The Future of Show Business & The “Blah Blah Blah” of Operating in a Pandemic With Choreographer Xena Gusthart
The pandemic pivot. It’s a thing, and West End choreographer come business coach Xena Gusthart knows all about it. But how do you do a 180 and still land? It’s possible...
Hedoine founders Alex & Anna first met Xena in 2019 at Soho’s Groucho Club for a mutual friend’s birthday party (on the dance floor, obviously). The trio have since stayed great friends while also becoming a source of strength and inspiration to one another. Xena is a Hedoine through and through - who doesn’t shy away from challenges and always laughs with us through life’s ups and downs.
Hustling as a London based Choreographer and Movement Director for Musical Theatre and TV, Xena has worked on Broadway and the West End as well as for BBC and Netflix. To name drop just one of her triumphs, her most recent project was choreographing the Broadway hit; Bat Out Of Hell the Musical, featuring the music of 90s ballad king MeatLoaf.
When Covid-19 turned the world upside down in 2020, theatres closed, filming stopped, and all dance institutions shut their doors - and they haven’t opened them again since. Overnight Xena lost a year's worth of hard work. Sound familiar? Keep reading. She saw this as an opportunity, and she adapted - quickly. In April 2020 she founded The Showbiz Clinic, a mentoring programme to help teach graduates and people in the entertainment industry about the business of showbiz. Helping them gain confidence in themselves while providing a positive approach for people to actively harness their well-groomed talents and build their own career.
In just nine months Xena has coached and mentored over 900 people from 30 different countries. She’s been featured in The Stage and managed to build financial security at a time where there was absolutely no work in her field. Just like her body, her mind hasn’t stopped dancing.
You built your career as a performer for 15 years then in an instant, it was paused. COVID-19 was (and still is) a threat to the existence of the entire creative industry. But, when things looked dark, you decided to pivot and help others. Tell us about the idea behind The Showbiz Clinic; how did you start and where did you summon your willpower, strength and confidence from?
It was tough, I am not going to lie! I had some really dark days at the beginning of the pandemic, as did many people around the world. The thing is, people working as professional performers or within many creative industries are extremely emotionally attached to their work. It’s literally our job to recreate emotions in order for an audience to feel something which means it becomes so much of our identity - as well as our own little bubble of craziness that can be hard for others to relate to. When all of that is taken away from you it becomes very real and very very scary - it feels like you have completely lost your identity, not to mention your livelihood.
My background is in dancing, and we are literally trained within an inch of our lives to be resilient, face adversity, work with discomfort and fight for what we love. This is what I feel gave me the strength I needed to pivot, and after those initial dark days I realised that what people need right now is support, guidance, positivity, direction and community. I also knew I had a mind for business, and I realised that people in the industry are often unaware that there are some business basics that can massively elevate their career and help them feel in control and confident. So, I decided to do some free webinars to test the interest. I was astounded when I had over 80 people in my first webinar, with people joining in from Canada, LA, New York, Mexico and all across Europe! That’s when I decided to offer a membership programme to help people have some accountability and structure in their life, and to help them make lasting change.
Founding a new business usually requires new skills. How did you learn to adapt your skills to The Showbiz Clinic and did you pursue new skill sets?
My life has done a complete 180! My days have changed drastically, I used to be in a studio choreographing for a massive stage production from 10am - 6pm, flying across the world to do technical rehearsals and opening shows on broadway. Now I spend 8+ hours on my laptop working out software, doing graphics for my social platforms, running my own team of three, developing marketing and simply finding the discipline to sit down and explain via email what I want done rather than through dance!
If we don’t adapt, we die - sounds dramatic and maybe not the right word to use during a pandemic - we fall behind if we don’t adapt is what I’m saying! I was a performer for 10+ years and that’s how I see it. We were also given the gift of time in 2020 and without it I would have been too busy to be able to even begin to set up The Showbiz Clinic, or at least felt too busy. I know my future self is going to thank me for cherishing that time in my life.
What is your advice to those who want to go down a similar route?
Go for it, just understand - it is not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. You need to think about your ideal team and have a good support network. Get a mentor, outsource anything that holds you back if you can and you must absolutely have pure grit when it comes to determination. Think of a badass muse and channel their strength.
Some days are easier than others but if there’s an idea that you think about every day, it’s time to do something about it. Your future self will thank you, maybe even buy you a drink. I also tell my members; you have to believe it, for others to see it!
If there’s an idea that you think about every day, it’s time to do something about it. Your future self will thank you, maybe even buy you a drink.
What was the most difficult challenge for you and how did you overcome it?
There were two things:
1. Fighting the voice that kept saying to me, you’re not qualified for this. Imposter syndrome is real and it’s a daily fight, you’re not alone in feeling that way.
