind me, Prius! And we loaded up our cart like there was a Joe Joe’s and Orange Chicken apocalypse.

For days after as I gazed at the affordable artisanal cheese and wild arugula in our refrigerator, I kept asking myself, “Is this real??”

I seriously felt like I was singing “You. make. me. feel-like-I’m-livin’-a T. J’s. Dream.”

And then I thought about how hard it is for us humans to accept terrific things.

Made me think of a talk I heard while indulging my TEDdiccion about body language and what we normally do when we receive a compliment. We bat it away or deflect it.

The speaker encouraged the audience instead, when faced with the challenge of accepting a compliment, to say “thank you” while bringing one’s hand to one’s heart. I tried this a few times, and you know what? It made me smile.

There’s something sick in us, something in us that decides we don’t deserve nice things. We think we’re judge and jury about what nice things we can and can’t have. What is it, y’all? Control? Prolly.

So, I’ve been telling my students to do this. And I’ve been doing it, too. I didn’t realize I was still well-practiced in engaging my good things force field. It feels nice and a tinge uncomfortable just to let the terrific thing in.

Yeah, sure, the rug might be pulled out one day. But we’ll handle it as we’re getting up off the floor in the moment. Why are we going to mentally rehearse hitting our ass when there’s no way to know which floor or which rug?

So let’s be supes-absorbs good-thing sponges. We’ll get all saturated with stuplendiferous, and then we won’t be able to hold all that Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Dish Soap, so those invigoratingly scented bubbles will have to be shared. Sorry crusty dry sponges, we can’t help it if our sudsy voluminosity makes you a little less parched.

Like the label says, it’s next to Godliness.

How to Wow

We’re going back for a bottle of $2.99-buck Chuck and some English Coastal Cheddar.

It’s TJ’s Value Nombre Trois:

Produce customer wow experiences: We celebrate the special way we treat and relate to our customers.”


The description says everything we need to know–it’s all about how TJ employees treat and relate to the customer.

Now take this not just into the audition room but into life.

How would things change if we were focused on celebrating the special way we treat people?

Yes, do the work. Train. Prepare. This is Value Number Two. You bring forward your best work for that day.

Then there is the way we relate to the people in front of us.

Let’s look at an audition. Let’s say we’re singing.

A common internal monologue might resemble the following:

The accompanist is playing a little fast. I knew I gave that tempo wrong. I’ll try to slow down when I sing. Are they looking at my stomach? Should I have picked a different song? She just looked down. Now she’s whispering to the other woman. Maybe they’re saying I’m right for another project. I can’t even connect to the work I put into this. Who’s my scene partner again? My breath is shallow. Take a deep breath. Oh, wait, that might make my stomach look big. Suck in. That note sounded bad. Did that sound bad? Maybe I’ll start over. No. They’re in a hurry. I don’t want to waste their time.

Thank yooooou.

Don’t forget your book.

Who was the protagonist of the above monologue?

As the green lead of Wicked likes to belt, “It’s meeeeeeeeee.”

If I am celebrating the special way I treat and relate to my customers, I am going to open my heart.

I promise you this is as simple as telling yourself to slow the hell down, breathe in some kind of regular pattern, and think about your chest. Yep. Then think about opening that up. It can be a door, a gate, or a circa-1964 Jalousie window.

Now we’re sharing. Now we’re practicing hospitality. We’re saying, “Welcome to my home.”

You’ve done all the cooking and table-setting getting ready to share this time. So, open the doors and turn on the music.

Think about a performer who doesn’t have the prettiest voice (according to whose standard?) or the most conventional technique who leaves you saying wow.

For me, one that comes to mind is Ethel Waters’ “Suppertime” from As Thousands Cheer.

That’s how to wow. In Waters’ case, think of the life and heartbreak she chose to bring forward and share.

Let’s leave this one here today:

God I’m a Writaaaaah!

I wake up around 5 am every morning to work on the musical I’m writing.

I am a morning person. My wifey is not.

I remember when I decided that my best time to write was real early in the morning. I woke up while it was still dark. Melissa rolled over and asked, “What are you doing?”

It sounded kind of like she had just asked me why I was wearing her pink plush robe singing “All By Myself” into her hairdryer.

That’s never happened.


But I have to say–that first morning when I decided to get up and write was exhilarating. (I just had to look up that spelling after about four failed attempts. Ding.)

I thought to myself, “Yeaaaah. I’m CRAZY enough to do this! I need to write, just like Rainer Maria Rilke talks about!”

I finished the first draft of the libretto a few weeks ago, and it felt great.

For reals, though, I mighta cried.

When I looked at my (what one of my heroes Anne Lamott calls) shitty first draft, I realized these pages of story grew one 45-minute sit-down at a time.

Over the course of a few months, I got to collaborate with my characters and form this kinda-wieldy ball of clay that we can shape into a coherent story.

Yesterday, I shared with a student that every morning when I wake up in the early hours my brain says, “Ummmm, maybe you wanna keep sleeping.”

That’s when I sing to myself….”God I’m a writah!”

