Chasten Harmon has that rare combination of creative talent and business acumen, and she has it in spades.
Shortly after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she made her Broadway debut in the revival of Hair. During that same year, she launched Space on White, an arts rehearsal and performance space in Tribeca NYC that quickly became a home to many emerging artists in theater, music, dance, and visual art.
Meanwhile, she was cast in the national tour of Les Miserable, starring as Eponine in the 25th Anniversary revival for two years. Soon after, she was accepted to the prestigious graduate acting program at Yale University. Now, back in New York City with her MFA, she is building her career in film and television.
As colleagues and friends for the past five years, I’ve had the unique privilege of watching Chasten get big ideas, turn them into concrete goals, and then crush said goals. For the debut edition of Pregame, I asked Chasten to share her motivation and lessons gained from pursuing and achieving big goals.
You’ve had an extraordinary career path already, and you’re quite young. Even when you achieve a significant goal, you don’t seem to rest for very long! Have you always been that way?
Insatiable? Yes, although I’m just now beginning to realize and accept that as part of my nature. I crave motion. I guess I just keep thinking… “If I can do this, then what else am I capable of?” And I’m determined to find out.
Graduating from college with an acting degree and pursuing a performing career is already entrepreneurial — you’re the CEO, but you’re also the product. Did you have goals or a “business plan” when you started out?
Ha, I was throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what stuck. However, I was very lucky starting out in theatre and had to make some strategic decision right off the bat. So I quickly had to decide what kind of career I wanted and move in that general direction.
Now, I have very specific goals and plans. I believe you get what you harvest. So I try to focus all my day to day efforts towards my larger goals. If it doesn’t serve them, it’s eliminated.
Performing is a full-time pursuit. Why did you launch Space on White while performing on Broadway? How did you juggle both efforts?
Actually, performing is not at all a full-time pursuit. Of course it varies from medium to medium, but even the most successful actors have on and off time. You could be on Broadway for 3 years and then not work another theatre job for the next 3 years. Film and TV shoot so sporadically. As my boyfriend, who is a newer actor, put it, “I didn’t realize being an actor meant having so much free time.” And he’s a series regular on TV!
That being said, I happened to be slammed with a Broadway understudy schedule while trying to start a business. I decided to start Space on White between jobs. I hadn’t worked for three months, which is not long in the acting world, and got restless. Once I had conceived my grand idea, my acting career took off.
I tried to do them both. It was too much on my plate from day one. You want to find the balance between challenging yourself and setting yourself up for failure. You’ve got to give yourself room to take risks and fall down, but also give yourself the chance to soar and feel good about the work you are doing. I set myself up to always feel inadequate, because I never gave myself the time to really focus and invest in one thing. Yes I want to do it all…but I can’t do it all at once.
It was a huge decision to leave New York and go on tour with Les Miserables. Space on White was at its peak of success. Why did you do it?
Again, because I was crazy! It wasn’t the best decision. It did teach me that I valued performing over running a rehearsal space. It was very difficult trying to do both.
And you kept Space on White going the whole time you were on tour.
I missed Space on White terribly. I wanted to be there and to share in the successes and experiences, but I missed all that. I think the space suffered because of it. I was blessed with the most AWESOME staff a person could wish for and even then it was just so challenging. As it should have been, it was a startup. But as I said, it showed me that my goal was to have my acting career always come first and anything else be secondary or supplemental. So I made a choice and stuck with it.
Space on White closed in 2013. I was really impressed by your decision to let it go. Why did you?
I realized what I expressed above. My goal was to have my acting career always come first and anything else be secondary or supplemental. Space on White was never going to be that. It was always going to be a full time endeavor. It wasn’t the right project for me ultimately.
It’s been one of my greatest challenges in life, that pursuit, and extremely rewarding and letting it go was scary, but also weight-lifting. It taught me a lot about myself. I was not giving myself a chance to fully invest and succeed in one thing. You gotta get one plate spinning at time before you can have multiple plates in action.
Next, you paused your performing career and went back to school. Why go for your MFA when you already had a career as a stage actor with Broadway and National Tour credits?
I just wanted to do more. I didn’t want to feel restricted to stage performance only. I wanted to venture into film and TV and I wanted the training to be able to deliver.
How did the three years in that intensive environment shape you as an artist?
I learned that I was capable of anything. I learned the value of hard work. I learned to stop selling myself short by settling for less than what I wanted for my career and for my life.
