Alumni Spotlights

Are you an Theater alumnus with professional news to share? Send your information to Catherine Hurst at churst@smcvt.edu.

Melissa Briner '08

melissa brinerMelissa came to talk to the Life in the Theatre class on Monday, November 12th. She told our theatre students about touring with the Missoula Children's Theatre and working as a teaching artist and director for the past five years since graduation from Saint Michael's College. She gave our students a lot of good advice about how to market themselves and use their theatre degree in business and marketing fields. "Theatre is customer service. It's about your relationships and networks." She loves teaching theatre to younger children because she sees how directly it impacts their self-confidence, their public speaking skills and their sense of team-work.

Chris O'Neil '02

chris o'neilChris O'Neil graduated from St. Mike's in 2002 with a BA in Theatre and minor concentrations in Sociology and Philosophy. As he puts it, "I didn't have a second major. I had no intention of a plan B."

I sent Chris a few questions and here is his update - and his advice!

Describe what you've been doing in LA, career-wise.

I've been in LA for almost six years now. The majority of that time has been learning, about the industry as well as myself. My acting debut in LA was in the history channel documentary "Last Stand of the 300." The more historically accurate version of the story depicted in the movie "300." From there I participated in an infomercial for a Beach Body workout program called "10 Minute Trainer."

After those initial jobs, I sidetracked into massage therapy school. I was tired of working in restaurants and decided to pursue another passion of mine in order to support my acting career with something else I enjoy. I graduated in 2008 and build a massage practice with an associate, and now good friend of mine, Mr. Myke Zykoff. Over the last four years I have honed my technique and expanded my health and wellness knowledge, and have established myself as a practitioner of Mind Integrated Bodywork. A practice of integrating aspects of Hypnotherapy and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programing) into my bodywork sessions with the goal of re-balancing the mind and body to help people live better.

Though I was enjoying my work in wellness, I never lost my passion for the industry. I had grown as a person and in my new awareness I found it wasn't acting in and of itself that I enjoyed, it was creating stories. In late 2011, I got my chance to create in a new way. A film idea I had been working on for a number of years caught the attention of a producer I met through a friend. I got to work on the screenplay and after four drafts and four months, I had a finished, optioned screenplay that is in the process of being looked at by some major people in Hollywood. Writing my first feature became the catalyst that thrust me back on the industry track. Since then, I have re-focused on my acting career and things are really moving. I now have three areas of the industry I'm working in: Voice over, commercials, and screenwriting. As a voice over actor I've worked on two cartoons and two films. Cartoons - "The Garfield Show" and "Kinky and Cosy." Films - "Arn: The Knight Templar" and "Juan of the Dead." As a commercial actor I've worked on three projects - Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Black & Decker and an internet project for Subway. I recently signed with a commercial agency and expect to be getting many more. As a screenwriter, I have finished my first feature and am currently working on a second. The first feature is part of a trilogy that I have a planned and will be working on over the next few years. This newest second project is a separate film idea that I've decided to finish first. I'll then go back and write the sequel and the prequel to my original feature. It's taken a lot of hard work and time but my career train is moving and I have no intention of letting it slow down.

What advice would you give to a theatre major who is thinking about moving to LA after graduation?

The first thing you need to know is that there is no "right way" to pursue an acting career in LA. There's only YOUR way. This was advice I heard early on and it took me a while to really understand what that meant. You cannot compare your journey to ANYONE else's. The most important thing you can do is use your instinct. Don't get caught up in what everyone else tells you you should do. Listen and learn always, but don't blindly do something just because someone else is. Second is networking. The old saying "it's all who you know" is true, but not in the way most people think. It's not about how many "famous" people you know. It's about how good your network is. Example - you meet someone at an audition that you get along with. They invite you to an industry mixer. You meet someone who is taking a commercial acting class the next week. You get the class info and go yourself. The instructor for the class thinks you have a good look for what an agency she knows of is looking for. She refers you. They ask you to go in for a meeting and suddenly you have an agent. THAT'S how it works out here. It's a domino effect that branches off in so many directions, you never know what opportunities will come from who or where. Third. Say YES to EVERY opportunity. This goes back to networking. The job, meeting, mixer or otherwise could be crap. But you may meet someone or learn something that helps you grow and/or find another opportunity. THERE IS NO WASTED EXPERIENCE!!!!! Everything has benefit. You just have to keep your eyes open for the silver lining. (On a side note, do not say yes to something you're uncomfortable with. Always use your instincts but don't dismiss a "less than desirable" opportunity because you think it's beneath you.) Fourth. YOU ARE GOING TO GET DISCOURAGED AND DISAPPOINTED!!! It's GOING to happen, so just accept it. It's the only way you can grow, learn and do better next time. The best way to deal with it is to keep going. The longer you stay in disappointment, the more opportunities you lose out on. And some of my greatest disappointments have yielded my greatest successes. THAT is an important lesson to learn. DO NOT be afraid to fail. Be afraid if you don't. Because if you don't, then you're not growing, and you'll never move beyond where you are. And lastly, HAVE FUN and BE YOU! No matter how many people come to LA, there will always be one thing you have that they don't. YOU! You are unique. The second you try to be something you are not, you diminish your chances of success exponentially. Keep in mind, the people that are successful in this industry are that way because they distinguished themselves from the crowd. Own who you are and let that, and your instinct, guide you and I promise you'll be successful.

