Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: episode 22

Brittany Gischner

I am truly honored to talk to today’s guest. She’s straight out of Central Casting. Literally.

Like Graig Kriendler (Episode 13) before her, Brittany Gischner never stepped foot in the spotlight, preferring to get involved in every other aspect of technical theater and production. She loved being involved in the inner-workings of how shows are brought to life. In fact, she did so much work of that work that she earned enough points to achieve National Honor Thespian status. In fact, I think she was the only one in my tenure to do so. She hit what she calls the “Thespian trifecta”: President of Spots ‘n Flats sophomore year, President of Caps ‘n Bells junior year, and finally Executive Board President of the troupe senior year. When I say she immersed herself in the Thespian zeitgeist, I’m not kidding; Brittany’s blood ran blue and gold.

Most kids do not leave Thespians with the intention to pursue a profession in the arts. Even less actually achieve enough success to maintain a career in it. Brittany was one of those rare cases. After graduation in 2006, she entered NYU’s ultra-competitive Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied stage management and lighting design in their technical theater program, earning a BFA in Theatre with a minor in Producing. Her professors were pros actively working on Broadway, she interned with Blue Man Group and she worked closely with a litany of talent who are currently starring in theater and film today; there are too many to list, but I’ll just mention two: Michael R. Jackson and Ali Stroker.

After college, she worked in stage management for two off-Broadway shows, Picking Up and ABBIE, but since the Great Recession was not kind to live theater, she pivoted about a year and half after graduating. With no film or TV experience, she took a random job at Central Casting as a casting assistant, hoping her skills from theater would be transferable.

They certainly were. She found a new calling; within a year, she was promoted to Casting Director. In the next eleven years, she worked her way up to the highest level Casting Director and now manages the New York office.

Brittany has a ridiculously impressive resume, having worked on over 250 episodes of TV, like Law & Order: SVU, as well as many films. If you check out her IMDB page, prepare to be blown away.

While I continue to be blown away, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to take a trip down memory lane with Brittany and see how her story started.

Back in high school

Most people who have climbed high on the ladder of success came from more humble beginnings. Back in Spring Valley High School, Brittany was the type of kid who wanted to do a little of everything, getting her hands into every pot that she could. She had so many interests, aside from all things Thespian, and wanted to be active and engaged in whatever she could while she could. The structure provided by the school environment helped her to manage whatever stress she felt from acting on her overachieving nature.

Growing up, you learn you can’t do everything all at once so I’m glad that I did it when I was younger.When you’re doing a lot of different things, you have to compartmentalize what you’re doing and how you do it to make sure that it’s [all] getting done. Nowadays I have to create my own structure which is very difficult – it’s definitely a different ballgame.

Within the school structure, Brittany acknowledged what helped keep her going while she worked on the Thespian productions. Most notable was the sense of community, where she made friends with people from across the high school spectrum, with whom she might not have otherwise made connections. That shared experience with her peers highlighted the things that she enjoyed most about theater. She appreciated the mix of people from all areas of interest and culture who loved Thespians just as much as she did and it gave her comfort to tap into the wealth of that resource every day.

“Act well your part; there all the honor lies”

This is the Thespian motto, taken from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. It is the guiding principle upon which Thespian excellence is achieved. Every year, when new students are inducted, everyone stands, recites the pledge, and they hear this motto. When Brittany was inducted as a freshman, she received a little key chain with that phrase on it. She happily revealed that she has kept that little key chain in a special place at home:

To this day, I believe that to be one of the truest statements. I think it relates to life.

I completely agree with Brittany there – it is one of my favorite parts of the induction ceremony: reciting that motto before a captivated audience of adolescents who are celebrating a year’s worth of accomplishments. In showing them just how honorable their effort has been, we validate their ability to take ownership of their work and build a greater sense of pride in themselves. It’s a win all around.

What she didn’t realize then was just how special being a part of Thespians was. When she went to Tisch, she assumed that every high school drama club had a Thespian troupe and that everyone knew that motto. Not so.

