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Mastering the Fine Arts

Cory Johnson, PhD

July 2012

She sweeps into the Starbucks on 49th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues in Hell's Kitchen with a sense of purpose-and confidence-that even she would admit was lacking when she first stepped off the plane at LaGuardia Airport in the winter of 2008. Back then, her hair went past her shoulders. And her clothes might best be described as "Midwestern chic."

Four years later, she's got a cute bob haircut just past her ears. She wears a scarf despite the unseasonably warm temperatures and commands a room in a way that might just put a young Judy Garland to shame.

It is 3:06 p.m. on a Dark Monday in Manhattan, a reference not to the weather outside, but to the theatre. It is her one and only day off. On this particular day, the sun is shining bright, there's not a cloud in the sky and the sheer number of people on the street might make you believe that everyone in New York City had the day off. She is late but has a good excuse.

"I was waiting for you at the Starbucks right on the corner," she says.

"I picked our meeting place poorly," I reply. "Besides, you're actually early. I mean, everyone knows that showing up for an appointment anything less than 30 minutes late means you're right on time. It's good to see you, Marianna. It's been way too long."

We share a double-kiss on the cheek, or a European greeting-however you want to describe it. It's something that, for some reason, comes naturally in New York. We squeeze into our tiny corner of the bustling café.

"So, how was your first year at Columbia?" I coyly ask, fully aware this question is loaded.

She lets out an expulsion of air, crosses her arms and rests her head in her hand. I can tell the mind is racing. I recall the sense of pride and accomplishment, confusion and loneliness after my own first year of graduate school. I can't hold back the quiet chuckle of knowing as I stare.

"I haven't the slightest clue where to begin," she says.

Mastering the Fine Arts

by Ted Stephens III '01, '04

Marianna Caldwell '07 cools her coffee, sips it and sets it down on the dirty café table like any actor in a movie might just before saying something important. 

"I got knocked around a lot my first year here," she admits. "Standing outside in the freezing cold January air, waiting in line at the Actors Equity building before the sun comes up hoping to get an audition time. It's a really cruel shock. The business of acting stinks. But it's part of it, as much as juggling three jobs, paying bills and dealing with awful landlords in not-so-great-overly-priced-get-me-out-of-here apartments."

She pauses.

"I have a love and hate relationship with this city. It's the best city in the world, but it can be a very lonely place too. It doesn't just beat you down. It kicks you when you're on the ground. It's a hard place. It's surprisingly difficult to find a community here. And yet, oddly there's no place I'd rather be right now."

That's a good thing. Because like it or not, Caldwell has at least two more years in the Big Apple ahead of her as a candidate for the Master of Fine Arts in Acting degree at Columbia University. She is one of a growing number of St. Ambrose University theatre graduates who are moving on from the Galvin Fine Arts Center and finding artistic homes in some of the most prestigious MFA acting and design programs in the country.

Columbia. Carnegie Mellon. Yale. DePaul. The universities of Connecticut, Florida and Tennessee. On the east and west coast and everywhere in between, Ambrose theatre alumni are uncovering the value-and rewards-three years of artistic exploration can mean for their personal self-discovery and professional fulfillment.

"I don't deal well with the business of theatre," Caldwell admits as we observe the long line of personalities waiting for caffeine, most of them, likely as not, actors between auditions. "You have to really know yourself and how to market that to someone else. I wasn't confident in marketing me early on."

She leans in.

"The thing about graduate school, you have to deal with some of the dusty corners of yourself. And then once you've worked through those cobwebs, you have to figure out how to package that. I'm not someone who can just walk up to someone else because they are so-and-so," she admits. "I can't do fakery."

An investment in ‘me'

It was an ambition to learn more about her craft-and herself-that drew Caldwell back to academia. Having "pounded the pavement" in Minneapolis and then New York for a few years out of St. Ambrose, she set her MFA sights on the people she wanted to work with: artistic innovators like Anne Bogart and Kristin Linklater. And she was going to "go big or go home," applying only to the programs she really believed in. She'll never forget the day she received her acceptance into Columbia.

"At first you have this ‘holy you-know-what' moment that you just got into this school," she recalls. "Then you hear about the costs and you have that moment again. But then, for me, the moment of decision was easy. This was an investment in me. And, come on, no other investment can yield you a greater return than yourself."

Andrew Harvey '07 is about to cash in on his investment of three years of graduate school when he sells all his worldly possessions and drives cross-country to the City of Angels in pursuit of a film career. But don't ask him where he's going to live in Los Angeles. He has no idea. In fact, he's never even stepped foot in LA.

"Are you serious?" I ask him.

"It's crazy, right?" he responds, though he doesn't seem the least bit concerned.

"It's kind of how we live as actors-as artists, you know?" he continues. "As an actor, I'm heading to LA with complete confidence in what I'm doing and where I'm going. And I'm just going to need to accept that I won't always know what my next job will be, or where."

Harvey is a newly minted graduate of Michigan State University. And on this particular day, as he multi-tasks speaking with me while shopping for groceries, he's rather introspective of his time at St. Ambrose. In his voice you can hear complete confidence and charisma, maturity and drive. He's not a new person, but a newly grounded one-even if he could be referred to as the Person Formerly Known as Andrew Harvey.

"I'm not sure how to address you," I say to him, half-joking yet half-serious.

Since graduating from St. Ambrose, he has taken the stage name of Edward O'Ryan. "It's easier to remember," he says, as if there are thousands of Andrew Harveys walking around LA.

