Looking to get into performing arts? Braden Sweeney has been pursuing that dream for most of his life. Braden grew up in California and went to Rider University in New Jersey. He majored in musical theater and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He then went on to perform on three cruise ships, including the Norweigan Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruise Line. After cruising, he got a part in a national tour called Finding Neverland where he traveled all over the country to perform. Now, with the pandemic, things have settled down for him but he is looking to move to Los Angeles in the future and work to become a backup dancer. In a recent interview, he shared what drew him into musical theater and all of the opportunities that he has had in that field.
When did you first get into musical theater?
I got into musical theater when I was seven. I did dance class when I was younger around two years old and I also did choir, but I auditioned for my first play when I was seven with my mom. She and I did Oliver Twist together because they did not have enough adults audition so the director said, “you are going to be here all the time anyways with your child, why don’t you just do it also?” She played a couple different parts and I was something like Orphan #5, very far down the list. It was cool though because that was my first play. Then I did Wizard of Oz and after that I did the musical Oliver – so maybe a year and a half later, I played Oliver. I went from Orphan #5 to Oliver which was pretty cool.
Did you start dancing before you got into musical theater or was it the opposite?
It was definitely opposite. I started dancing when I was in 8th grade so that would be around 13 years old. Of course, there was dancing in the shows that I was doing but around that time in 8th grade I was starting to think about college and continuing musical theater. I did another production of Wizard of Oz and we had more of a dance sequence with the jitterbug which was so fun but also challenging and that got me thinking that I need to be in dance class to make myself more usable and more marketable. I was literally shaking going into my first dance class because I was so nervous, but instantly I was like “this is amazing, how have I been missing this?” I had been taking voice lessons since I was nine and acting since I was seven, but dance quickly became my favorite even though it was the last thing I did.
Who was your biggest inspiration when you were younger?
One hundred percent, Lady Gaga. She is 200% full-out commitment all the time. She dances full out, sings full out, and has tons of production value. I had a meeting with one of my musical theater advisers in college and he asked me who my musical theater choreographer and male dancer inspirations were. Needless to say, I couldn’t name one. I said I am just inspired by Lady Gaga and he was not happy with that, but I stand by that answer. Definitely Lady Gaga.
When did you start thinking about actually pursuing performing in college and after?
It’s interesting because it kind of just always was. I didn’t really ever have a moment like, “Oh yes I am going to school for musical theater.” It was just like this is what I have always done and this is what I will always do. Certainly around sophomore and junior year there was definitely a moment where I thought “do I just keep on this path?” However, I could not imagine doing anything else. Nothing else was super exciting to me. Just recently, within the last year or two, as I have gotten a little older my body has started to hurt a little bit more. It’s just been an interesting set of ideas to think about that I’m no longer in the post college or during college phase. Now, it’s like we are in the how do I keep this being a career phase. Certainly, the pandemic did not help but even before that as I was on tour and my body was hurting, I just had more thoughts of how do I preserve my body to keep performing at this level and keep extending this past 26? I can’t retire now so how do I preserve and lengthen that amount of time? I realized that I am in it for the long haul and it’s not just this cute little hobby anymore which is good.
What was your application process for college?
The whole application process started during my senior year. We have three rounds of an application for musical theater programs. Like everyone else, we have to submit the paper application with all of the information and essays. Of course every college wants a different essay so you can’t use the same one. I think that was due at the end of October. Then the next month we had pre-auditions — we had to audition to get an audition. That was all online which feels a little more accessible now but it was not as common then. For the pre-auditions we had to film dance videos and certain cuts of a song or two. Some schools wanted 45 second cuts and other schools wanted the full song so you are filming all of these different things. Then you also had to film monologues which was kind of annoying because that was not anything I had ever done. Those were due at the end of November. Then the first week of February we had what was called Unifieds where all of these schools went to Chicago for a week and people could audition. This was a lot easier since you did not have to fly to schools individually which would cost a lot of time and money. At Unifieds you just auditioned all day everyday. Some schools would do a dance call first and some schools would do an acting and singing call. Again, every school wanted something different so I had my spreadsheet with specific times that I had signed up for back in November. There were a few schools where you would submit your paper application and then just sign up for an audition but for most schools you did the pre-audition and then after you got approved then you would sign up for your time. So we showed up in Chicago and I auditioned for five days. I think I did two auditions a day. Some people are crazy and amazing and strong and can do five auditions a day but that’s just a lot of energy and endurance. Then, some schools you would audition and they would want you to come back later and you would walk into a room not knowing what they are going to ask for…are they going to ask to see more dance or are they going to ask to see another monologue that I don’t have. I felt very much that week that my whole life was not in jeopardy but if I didn’t do well that week I was worried about not getting into college which is not entirely what would have happened. They also tell you to cast the net very wide. For guys they recommend to audition for 8-10 schools and for girls to audition for anywhere from 10-18 schools because it is so much more competitive. After the Unifieds in Chicago, I flew straight to LA from Chicago as Unifieds was held in two cities and one of the schools that I was auditioning for was not in Chicago but was going to be at the LA auditions. After all those auditions, you just wait. I think I heard about my first acceptance two weeks after which was very soon and was actually the school that I ended up going to. Then I got waitlisted at a few schools and I got into a few other schools. I think I visited two other schools but ended up going with Rider. It was a whole process.
