Interview: Gagged Chokers Intern Caitlin McNeilage on Faith, Trust, and the Importance of Sisterhood
Caitlin McNeilage, a senior at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, is about to graduate and enter the entertainment industry in full force. Over the last year, she has already begun making her way into the Broadway community, working with and befriending not only the ladies of Gagged Chokers, but also the many performers and artists that she has followed and admired from afar. In this interview, she shares her experiences applying for and getting accepted to her arts program, the highs and lows of the entertainment industry, and the blessings and responsibilities she has received as a part of the Gagged Girl Gang.
What kind of artist would you describe yourself as?
I don't know. I usually describe myself as an actor, singer, and dancer. But I'm really interested in all kinds of art. I would really love to direct and to choreograph and to design and to write. I think it's almost more fun when you don't choose just one thing to be in. You just say I'm an artist because it's really fun to collaborate with others and to expand and find different things to do within what you already know how to do as an artist.
How did you get start in arts?
I've pretty much been involved in arts of some kind since I was two or three years old. I started taking dance classes when I was about two and just always told my parents I'm going to be a singer, I'm going to be an actor, I'm going to be a movie star, you know (laughing). So it was a pretty young age. I don't know really what put the idea in my head. Although my dad used to put a bunch of musical instruments in my crib when I was a baby because he was determined that I was going to be a country music singer (laughing). So, yeah, I've just kind of always been doing it.
And then, I never really discovered my love for theater until middle school. And I really started falling in love with musical theater, and I think Wicked actually was one of the first shows that I had the cast album for. I would listen to all the songs. And then I just decided that it was absolutely what I had to do with my life and what I had to major in.
What made you choose New York University Tisch School of the Arts [NYU Tisch] for college?
I don't actually know when I first heard about NYU or how I heard about it, but early on in high school, I just decided "This is the best school for me. This is my dream school. This is where I want to be." I actually visited New York when I was a sophomore in high school. I was with a friend and her family, and one of them had never been to New York, so I was just kind of go-with-the-flow, do whatever they wanted to do on the trip. But they said, "All right, Caitlin, you get to pick one thing. What do you want to do?" And I said, "I would really love to go see NYU." And we went. We found it and we went to the bookstore and I got my NYU t-shirt and I saw the NYU Tisch building. And from that moment on, I was determined. I was like, "This is where I have to go."
And then when I was in between my junior and senior year of high school, I did the summer high school program, the musical theater program at NYU. And it was hard. And I was just awed by the people around me, by how talented they were, and I was like, "Wow, this would be a really difficult place to go to school, but I think that's what I have to do." So, yeah, I auditioned actually at four different schools and NYU was the best program out of the four. And I got three rejection letters in one week (laughing). [I was] super dramatic, thinking my life was over. Like "Oh my gosh, I don't have a future. What am I going to do?" And then I got an acceptance from NYU, and I thought, "Okay, well, that obviously means this is where I'm meant to be. I don't even have to make the decision because maybe I would have chosen somewhere else and chosen wrong." It just made it very clear that this was where I was supposed to be.
Did you ever have any doubts about pursuing the arts as a career?
When I was younger and before I really got into college and realized the reality of this career, it was all sunshine and daisies, and I thought, "Oh, it's going to be great. I'm definitely going to do this. Nothing will ever stop me." But, you know, in the past couple of years . . . I don't think there was ever a real moment of, "Okay, I'm not sure I can do this," or "I think I need to do something else." But there are days where I'll get some harsh feedback from a professor or I won't get cast in one of the semester's big shows or something will happen where I'll say "Do I actually have what it takes? Am I actually cut out for this at all or am I just going to be unemployed for the rest of my life, you know?" There are definitely those days, and there are some days where I'm like, "You know, this is so incredibly hard. Why am I doing this? I could be doing plenty of other things, you know. I could find something easier to do with my life." But at the end of the day, I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
And even when there are doubts, I remind myself, this is what I love to do. And I wake up every morning, even as a college student, excited to go to class and to study what I love to do. So it's really, really hard and, yes, there are definitely doubts like "Am I good enough, am I going to be okay, is this going to work out, am I going to just be living on breadcrumbs for the rest of my life?". [But] even though there are doubts, I just have to remind myself that there are probably hundreds of thousands of other people in New York alone having those same thoughts and feelings. And that I just have to keep pushing forward and keep trying and it'll work out one day. However it will work out, it will work out. And that may not be the vision I have in my head right now. It may be a different path, but I have faith that it will work out how it's meant to be, just the way college did, you know. I'm trusting that my career will be the same way.
Do you know what your plans are after you graduate this spring?
