FTT alumni savor the art of an industry

Author: Jessica Mesman

“My dad would’ve had a coronary if I’d told him I was majoring in this,” the alum said to the undergraduate at the first-ever Department of Film, Television and Theatre Reunion, September 15-17, 2005. Variations on this remark could be heard at nearly every event held during the gathering of Notre Dame alumni working in the arts and entertainment industry.

In fact, this may have been the first departmental reunion at which most of those reuniting were not departmental alumni. They were—to borrow a term from the industry—_cross-overs_. While students at Notre Dame, they prepared for respectable careers in law or business, considered by their tuition-paying parents to be more practical fields of study, but spent much of their time building sets in Washington Hall or editing films in the loft of O’Shaughnessy.

“In a lot of ways, this was like a coming-out party,” says Ted Mandell ‘86, the FTT alum and faculty member who organized the reunion. He credits the new Marie P. DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC) with “making these people feel like they can come back to Notre Dame and be proud of working in the arts.”

In the year since the DPAC opened, Mandell says, the number of FTT majors has increased by nearly a hundred—though double majors in FTT and accountancy are still common among students with nervous parents. He imagined the reunion as a way to showcase the department’s growth, its impressive new home and the sizeable contingency of alumni at work in every corner of the industry. Nearly 200 executives, writers, actors, directors, animators, stand-up comedians, and nonprofit theatre directors returned to campus for the three-day assembly.

The reunion began Thursday night with the ND Alumni Film Fest; a performance of Twelfth Night by Actors from the London Stage; and a screening of The Late Shift, a behind-the-scenes look into late-night talk shows written by Bill Carter ‘71. Friday’s schedule included seven panels on acting, producing, editing and writing, followed by a cocktail reception, a performance by Bruce Hornsby, and the FTT production of Arthur Kopit’s Wings, directed by faculty member Mark Pilkinton. Participants also networked with such industry players as John Walker ‘78, producer at Pixar; Rich Cronin ’76, president and CEO of the Game Show Network; and Lydia Antonini ’97, creative executive for TV Land and Nick at Nite.

“I saw it as an opportunity for current students to network and alumni to reconnect,” Mandell says. "That’s often the hardest thing for people in the arts. They don’t like to sell themselves. But you have to go out and pound your chest a little bit."

During a lunchtime panel on Friday, Linda Gase ‘86, former English major and current co-executive producer of Crossing Jordan, confirmed: "You want to think it’s all about your work, but that’s not true. You have to make contacts and meet others in the business."

Gase presented “Teaser and Four Acts in 43 Minutes: Writing for Prime Time Dramatic TV” with her former Farley Hall neighbor and fellow English major Susan Hamilton Brin ‘86, who has written scripts for Baywatch and Viper.

After graduation, Gase moved to Los Angeles. Instead of going to law school as promised, she went cold-calling for entry-level jobs in the industry. Her big break: She was hired to drive the casting executive on a Michael Cimino movie. She can trace every job she’s had since then—including years as a staff writer for ER back to the connections made on that first menial gig.

A sampling of potentially career-making connections made during reunion weekend: Jeff Spoonhower ‘99, a video game designer whose animated short Intelligent Life was the highlight of the alumni film festival, met Walker, who produced of the Academy Award-winning animated feature The Incredibles. Broadway producer and director Bill DeSeta ’58 thought stand-up comic Michael Somerville ’94 would be perfect for a part in the script he was reading for his wife, who owns a casting agency in New York. And a current student got a lead on an internship from Mike Schmiedeler ’94, who produces documentaries for the History Channel and A&E.

Networking can get a foot in the door, but a bachelor’s degree in business may come in handy yet: “You have to be able to sell your own work,” Gase noted.

At “Theatre in Society: Making a Living and Making a Difference,” Christian Murphy ‘92, Josef Evans ’95, Francis Kelly ’95 and Kassie Misiewicz ’91 echoed the need for artists to develop an entrepreneurial spirit while preserving their idealism. Since graduation, all four have forged unconventional career paths in theatre. Evans lamented being cast as a rapping robot, but said he mostly loves working for Theatre Corps, a division of AmeriCorps devoted to bringing issue-based theatre to high schools and colleges. Misiewicz, a former Holy Cross Associate, described working in children’s theatre as the perfect marriage of her social justice interests and her theatre training.

The weekend concluded with a tailgate, a heartbreaking overtime loss to Michigan State (“Can we get a screenwriter to rescript the ending?” someone joked), and an alumni variety show. Fred Syburg ‘62 M.A., an emeritus associate professor who has directed nearly 50 student productions, delivered the closing remarks. “One of the beautiful things about this weekend has been reaffirming my memories,” said Syburg, who reconnected with students from the first and last plays he directed at Notre Dame.

While Devon Candura ’05 sang “For Good” from the Broadway musical Wicked (“We are led / to those who help us most to grow / if we let them / and we help them in return”—one last ode to networking), ND Theatre: Our History, a photomontage, was projected on a screen that dropped from the ceiling. Shots from productions through the years got laughs, but the final, lingering image of the famously haunted Washington Hall invited a nostalgic hush. It’s hard to imagine a ghost haunting the sparkling new DPAC.

The facilities send a clear message that Notre Dame is taking the arts seriously, says Mandell. This is important because people tended to see FTT as “the home of starving artists or, worse, as fluff—not a serious career. That was the greatest thing about this event for our younger students. They saw that you can be really successful, have a great life, doing what you love.”

Jessica Mesman’s writing has appeared in many publications, most recently the anthology Becoming Fire: Spiritual Writing from Rising Generations. She lives in South Bend with her husband, Dave Griffith ’98.