It definitely made me pickier. I say no to a lot more auditions now. It taught me to go for what I want. To be and stay in the driver’s seat as opposed to letting others dictate what I should and shouldn’t be doing. It taught me to say no.
What are the primary challenges of being a professional performer? What don’t they tell you in school?
The biggest challenge is patience and commitment. You have to be willing to wait for your dream jobs. You have to be willing to commit long term to something that will repeatedly kick you in the ass or make you feel inadequate. You can never, ever start to believe that you are inadequate because you never will be. You just have to wait for the projects that are yours. They are out there, and if they aren’t, they are in the process of being dreamed up.
For most stage performers, getting to Broadway would be The Ultimate Achievement, but you didn’t stop there. Why not?
I couldn’t see myself working eight shows a week, six days a week for the rest of my life. I want to do so much more; I want more variety and flexibility and different experiences. It was very simple. I just wanted more. I want to do film and TV and continue to have time to be an entrepreneur and have a family. I need a slightly more flexible schedule in order to do those things and that is one thing that Broadway does not provide — the show must always go on.
Anything to add about the state of the industry?
WOMEN. It’s time to demand EQUALITY.
Who inspires you?
Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchet, Zoe Saldana. Strong, liberated women who have integrity and values. Strong, everyday women who aren’t afraid to share their voices and themselves with the world.
Meanwhile, you’ve launched a fashion brand in your spare time. Tell us more about that.
On tour I loved visiting yarn stores and buying my favorite yarns. I started knitting scarves and eventually had so many that I decided to sell some on Etsy. I got great feedback and decided to pursue it further.
I refuse to give up the belief that there is a way to monetize your passions. So I created Plush Armour, my Etsy store, to be able to benefit from my favorite hobby. The older I get the more I just want to do what I love. I love to knit and perform. It all seems so simple now!
You’re clearly very self-propelled, but talk about the role of enlisting support for your goals — finding the right people to help. How do you know when it’s time to ask for help?
That’s a great question, and one of the hardest challenges. I truly believe creation requires support and collaboration. Figuring out what type of support you need is difficult. Figuring out where to find your support is extremely difficult. In fact, I think I’m still trying to figure it out.
When running a one-woman show, of course it’s cheaper to do everything yourself, but it’s also very risky depending on the work load. You don’t want to burn yourself out. On the other hand, finding the right person with the right vision is a challenge.
We met when you needed support for your goal of growing your business, Space on White. Your ideas and ability to execute were already very strong, but you needed guidance and coaching for your promotional strategy.
I was very lucky to have found you. I tend to navigate towards people who inspire me and whose work I respect. If they can’t help themselves they will lead you to others like them who can.
I found you through Erin Stutland, an awesome fitness and life coach, and I found her through my own research. She was a person who I respected personally, professionally, and spiritually, and of course your tree was sprouting strong right next to hers. So that is always the best place to start.
What is your advice to others who are seeking business support?
It’s important to be flexible, but not settle for less that what you want. Especially when it comes to partners or employees in business. When it comes to a relationship as sensitive as a business partner, I’m definitely still trying to figure that out. I work better in teams, but have yet to find someone with the same passion and drive that I have for the pursuits that I love.
You make a great point: finding the right person for business support isn’t just about ability; the right personality match can be pivotal.
It’s a lifelong search I think and in the meantime just finding support circles is important. Surrounding yourself with people who are trying to accomplish similar feats even if they are not in your particular area of focus. Together you can help each other stay inspired.
That’s why your annual women’s goal brunch is such an amazing resource! A bunch of talented women with drive — how can you not be inspired by that?
What do you look for in those who help you – is there a consistent thread between the collaborators, employees, agents, teachers you choose to work with?
I think it’s important to have two things. Someone who shares your vision and someone who offers a beneficial perspective that you don’t have. It’s great always to learn from those more experienced than you. And it’s great to trust in harvesting your own unique vision that no one else can have. So I guess I look for collective balance built from individual specialties.
What drives you?
Insanity, idealism, ignorance, and the desire to create.
How has your definition of success changed throughout your career?
It’s changed from being defined by others to being defined by myself. Success, for me, is being the best, happiest, and most generous version of myself from day to day. Being connected to nature and my fellow human beings. Being present in the moment and not always working toward the future. The simple things. The smiles and the laughter. That, to me, is success.
Any other goals you’re currently pursuing?