In theater, it's hard to have a solid plan. When people ask me what my plan is, I'm like, "Well, my plan is kind of to just be open and not have a plan." (laughing) I'm already very part time right now because I had enough credits from AP classes in high school and from doing the summer program to graduate a semester early. But I decided not to. I decided I wanted to keep having that private voice lesson through NYU and being involved in shows and getting as much out of my training as I could while I'm at school, because you have your whole life to be out in the real world. You only have these four years and I want to get the most out of my four years. So I will only be taking four credits [this] semester. I will have a lot of extra time on my hands, so I plan just to start auditioning and hopefully making that transition a little smoother as opposed to graduating and suddenly auditioning every day and looking for a job. I'll kind of have one foot out the door and one foot in still, so I'll still be in school but I'll have enough time to start that transition. And I'm really open to anything. I'm also really interested in film and TV. So if something with that were to come my way, I might end up in L.A. for a temporary time, or if [there was] a summer stock show in a different state or a traveling tour or a cruise or something like that, I would be open to traveling, of course. Pretty much anything that will come my way. But I plan to keep New York my home base for at least the near future, and just kind of see what happens.
I'm really excited. I'm really nervous. But I'm going to trust the process and trust my training and know it will all work out. And you can always have a survival job (laughing). So I'm going to keep that going while I'm hopefully finding a job.
It seems as if you already have a foot in the door, because you really do have a lot of connections with Broadway people, backstage and onstage. How did you get to meet so many people within the Broadway community?
Yeah, it's actually a really funny story how I met the Gagged Girls and got connected to them. [At NYU], they place you where they think you'll be best, in different studios. And the studio I was placed in was a straight acting studio [editor's note: in theatre, straight acting is acting that is not based in music, dancing, or song, as opposed to acting in a musical]. It wasn't musical or theater. And I thought, "Okay, I'll do this for the first two years and then after two years I can audition to transfer to a different program." So I did. I auditioned for the musical theater program and eventually got in. And I thought "Okay, well, now, I've had two years of not doing a whole lot of singing and dancing and I know I'm rusty. What can I do to get back in the swing of things and get ready for this very competitive program?" So I heard of the company Straight from New York that provides master classes and private lessons with different Broadway professionals. And I thought, "Okay, this seems like a really good way to get some extra training before I really get into this program." So that's what I asked for for my birthday that year. And I got a one hour private lesson with Laura Osnes because I really look up to her career and I thought, you know, this is someone who could maybe really help me.
And so I went and it was great. We worked on a couple of songs and she was very helpful and wonderful and kind. And we got to talking. And, you know, I told her about this new program I was in and we had just had auditions and I had only been cast in a small show because I was new. And I said, "Well, now I have all this free time on my hands this semester, so I'm hoping to get some sort of internship or something to kind of get my foot in the door. And she's so kind. She said, "You know, I was just with my friend Abby [DePhillips] last night, and . . . have you heard of Courtney Reed? Do you know about Gagged Chokers? You know, they really need an intern. They need someone very organized. They need someone just to kind of help out; they're getting a little overwhelmed. Would you be interested? I could get your email address and give it to them." And I was like, "Um, yes!" How could you say no? That would be amazing.
So she did and she connected me with Abby and I met with Abby and LJ [Wright] in an interview-type setting. And we just talked and they were like, "We'd love to have you." And now it's been over a year. So, yeah, it's really amazing. You know, [Laura] had the choice. I mean, she could have just heard that I was looking for an internship and said, "Oh, yeah, good luck to you." But she made that one snap decision to be very, very kind and do something that really kind of changed my life. So, yeah, it was all that one little moment that set all this up for me. And now, you know, I've been working with them and we've become close friends and I've started actually going to church with Teale [Dvornik] and her roommates and made this whole new group of friends there. And it's really, it's just been incredible and I've gotten to meet so many cool people that I look up to. And now I feel like I have someone in Courtney to go to, almost like a big sister. I've already started asking her some questions, like "When you were getting close to graduating, what were you doing? What did you do with your summers in college? How did you do that?" So it's really nice to have someone to go to for advice, who is in the same career but is several years ahead of you and has been incredibly successful. It's been really great. And I've gotten to learn all about being a dresser and what that's like and, yeah, it's been really incredible all through that one little act of kindness.
What's it been like working with the Gagged Girl Gang?
It's been incredible. I wasn't sure when I first started what my role would be, and it's kind of changed as things have gone on. They still call me Intern Caitlin. I still say, "Yeah, I'm the intern." But honestly they treat me like I'm part of the group now and I've gotten to do all sorts of cool photo shoots and events. When we had the big Princess Collection come out, we did this huge photo shoot with all these different Broadway girls, and that was just such a cool day. They had me ask each one of them some questions for our Tumblr blog for Gagged. I asked each girl a couple of questions and took some behind-the-scenes pictures and things. And it's so cool for someone like me, who wants to be in this career field, to just get to walk up to Sierra Boggess and ask her a couple of questions and ask Lexi Lawson and Carleigh Bettiol and Ariana DeBose. I mean, these are people that I see on social media and I see them just killing it in this career. And the fact that they're all women is really just amazing to me, that we are a group of women supporting other women. And it has been a community at that. The world needs that so much right now.