How did your theatre training at SMC help you pursue your career goals?

My time at St Mike's helped define me as a person. I really started to became "me" while I was there. My theatre training was the catalyst that solidified my passion as a creative talent. It was my first playwriting class that allowed me to realize my potential as a writer. A major help in completing the script for my first feature. (I've even pitched the short play I wrote during that class to my producer as a film idea) The mainstage productions at St. Mike's were the bread and butter that shaped my style and confidence as an actor. They were a way to hone what I learned during the semester. The same process exists in the professional world. As an actor you're always learning. Each job is a chance to improve by learning from your experience. What helped most was the passion of my theatre professors and the support of my fellow actors/classmates. St. Mike's theatre training was an ongoing process of all out fun combined with potent self work and learning that culminated in my senior theatre project "Dinner With Friends." Under Cathy Hurst's direction, myself and three other students went on an eight month journey of character back story. We created and lived our character's lives before the events of the actual production, allowing us to fully immerse ourselves in the world of the play. I will never forget the process of that experience and the depth to which we went as actors.

How did you get an agent?

Getting an agent took time and opportunity. All I can say about the process is that it goes back to networking. Once again, there's no particular way to go about it. But here's how it happened for me... A good friend of mine introduced me to her acting coach - Karen Austin. I began working with her on organizing my career goals. Karen told me about a casting director who was offering a commercial auditioning intensive class she thought I'd enjoy. I contacted the casting director and took her class. At the end of the class, the casting director mentioned she had an agency that might be interested in someone like me. She referred me and I made contact with that agency. I went in for a meeting and auditioned for them. A few weeks later I got an email saying I was not what they were looking for at this time. Months passed. I continued to submit for more and more auditions and eventually got one in the same studio in which the casting director I took the class with months before was located. I noticed her name on a project announcement. She was casting a project in a room down the hall from my audition. On a whim, I decided to say hello. It took her a minute to remember my name but was glad to see me. We had a laugh about her forgetting my name and then she said, "send me an email. I have an agent for you." I sent her an email that night. The next day she forwarded the info of an agency that was hosting a meet and greet to acquire new talent. I contacted them, set up a meeting time, and went in. We talked about what they were looking for, what I was looking for, and I read a short audition on camera. Later that night I received an email stating they liked me a lot and would like to offer me representation. And that, my friends, is how I got an agent.

What have you learned about yourself as a person and as an artist since you left college?

As a person I have learned that I don't have to try to be me. It is impossible to TRY to be something you ARE. I have learned to be honest with myself about who I am instead of trying to fit into someone's else's idea of who I should be. There is nothing more stifling to an artist than denying one's true nature. I have learned that the most important opinion about anything in my life is MINE. Counsel from friends and family is always welcome, but I am solely responsible for my own life. I have learned that transparency and honesty will always get you further than "protective" white lies. This is true in personal AND business matters. I have learned that I will never stop learning and no matter how good I get, there will always be someone better (and that's ok). I have learned that the greatest opportunities most often come from the most difficult experiences. I have learned that EVERY experience IS an opportunity. An opportunity to decide the type of person I want to be in any given moment. And I have learned that being yourself and doing what you love is the quickest way to happiness. As an artist I have learned that my craft is always evolving. It is impossible to get it "right" because it is always changing. I have learned that it's not about getting everything perfect. Perfect is boring. Life isn't perfect. That's what makes it interesting. Art should be the same if it is to express life. I have learned that having expectations is the worst thing you can do as an artist. Have dreams and goals instead. Expectations only lead to disappointments. I have learned to value my time. I do not work for free. I have learned to set boundaries. And I have learned to ask for what I want instead of hoping someone will offer it to me.