I was like, ‘you’ve never heard this before?’ I feel like it’s the epitome of theater in general as well; like, ‘you should know this!’

Yes, Brittany, they should.

On people-pleasing

As she contemplated how she has changed since high school, Brittany thought she was less of a people pleaser as a teenager than she is now. Adult Brittany now works for a big corporation where the main job requirement is to meet the needs of her clients. Adolescent Brittany had more freedom in school to make decisions without having to not to care quite so much about how they impacted others, feeling more in control of her own choices. When you are “adulting” at work, you have to care, or it will certainly affect the bottom line for the company. However, outside of her clients’ demands and within her personal life, being an adult gives her the latitude to make decisions that make her happy. In the end, if I’m not happy, then why am I doing something?

The culture shock of college

For any high school grad, going to college is an eye-opening experience. For Brittany, that particularly rang true in developing new relationships outside the bubble of her hometown. The wide diversity and acceptance of her high school days was quite unique; when she arrived at NYU, she did not quite experience the school’s culture in the same way.

I didn’t realize that the ‘real world’ was very different than how I grew up; it was culture shock, backwards. I had to adapt because it was very different. But, I met so many new people and expanded my horizons even more. Coming from East Ramapo, finding my way in college, it made me more of a well-rounded person; it opened my eyes to so much more.

It wasn’t that she didn’t see a diverse school culture around her in downtown Manhattan, the difference was more about how others perceived her.

People don’t know where you come from, your background, they might have certain expectations of who you are without knowing you. When I first got to school, people who I normally would have, on any given day growing up, tried to be friends with, tried to talk to, didn’t want to talk to me because where they grew up, it was different. I never once even thought that would be something I had to think about. I had to learn not to make expectations on other people because they didn’t know me, where I came from, my history. I had a little bit of a learning curve.

Despite the wake-up call, it didn’t take too long for her to settle in and adapt to her new community.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff”

Brittany identified her teenage self as a bit of a perfectionist who focused on making sure everything she did was “right.” Emerging into her adult self, she learned that everything we do falls into a range of “right.” If she could have a candid sit-down with her younger self, she’d offer:

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You can’t let that stuff weigh you down, stress you out…if there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Even with that mantra, it’s still hard to strike the balance between academic or professional responsibilities and…the rest of your life. That doubles down when you work in a field with particularly elevated levels of stress and anxiety. She often grapples with knowing when to call it a day so that work can end and her personal life can begin. On top of that, technology makes it that much harder to cut the cord.

People can get a hold of you all times of day and night. It does start to feel like things are life and death, but [they’re] not.

Even now, she is grappling with the challenge of establishing the boundaries between her work and personal lives. It is the necessary step we must take to protect our peace. (Kayla Tavares talked about that in episode 9).

More sage advice

I asked Brittany to offer some words of wisdom to today’s high school students. Other than don’t sweat the small stuff, which is a simple yet inspired tidbit, she offers two more gems:

If you’re not sure, try it. That’s how I got into theater. I had no idea that I would love it, I just showed up for crew one day ’cause like I thought ‘that sounds cool, let’s try it.’ The worst that can happen is you don’t like it, you do something else.

You’re not stuck in the decisions you make when you’re [an adolescent]. You can change your mind, you can find something you like better, don’t hold yourself back.

Self-care strategies

We all need to refill our bucket periodically, especially busy casting directors. Here’s what Brittany does to unwind:

This one is going to sound…very basic as the kids say…sometimes I just go and get a manicure/pedicure to relax myself. I don’t have to do anything – I show up, I let them take care of me, it centers me, and I walk out with pretty hands and toes.

I try to see shows, go to a museum, something that’s not sitting at home, on my couch, watching television. Seeing shows brings me back to who I am, foundationally, where I came from.

I do New York City things: Governor’s Island and hang out for the day, walk the Brooklyn Bridge, something you can only do in New York City. It’s my ‘me’ time.

A final thought

From the successful New York casting director:

Having an arts foundation leads you anywhere in life.

What more can be said? Nothing. Thanks, Brittany. You nailed it.

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