Drama grads face tough path

After the lights dimmed, Ron Van Lieu, an acting professor at the Yale School of Drama, took the stage last Sunday evening at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. He introduced 16 actors to the packed audience, and the energized students ran on stage as a group. In the next hour, each of those students — all members of the School of Drama Class of 2007 — had six minutes to strut their stuff in front of agents, casting directors and others in the theater industry as part of the Theater Showcase, hoping to impress them enough to secure an agent, a gig or even a job post-graduation.

Most Yale School of Drama graduates do not have a straight shot to success like Yale law or medical school alums; instead, drama grads face serious financial challenges coming out of school that can even be compounded by their education. To survive, they must often band together, drawing on parties, mentorships and the Yale brand to connect with the famous names.

“It’s A Hard-Knock Life”

Joseph Gallagher DRA ’07 knew he had to make the most of the short time he had to catch the eyes of potential agents and casting directors. Because acting students at Yale do not have a final project or thesis, many think of this one performance at the Showcase as their capstone moment, he said.

“It would be great to do really well and to have different choices when it comes to choosing an agent or manager, so there is that pressure for wanting it to go well,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the Showcase is almost the definition of the three years — it’s best not to think of it that way, but you do.”

Many work opportunities in theater post-graduation can be sporadic, Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy DRA ’95 said. While fields like dramaturgy are more stable, acting and playwrighting jobs tend to be offered on a freelance basis, making young graduates’ careers unpredicatable. Things like health insurance and unemployment that usually do not concern most graduates of Yale law, business, or medical schools can become daunting to those breaking into the drama industry, said Joseph Grifasi DRA ’75, who has acted in “Law and Order,” “Beaches,” and “Naked Gun.”

Student loans can also cause problems for recent graduates. While Bundy has made financial aid a flagship issue during his deanship, many students still said paying off student loans can be a difficult task.

Jason Grant DRA ’08 said he sometimes feels overwhelmed by the volume of loans he will be expected to repay when he graduates.

“I do not think that I will ever pay off the loans that I have run up,” he said. “The amount is so big that I have to laugh at it sometimes.”

Michael Field DRA ’02, who now works as the director of marketing for a theater at California State University Long Beach, said loans have affected what types of artistry his classmates can pursue. Because Field had a job immediately following graduation, he has not had to face the challenges of unemployment nearly as much as some of his peers, he said.

“Even as [theater] management students, the income you are making is not significant relative to what you would make if you had an MBA, and it is less for an artist,” Field said. “Right after school, for the degrees in acting and directing, there is a longer road to where you are making an income. As a result, you see people sacrificing the art to make the paycheck, to pay the bills and most significantly to pay the student loans.”

Field said that since it is difficult to get a start in the theater industry, it would be better if the student loans had a longer deferment period than those for students in other professional schools. He said since art, like teaching, is not seen as a valuable asset to society, the difficulty he and his peers have paying back their loans is often ignored.

Grifasi said living and studying in New Haven for three years before moving to a bigger city automatically adds challenges to living as a theatrical professional. The competition in New York is often quite fierce, he said, and recent graduates might be scared by the differences between the incubator that is the Yale School of Drama and the big city.

Grifasi himself avoided some of the problems stemming from this transition by moving to Toronto first. He worked with some classmates in a Shakespearean-type theater group where the members filled all roles — director, producer, actor — for their shows. But the group was not financially successful, and the members were forced to live communally to be able to support each other. In spite of the financial hardships, Grifasi said, this time was one of the most artistically intense periods of his life.

“Racing With the Clock”

When most actors complete their undergraduate education, they are faced with a pivotal fork in the road: take three years to hone their craft at a graduate school or gain practical experience in the real world.

Bundy acknowledges reasons why some people choose not to get more schooling to prepare for their careers, such as the larger number of roles available for younger actors.

“Anecdotally, people would say there are more roles for younger people, if you accept that for its face value,” he said.

But Bundy said those who attend the Drama School do so because of a greater commitment to the trade of theater rather than a desire to make a career immediately.

“For a lot of people, training as an actor is an investment in a deeper kind of artistry,” Bundy said. “The net gain of becoming a more interesting artist far outweighs the chance of hitting it big. It’s not like vastly enriching jobs are growing on trees.”

