This is part five in a series of interviews I’ll be doing for a new segment on Budget and the Beach called Cool Careers. You always hear how you should follow your passion and do what you love. I happen to know a few people who I think are doing just that. Maybe you’ll get some inspiration for your own career.
About a month ago, I took part in a video shoot where a group of us learned how to drum. The lesson was broken down into three segments that started with some basic clapping, and ended with a jam session to some music. It was a blast, and all the participants were grinning ear to ear.
Describe what you do as the drum coach for the Blue Man Group?
Blue Man Group runs an extensive workshop process when casting. Part of that is running a drum school that prepares guys for the show who are not drummers, but fit the Blue Man character model.
When we have auditions on the west coast, I first screen the actors with a basic drum test for potential/ability. Then, I recommend guys for training or not. I then teach them how to play drums. I try not to teach them the “trick” of playing Blue Man patterns, but try to teach them from the ground up what it is to be a drummer. At least that’s what I hope I’m doing. lol!
Ameenah grew up in Atlanta, and later attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. When she was a sophomore at NYU, STOMP came to town and was looking to assemble a cast. A friend of hers saw a flyer calling for drummers who liked to jump around, and dancers who liked to beat on things, and Ameenah became part of the original American cast.
What were you like growing up?
I think I must have been a handful. I was very active, athletic, and was always a performer, but I didn’t “discover” the arts until around age 10 when I discovered ballet. Even though I’d been making drum beats on the desk from age 9, I didn’t know what it was. But I knew what ballet was, and I wanted to do it. It would, unfortunately, be another 4 years before I would get regular training.
What brought you to California?
Honestly, I needed a change of pace from STOMP. I’d been doing the show off and on for about 5 years at that point, and I wasn’t making any progress with my career otherwise. I was only a teenager when I got the show, and never really saw it as the last thing I’d ever do. I was anxious to see what else was out there, but STOMP is an incredible lure. It’s an amazingly fun show to perform, and was successful. We, the original American cast, were a part of that success. The show was touring all over the world in killer places, so it was really difficult to say no when they called. So, I kind of ran away to LA to grow up, and learn how to survive without STOMP.
In addition to drumming and theater, Ameenah has been in several TV shows, playing reoccurring character Val on NBC’s The Office, as well as Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, Medium, Veronica Mars, and Law & Order. She has lengthy choreography credits, where her own work for Everyman for Himself was the recipient of a 2007 Best Choreography award from the NAACP. In 2009, she received an LA Weekly Award for Best Choreography for Altar Boyz, and in 2010 the NAACP Best Choreography Award for The Women of Brewster Place.
How do you manage your time between acting, drumming, and being a director/choreographer?
That’s a great question that’s taken me a long time to figure out how to answer. I’m in a business where hyphenates are historically frowned upon, to which I now respond, “hey, if I could have come to LA and just been an actress, I would have.”
But if one takes a realistic look at the way Hollywood is run (casting, producing, etc.), then it’s easy to see why so many actors have jobs other than acting.
I couldn’t find a job waiting tables, so I thought, “what else can I do that’s in the arts? I can play the drums and choreograph, so I’ll do that instead of waiting tables while I’m waiting for Hollywood to open its casting practices to include all of us.” If that didn’t ever happen, I still would have had a career in the arts. There are definitely skeptics of the hyphenate, and I’ve heard their voices over the years, but looking back, I wouldn’t change my decision to play drums instead of waiting tables.
What is the best part of what you do?
The drums. They are the unifying element in my life. I was playing them before I knew I was playing them. Even when I’ve tried not to play, they’ve found a way back into my life, and at times have saved my life. Not just financially, but emotionally as well. My drums are where I go when I’m down, when I’m happy, when I need to be challenged, when I need to be humbled, and when I need to be exhilarated. They help me think by helping me clear my mind of unnecessary baggage. The drums are always better than me. I have to be on my toes to even go near them. They command my respect, and I love them.
What is the hardest part?
Balancing my expectations for my art with the realities of what I’m able to accomplish.
I’m sure as an artist/performer, there are times where things might have either been an emotional or financial struggle. What keeps you motivated?
I’m motivated by a never-ending need for food. I’m skinny as hell and if I don’t eat every few hours, I’m a hot mess! And I’m motivated by some lofty notion I thought of when I was in art high school. Basically, that making art is as much a part of my job as participating in art.
Art, in my opinion, is a basic human necessity that comes somewhere after food, shelter, and f*cking. It feels important to me to be participating in making art. And it feels necessary for me too. I’ve definitely got the bug that won’t let me do anything else. I’m addicted to the arts.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting out as an artist/performer?
In general I say don’t do it unless you have the bug, or unless you’re gorgeous, rich, or connected. Either way.
You can keep up with Ameenah’s creative endeavors by following her on Facebook and Twitter.