Mo Perry: on puzzling together a creative life, surviving the universe's punches, and the value of serial television

December 6, 2012

Mo Perry inspires me with her ability to throw herself into back-to-back acting projects, freelance writing, and a 32-hour-a-week job, while still making time for the things that bring balance: road trips, marathons, the Twin Cities' best foodie offerings, and tv on the couch with her love. Her performances have made me simultaneously tear up and laugh my face off, and her METRO Magazine column was a constant reminder that adulthood and - though sometimes painful- is mostly hilarious. Mo doesn't appear to take life too seriously, and we're all the better for it.

Many of my acting buddies are in challenging new territory. They're past the point in their careers where it's advantageous to say YES to every acting project that comes their way, but they don't yet have a steady stream of gigs that fit their new pay scale and excite them. It makes for a lot of awkward waiting gaps, a lot of cycling through the ups and downs of the audition game, and a lot of resulting self-doubt. I'm grateful for Mo's honesty about the challenges of piecing together life as an artist, and the reminder that the experiences of creative people are really universal. 

Mo graduated from the University of Kansas, joined the Peace Corps, and then worked as a tour guide in California.  In 2006, she made her way back to the Twin Cities. I know I join many in saying that I'm so glad she did.

[photo by Debbie Tallen]

L: Talk about the beginning. What was auditioning like when you first moved back to Minneapolis? 
M: Exciting. It’s kind of dissolved now, but we had what used to be known as the Small Theatre mafia-- the group of people who used to gather at the Market BBQ every Wednesday and Sunday night and ran Callboard. I kind of came in at the tail end of that. The theatre scene here is very welcoming, and I made a lot of friends just by showing up. It was a time of a lot of change. I got a little studio apartment under ground in uptown. I just started doing as much theatre as I could, started dating another actor, and hung out with the theatre people.

L: You’ve had a lot of success with getting cast. What’s helped you?
M: Early in your career, it’s about saying yes and yes and yes. You show up, work your ass off, and do the best possible work. And then, as you progress, I think it’s equally important to be more judicious. Because, I think if you continue to spread yourself too thin, the quality of your work does suffer. Earning some higher profile projects and more money for your work is important for how you’re perceived on some level, which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do something if you really love it, or if it revs your motor, even if it pays you nothing. My friend Xavier has a really good algorithm for taking a project. He says, it has to pay me in one of three ways: it has to pay my pocket, my resume, or my spirit. And if it can pay two of the three, all the better. Three? Home run. It’s a constantly shifting thing you have to evaluate at all times-- what does it mean for that thing to pay your resume, your pocket, or even your spirit?

L: Are you acting as much now?
M: This last year has been slow for me, and it’s been frustrating. I’m used to being super busy and going from show to show. It’s also exhausting [doing that], so I haven’t stressed out about it too much. Part of it is that you start working for theaters that pay you a living wage, and then it gets hard to go backwards. You get offers for things that you’re more inclined to say no to. You’re older, you’re more tired, and you don’t necessarily have to do those things anymore for the exposure. So, you have to wait a little longer for those offers that are aligned with what you want to be doing artistically and financially. I’m 31, I have a 32 hr a week job and other things I enjoy doing with my spare time. I love theatre and acting, but I want to be doing it as a career, not as a hobby or as something that’s fun after work for a little spare change. I don’t want to do that anymore.

L: The cycle of auditions seems really potentially destructive- the emotional ups and downs of it all.
M: It’s awful. It’s like depression in that it’s something people struggle with alone- something that actors take to their partners and private spaces and chew on and obsess over and feel anxious and sad about-- and question their worth as artists, their career choices, and wonder if it’s ever going to work out. And then they go to theatre parties, or the Ivey’s, and put on this cool, calm exterior and attitude of ‘I’m just rolling with the punches.’ It’s crazy making. It can feel really isolating. It can feel like you’re in a boxing ring with the universe: this is who I am, this is my destiny, this is what I should be doing, this is my talent. And the universe is constantly punching you in the face and saying ‘No it’s not. Go back to your corner.’ And, once every fifteen rounds, you win. And, it’s exhausting. You fall in love with a play, a character, the prospect of a certain production. It’s not like you can just decide to put the same production on in your garage or something.

L: How do you work through it?
M: It’s really important to have other things in your life that you’re enthusiastic about. I love food and I love travel. I love sitting on the couch with my man and watching a tv show that we’re hooked on-- finding comfort in things that have nothing to do with theatre. I like to see a lot of theatre, and I can see more of it when I’m not doing as much theatre.  I think sometimes you just need to let yourself feel sad and crazy. It might feel better tomorrow. And, you’ll probably feel like this again. In between there are stretches of feeling like life is pretty good. For me, I think I’m lucky that I have another creative outlet in that I like to write so much, and I can channel some of in that direction. 

L: If you could be doing anything in 4 years, what would you be doing? 
M: A mixture of freelance writing and acting. Doing theatre as it comes up, hopefully putting work together from the places I’ve worked at and loved and places I haven’t worked yet but would like to.  And writing- which I do right now. Sometimes pieces for corporate wellness blogs. I just did a thing for General Mills about how to write a Christmas letter that people will actually read. I loved having my column in METRO, and would love to put together a book of essays, write web content and maybe keep growing my part-time job at the University of Minnesota, which recently became more aligned with where I see my writing career going. It’s a big puzzle that everyone has to figure out how to cobble together for themselves-- how to make a living, and how to feel like you’re doing what you love without selling out.

L: You’ve put together a pretty good arrangement right now. In a way, your job at the U is perfect.
M: I couldn’t ask for a better day job to go with the life that I have. They’re so flexible and supportive. They support my values and goals, and that’s really amazing. 

L: I just realized that hobbies outside the performing arts can be balancing. Like serial television. 
M: Yes. My sister [and roommate] just passed the bar exam and got a job. She asked me to go in on cable with her. I’ve never had cable in my adult life. And now we have it, and she got this got this comfy chair and sofa, and I just want to be in that chair watching Modern Family. And Nashville

L: I could use a new series.
M: Did you see The Wire? The Wire for me is like no other television show. They should stop making television since it was already perfected. I mean, I named my cats after the two main characters. 

[Since this, I've become addicted to The Wire. See you in March.]

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