Aspiring actors get career advice

Students interested in pursuing acting as a career attended a seminar by actress Maria-Christina Oliveras ’01, who gave practical advice and spoke about her life in the field.
Students interested in pursuing acting as a career attended a seminar by actress Maria-Christina Oliveras ’01, who gave practical advice and spoke about her life in the field. Photo by Joy Shan.

With help from alumni like Maria-Christina Oliveras ’01, a slew of Yale theater students are seeking to discover what makes for a functional acting career in New York City.

Oliveras, who has had roles in the successful Broadway musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and the Emmy Award-winning television series “Damages,” led a seminar called “An Actor Gets Started” at the Undergraduate Career Services office at 55 Whitney Ave. on Friday. Students who attended the seminar said they appreciated the level of detail Oliveras offered in her advice, as well as the confidence in acting as a career path that her success inspired in them.

“She got down to dollar figures for rent, for the gym — she shared her personal schedule,” said Michael Knowles ’12, a senior who plans to move to New York and look for acting jobs after he graduates this May. “Anything that can ground you in this business is priceless. [Of] all of these sorts of careers panels I’ve been to, for different industries and theater, it was the most personalized and helpful.”

Laurel Durning-Hammond ’14, who said she intends to pursue a career in theater as an actor, said she found the seminar helpful because Oliveras provided “concrete” answers to students’ questions and issues such as what one should do on arriving in New York and how to get an agent.

The event was organized by UCS, the Traphagen Alumni Speakers Series, the Yale College Office of Student Affairs, the Creative Yale Alumni Network (CYAN) and the Yale Drama Coalition.

“This year, the YDC is trying to create more of a relationship with alumni working in the arts, such as those in the CYAN,” YDC vice president Kate Heaney ’14 said. “We have all these great things going on on campus, but as a student you want to know what happens after you graduate.”

She added that the YDC hopes to continue to build on its relationship with alumni to offer more workshops and panels in collaboration with UCS. Oliveras’ talk touched on many topics that can be expanded into larger conversations in further seminars, Heaney said.

“This particular workshop had a very high interest level, especially because we’re at this point in the year when the year is winding down [for seniors],” YDC president Irene Casey ’14 said.

Knowles said he appreciates the opportunity CYAN panels have given him to network with Yale graduates working in the field who can offer him advice.

“Acting is a people’s business,” Knowles said, adding that he emailed eight people who he met at an earlier CYAN panel, to solicit comments on his film demo reel. After two rounds of receiving suggestions from alumni and editing the reel himself, Knowles said, he felt “more prepared to send it to an agent.”

“In any other industry, you’re marketing your skills and experience,” he said. “In this industry, you’re fundamentally selling yourself.”

YDC treasurer Sara Hendel ’14, who will star in “Sunday in the Park with George” next weekend, said she was more confident about pursuing acting as a potential career path as a result of the workshop and that it allayed her fears about job insecurity in the field.

“A lot of people from Yale are apprehensive about acting as a career path … because for other jobs, you have a trajectory … or they might give it to you because you went to Yale. Here, they’re not going to do that,” she added.

Knowles, who attended the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York during his senior year of high school, said that actors graduating from Yale need advice about how to break into the professional acting world because they do not have the benefits of a conservatory training, which he said is a “much better structure to expose you to the real world.”

“My impression is that we Yale actors do not have the same leg up that conservatory actors do from having spent years learning about the business and preparing a rep book with pieces to fit any type of audition,” said Durning-Hammond, who went to the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Mass., and said a number of her friends from high school went on to conservatories. “Also, many conservatories have showcases for seniors which land most of the students with agents as soon as they reach the city, which we do not have and would be incredibly helpful.”

Still, both Durning-Hammond and Knowles said that the Yale environment ensures that students develop a set of key skills that benefit actors.

“Where else in four years could you do over 20 plays, a couple of web series and student films just outside of class?” said Knowles, referring to projects he has been involved with that were funded by Yale’s Creative and Performing Arts Awards.

Durning-Hammond added that Yale’s academic environment fosters organizational and problem-solving skills that aid actors. She said that, for the actor and artist she wants to be, Yale’s theater program is ideal, because it gives her acting training, educational depth and a creative, energetic theater community.

“Yale makes it very, very clear that we are not a conservatory, and we are not a technical school,” Hendel said. “For me and a lot of other people, that’s why we came here: because we didn’t want to be pigeon-holed.”

Still, Hendel said, now that she has realized she may want to pursue acting professionally, she wishes the Yale Theater Studies program offered more technical training to students. The YDC has been trying to fill in what students perceive as “gaps” in classroom opportunities by putting together workshops on areas like stage combat, the Commedia Dell’Arte and dialects, she said.

“As helpful as [YDC events are], I still wish that the department would do it,” Hendel said.

The Theater Studies program is currently undergoing a curriculum review.

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