Being a theater artist involves all the things that people typically consider - creativity, tireless practice, inspiration - but it also requires industry know-how. It’s hard to imagine a better team to learn this from than two women who run the organizations that present the Tony Awards.
Since 2012, Carnegie Mellon University has been the exclusive higher education partner of the Tony Awards. During their first visit to CMU’s Pittsburgh campus, the partners presented their first master class. Students already learn about how to treat an acting career as an entrepreneur through the School of Drama "Business of Acting" course and have increasing opportunities to meet with professors one-on-one. The Oct. 30 master class presented a chance to hear about the experiences of two industry-leading professionals: Heather Hitchens, president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing and Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League.
Adira Rosen, a third-year undergraduate directing student, said opportunities like this demonstrate how much of her education is geared toward her career.
"By stepping into the doors of the school, you’re learning with the career-prepping angle," Rosen said. "This [education] is the steppingstone to the next steppingstone to the next steppingstone."
As another steppingstone, Rosen is preparing for a semester in New York City, where she will have weekly theater visits, professional mentoring, and will move in the same broader community as these women. The experience, known as the Tepper Semester , is available to students in the John Wells Directing Program and is in association with Syracuse University.
Hitchens and St. Martin spoke to undergraduate and graduate students from the School of Drama, as well as graduate students in the Master of Arts Management and the Master of Entertainment Industry Management programs, both of which are joint programs between the College of Fine Arts and the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. Many of them, like Rosen, are envisioning their next steps. Every time the moderator asked for questions, hands shot up all around the room.
Hitchens said that their careers aren’t going to be linear.
"And it’s a good thing that it’s not linear," she said. "You’re going to have to be open. Things are going to happen and you’re going to be like, ‘Why is this happening to me’’...You just kind of let it blow off you like a leaf and take in what you’re supposed to take in."
It can be a big perspective shift from steppingstones to leaf-in-the-wind, but the analogy resonated with Kate Vargish, a first-year graduate student in the Dramatic Writing Program.
"As students who are just starting our careers, that’s a good thing to keep in mind," Vargish said. "We have this idea that there’s a direct line between going to school and working and getting to be what we want to be. I appreciated them admitting that’s not always the case, but that’s also not a bad thing."
Hitchens said she was offered the position of executive director of the Delaware Symphony when she was 24, not much older than many of these students. St. Martin spoke about how much opportunity is built on relationships.
"CMU has the most vibrant, connected loyal alumni I’ve ever seen in any organization," St. Martin added.
And it’s not just opportunities that emerge through relationships, but the effectiveness of the work. St. Martin explained how she accomplishes this:
"I work to build relationships with people on all sides of the issues, and get them to talk about the things they view as issues," she said. "The more we talk about it, the more we can find common ground and compromise. It’s that step of taking the time to build the relationships that helps us get through any political minefields."
It’s easier to weather unpredictability and stay connected when you realize the work you are doing is important, and it is this belief in the importance of the arts that joins the Tony Awards and CMU so closely together. In 2014, the partners launched the Excellence in Theatre Education Award to honor K-12 theatre educators and presented the first award in 2015. So far, five teachers have been recognized at the annual Tony Awards celebration.
Hitchens emphasized to the audience that the arts have the power to boost the economy, improve academic performance, reduce crime and shift national conversations.
"We are changing the world," Hitchens said.