Other - anything else you want to share?

I would like to add that everything happens when you are ready for it. Life is only as complicated as we make it. Struggle is only as difficult as we allow it to be. And ultimate success is a myth. There is no endgame. You will always be striving for more. So do what you love. Allow things to be what they are. (A thing is what it is. It is our feeling about that thing that gives it meaning) Focus on your joy and always be grateful. In life and career, the only person stopping you is you. You can make all the excuses in the world but unless you're taking action toward what you want, you only have yourself to blame. So I will leave you with two of my favorite quotes: "Life begins on the edge of your comfort zone." And "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, either way, you're right." Thank you Cathy for allowing me this opportunity to share. Before graduating, I remember reading other graduate success stories and hoping I would one day be among them. I am happy to say things have come full circle. I am a successful, working actor in Hollywood. I am living my dream... and I am grateful.

Jessi Shuttleworth '06

After graduating from Saint Michael's in 2006, I moved to Boston and hit the ground running, submitting headshots and resumes to the local casting agencies, taking courses, and knocking on doors. About a month after moving, I received a call from one of many casting directors I had submitted to. Suddenly, I was performing as an attorney in the mayor's office on an ill-fated CBS Television drama, Waterfront, starring Billy Baldwin, Mary Stuart Masterson and Joe Pantoliano. After five episodes were filmed, the series was dropped before airing. After Waterfront, I worked on Focus Features' Evening, starring Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Claire Danes, and Natasha Richardson, Focus Features' 21, starring Kate Bosworth, Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, and Lawrence Fishburn, ESPN's The Bronx Is Burning, starring Oliver Platt, John Turturro, and Daniel Sunjata, and Columbia Pictures' Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Jonah Hill. In addition to my work in film and television, I also landed a regional commercial for CITGO, a national commercial for VISA, and a national commercial for McDonald's.

In 2009, my ambition carried me to New York City. Since moving, I have started my own filmmaking company, Scabland Productions, LLC. Currently I am in pre-production on a short film that I wrote and developed entitled February. The cast includes Phyllis Somerville (Showtime's The Big C, The Sopranos, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,  and many others), Ethan Philips (Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Trek, The Island, and many others), Cristen Hemingway Jaynes (a great granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway), Dan Shaked (jOBS, ABC's Body of Proof, and Storm Up the Sky), Bill Tucker (an anchor and producer at CNN and FOX), Katherine Hiler (know for her part in the Pulitzer Prize winning Kentucky Cycle), and Darrell Larson (Law&Order, Rachel Getting Married, Stepmom, and many others). Filming is slated to begin in late May of 2013. Even though Scabland Productions and February are my main priority right now, I still find time to audition and submit for film, commercial, and print work in NYC. Most recently I shot a national print ad for New Balance

Although I've known since I was three years old that I would be an actor, I arrived at Saint Michael's College with virtually no theatre experience. I was excited to study under Professor Cathy Hurst. Professor Hurst guided my growth, being challenging and supportive without coddling me. In areas where I needed development, I received enormous assistance. Beyond theatre classes, I especially benefited from dance and voice courses. In addition to acting classes, I acquired skills in design and stagecraft from Professor John Devlin, as well as knowledge of costumes and building a production wardrobe from Professor Peter Harrigan. While my major was Theatre, I also found myself enriched by courses in religion, philosophy and art. I feel blessed by my time at Saint Michael's College, for it has given me the career of my dreams.

Josh Bardier '10

My ultimate goal has always been to live a life in the theatre. Before graduating from Saint Michael's College, the department faculty imparted some words of wisdom that I have yet to forget; my career will not consist of one aspect of theatre, rather, any opportunity I have to collaborate and tell stories with sincerity and honesty. I would consider myself a "Jack of all Trades/Master of None" at the moment". I am an actor/dancer/director/choreographer/costume designer/teacher/writer.  I say YES to any opportunity that comes my way and continue to see myself as a constant student; learning as much as I can about my craft and profession through people who have been in my position.

This mindset led my to London where I worked on the West End at Trafalgar Studios on the musical Betwixt while also training with members of the Royal Ballet. I then moved back to New York City where I choreographed for Horizons Dance Company and Assistant Directed/Choreographed the premier of Holding Out For a Hero.

