Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: episode 20

Alexander Domini

IT’S EPISODE 20!! I can’t believe how this seedling of an idea back in February has blossomed into such a satisfying creative outlet. Reconnecting with these wonderful humans, with whom I shared time and space in such an important way, is nothing less than sublime. This week’s guest is one that is particularly close to my heart and has been since he crossed the threshold of the dance studio. Enjoy!

As a performing arts educator in a high-needs public high school with low resources, much of my job is training kids from the ground floor. Most kids have no experience in the theatre, some have a bit of natural talent that needs to be finessed, and some kids explode out of the gate. Alexander Domini was one of those kids. Walking into the halls of Spring Valley, he came from a family of musicians and was already quite accomplished on the clarinet. He quickly turned into a theater kid when he auditioned for his first fall play as a freshman and got a part in The Good Doctor. From that point forward, he was on his path to becoming a star.

For four years, he performed all sorts of roles, mostly leading ones, winning a regional theater award for Outstanding Dance performance as Bobby Child in “Crazy for You” and playing Pippin alongside my older daughter’s stage debut as Thea (she won the same award for Outstanding Child Actor, but I digress…)

In those four years, he figured out that musical theater was his calling. So much so, that upon graduation in 2010, he went off to the prestigious Hartt School in Hartford, CT where he earned a BFA in Musical Theatre. From there, he traveled all over the country to perform as a “triple threat,” (actor, singer, dancer extraordinaire), got the credentials to join the Actors Equity Association and spent the better part of ten years pounding the pavement and living the actor’s life.

This pic is from early on in his actor days, when I traveled to see him in a production of Oliver (one of my least-favorite shows).

That, of course, is a tough life. Living in New York is ungodly expensive and the theater business is unforgiving on your body and soul. He started to question why he was putting himself through the rigors of that existence and eventually realized that it wasn’t the life he wanted anymore. He also questioned every other part of his life at the time and “blew it all up,” taking some time to travel across the country, see friends, have experiences and figure out what path to take next. Now that he’s entered his (gasp) 30’s, Alex is working through this transitional period in Washington D.C. using his well-developed performing and interpersonal skills to give Segway tours on the National Mall and hosting events for teambuilding.com.

Alex’s story is another example of how you make plans, God laughs, and you make new plans. Life is a journey, and it’s best to traverse the terrain with eyes wide open, ears attuned to the universe, and heart ready for the ride. Let’s go back to see where things started.

Alex’s artistic adolescence

Once Alex planted his roots in the musical theater pot, his efforts were validated time and again. A quick study with a hungry drive to learn everything possible to improve his abilities, he sought out more training and experience. After his initial fall show, he was cast in 42nd Street where he learned the basics of tap dancing and continued that trend in his sophomore year in the role of Bobby Child in Crazy for You (for which he won that regional theater award). Then, he decided to take a variety of dance classes, where his technique improved quickly. Focused entirely on learning more about this craft where he seemed to flourish, he found more opportunities to stretch himself and prepare for taking it to the next level. For example, he ramped up his vocal training at the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program with Guiseppe Spoletini; this kid was serious.

Looking back, Alex described himself as hyper-vigilant, obnoxiously enthusiastic, not grounded whatsoever in reality. While in high school, this uber-energetic teenager’s refuge was the safe space of the dance studio. I recognized the eagerness and the building drive to absorb every theater skill possible, and while I believed he had the talent and ability, I always hesitate to encourage any young person to go full-bore in the pursuit of a life in the theater. He seemed to appreciate having a teacher who offered him supportive realism while he explored his ambitions in school, which helped to keep him more centered and regulated than his natural anxiety might otherwise have allowed.

As young as five, I was at my kindergarten teacher, freaking out if I didn’t get an assignment right. If I wasn’t first and I didn’t get 100, then I would freak out. Problem was, that didn’t happen very often. So, when I think of 15-year-old Alex, I just want to tell him to exhale and it will be okay. Have some humble pie and understand that where you’re at is great, and that the people that you are about to surround yourself with have more training, money, resources, network connections than you could ever dream of. So you might as well just chill.

