I am on my way to New York next week and am thinking a lot about fame. Back when I was a 16 year old drama geek, I imagined that I would graduate from high school, attend NYU, live and work in the City as an actor, become famous, and win a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar.
Although I did graduate high school (yay me), everything else that followed was so outside that 16 year old imagination. I can definitely pinpoint the 3 major decisions that changed the course of my professional life.
- Wait, I don’t have to live in New York? – I applied and was (luckily) accepted to only 2 universities, New York University (NYU) and Northwestern University. Like I stated earlier, NYU was my total fantasy. It was such a romantic idea for me to live in Manhattan. As a student at NYU, I would live and breathe acting and be Broadway bound within months of obtaining my BFA. NYU required an audition and I worked my butt off on my 2 contrasting monologues – Beneatha from A Raisin in the Sun and Isabella from Measure for Measure. I nailed it. I got in. I was making my dreams come true. But then, I got accepted to Northwestern. That surprised me. Northwestern had no audition requirement. They accepted students based purely on academic merit. I had good grades but crappy SAT scores. Northwestern, at that time, was the #1 ranked Drama program and ranked in the top 10 overall. I didn’t think I had a chance so I barely considered it. So, when I opened that large envelope and learned that a school of that caliber actually wanted me, something shifted in me. Suddenly, my romantic fantasy of living and studying in NYC, broadened to include all kinds of possibilities. I toured the suburban Illinois campus and my arty urban fantasies shifted to green spaces, frat parties, and collegiate sporting events. “If I can get into Northwestern, perhaps, I can do anything is possible.”
- What’s a “teaching artist”? – While still in college, I got my very first teaching gig. I got the opportunity to intern in a summer program for high school students alongside the same drama teacher who had taught me just a few summers before. I loved teaching immediately. Back then, in 1991, I hadn’t heard the word “teaching artist.” I didn’t know it was a thing. But, it was certainly my thing. I knew I had found my calling. My professional acting career – which only spanned from 1994-2002 – was always accompanied by teaching. They went hand-in-hand so much that I couldn’t see one without the other.
- Can I actually make some money doing this? – Now, I was in my 30’s and it wasn’t as fun to be dead broke all the time. Doing plays for no money while I (barely) supported myself on teaching wasn’t enough for me anymore. I could have made a number of choices at this point. I considered (finally) moving to NYC or LA and really give it a go as an actor. I considered throwing myself into teaching, perhaps even get a teaching credential, and making a career as an educator. I didn’t do either of these. Instead, I decided to make a business of being a teaching artist. I had been teaching theater to kids in summer programming since 1991. I knew how to do it. So, I started my business so I could scale what I knew how to do best and support myself and my family in the meantime.
As I think about being in New York again, I can’t help but think about fame and its relationship to the choices that I have made in my life. When I was 16, becoming a famous actor was pretty much the only picture I had of success. As the years have passed, I have seen my definition of success morph and grow to encompass so many more possibilities.
While I am in the City, I get the opportunity to interview Nilaja Sun for TAG’s Teaching Artists Hangout series. I am so excited to meet Nilaja because I am so curious to learn about the major decisions that shaped her career. I am curious about her decision to become a teaching artist and how she decided to write a play about it. I am curious how she stays committed and connected to teaching despite the fact that she has “made it” as an actor and playwright. I am curious about her definition of fame as both an actor and as a teaching artist and I wonder what her hopes and dreams are now as she moves forward.
What if I hadn’t made the decisions I made? Would I be living in New York now deciding what I should wear to the Tony’s? I wonder what my “Tony Award” is now that I am no longer an actor. What is the penultimate prize for a teaching artist turned social entrepreneur? And, if it exists, do I even want to win it? When I became a teaching artist, wasn’t I making a commitment to giving back to the community and changing kids’ lives? Or, is there someone inside of me who still longs to walk the red carpet carrying a golden statue while everyone screams my name?
What is your relationship to fame? Is it possible to receive attention and accolades as an artist while still maintaining a commitment to teaching? What does it mean to achieve success as a teaching artist?
Watch the live interview with Nilaja Sun. Share your questions and comments with us via Twitter @teachingartists #AskNilaja