Then I kinda chuckle, real quiet, you know. Then I go, “5-4-3-2-1,” give Melissa a lil kiss, quietly launch my butt outa bed, then I go write.

This amusing and dramatic quote from Cassie’s pivotal moment in A Chorus Line is also a conversation. “God, I’m a writer.”

It’s one of the things I believe God gave me a deep desire to do, to share stories.

One crucial point here. I set up the coffee pot the night before. Getting downstairs to a full pot of hot cawfee–this is key.

Forty-five minutes a day for a thing you’ve got the fire for makes a huge difference in just a few months.

TJ’s Value Numero Two: Product–to bring forward

So let’s get one thing clear.

You are not a bag of peanut butter pretzels, however delicious they may be.

But there are some things we can learn and apply from TJ’s value number two:

2. Product-driven. Our strategy emphasizes price, product, access, service, and experience. We want to excel at one, be very good at another, and meet customer expectations on the others.”

If you have been inside a Trader Joe’s store, you have had this thought:

“Well, well, well…I never knew how badly I needed an Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend. But now I do.”

That’s because Trader Joe’s has a way of presenting ideas that excite us and make us say,

“Thank you! What was I even doing pre-Cinnamon Bun Spread?!”

Product = Solution.

When we’re living true to our values, we present solutions to the table people for problems they didn’t even know they had.

There’s the practical solution: I can sing those notes, say those words, look pretty cute while doing so, and I’m kiiiindofa a joy to be with seven hours a day, six days a week…

Then there’s the shiny, irreplaceable realness of you that comes out when you’re focused on what you love to do and what you care most about. Again, back to your values.

If we’re auditioning for a show, the price for our services is usually in a predetermined range.

We are in charge of the product. The word comes from Latin, and it means to bring forward. I love that. It’s generous.

Then the other three aspects fall into line: access (to our heart and emotional life), service (to the story), and experience (one that is real, human, and leaves everyone better than before).

In Celebration of the Imminent Opening of the Greensboro Trader Joe’s: Integrity

First of all…Greensboro is finally getting a Trader Joe’s.

So, we may be a tad excited about this event. It’s like Santa Claus is real, and he’s bringing seasonally appropriate Joe Joe’s cookies for everybody.

I may have listened to the “Inside Trader Joe’s” podcast on my way to school yesterday to re-myelinate those Fearless Flyer neurons.

I am excited!

What I LEARNED by listening to the podcast was that TJ’s has seven core values.

And I thought to myself, “Self, what if an artist were to apply these seven values to his or her life and career?”

So let’s talk about that.

Trader Joe’s version of Drumstick roll, please……()

INTEGRITY: In the way we operate stores and the way we deal with people. Act as if the customer was looking over your shoulder all the time.

You know how your mama told you, “Character is who you are when nobody is looking”?

Whoops, right?

Well, TJ asks their team to pretend that someone is indeed looking.

What if we approached our art and life in the same way?

Even now as I type, I’m looking a lot more professional and focused pretending you’re sitting here scrutinizing my every key stroke.

Cirrus-ly, though.

Integrity speaks of integration. That means what I say, what I believe, and what I value cohere with what I do.

That’s where the somebody’s waaaatchin’ mee-eeeee principle comes in.

We all spot these areas of dis-integration if we’re paying any kind of attention to our behavior–our actions don’t exhibit what we say we want or believe.

Sometimes that means that we actually need to track it back and examine what our values truly are.

We often live on auto-pilot, animated by background software programmed by influencers with whom we never resonated.

That’s why the intonation is off. We’re not in tune.

So if you’re standing in an audition room, and you think your priority is working in the theatre or getting a job, but your real core value is integrity or respect, you won’t be connected to what naturally keeps your fire going.

The real question should be, “How can I integrate my truest values into what I’m doing here today? Into this song, this poem, this dance, this sink full of dishes?”

Let’s take integrity and respect and put them into an audition.

You can enter the room having done the work, learned the sides, made authentic choices rooted in your point of view and your understanding of the author’s intentions.

From there, you can collaborate and offer your heart energetically and generously for the solution to the role you’re playing in that moment.

When you leave the room, you’ve come through for yourself. The outcome is (and has always been) out of your hands.

You feel satisfied that you’ve done excellent work that’s authentic to you and integral to your values. You’ve respected yourself and the table people.

Back to TJ: If you are thinking of how you can best serve your customers in everything you do, how would that change your art? If you think about who it is for, how will that inform what you do?

It’s already highlighting some areas I want to change.

Happy integration, you all! Stay tuned for tomorrow’s value: Product-driven.

***A career coach led me to a great resource that helped me clarify my values. It’s a forced choice matrix that helps things become very clear. Here you go:


And FYI here are my top ten:

1. Faith(17 votes)
2. Peace(16 votes)
3. Gratitude(16 votes)
4. Kindness(15 votes)
5. Significance(13 votes)
6. Trust(13 votes)
7. Wisdom(13 votes)
8. Joy(10 votes)
9. Respect(10 votes)
10. Growth(8 votes)
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