Was it a difficult transition from high school theater to college?
Not really. I would say that the thing that I struggled with right away in college was that you put a bunch of big fish in small ponds into one pond. All of my classmates were the star in their high school and in theater not everyone is the most humble so I got there day one and thought “holy cow I am so out of my league! Everyone is more talented than I am! Everyone is going to blow me out of the water!” It took me a year or two to realize that a lot of people are more talk than walk. I would rather just walk then just never speak. I would just work really hard and put my nose to the grindstone but those first couple months of school just in terms of how people carry themselves and how people talked about themselves, I felt very behind everyone. To some extent, I was a little bit. I had some musical theater world learning to do. I honestly learn the same lesson every single new show that I do. Every time, day one, I walk in and I think I am the worst one and that everyone seems like they know what they’re doing. I feel I have to really prove myself. However, I always realize that everyone is just trying their best and most people talk more than they walk. So you should just kind of put your blinders on and do the best that you can do. Normally that is more than enough. I can’t seem to hold onto that lesson. I have to keep learning it over and over again.
When you are in college with theater are you just guaranteed a spot in the shows or do you still have to audition?
100% still have to audition. This was definitely a problem at our school. Some schools audition and take a full class of around 10 or 14 people. My school was taking 30-40 people and so you have that times four years – freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior – and you have 120 people at least in the musical theater programs. Then you also had acting students and dance majors. We would have auditions twice a year and I think we did three plays and three musicals per year. One semester would have two musicals and one play, and one semester would have two plays and one musical.
What did you think about doing after college?
I didn’t even realize that cruise ships were a possibility as a performer until my second year of college. One of the upperclassmen had gone and done Rock of Ages on a Norweigan Cruise Line and I thought that was kind of interesting. It’s so challenging out there. So the first semester of senior year in college I got my headshots taken, I created my own website, and I put my dance reels and singing reels together. Then that final semester of college it’s go time! I think I printed about 125 headshots and all these resumes. One of the good things about Rider was that you could take a train into New York. It was an hour and a half away which was doable. So there were mornings when people would get up at 4:00 in the morning, be on that 5:00 am train and be in downtown New York at 6:30 to sign up for an audition time. It was not easy, but it was at least accessible. You just expect that your senior year will just be audition, audition, audition, and you’ll just take whatever comes because you are going to cast the net really wide and the fact is not much is going to come back. Norwegian Cruise Line was my first in-person audition in New York. I had done one in upstate New York but this was the first one in New York City. I showed up and I think I did four rounds of dance calls. I was there all day. For Norweigan Cruise Line, I auditioned on Monday and I had a contract on Friday which is crazy. So after college, it was less about what I specifically wanted to do and more about just going to audition and hope that something comes up. It was just a huge leap of faith and it came through very quickly and I didn’t have to audition for the next two contracts. That one audition for Norweigan carried me for a year and a half of work.
What was doing aerial work for the first time like?
It was very exciting! It was really hard. I have never experienced something like when you are holding your body weight on the aerial silks. They actually flew in circus performers from Canada to teach us! I would want to take notes, but I literally could not hold a pen. They call it baby grip and it happens after an intense grip but obviously you will get stronger overtime. It was a little frustrating because there were four male dancers and four female dancers and two of the other male dancers had done this ship and these shows before. They knew everything already. I was new and I wanted to absorb everything but the teachers went a little faster because two other people knew what they were doing already. However in general, it was really cool and I really enjoyed it! There is a move at the end of the three minute routine that we did on the aerial silks where most of the routine you always have a foot or a hand locked or knotted in but they chose the very end of the routine to have a move where you hold onto both aerial silks and you flip upside down. You get your feet locked in but there is a moment when you are flipping where you are completely upside down and if you let go you are literally dead because you are not locked in. That always made me really nervous. That was terrifying because you are at the very, very top and you have to get your feet all locked in and at a dramatic moment in the music you let go and you drop most of the way but then it catches. That moment was super terrifying!