At Michigan State, he was able to hone his love for all things Irish theatre, something he first discovered on two study abroad trips at St. Ambrose and through areas of study in history, Irish studies and of course, theatre.

"I also better understand how I work best-when I allow myself to take initiative," he adds. "Once I discovered that, a whole world of opportunity opened for me. I'm LA-bound with a solid theatrical training. I love what I do. And I'm ready to do it. If there's one thing I'm apprehensive about, it's making rent. And maybe finding a place to live."

The Ambrosian network

Lucky for Harvey, he already has a strong network to leverage in California-mostly St. Ambrose graduates who span the decades. They've been peppering him with advice on where to live, where to audition and how to make ends meet.

In New York, Brian Hemeseth '94 says a network is one of the greatest advantages for any student coming out of an MFA program. He is in the middle of preparing for the season finale of "Saturday Night Live," where he's an associate designer. Meanwhile he's gearing up for a new season of "Sesame Street," which earned him his first Emmy Award for

Outstanding Costume Design and recently landed him a second consecutive nomination. Still, he finds a minute to walk down the street from his Midtown West design studio to meet me.

"I went to graduate school right out of St. Ambrose," he says about his decision to go to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for an MFA in costume design. "More than anything, I felt like I needed a bigger network on the East Coast. I found graduate school to be a great learning tool for networking within the industry. You gain this group of people with whom you go through the ‘system.' And through the years, that group grows and grows. Simply, it's been invaluable for me."

Sam Michael '06 would echo that. He's one year out of the Yale University School of Drama, where he graduated with an MFA in technical theatre. It was the only school he applied to out of St. Ambrose.

"I looked at the schools I wanted to go to, and decided Yale was it. Either it was incredibly egotistical of me or I was incredibly lucky," he says, still sounding a bit dumbfounded. "You see, after high school I dropped out of community college. I didn't think university-of any kind-was in my future. But then St. Ambrose came along, and helped me to discover my direction-and my potential.

"People might think there's a big difference between Yale and St. Ambrose. Let me tell you: There is not. Sure, there's a difference in scale. But in both places, I found professors who cared about the individual and tailored the education to who you were and what you wanted to do," he says. "They give you the toolkit, and not just a wrench. They say, ‘OK, so you want to learn underwater basket weaving? Fine.' But then they help you to figure out-for yourself-why that may or may not be the right direction for you, and what to do with that knowledge."

Therein may lay the secret to success for St. Ambrose theatre graduates as they consider continuing their education.

"We spend a lot of time talking about why graduate school because, frankly, it isn't for everybody," says Corinne Johnson, PhD, the SAU theatre department chair who probably spends more time coaching people away from MFA programs than toward them. "I think sometimes students don't know anything but school. They feel comfortable in that framework. But not knowing what to do after college is not a reason to spend tens of thousands of dollars on graduate school."

Bringing knowledge back

The theatre faculty spends a lot of time with current and former students talking about professional goals, exploring curricular approaches and core philosophies of the fine arts, and learning about the makeup of the faculty at potential graduate programs. Johnson says it's important to know who the teachers are, and who they know in the industry.

"We care so much about these students," she says. "I want to find a good home for them. It just thrills me beyond belief that our students are going out into the world with curious minds, embracing who they are and realizing so much success in whatever path they choose."

And MFA students and graduates are bringing their knowledge back to the department's classes. Each year, alumni speak in the junior and senior seminars, offering an honest assessment of their educational and career experiences.

"It's like a free education for me," Johnson says. "It keeps me honest, and really drives the courses and curriculum we offer. We are only able to offer two acting classes, some voice and body classes, and some history and design courses. But at Ambrose, we also are giving them a fully rounded, liberal arts experience. To be an artist, you have to know the world. And you get that here."

Back in New York, with one year down and a summer ahead performing some of The Bard's greatest works at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival just outside of Manhattan, Caldwell finds herself very reflective of what she has gone through. The dark depths of the first semester seem easy now, compared to the second semester she just limped through.

"You go through a gigantic change," she says. "You emotionally, physically and spiritually start to examine yourself as a person. I hate the phrase ‘breaking you down,' but that's what they do. You sort of feel like you're falling apart. And your acting becomes really messy-so does your life. Even right now, going into a professional experience for the summer, I'm in this mode of flux.

"But, the second year will build us back up. And the third year will be about getting us ready for the business," she says, more upbeat. She takes a final sip of her coffee.
"If you're not truthful with yourself, how can you be truthful as a character for an audience? That's really important," she says. "And personally, I'm going to be a stronger person in life. Isn't that the way you want live a life?"

After a double-cheek-European-whatever-you-want-to-call-it kiss and a hug good-bye, Caldwell slings her over-sized purse on her shoulder and walks out of the Starbucks, quickly blending into the bright lights and crowded streets of Midtown. And as I watch her become a speck in a sea of people, I think of her heading to a tiny apartment just north of Central Park. Of her climbing the stairs of her walk-up apartment, locking the door behind her and settling into a warm New York night of reading, script memorizing and endless possibility.

Author Ted Stephens III '01, '04 was a Grinter Fellow in the Master of Fine Arts in Acting program at the University of Florida, where he earned his MFA in 2008. He performed in a number of regional theatre productions and commercials before starting a communication and fundraising businesses with a fellow St. Ambrose graduate. Today, he works with a number of New York's leading off-Broadway theatre companies.


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