Do I want to be famous or do I want to be a teaching artist?

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
nilaja teaching 2While 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



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