Gillian Abbott’s Advice to Young Performers: “You Are Enough”

The Dirty Dancing star opens up about her past and gives some inspirational advice while looking toward the future.

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Dirty Dancing fell in my lap. It never was on my radar.”

That’s what the multi-talented Gillian Abbott told me when we started chatting about her role as Frances “Baby” Houseman in the movie-turned-musical headed to the Academy of Music at the end of March. Abbott is a classically trained dancer, a graduate of Juilliard, a former Cirque du Soleil performer (she signed on when she was 17), recently made her Met Opera debut in their epic production of Prince Igor, and starred in several independent films. Clearly, she has a performer’s spirit; that was evident during our time together where we talked about Dirty Dancing, her training, and two injuries that, if anything, progressed Abbott’s performance evolution.

What’s like to play a character so many people know from the movie?
The biggest thing is that you have to make it your own from the inside out. Everyone has heard the line “I carried a watermelon” a million times. Unless it comes from something real, it doesn’t really matter. Getting to work with Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote the movie, has been the most beautiful part of the process and she’s embraced me so much. At one point, she said to me, “Don’t watch the film anymore. Build it from the inside out.” I’ve been overwhelmed with how positive the audience reaction has been; all of my actions are me. If you don’t make it about yourself, you’re gonna get so sick of [playing the part] after a while.

Were you a fan of the movie before you joined the company?
I’m the youngest of three, and my middle sister loved the film. Honestly, the first time I watched it as a kid, I didn’t understand what an abortion was. When I got my sides for the audition, I watched the film again, and I thought to myself, “How has this [show] not been done before in America?” It’s a quintessential American story!

What’s the hardest part of being on the road?
I’ve been on the road since February and I officially opened in Cleveland on March 3rd. I am on my third hotel and I am appreciating having my bed made. It is such a treat. I also know, however, that eventually I’ll get tired of [the hotels] and will do AirBnB with other cast mates. You get to cook meals together, which is part of the bonding experience. I did Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles LOVE in Vegas when I was literally a baby, and that show taught me how to do it—you adjust your day, and its important to do things that inspire you during the day so that it inspires you at night. You’ve got to embrace the people around you because they are your family for the year, and you have to build those relationships naturally—you can’t be best friends with everyone right away.

You have quite an extensive background and skillset, with both dancing and acting. Which one did you first fall in love with and how did you get started?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, the youngest of three girls: At 3 years old I was ice skating and in dance classes. At 12, I had to choose between skating and dancing, and I picked dancing, because I loved performing. I’ve always loved storytelling: Even when I was skating, I would act through the routines. I joined Cirque when I was 17, straight out of high school. It was the first time I delved into character and history. There’s a Beatles Bible that lives at the Beatles LOVE show, and I would just sit and learn about the band. It was the first time I approached a show as an actor.

I turned down my second Cirque contract to go to school: I just didn’t want to jump from Cirque show to Cirque show. I got into Juilliard as a dancer, and at Juilliard concert dance is the focus. It’s more abstract: It is more about movement and the human body than the story. I would have friends and family who would come to watch me perform these pieces and they couldn’t get much out of it, because they couldn’t relate to it. It wasn’t moving me. Also, my first week at Juilliard, I saw a play called Spirit Village—it was incredible, and it is why I am an actor today because it moved me so deeply. I thought, “I want to do work like that,” and I secretly wanted to become an actor.

I was injured after my second year and kind of hit a wall. I went home and got into acting classes at Company of Rogues Actors’ Studio in Calgary and trained there all summer. When I returned to Juilliard, I took dance in the morning and acting at night. I was learning Meisner technique in New York, which was incredible training, because I was in NYC and I was becoming friends with fellow Juilliard actors.

My fourth year, I busted my big toe joint and couldn’t dance for weeks. I was training with Richard Feldman, who usually teaches dancers during their last year at Juilliard. I told him I was injured and asked him if he would help me develop a monologue. He taught me to trust my body. He’s such a huge mentor of mine and I’m so lucky that I had time with him. At first, I was so bummed about my big toe, but in the end, it lead me to what I truly wanted to do.

You also had your Met Opera debut in Prince Igor. How did you enjoy performing on that stage?
It was so surreal! I was so nervous, because it is such a well-known opera house. The poppy field [used for the set] was pretty dangerous: It was a raked stage and the alleyways were tight, but it was an incredible experience. The choreographer, Itzik Galili, did a private audition for that show. It was incredible to work with him: I was right out of Juilliard, and the entire dance was based off improv games.

What advice would you give to young performers?
You are enough. We often think we have to add things to ourselves to make ourselves more interesting. For women, especially, you are interesting and beautiful.

The other thing comes from a sports psychology teacher, Matt Brown, I had in 11th grade. I told him, “I think I should go to school,” and he replied, “Gillian, take the word ‘should’ out of your vocabulary.” Later, during my second year at Juilliard, I went back to him and said, “Brownie, I don’t know. I should be in a concert dance company.” He, again, said “Take the word ‘should’ out of your vocabulary. What is your heart telling you do?” So, the second piece of advice I’d give is don’t use the word “should.” Your heart makes no logical sense, but everything falls into place.

Dirty Dancing runs at the Academy of Music tonight, March 24th, through April 5th. For tickets and more information, click here.