What places did you go on all of your three cruises?
My first ship was in Alaska. My second ship sailed around the entire continent of South America. My third ship did a 90-day tour throughout northern Europe. I was able to hit about 40 countries in 11 months which was really cool! For the first ship, we would start in Seattle and go up to Alaska then back to Seattle. That route never changed. On the other hand, my second two ships the route always changed which allowed us to go more places. On my second ship, we traveled through a little bit of the Carribean and we went down the Amazon River. Then we went through the Panama Canal and down Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. We also went over to Barcelona and Spain. Then on my third ship, we started in New York and went up to Canada. We hit Greenland and Iceland on the way over and we went to Russia, Norway, Spain, and Portugal. We also visited some random islands literally in the middle of the Atlantic that I didn’t even know existed. It was pretty cool!
Were there any crazy memories that you have from the cruises?
We did a tour in the Amazon River. The point of this tour was to see these little alligators called Caiman which everyone says you need to see when you are in the Amazon River. So we got in these little canoes and we are going on the Amazon River at night with no light. It was beautiful, but at the same time you are thinking the water is right there, is there an alligator in this water? We had just seen piranhas the day before. Basically, the tour guides jump in the water with this flashlight that picks up the eyes of the Caiman. They find these Caiman and grab them out of the water by holding the snout and the tail. Then they passed the Caiman around the canoe. For me being terrified of reptiles, that was not good but everyone said you have to do the Caiman. It’s the thing to do when you are in the Amazon River. I didn’t want to be a party pooper. While on the canoe, my dance partner took off her life jacket and was holding this Caiman and I am a row behind her, terrified. I survived that experience and we got back to the landing dock. So we were waiting at this landing place and they said “we have some extra time, so we are going to do a second scenic tour of the Amazon River”. I thought, “I want to do that!”, so I literally ran to get into this canoe. There must have been a little communication lost in translation or I just heard what I wanted to hear, but they were just doing the same Caiman trip. So, I had just survived this traumatic experience and here I am again on this canoe and it gets worse. They grab this Caiman out and start to pass it around and this guy takes this Caiman and starts to bend it. I don’t know if he thought it was funny or what the logic was but the Caiman freaked out and he dropped it in our canoe! In the chaos everyone’s light went out so we are in this dark canoe on the Amazon River! Not to mention, terrified of capsizing to be with the alligators in this river and there is a Caiman just running around in our canoe. Our HR person dropped her $900 camera in the water in the commotion. That was definitely an interesting experience.
What did you see yourself doing after the cruises?
One cruise contract is really intense because you are living with your cast. Most people will do a contract on the ship, take three months off and then go back. They will take some time in between. However, I got done with the Alaska cruise and they said, two weeks later, “can you come do this ship? By the way, it is sailing around the entire continent of South America.” How in the world are you going to say no to that opportunity? The same thing happened with Europe; I only had like a two-week break. I didn’t feel like I could say no to those things but that ended up with me working for a year and a half on cruise ships. I was emotionally burnt out and I just needed a break. I knew I needed a break and I went home for a few months. Then I thought of the fact that cruise ships have a bit of a stigma in the musical theater community which is totally snobbery and totally not true, but there is this feeling that you should be doing musical theater, not working on cruise ships. What I think though is that I am in Norway on my days off and not in a dilapidated bar in the middle of nowhere in New York. I don’t really see how that line of thinking matches up. However, all of my mentors were telling me not to get stuck on cruise ships. I thought about that and moved to New York, not really sure what was going to happen. That was when I got the part in Finding Neverland. Then while I was waiting for Finding Neverland to start I was a last-minute replacement for another show in Long Island called The BodyGuard which is all Whitney Houston music. I am really glad that I had those experiences. The experience of being in a new theater every single night with the same show is pretty exhilarating. I loved that but it grounded me and really made me realize my time cruising is not done. That tour thing is cool and all but still we are spending our days driving through Kansas and stopping at McDonald’s for lunch where on a cruise I could be taking a nap in my cabin and having my coffee on the patio as we sail through the ocean. I have tried other things but I have ultimately realized that I don’t want to be on ships forever but my time sailing is not done.
What was your favorite part of the Finding Neverland tour?
