My most immediate association with Wesleyan graduates in terms of theater is the new breakout star Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, whose praises I have sung to quite an extent in two articles over the past year. However, a panel on Thursday made me aware of many other types of theater involvement that graduates of the University have taken on. From production to directing to writing, they have all taken different paths, and related these paths with humor and charm to an audience of eager ears in the CFA Hall. They also provided some sound advice for aspiring actors, producers, directors, and other theater-related careers.
Associate Professor of Theater Claudia Tatinge Nascimento mediated the discussion, introducing herself at the beginning to a series of enthusiastic cheers from the audience. It’s clear that Professor Nascimento has amassed a family of sorts with her students at Wesleyan: One of the panelists lived with her while looking for work in New York after recently graduating, and all of them recalled times of their lives when they leaned on her for support and turned to her for advice and career help. Emmie Finckel ’14 referred to her as her “school mom,” a comment at which both panelists and audience members chuckled in agreement.
The panel comprised Finckel, a recent graduate who still sees herself as in the middle of her transition from Wesleyan to a theater career; Michael Rau ’05, director and co-founder of a company in New York City called Wolf 359; MJ Kaufman ’08, a playwright who works with various creative groups and whose work has been directed and produced all over the U.S. and in Moscow; Rachel Silverman ’09, who majored in theater and sociology and currently works as the Artistic Producing Associate at New York Theatre Workshop; and Roberta Pereira ’03, who realized soon after graduating that most of the work she did on Wesleyan shows constituted producing, and is now the Producing Director of an off-Broadway theater company called The Playwrights Realm.
All the panelists are in touch with their Wesleyan roots, and have kept in close contact with Nascimento, as well as other members of the community, throughout their careers and in their personal lives. They maintain an adoration of the school’s innovative student body: Kaufman won over the audience’s affections when they remarked that during their time teaching simultaneously at Yale and Wesleyan, they found the Wesleyan students to be significantly more creative and talented.
As an Arts writer, I was particularly intrigued by the mention of The Argus at the panel: When Silverman brought up her distress over the first bad review she’d received, which was in the paper, all the other panelists joined in and relayed similar experiences. Recalling how distraught and frustrated they were at the time of the reviews, they all gave advice for filtering out the useful parts of bad reviews and ignoring the rest, and keeping in mind that it’s only one opinion.
“What happens in professional life is that some opinions count more than others,” Pereira said. “So if you’re a writer for The New York Times, your opinion counts a lot.” Silverman added, “I remember I directed something at Wesleyan that got a really bad review in The Argus, and I was so devastated. People will say what they want to say about the work we make, and it’s so important to have perspective about that.”
Much of the advice the panelists gave rings true for careers in any creative realm. Roberta Pereira ’03 provided some useful knowledge when she said, “There’s no right path. The right path is what ends up working for you.” The panelists’ careers reflected this fact: While Kaufman recalled realizing after Wesleyan that they wanted to write and not work on the administrative side of theater, Silverman reported that she discovered she enjoyed producing after initially assuming that she’d wanted to act her whole life. Finckel found that, after trying less theater-centric careers and normal nine-to-five schedules, she missed the excitement and drama of the theater and returned to that field.
Another way the panelists echoed the sentiments of many creative graduates is that they looked back on Wesleyan as the perfect place and time to experiment with whatever they wanted. The free rehearsal spaces, eager actors who don’t need to be paid, and willingness of the University (and especially Second Stage) to put on any and every show all make it the perfect time to experiment and practice their skills. Rau recalled, “I made some pretty embarrassing work here,” (to which Nascimento cut in, “You made some good work too!”) He stressed the empowerment that comes with being able to wake up and decide you want to put on a play, and having the resources to do so at your fingertips.
While Wesleyan isn’t the most pre-professional school, this panel served as proof that we will graduate with the tools required to make careers out of our respective interests. “We learn how to be self-starters at Wesleyan,” Rau remarked. With the multitude of creative projects constantly being carried out at any given moment on campus, it’s impossible not to hone your skills in the field that interests you, and Thursday’s panelists clearly took full advantage of this quality.