Successful CU theatre alumna Whitney Kaufman credits undergrad experiences for professional success
March 6, 2015
Whitney Kaufman, BFA Theatre Performance ’06 recently sat down with Sara Richards ’18 to reveal her valuable Chapman undergrad experiences and the adventures and career as a professional performer that they enabled.
What was your experience at Chapman like and how has the Department of Theatre helped prepare you for the future as a creator and performer?
“When I was a theatre major at Chapman (2002-2006), it was still very small. I think my freshman class had 40 people; by the time I graduated with my BFA my class was seven people! The program was rigorous enough that only people that really had a passion for performing and working hard stayed. That kept our class sizes intimate, which allowed for more time to work as an actor. I went to CU because while I wanted to be a musical theatre performer, I didn’t want musical theatre acting training only. I wanted to be able to sink my teeth into other styles and genres so that I could be as well-rounded as possible. I also chose CU because they allowed freshman to perform! A lot of theatre programs had this crazy requirement that didn’t allow students on stage ’til their sophomore, sometimes junior years! Now, how are you supposed to train and grow without actually getting to DO it? I wanted to be active as soon as possible.
The Chapman theatre department helped prepare me in many ways. Firstly, the classes were geared toward building on what you learned each year in a way that was a natural progression. For instance, you didn’t take directing until you had learned about all the different facets of theatre both onstage and off. The technical crew hours requirements were great, too, because they allowed us to see what other parts of production we enjoyed…or didn’t. I learned pretty quickly that I was NOT cut out for the costumes shop, but that I enjoyed stage and house management if I wasn’t going to be onstage myself. Lastly and maybe most importantly, CU prepared me for my creative and professional career by helping me to hone in on who I was as a person/actor: what my strengths were, what weaknesses I could work on, what made me tick as a creative individual. It wasn’t always pretty and sometimes it was painful, but in the end I left CU with a better idea of what it was that I really wanted to pursue.”
What was one of the most valuable things you learned as a performer and a person through your time here at Chapman?
“I think the most valuable thing I learned as a performer was discipline while creating. Carrying a full load of classes and working on more than one production at a time forced me to learn how to budget my time efficiently, which I guess is every college student’s experience. But as a theatre major at Chapman, personal excellence was expected, so if that meant the only time you could rehearse your final scene was at 1:00 a.m. because your scene partner didn’t get out of Main Stage play rehearsal till 11:30 p.m., then you met at 1:00 a.m. because getting it done was what you had to do. Now, when I am working on a role or a project, I work whenever I have to to get where I need to be. Sometimes audition material comes in less than 24 hours before you’re called, so it helps to know that I can hunker down no matter when or where and get it all done. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
The other important thing was learning to be willing to work on any project with anyone. If there was an opportunity to perform, we were trained to say ‘YES!’ because you never know what lessons you’ll glean from an experience. CU theatre professors encouraged us to accept any role we were offered, whether it was a lead in a Main Stage or a few scenes for Directing 2. Sometimes we ended up spreading ourselves pretty thin, but it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I’d go from running a Desdemona monologue to singing a song from
in someone’s dorm room to painting my face for a
scene. It was nuts! It’s important when you’re just starting out to say ‘yes’ to any performance opportunity thrown at you. That’s how you hone your skills, but more importantly it’s how you meet people and network your way to a long-lasting career. Relationships are so, so, so important. Now, if you say ‘yes’ and honestly can’t execute the project the way you want because you’re already so busy, then you’ve got a problem, but that’s another topic entirely!”
What was it like transitioning from college to a life as a professional performer?
