I just found out that according to Business Insider, I am a graduate of the #2 Best Private School in America: Ransom-Everglades School. I was sort of floored by this article. It made me think of my father yelling, "There's a reason every American president has been a graduate of an Ivy League School. They gotta train 'em to be masters of the universe. So no matter what field you go into, go to the best."
Training is everything. Never let the cost of education stop you from going to the very best school. When I took the entrance exam to this very expensive private school, my family was on food stamps. My father said, study for the test, we'll figure it out. And my family and the school figured it out. And I went.
What I learned there was invaluable...I learned how to think, solve problems, work outside the box and never did it occur to me that I might fail. That's the power that knowledge holds: it teaches you how to win and create opportunity for yourself. I was also in the presence of people who knew how to win, who could provide their children with every opportunity to succeed and open doors. They opened the doors to an Ivy League education for me. An education I had no idea was even possible, nor any idea how to pay for it. But it happened because my family worked mega hard and the school took a leap of faith in me.
I can hear my dad now, "There's a reason every single American President went to an Ivy League school...You want to become a bad-assed actor...go where bad-ass actors are trained. It will open doors you didn't even know existed."
What are the "Ivy League" caliber schools in your profession?
Here's a hint. These schools have so many Oscar, Tony, Golden Globe, Emmy-winning alums that many of their MFA programs in Acting, Writing, Directing, Stage Management are becoming tuition-free. What that means is that their wealthy,successful graduates, as well as the major Arts philanthropists in the country who believe in keeping the arts alive in America are funding these institutions. They are funding scholarships and endowments so that we continue to train the next generation of American artists at institutions that have demonstrated they produce working, iconic artists in America.
That's your first hint about which schools are the top dogs. It's never just hype when there are $500,000 scholarships being dropped on the dime. Yep, that's how much grad school is running including tuition, room and board for four years. So the schools that can afford to do this have greater resources at their fingertips than you could ever imagine. If you can get in, go. Run, invest your hard-earned time and money in getting yourself prepared, trained to get into these schools. Because the flip side is that, one television show, for one season, could make you $500,000, just one. The stakes are high which is why the game is so hard, but it is not impossible, but you have to be playing at a high level of achievement if you want to play with the big boys.
Pretty amazing...you don't know what you're missing until you play in the major leagues. Now, how are we going to get you there?
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""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson