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Economic hardship drives some to explore their long-lost dreams

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010

At an audition last week at the Kennedy Center, Philip Ruxton felt as if he must have been the only nervous person in a waiting room full of seasoned pros. He paced the floor, focused on his breathing and, finally, with two minutes left before his turn, went over his music one last time before handing it to the pianist who would accompany him. That's when he discovered the entire last page of his song was missing.

"Uh-oh," he thought. "This is not good."

Unlike the others waiting to try out for the chorus of the Kennedy Center's coming production of "Follies," Ruxton is brand new to all this. A year ago, the 45-year-old commercial real estate broker's last theatrical experience had been in high school drama class. But like many struggling with the recession this Labor Day, Ruxton has found the time and incentive to explore his dream, a passion he'd stored in the back of his mind for decades.

Ruxton is far from alone in letting the acting bug sink its teeth in during this lean time at work. Career counselors say idled or anxious workers often reconnect with long-dormant dreams in a down economy. It's a time when reduced hours at work open up schedules and gloomy moods demand a little psychic pampering.

"We see a lot more people indulging their ideals in an economy like this," said Melissa Fireman, chief executive of Washington Career Services, a company offering career counseling and training.

Over the past two years, she says, she's seen an uptick of 10 to 20 percent in clients seeking advice on making job upheaval their path toward fulfillment of long-suppressed interests in the arts, nonprofit work or some other dream. "They're like: 'Finally, I'm out of that. I can look at my passion,' " she said.

Ruxton decided to seek a taste of stage life when last year's drop-off in business left him with fewer overtime hours and an itch to try something new. He signed up for a session of dramatic readings offered by a downtown theater group, which led to an audition for the spring musical and, surprise, a lead role.

There may be no more common passion lurking in the hearts of American 9-to-5ers than a lust for stage or screen. Nearly one-third of U.S. residents identified acting as their "dream job" in a recent Marist Poll, choosing the allure of drama over being a professional athlete, president of the United States or a rock star.

Local theaters and acting schools report that wannabe performers began pouring in soon after the housing and job markets began their nosedive. The D.C. Improv comedy school said its classes began selling out about a year ago. The Shakespeare Theatre's Academy of Classical Acting reported a 36 percent jump in applications this year.

"Our enrollment is way up," said Jane Coyn, associate director of the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts in downtown Washington. When the downturn began, the school braced for a falloff in applicants. Instead, the number of entering students climbed from 1,000 in 2008 to 1,400 this year. "We're seeing a lot of people saying they've been thinking about what they value and what they want to do with their lives."

When Sgt. Gregory Ross, a 15-year member of Georgetown University's campus police force, lost his District Heights home to foreclosure, he moved in with his father and began looking for a second job. It was a desperate time, but something in Ross's mind kept bringing him back to his lifelong love of hamming it up. He had never forgotten the glow of playing an elf in his grade-school Christmas pageant.

"Like a lot of people, I had that in me but decided just to lock it away and pursue a regular job," said Ross, 44. "But here I was so down. I decided if I had to get another job, I was going to do something I was passionate about."

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