On a warm September day on the West Side of Manhattan, 32 year old recent UMD grad Josh Stenvick arrived at LAByrinth Theater, an off-Broadway production company whose performers have included people like the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It was his third day in New York, and Josh stood on the sidewalk inhaled the quiet humid late-summer air and examined the four story red-brick building housing his favorite theater company--he was uncertain of his next move, because he had not contacted anyone from LAByrinth. He eventually did what he has been doing for the last five years: exactly what he wanted to. "I walked in there, and I just told them flat-out how much I loved them," Josh said.
Josh was not always so bold. "I wasn't far off from being a banker at one point in my life, to be honest," he said.
Josh barely graduated from Farmington High School in 2001 and immediately got a job working at a warehouse in the Twin Cities. Eight years and three promotions later he was an inventory manager overseeing all beverage purchases for Canterbury Park Food and Entertainment Company, which at the time, employed over 1,000 people.
"I wore very nice clothes to work, I sat behind a desk all day and managed people and had a ton of responsibility, and then the economy crashed," he said.
Josh was laid off in 2008 at the age of 26.
With employment options dim in the dull economic landscape of the great-recession, Josh enrolled at Normadale Community College, planning on completing two years then transferring to a University to major in Communications. One of Normandale's prerequisites was Art, and Josh registered for a Photography class, before realizing he would need to purchase a digital camera. Looking for alternatives, a roommate of his suggested an acting class.
"Why don't you take this acting class?" His roommate asked him. "You're pretty shy, and this could help you get the confidence to talk to people."
A few months into the semester Josh's acting professor pulled him aside and asked about his future plans, and Josh told him he was looking to a degree in communications.
"Have you ever thought about becoming an actor?" His professor asked him.
Josh replied: "Professor, I'm 27, you might as well just tell me to become a rock star." The professor laughed and said there were other ways to make a living besides being a Hollywood A-lister.
Josh told him he would sleep on it. He remembers waking up the next morning and thinking to himself, "So few people have the opportunity to chase their dreams. But I have a do-over. I didn't follow this when I was 18 or 19...I have to take it."
Once Josh committed to acting he grew into the craft and appreciated the expressiveness it allowed.
"When I act, I can do all the things that I want to do, and I can say all the things that I want to say. No one will ever know, because I'm behind the mask of a character...when I was growing up, it was always, 'Boys don't cry. Rub some dirt on it.' But [when I am acting] I can do a scene, and I can cry, and no one gives a shit...It allows me to express myself and feelings and thoughts...and I don't get judged for them," Josh said.
During his last semesters at Normandale, Josh applied to a variety of acting programs throughout the country and was accepted into the likes of the University of Oregon, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of San Fransisco. He wanted to stay in-state, however, and so UMD was his natural choice. He spent the next three years taking acting classes, acting in plays through UMD and Renegade Theater Company in downtown Duluth, performing at Minneapolis's Shakespeare in the Park, producing his own play, and working full-time for a semester. "I was a busy bee," he says of his time in Duluth. "I was really involved with as much as I could."
When he graduated in May 2014 he planned on moving to New York, but Josh found himself worn thin from three years aggressively pursuing acting and working to pay tuition.
"I was wearing out creatively. I was wearing out physically, and I knew I wanted to take some time off," Josh said. A friend of his from UMD was moving out to Aspen, Colorado for an internship, and Josh followed suit without giving himself enough time for second-guesses.
"On a whim I decided to spend the summer in Colorado," he said. "I found a room on craigslist, sold my stuff and subleased a place for the summer. It was probably the best decision I ever made."
He finished a play he was writing, then wrote another, he read a couple books, all while working as a lumberjack and a bartender. He finished the summer rejuvenated and ready to pursue his dream of acting in New York, where he would move after Labor Day in 2014.
He praises his time in Colorado, and said several of his friends have taken similar getaways and experienced the same benefits. "Go somewhere you've never been," said Josh. "Take an adventure. Give yourself a break."
His three month break ended in August and he moved to Bed Stuy, a run-down neighborhood of Brooklyn, the day after Labor Day last year. Josh had found a reasonably-priced apartment with three roommates on Craigslist, and, once there, he sifted through want-ads and online job postings to secure employment. He quickly found a couple part-time jobs, enough to establish himself, pay for rent and basic necessities.
Walking in LAByrinth theater with eagerness, sincere interest and genuine knowledge of their company, Josh's meeting with the manager that afternoon on his third day in New York went better than he expected. The manager said that LAByrinth does not hold auditions and they do all of their casting in-house. The only way inside is through their unpaid internship program and they only had a single spot available, but he told Josh to come to a show that evening to meet some of their troupe.
Everything was complimentary and Josh met all the actors and directors and managers, mingling over a few beers after the show. Right as he was leaving, the Communications Manager took him aside and asked him, "Do you want to start tomorrow?"
Josh came the next day and performed a variety of tasks, from sweeping to running errands, ushering and holding cue cards, to conducting interviews for blogs and newspapers or sending Tweets out.
"I dealt with everything," he said. "I loved it, and I did not care that it was crumb work." He came to the theater once a week, and he began to establish himself as a regular at the company.
Things were going well at LAByrinth and his part-time jobs were supporting him on a weekly basis, and Josh optimistically looked towards 2015, and his hopes of devoting more time to acting. Without warning his craigslist roommates backed out of their sublease agreement though, and left Josh without a place to live. He only knew a few people in New York, and he could not find a temporary home without sufficient funds to pay first and last month's rent at expensive New York rates. So, he had to quit LAByrinth and his dream. He returned to Minnesota last fall.
He moved in with his parents and got a telemarketing job in the Twin Cities through a temp agency.
"It was a very, very weird feeling...being 32 and living in my mom's basement." He spent the next few months depressed about his situation, and he filled his days with work, conversing, sitting on his porch, and going to bed and doing it all over again.
After a few months Josh bounced back, remembering the advice that he had told himself after getting laid off: "It's time to start living your life again," he said. He auditioned for a play with one of his good friends from UMD, the same friend with whom he did his very first play nearly four years prior. It was even the exact play they had done before, and again, they both landed a role. "It was like coming full circle," Josh said.
In February Josh auditioned for grad schools. "One of my philosophies is...to throw as much stuff as I can onto the ceiling and see if anything sticks." He's going to LSU for free and receiving a stipend, leaving for Baton Rouge in May to take summer classes. He is enthusiastic about this next opportunity, and he said it meshes with some advice that he learned from a Jim Carrey commencement speech: "Follow love, and you'll be happy." Josh said this philosophy has brought him to acting, UMD, Colorado, New York, and now to grad school.
"It's so exciting...I've found that things move quickly, and you have to be adept at change," Josh said.