My absolute favorite part was the experience of walking into theaters for the evening and not knowing what you were going to find. Sometimes we had no space in the wings and there was not enough time to solve every problem before the show started. Sometimes we would get to a theater and there would be all these spreads like bagels, cookies, juice, and coffee and you just felt like a superstar! However, other times you were literally in a college auditorium and most of the set pieces were cut because they didn’t even fit and there were not even enough spots at the makeup station for you. You just grabbed a chair and just threw your stuff in a corner. I literally was stretching in a corner. There was not even a hallway. I loved this part of the tour because for me it was like problem solving 101 and I found it really exciting and interesting. I really do miss that part of the tour!
What were some things that you learned from that experience?
I feel like I learned that when you are with a cast for that long you really have to prioritize time alone (I learned that on the ship too). I feel like I am an extroverted introvert. I can be extroverted when working, but really I would rather be on my own or have the evening to myself. Most theater people are not built that way and so they don’t understand. When I did my ships I tried to be very outgoing and go to all of the cast dinners because I wanted to bond with people, but what that did was actually burn me out very quickly. Then going into Finding Neverland I learned from my past and I told myself that I was not going to engage. I was just going to stay on my own and that was really interesting too because that backfired. I stayed quiet and private. People were like, “I want to get to know you, let’s hang out” and I had to keep on saying, “No.” It was a learning process
What have you been doing to keep up during quarantine?
The first couple of months I didn’t do anything because my body was so broken from Finding Neverland. It was awesome to just rest and not have to force my body to do things. Then I started feeling like “I sat on the couch a little bit too much and had a little bit too many Doritos. I need to start working out.” It was a little weird for me because I never have to work out. Working out is just part of work so the mentality of setting aside time to workout is new to me. I have always wanted to get better about or learn more about lifting weights but I never can because I am always injured in like four places. I have really enjoyed it! I bought a bunch of weights and kind of created a mini gym in my room. I definitely have found some cardio dance videos online and I also started teaching at my old studio where they did a summer session. We danced outside with masks which felt really cool because we could merge the two and still be respectful of each other and understand that it is a scary time, but also come together and dance. The summer session ended and now I am doing more teaching but instead of classes I am doing three different dances for three different groups of people. I also started taking voice lessons again. My voice teacher from when I was growing up moved to Atlanta a few years ago and has been teaching online for the past three years. Now we do it on Skype three times a month and it has been so helpful! I am amazed at how effective it is! So I am doing voice lessons, working out, choreographing, doing some dance classes online but it has also been really nice to just kind of be a human. There was always a stress that I should be in a dance class right now or I should be in a voice class and now I am happy to be getting a break and working on the new job that I have. I am working for one of my mom’s friend’s health care companies reorganizing and consolidating data in Excel and I love it! I feel like it is working a different part of my brain that is still part of me but that I don’t use most of the time.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to perform?
I would say listen to your heart and do not feel like you have to take tap if you don’t want to take tap or don’t feel like you have to take ballet if you don’t want to take ballet. Just do what you want to do. I think social media has been helpful in this in terms of giving voices to people in all different forms of entertainment and performing. Don’t feel like you have to cram and fit yourself into a box that you don’t feel like you fit into. If you love ballet and jazz and singing musical theater, go do musical theater. But if that is not your vibe, that’s okay too. Just keep doing dance classes and keep being true to yourself. The people that I look up to most from school are people that did not fit the mold. There is a girl that I know that keeps putting out new CDs and is recording full albums. I think that is super cool! Another one of my classmates is now dipping his toe into drag and is becoming a drag queen. All of these things that we were told were wrong or a waste of time in a very strict traditional musical theater program are what truly give us the most fulfillment. I would also say just know that this business is cutthroat and hard. If you are down for that, go for it and never stop working! However, if you are not, it is also okay and maybe even more fulfilling to work separately and keep performing your hobby or your passion. I think that maybe some people who have a 9 to 5 job and perform on the side are more fulfilled than some of us who are killing ourselves to make this work. It might be cliche but I just feel deeply that being true to what you feel inside is so important. If you want to move to New York, move to New York. If you are really close to your family in the middle of Texas, stay there and do community theater or take some classes online. Do not be afraid of following what you feel is right for you and don’t feel like you have to modify who you are to fit a mold that you don’t feel like you fit into.
What is one of your proudest moments that you have had or when did you know that you made it?
They always say that when you start to feel like you made it, that is the time to quit because you should never feel like you made it. You should always want to grow and keep learning and keep pushing yourself. On my first ship, we had a turntable where it was a circle that turned on stage and we would all get on the circle and be doing dances and as it began to move around I actually thought to myself, “Oh my god, I have made it.” However, overall, I don’t feel like I have made it but I do feel like I have navigated being a working actor successfully. I feel like I have gotten a good variety of experiences which I am very grateful for.