For my part, as opportunistic as I am in utilizing the talent that is available, it is never my goal to feed my students to the wolves. If they do express even remote ambitions to become performers, I am very careful not to feed into pipe dreams. My definition of “supportive realism” is to lay it out for them: just how difficult that road is, how much competition there is, how unlikely it is for anyone to succeed, and just how much work it actually requires to even have a chance. The last thing I want is to send a teenager out there who is woefully underprepared for when the anvil comes crashing down on their head. However, I am all for offering creative challenges to see what they are made of, in hopes that it will either scare them into another field of study or galvanize them to really do the work required to succeed in “the business.”

When reality sets in

When a student finds their home in the dance studio, I do my best to keep them there.

In the studio, I really learned how to play and be imaginative and get really excited for creation and moving my body.

Unfortunately, he and I both learned the hard way that the theater business, at least at the regional level where most 20-somethings find themselves for years, does not mimic the joy and play of the educational theater experience. Instead of a three-month rehearsal period after school where you take the time to explore, teach, and create collaboratively, the pros might have two to three weeks (if they’re lucky) to make a show audience ready. It’s more mechanical, less authentic, and while you do get to perform, the heart of why you’re doing it is different. That’s why I gravitated back to educational theater early on. The short exposure that I had to “the business” made me realize why I was smitten with theater in the first place; I loved the act of creation through that sense of play, discovery and community-building.

In our conversation, Alex offered this insight:

I was excited to do this [interview] because I think a lot of people do interviews when they’re either accomplished or on the other side of a chapter and I’m not. I’m right smack-dab in the middle of it. What I’m getting much better at is learning to be okay with the middle and the transitions.

He reflected his current experience through the words that he sung as Pippin In his senior year: Patching the roof and pitching the hay is not my idea of a perfect day. When you’re extraordinary, you gotta do extraordinary things. Of course, the denouement of that show brings us full-circle to the idea that living an average life is actually preferable to burning out in a blaze of glory.

We shame average. In reality, the vast majority of us are average. And that’s okay. You can be average and have a very fulfilling life.

As a society, we have been training our kids to “be the best” and “strive for greatness” for so long that as these kids move to the post-college chapter of their lives, they start to realize that being the exemplar of everything is not a realistic expectation. Then, they have to live in that uncomfortable space of “If I’m not the best, then what am I?”

What is that teaching kids? If it’s not good enough for Pippin, then why should it be good enough for me? So the inverse of everything is always true too. We’re saying, ‘I’m alluding to this extraordinary life, anything less than that is not good.’ I’m just learning now how to unlearn that. Greatness is defined by you and your person and your foundation. Once greatness is defined externally, that’s when neuroses and mental illness happens because then you go into one of your trauma responses.

What does the trauma response look like in that situation? Usually, it’s the fight or flight reaction: either trash-talking the naysayers or succumbing to the needs of others despite the negative impact it might have on you. In his adult shoes, Alex has learned to appreciate his accomplishments in the moment for where he is at that moment. There’s always tomorrow to take another step. He’s also learned to take a mental inventory when he chooses his next steps to decide why he’s proceeding, who it is pleasing and who is running the show (is it 30-year-old Alex or 15-year-old Alex?). Therapy (there’s that word again…) has been quite a boon to Alex in the past couple of years, helping him to parse out some of those questions that he never knew to ask himself: I could have used this when I was 24.

Like Rob Lee in episode 19, Alex finds the sense of community to be invaluable to his mental health. Thankful for the myriad opportunities for community-building that he has discovered in D.C., he is taking full advantage of them, like joining a kickball league. He has also found comfort in D.C.’s LGBTQ+ community, which is friendlier there than any other place in the country.

How has Alex changed?

The short, pithy answers: My hairline sucks. Weight management, not great.