2. The technical side of things doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a physical world person so the digital world sometimes feels hard to make tangible. I was lucky to get to a place where I could hire experts in their field to help me navigate this. I am the face of the company and deliver the content and that’s what my job is, it was a big turning point to let go of the things holding me back.
Would you say personal growth follows company growth, or the other way around?
It’s all about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I honestly think they come hand in hand and it’s forever changing what comes first. As you grow and expand, your emotional being expands, your comfort zone gets bigger as does the expectations others have about you.
In your online masterclasses you tackle the key aspects involved in navigating a life in showbiz. What obstacles are artists most often faced with?
They are often lacking in self-confidence which is ironic some might think as they make a living from being on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Also, knowing how to brand themselves, how to network with industry people and what to do to make a steady income. All of these things I cover in my membership to help them build their confidence and their bank accounts! I want them to feel fulfilled and confident in their careers.
Imposter syndrome is real and it’s a daily fight, you’re not alone in feeling that way.
In one of your classes you talk about ‘going out there’ and thinking outside the box. Thinking about how your skills can be valuable in a different context (perhaps offstage) and how to tackle it. Do you feel that the adaptivity is high and that your mentees find it easy to change their mindset?
Performers are built with the ability to adapt, they have to respond and adapt within seconds if they are doing dance improvisation or to a certain emotion their fellow actor is portraying in their character. What these amazing humans don’t realise is how this skill translates into everyday life and then of course in business. It’s one of the main things I start with in my membership programme. One that lightbulb goes off, they become unstoppable.
What are your favourite success-stories from your mentees so far?
There are so many! But probably a client in New York securing a performing job with their dream theatre company for when restrictions are lifted. Or my client who has grown her Instagram following considerably and now gets a side income from her social media account. Or the member who set up a brand-new business and is thriving, giving her an income stream that will continue when she goes back into the industry.
In a world after COVID, will you go back on stage or will you continue to develop and grow The Showbiz Clinic?
My plan is to do both. I know this is going to be challenging, but I want to continue serving my community and bring them along for the ride throughout the rest of my career. The more I do, the more they benefit. I will delegate more to my team to help keep it running smoothly.
Hedoine has found some amazing artists through your network. Is that something you could imagine doing more, developing The Showbiz Clinic into a platform that connects artists with companies?
Absolutely, I have a vast network and community of amazing, wonderful people who need and want to work with people exactly like those in my membership. Introducing them to each other is definitely on the cards for TSC.
What is your view on the future of show business?
Things have changed, and they will stay changed. Online has become ever more in the spotlight but live theatre made it through the plague and warfare because there’s nothing that matches the feeling of seeing raw emotion via someone live on stage. However, the casting process is much more international now and people are more likely to be able to build their own network through the new online accessibility.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned professionally?
Pre-covid as a choreographer: to benchmark myself highly.
Post-covid: that I have something to offer the world and that people want to hear it.
I’ve also learned about excel, building a website, how to integrate programmes, social media, marketing running a team, accounts and the blah blah blah...
What is the boldest decision you’ve ever made?
To start my business, alone, through a pandemic, with no money to start it and no idea if it would work, and put myself out there as a thought leader in my field. That took a lot of guts.
As a breakdancer and a leading creative, how easy or difficult did you find combining leadership & femininity?
Well first off, I’m Scottish, so we kind of have a reputation for being direct with a ‘no messing’ kind of approach. But I did battle with this exact thing for many years, thinking I had to be more masculine or naturally adopting that state in order to gain respect in the room. In actual fact it caused more conflict, if even only minor, than I liked. I found that my strength lies in being direct, honest, clear and fair. So really, I try to blend both my masculine and feminine parts of me to navigate situations when I’m leading the room or in charge.
Putting my ego aside is a huge thing for me, it’s not about me, it’s about the work, and that’s my mantra whenever I feel myself perhaps wanting to control it in a masculine way. The feminine is more fluid and this approach can be so useful when collaborating and wanting to make progress.
What does authenticity mean to you?
Dropping bombs of fabulousness everywhere. Too many people are scared to be their fabulous self. I say life is just too short.
What's your favourite indulgence?
Dark Chocolate with sea salt, rich full bodied red wine and drowning my face in face serums.
What is your favourite quote that you relate most to?
It’s more an image than a quote, of the man digging for diamonds with a pickaxe and he is inches away from his goal of finding them. It’s that decision whether to keep going or give up when you are so close and within touching distance that keeps me going.
What makes you a Hedoine?
Never giving up, being unapologetically fabulous, empowering others to do the same and seeing problems as challenges to overcome. And of course, having a good boogie on the dance floor with my girls!
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