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Senior Acting Showcase

Last spring, for the first time in the history of the Department of Theatre & Drama, graduating seniors were able to showcase their craft in front of agents, producers, and casting directors in three of the country’s entertainment capitals-New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Introducing acting majors to industry professionals (several of them alumni), the showcases were made possible through the collaborative efforts of alumni, parents, and faculty, all of whom share the singular goal of setting the young actors on the road to success right after graduating.

Similar to the successful and long-standing Musical Theatre Senior Showcase in NYC, this much-anticipated professional adventure has been a goal of department chair Priscilla Lindsay for some time: “Because of the cachet of the University of Michigan, we knew a showcase would be the best platform we could provide our students to help introduce them to the professional world.”

The Chicago leg of the showcase has taken place for the last few years, though it reverses the usual set-up: rather than professionals attending the student presentation in a single venue, the students “tour” the industry, visiting multiple theatre companies (including Chicago Shakespeare, Northlight, and the Goodman), as well as casting and agency offices. The success of these tours-which resulted in several students signing with agents and booking theatre and television work-helped encourage the leap to NYC and LA.

Prior to the Chicago trips, the Department had engaged in a “capstone,” where industry professionals were invited to Ann Arbor to meet and scout the senior class. Though helpful, the gold standard for college drama programs is to stage showcases in the country’s top cultural centers, where the largest numbers of theatre professionals can be found.

Not surprisingly, bringing 15 to 20 students to three cities and booking venues requires a substantial financial commitment. Fortunately, SMTD received funding from Karin and Douglas Waggoner, Dr. Joseph M. Piacentile (through the Piacentile Family Foundation), an anonymous donor, and U-M Regent Andrea Fischer Newman and her husband Frank Newman. All are parents of theatre students and fully understand the importance of the showcases.

“The theatre showcase is invaluable in exposing the outstanding University of Michigan theatre students to entertainment industry professionals looking for new talent,” said Regent Newman. “We are thrilled to support this career-enhancing program-a great example of the Michigan difference in facilitating the transition from undergraduate achievement to professional success.”

“These generous gifts were so important,” said Daniel Cantor, associate professor of acting and directing who shepherded the students throughout the showcase process. “We know it’s an expensive proposition, but it really helps raise the visibility of an arts program at a major public research university and, more importantly, it helps launch the careers of these talented kids more quickly.”

Enter Pamela Guest (BA ’72, MA ’73), an early showcase advocate who stepped up to act as one of the producers. A casting director and actress, Guest was recently honored with a “Best Actor” award from the Best Actor Film Festival (San Francisco) for the indie film Cleopatra Backstage. She is among those who had returned to Ann Arbor annually to meet the new crop of theatre graduates at the capstone events.

“It wasn’t until Priscilla took over that I found a truly receptive ear to the idea of having a showcase,” said Guest. “She asked me to produce the LA showcase and I recommended the enthusiastic, smart, and successful Shayna Markowitz (BFA ’07) to be my counterpart in New York.”

Markowitz is a casting associate at Debra Zane Casting whose current projects include the upcoming film Ocean’s 8 and the Netflix original series Bloodline. She and Guest served as liaisons between the School and showcase venues (the Matrix Theatre in LA and the Jerry Orbach Theater in NYC) and offered advice to the department and students.

“It was only a decade ago that I was in their shoes, so I was happy to give them insights into my personal experiences and my journey from student to professional in the entertainment industry,” said Markowitz. “I hoped to be an ally and support to the students, and it was a treat to be by their sides during this exciting yet nerve-wracking time.”

A number of working alumni attended the showcases, excited to see the newest Wolverine actors.

“I see the showcase as a way to familiarize myself with the new graduates from the department,” said freelance director Stephen Sposito (BFA ’07), currently the associate director of The Book of Mormon tour. “I have the opportunity to see an actor work on material they feel suits them; it’s a quick way to understand where an actor fits in the mix and if it might be appropriate to bring them in for an audition or meeting.”

LA-based talent agent Melissa Berger Brennan (BA ’82) is carrying on the Michigan tradition of grads helping those who follow in their footsteps.

“We didn’t have a showcase in my day,” said Berger, “so as a new grad I was fortunate enough to have received guidance from other U-M alumni. As an agent, I’ve always had a soft spot for Wolverine talent, and I like to pay it forward whenever I can.”

Other alumni attended the events just to show their SMTD pride and serve as a friendly face in the crowd.

“I wanted to be in the space to offer good, supportive energy to these kids who, I’m sure, felt like everything was on the line,” said alumna Angela Lewis (BFA ’00).

All of these alumni connections will be critically important for students. “The showcase is going to be one of the highlights of the department with regard to recruiting prospective students,” said Lindsay. “It starts an immediate network of alumni mentoring for new graduates in their respective cities, and it also gives alumni something to be proud of.”

For the students, the road to showcase was months in the making, with Cantor teaching a preparatory class and directing the final performances. The class began with business nuts and bolts how-to’s, such as mastering interviews, auditioning, securing headshots, understanding unions, and handling tax returns. The next phase focused on curating potential showcase material, with the final half of the semester spent rehearsing that material.

“All of the material was 100 percent contemporary scenes, with each student performing two,” said Cantor. “For the showcase, you really want each scene to exhibit the actor’s strength and authenticity, whether that is a dramatic or comedic role.”

For several students, including Hojeong Shin, finding the right scene was a yearlong journey.

“I created an independent study with Professor Cantor, along with another student, to start looking for scenes that could potentially work for the showcase,” said Shin. “By the time the second semester started, I already had a lot of material I wanted to try out, which was at times stressful, but a lot of fun.”

At the end of the day, the success of the showcases comes down to how they help theatre students after they graduate.

“Even though this was our first year, there was so much interest in seeing our kids,” said Lindsay. “And a lot of the students got what we call ‘nibbles’ from managers, casting directors, and agents. I’d say about two-thirds of them were offered contracts or agreements in some shape or form.”

Shin was one of them. “I met my brilliant manager after she watched the New York show,” she said. “She has already played a huge part in strategizing and shaping my career.”

The 2016 participants understand how lucky they were to be the first Theatre & Drama class to present coast-to-coast showcases.

“The hard work and arduous process definitely paid off, and I’m grateful I shared this experience with my SMTD acting family,” said Shin. “I only hope that the younger classes to come will continue to slay it, above and beyond what our class did.”

 

By Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.