Even when I first started with the company, I kind of laughed, thinking, "I don't know that I could ever pull off a choker, like I'm not sure I'm a choker kind of girl (laughing)." They were like, "No, anyone can!" And I've just seen the girls who follow all of us on social media and reach out to us, I've seen it give them so much confidence and I've seen them say "I feel so beautiful when I wear these necklaces," or "I feel like I'm part of this community through the [Gagged Girl Gang]." It's amazing. And some of them have even become friends with each other through this and have met up on their trips to New York. It's just really been this amazing community to be a part of. Women supporting women, from all the way down to middle and high school girls wanting to be in theater one day, all the way up to Sierra Boggess and Courtney Reed and Lexi Lawson and these women who have already had success in their careers.
We're all just part of one big kind of group. And I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm between the successful career women and the young girls with dreams. It's been really cool to kind of bridge that gap and feel like I have these women to look up to now, and then also feel the responsibility to these young girls who now follow me. So many of them follow me on social media and sometimes they'll reach out to me with questions. I feel a responsibility to them now to help with advice or college audition advice. I didn't have that and I didn't have a clue what I was doing. It's honestly probably a miracle I got into college at all [laughs]. I had no idea what to expect, what to prepare, what to do. So I feel this kind of newfound responsibility to them to help in any way I can and just to be a positive role model.
What kind of advice do you give to people who are curious about pursuing the arts as a career and are going into college with that in mind?
Oh, gosh, there are so many things I could say. I feel like in this career, you'll only do it if you really, really, really love it and if you want it so badly. And I think sometimes that can almost start to get in the way. And sometimes you just have to stop and say, "Yes, this is a career I'm very invested in and I want to achieve certain things very badly. But I'm also a human being and it's okay to take time off and just take a break and do something other than theater for 30 minutes of your day." And I think that's hard to remember sometimes when you love what you're doing, that sometimes you just have to relax and step away from it for a minute. And you know, this is a tough business. You're walking into a room all the time, hoping to impress someone, and you know that they are behind the table, judging how you look, how you walk, what you're wearing, your talent. And it's really hard. It's unlike any other career in that way, that you are judged on every little single thing about you. You could be too tall or too thin or too pretty sometimes. I heard someone tell someone the other day, "I think you're actually too pretty to play this role." And I was like, "Since when was that a bad thing?"
It's such a crazy career that I really think you just kind of have to take in the feedback and the criticism and the things to work on and use them to grow. And then just let it go and kind of forget about it. Because if you sit and dwell on every single little piece of feedback someone gives you, you're going to drive yourself crazy. Even for myself, as someone who's nearing graduation, who's been through four years of this program, it's hard some days. Some days you get criticism and you think "Can I even do this as a career? Am I good enough?" It's really easy to get down on yourself. But you just have to remember that you're doing this for a reason.
Also, something that I have to remind myself of all the time (and I know that if I need to remind myself, then probably someone else needs to hear it too) is that your talent and your ability to sing or dance or act or be an artist does not equal your worth as a human being at all. So if someone tells you, "Oh, you can't belt. You're not a good enough singer," or, "Oh, your pirouettes aren't great," you know, whatever. Maybe that's true. Maybe you're not as strong in some things as you could be. But that doesn't have anything to do with who you are as a person. It's okay to work hard and want to be talented and want to be good and be the best, but it doesn't define your worth. It's not who you are. I have to remember that a lot, that I can work and strive to succeed, but it's not who I am as a person, and I would rather be kind and hardworking and a good person than be the most talented person in the room any day.
So over the last several months, we've heard about the sexual harassment allegations against people within the entertainment industry. As an artist who's about to enter the industry, how have you felt seeing all of these allegations come out, and how is that informing your decisions as you prepare to enter this industry?
It's heartbreaking to see all of it come out. It's really eye-opening, and I think it's so sad that it seems to be a very prevalent problem. It's not that we didn't know that already. It's just becoming eye-opening to see how deep the problem is and how far it reaches. I think one of the saddest things about it is the number of people that seem to have known all along that these things were going on. And I just think as artists and humans, especially people in positions of power, we just have to do better. We have to protect each other. Especially people in positions of power who can really do something about situations like this, you know. People have to do something when they know something is going on. We can no longer protect people just because they're making a lot of money for a company or because they have an important name. I think that's the first thing.