I recently completed two semesters as a guest Director/Choreographer at Clark University where I had the pleasure of collaborating on Footloose and Spring Awakening. While in Massachusetts, I continued to perform while also teaching musical theater masterclasses and dance workshops ranging from organizations like the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival to Venerini Academy.

I am currently based again in New York City having just completed a staged reading of Cameron Mackintosh's musical Moby Dick with fellow St. Mike's alum and best friend Nathaniel Beliveau. Having met at Saint Michael's, Nathaniel and I are in the beginning stages of starting a musical theatre coaching business.

I recently finished filming as a dancer on NBC's Smash and will be working with Marc Tumminelli and the Broadway Workshop; who I had the opportunity to meet while working for two seasons at the Saint Michael's Playhouse.

At this moment, I am an auditioner by day and waiter by night while pursuing my dreams and paying rent.

Current dream right now: Being a dance captain for a national tour or Broadway production.

Fondest memory of Saint Michael's College: Sitting in Cathy Hurst's office (where I learned that anything is possible).

Ashleigh Brown '04

ashleigh wardAshleigh (Ward) Brown graduated from Saint Michael's College in 2004 majoring in English, with a Biology and Theatre minor.

How involved were you in the Theatre Department at Saint Michael's College?

When I was a junior, I was elected the Drama Club president, and got very involved in bettering the drama club through the student association. I was elected drama club president again as a senior, and was also elected the secretary of communications with the student association executive board my senior year. In the theater department, I had leading roles in some of the fall shows and was a two time Irene Ryan nominee by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival for my acting work in Arcadia, and Prometheus Bound. I also enjoyed very much my first role in a musical working with Cathy Hurst (Director) and Tom Cleary (Composer and Musical Director) in their adaptation of Brecht's Chalk Circle. Some of my favorite classes at SMC included Peter Harrigan's costuming class, and Cathy Hurst's Singing for the Actor class.

What is your current position?

My current position is the Fine and Performing Arts Department Chair at the high school I attended, Central Catholic in Lawrence Massachusetts. I teach Freshman Introduction to Theater Arts, and a Senior Theater class I designed, Advanced Acting and Performance. The Freshman Course is a survey of theater arts, including theater history, improvisation, on stage techniques, play and scene study, and monologue performance for auditions and competitions. My senior course is more focused on particular plays and playwrights, with scene and monologue competition, and whole cast play competition. I designed and directed two summer theater camps, one for high school students, and one for middle school students at Cenral Catholic in Lawrence. This year, students will work on, design and enter the play Kindertransport for the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild Festival in the spring.In addition, I am the secretary for the executive board for the New England Theatre Conference for the upcoming school year.

What is your teaching philosophy?

I want to expose students to the benefits and experiences that theater arts can provide. I always tell my students that for you to enjoy something and truly understand and learn, you must be able to relate to it somehow. As an English teacher, and Theater Arts teaching, I am constantly looking for new and exciting ways to have students relate to plays we are working on, or scenes they are doing on stage. I also feel that to be a talented actor, you must be able to relate to your character to create a believable experience for your audience. The key to theater, in my opinion, is sympathy and empathy for the human experience. To quote one of my favorite authors, Ms. Harper Lee, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it". And aren't we trying to do just that as an actor? I have grown mostly because I have grown as a human.

After Saint Michael's College, I have been a teacher, wife, community theater actor, aunt, friend, and more recently, Mommy. I have read more, traveled more, and therefore, changed and added to my perspective, thus giving me more to play with on stage.

Do you have any advice for current theatre students at Saint Mikes who are interested in pursuing theatre as a career?

For St. Mike's students who might be considering the role of teaching theater, I cannot begin to describe how very much my students have taught me, and brought joy and fulfillment to my life. If you love to be a student, like I have my whole life, you will love to teach... you are, in essence, on stage all day, with an interactive audience who respects you as much as you respect them. It's a dream job for the actor, and I am definitely living the dream when I go to work. I currently reside in Dracut Massachusetts, and am attending grad school part time.

Anything else that you would like to share?

I have a wonderful husband, who also attended high school with me, and also works at Central Catholic with me, but in the math department! And together we have two daughters, a 3 yr old, Adalayde, and an 8 month old, Allyson. I owe my life, my family, and my career to Central Catholic, and the English and Theatre departments!

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