Ashley Bishop DRA ’02, who works at Showmotion Inc., a company that has designed sets for “Hairspray,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “The Producers,” and many other Broadway hits, said that the skills she learned at the Yale School of Drama could have been gained while in the workforce. But the three years of schooling compress a learning process that would take 10 years on the job, she said.

One benefit for Yale Drama students specifically is the exposure they receive due to their association with one of the best drama schools in the country.

Douglas Aibel, an artistic director of the Vineyard Theatre in New York — who attended Sunday evening’s Theater Showcase — said he goes to the Showcase each year to see the new talent of each graduating class. He said the students coming from the three schools participating in the showcase — NYU, Yale and University of California San Diego — generally include some of the strongest actors.

“No One Is Alone”

Bundy said that although having a Yale School of Drama degree will not automatically get a graduate a job, many people in the industry know the intensity of the training behind such a diploma.

Wendy MacLeod DRA ’87, who is now an author-in-residence at Kenyon University in Ohio, said having a Yale education has helped her immensely in her career.

“I think one of the best things it does is offer you entry into the profession — it’s like being stamped USDA,” she said. “You’re taken seriously, so it does give you a leg up.”

Bundy said one of the main benefits of attending drama school at Yale is the quality of its students. He said being exposed to high-quality artistry and being in a creative environment encourages students to produce exciting work of their own.

MacLeod said she feels a connection with the other Yalies with whom she has worked because they share a common history and knowledge base. Because she knows the rigor and quality of the work that usually comes from a Yale School of Drama graduate, she said, she ensures special consideration for each Eli who applies to work at Kenyon.

Grifasi said the connections between Yale alums are invaluable. By either one or two degrees of separation, he said, about 70 percent of his work involved a contact he made either through his work in the School of Drama or the Yale Repertory Theater. He recalled participating in a show that involved six Yalies, some of whom had graduated 30 years before.

Many School of Drama alumni credited the strength of the School’s faculty in their success. Richard Foreman DRA ’62, winner of five Obie awards for “Best Play” and a MacArthur Fellowship, said former professor John Gasnor challenged him to think outside the typical theatrical genres.

“I had one rigorous professor … who was one of the two great teachers I had in my life,” he said.

Although Foreman considers Gasnor to be very influential in his Yale career, he said his time at Yale did not influence the character of his current writings very much.

“It was only after I had finished Yale for a couple of years that I did the unusual style I have now,” he said.

“Getting to Know You”

Graduates of the School of Drama reap another benefit not afforded by other schools: an extensive alumni base offering resources to help forge a path.

Grifasi started a mentorship program to help guide aspiring actors in their careers. In this program, he matches each year’s graduating actors, usually a class of about 16, with those already successful in the field. When finding mentors for each year, he tries to consider each graduate’s acting specialty — such as being a leading lady or a character actor — and matches the students based in part on this information. Grifasi also tries to match mentors with students who wish to work in the same medium, whether it be teaching, film, television or live theater.

Sometimes, Grifasi said, the year’s graduating class is better suited for one-on-one relationships. But other years, he will gather a group of seven or eight alumni to guide the graduating class as a whole.

But Grifasi said the nature of the field does not allow the mentors to assist their younger counterparts find parts. The program’s purpose is more to show that the challenges young actors face can be conquered.

“Other actors don’t get you jobs,” he said. “[The mentorship] really is about being in touch with someone who’s gone through the hoops and can either make you avoid some bad decisions or help give you the confidence that you’re not the first person to go through this.”

Bundy said the job of a casting director is to select the best people for each job, which cannot be done when one chooses actors solely based on where he or she went to school.

Field said other alumni-based events that are centered more on West Coast graduates, such as an annual party hosted by the Yale club of Los Angeles, have benefitted him and his classmates. While he has held the same job since graduation and therefore does not need to use his Yale connections to find employment, Field said, he has been able to get more people interested in his theater at California State University Long Beach through networking at these parties. He also said he knows that a few of his cohorts have benefited from direct employment after an alumni gathering.

The class of 2007 felt the pressure at its Theater Showcase, and for many the road will only get tougher from there. But with a Yale diploma and alumni network, these soon-to-be graduates may find the going a bit easier.

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