But you know, it's hard as an artist, especially as this is all happening right as I am going to start auditioning a lot. You start to think twice if you have a meeting with anyone, especially a man, one on one. You think, "Oh, I'm not sure what the intentions are here." And it starts to make you very nervous. But as much as it's hard to see it all come out, I think it's a good thing that these things are being exposed now because it's only going to make, hopefully, this industry and others, safer for those of us coming into it. And I really hope it makes people think twice now. I mean, I wish it didn't take this for people to, you know, not be terrible people. But I do think, as much as it hurts, it's better that it's out in the open and that these people are held responsible, because that will only make things better and safer.
I just hope everyone uses this to kind of be more aware. A lot of the stories I've read are about these poor girls having no idea what they're walking into. So I just hope we take these stories and use them as education to know, hey, well, if I'm having this meeting, maybe I should tell someone where I'm going to be and how long I think I'm going to be there. Simple steps we can take to at least help or be more aware. We all need to kind of lean on each other and, it's important to have someone to talk to, a friend or a parent or significant other or someone, so that hopefully we can all just feel safer and know how to handle these situations.
I'm just thankful and in awe of all the people who have come forward, who have chosen to speak up and be brave. I mean, we owe everything to them that this is happening. So, that's the biggest thing. We owe a lot to the people who are brave enough to come forward. I'm in awe of them because I can't even imagine that kind of courage.
What does collaboration mean to you?
We all have different strengths and different areas of the arts that we know better than others. And even just within school, it's been amazing to find friends who are in film and TV. I have friends who write their own musicals and plays. I have friends who design and direct. I just think it's incredible, especially as young artists, to be able to say, "Okay, we're not getting jobs. Things are not going well for us. What can we do? Instead of just sitting around, waiting to be handed a job, what can we do?" Well, we can create our own art, you know. I have a friend who can write it. I have a friend who can direct it. I can be in it maybe. I can choreograph, someone can get the costumes. And it's amazing that we can be young artists that can really take charge of our own careers.
Just the other day, I was texting a couple of my friends because I need videos for my website. And I was like, "Man, it's so expensive to have to pay someone." But you know what? I have friends in film and TV who could get a camera. I have a friend who's a wonderful accompanist who could play for me. Why can't I just do this myself? I'll pay for them, obviously, but no need to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to a stranger when I have friends who have these amazing talents. That's really wonderful. It just helps us help each other.
Do you think you'll be able to maintain that community once you all graduate and people fly off to their various corners of the world?
Yeah. I think one thing that's really helpful is that we're already going to school in New York. People I'm sure will move to L.A. or move wherever, go out on tour, but I think for a lot of us, we will stay in New York. So it will be nice to still kind of have a community here in this literal physical location. But I mean, I think like anything, community is something you kind of have to work at, and I realized that just moving away from home and coming to college. You can take for granted relationships when you have school, where you're going to see someone every day. Once that structure is gone, you have to work at the relationship and you have to keep in touch, and you have to make plans and make time for each other and reach out and ask someone to help you with a project or ask someone to film sides with you for an audition, different things like that. Like anything, you have to work at community. I think it will definitely be harder once college is not our common ground anymore, but I feel certain that I will keep my community. And it's nice to have a go-to group of people who had a shared experience with you and now are in the same industry as you. So they're people you can lean on and go to for advice. I think that's just really awesome and crucial in this business, for sure.
If you had your pick of anyone in the world, who would be your collaboration dream team and what project would you work on?
I don't know if it would be a musical or a movie or what it would be. But Andy Blankenbuehler is one of my creative crushes. I am obsessed with his choreography and in awe of the way that he works. I mean, I probably wouldn't have the dance ability to do his choreography, but maybe stand in the background while he makes everyone else do it. I would say, oh my gosh, Meryl Streep. I don't know, maybe it's a musical movie. But always Meryl. Oh, I have both a creative and a real crush on Leonardo DiCaprio! I was going to say it's a secret love of mine. It's not a secret (laughing). Maybe he and I could do a scene together. I think he's a great actor. And then maybe, I don't know, Taylor Swift. [I'm a] big Taylor fan.
Will you still be working with Gagged Chokers after you graduate?
I think so. I've kind of joked with them that I'm not going anywhere, so they're kind of stuck with me until they don't want me anymore (laughing). We haven't really set a timeline or anything, but yeah, I hope to be, for sure. My role may change a little bit depending on what kind of job I get or where exactly I am. But I definitely feel like I've found this little sisterhood here of friends and I'm definitely interested in staying as long as they'll have me.
And where do you see yourself in the next five or ten years?
That's hard to answer because you never know what will happen. But hopefully, in a perfect world, I will have at least some sort of structure figured out in this career and, hopefully I've found a bit of success in it. Whether it's theater or film and TV or touring shows or in New York or Broadway or not Broadway, I just hope that I'm still loving what I'm doing. That's the most important thing.
Follow Caitlin's journey as she continues to pursue her dreams in the arts at www.caitlinmcneilage.com and on Instagram at @caitlinmcneilage7! And keep an eye out for our final #GaggedGirlsTakeover interview this week!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.