The real self-reflection is about how he has been working to fortify his sense of self. Once upon a time, his younger-self mindset went something like this:

In order to get to Broadway, I have to do X, Y and Z and if those things do not happen, if I stray away from the plan, then this will not happen.

Of course, that is not a realistic perspective. Our lives are not a series of if…then statements. In truth, we are more about the “work-in-progress.”

I think I’ve done a better job…I mean life forced me to take my blinders off. What happens when you’re so hyper-vigilant, people tend to glorify tunnel vision. You leave a lot of rubble behind you, and you don’t realize the damage that’s done until you take those blinders off. That’s what survival mode is. It takes a lot of effort and energy to force them out and look at the rubble around and go ‘okay we did some damage but I am still good.’ Practicing that skill is probably the biggest one that I am cultivating now...Cultivating a sense of self; my foundation is loving-kindness, generosity, compassion towards my fellow beings.

So now that he is working on this new sense of self, he has a few revelations that he offers to his younger self that might have helped to ease the way:

  • Dye your hair
  • Be silly
  • Be dumb

Remember, we make plans and the universe laughs. Even if you follow the plan to the letter, it still may never happen.

Life’s not fair; you need to figure out what works for you, and what works for one person doesn’t work for the other. The only rule is there are no rules.

What does Alex grapple with now?

Literally everything that I’m preaching.

Managing all of the challenges and expectations while maintaining your sense of self requires one to use the proper tools to do all of that. Figuring that out requires patience and kindness towards yourself as you slowly re-wire your brain to allow for missteps. He admitted that he does miss the more light-hearted version of his adolescent self.

I think that when the enthusiasm didn’t go to obnoxious and it went towards endearing, I really admired that part of myself.

I remember his authentic love of learning, a wide-eyed nature that I think he also remembers fondly. Whenever I threw him a curveball, he perked up and got to work. He acknowledged his hunger for knowledge then and thankfully, that hasn’t really changed. In fact, it has served him well in this transition into this new phase of his life. As a tour guide on the National Mall, he has been able to tap into his inner academic, holding on to all of our nation’s history, and giving the “drunk history” version to the tourists he serves. It’s fun, he can use his personality and skills to tell stories and entertain the masses, just in a different way than he had originally planned.

As he navigates his adult challenges, he did acknowledge something that he thinks has gotten better now that he’s older:

…my capacity to hold other’s feelings. We forget that when we go into problem-solving mode for someone, what that really translates to (subconsciously) is, ‘I don’t know how to care about your feelings so we just have to solve them.’ [It’s] a little selfish, and it’s not necessarily what the other person needs. So, I’ve done a really good job of leading with validating and offering compassion and I now have a much better awareness of who is capable of offering that to me and who isn’t, and making sure those people are in my closer sphere.

Sage advice

Alex had some important insights for today’s adolescents:

  • Fail ForwardYou learn one thing from being right and 99 things from being wrong. You’re so young; collect the data from being wrong.
  • Live your life – Be beholden to what you want to do, whatever that looks like. Mistakes are what build us up to create a better sense of the moral compass. They’re what allow us to go ‘actually I don’t need that. And I know this from my center.’
  • Get off social media as soon as possible – What a dumpster fire for a place to grow. The most toxic, chaotic place for any brain but especially one as malleable as an adolescent one.
  • Accept that your brain isn’t fully developed – There has to be some level of ‘we have to believe the sky is blue, grass is green and my brain is not fully developed.

Alex’s self-care strategies

Amongst other things, Alex listed a few of his self-care strategies that help to keep him centered and calm.

  • Meditation 4-5 times a week
  • Texting friends if he’s overwhelmed
  • Journaling

Thank you for tuning in to these stories. I hope you have gotten something from them: inspiration, connection, maybe some validation. These conversations galvanize my resolve to provide the best experiences I can for my students. I look forward to sharing many more chats. You can watch my full conversation with Alex on YouTube – click the link below!

4 thoughts on “Changed for the Better: episode 20

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