“To be honest, it was tough, as I think it is for anyone transitioning out of college and into the real world. The hardest thing about this industry is that no matter how many mock-audition classes you take, nothing is really like the real thing. I remember my first day of class freshman year, Tom Bradac had us look around at each other and said, ‘You see the people in this room? These are the people you will work with for the rest of your career. Some more than others and in different capacities, but this is your pool of peers. Support each other and hold each other accountable.’ He was right, because once we graduated we definitely kept in touch with each other and helped each other make the transition into the big bad world of being a professional actor. I was pretty lucky in that I got a job almost immediately with a children’s theatre company called Will & Company. We traveled around to schools putting on 45 minute versions of Shakespeare, etc. I made $50 a show, but I was getting paid to act! That confidence boost while I continued auditioning for theater and TV gave me motivation. Then, in eight months I found myself on the road with
Honestly, working as an actor/singer was far easier than school… no tests or deadlines other than playing your role in whatever production you were in. I had done professional gigs during the summers at CU, too, so I had had a little taste of working versus school.”
Any advice for kids pursuing a career in the arts?
“The best advice I can give, and it’s taken me 10 years to arrive at this, is to know who you are and know your value as a performer. Once you know those things with every fiber of your being, it makes it much easier to pursue what you’re really meant to do. For me, being a singer and performing live was always the most rewarding and soul-filling thing I did. But, because I was living in L.A., I dragged myself to countless auditions for commercials and TV. I’d get callbacks once in a while and I booked a few TV roles, but the experience never made me as happy as standing in front of an audience and belting my heart out. Once I learned that it was O.K. to admit what I really wanted to do, I pursued it more fully and have had more success. To get there you have to do everything you can performance-wise, though, and see what fills you up creatively. Then you can maybe make a living at it, which is the most humbling thing in the world.”
Could you discuss disciplines that contributed to your success?
“As I said before, cultivating good relationships with whomever you work is key. You NEVER know who you’ll meet who will end up offering you a job or recommending you to someone for a job. I’ve received calls for work from someone I barely remember meeting, but because I seemed like a nice, professional person in our brief meeting they remembered me. Always carry business cards with you and don’t be afraid to hand them out. I like to make sure I get them to someone at the end of our conversation or encounter, though, so it doesn’t seem like I’m only interacting with them to get a job. The future is long, and someone who’s an assistant music director now will be the head music director some day. Make sure they have your information and follow up in an authentic way. I’ve had people advise me to send elaborate gifts to casting directors I’ve met, but that’s just not me. I send an e-mail with a link to my website or short thank you note. You gotta do you!
The other most important discipline I practice is good health leading up to a gig. Everyone has their own regimen, and I stick to mine when I know I have to sing a lot.”
What is it like working with a tour production? What memories do you have from your experience with Mamma Mia?
“Touring is like being in the circus. It’s just crazy and it’s so much fun. Everyone in the company is stuck together week in and week out with one goal: to put up eight shows a week. For a cast, that only amounts to about three to four hours of work a day, so the rest of the time you’re in a new place you hang out with your castmates. You really become a family of friends. Sometimes there’s drama, but you learn how to navigate that for the good of everyone else. You really learn how to take care of yourself on the road because while you have a team of company managers to keep the production moving (this includes helping you deal with health issues, emergencies, travel, etc.), they are NOT babysitters. Everyone is expected to take care of themselves while putting the production first.
was a hugely popular show when I was touring with it, so it was a blast to be a part of it. I got to see all of North America on someone else’s dime. It was a magical time.
The most difficult part after a few hundred shows was finding a way to keep it fresh for ourselves so that it was fresh for the audience. There would be times when we’d literally be discussing our post-show meal plans onstage… that’s when the discipline snaps you back to ‘What am I doing?! There are 1,500 people out there paying good money to see my best!’ So, you learn how to reconnect with the material and put some life back in it. It’s an invaluable lesson to learn, one you can only learn from performing the same stuff over and over and over.
I was a member of the ensemble and I understudied two principal roles. I highly recommend understudying if you can… it makes your brain and memory work in ways you never knew where possible, plus if you’re in a long-running production, you get the variety of playing different roles here and there. I’d enjoy the low-responsibility ensemble experience most of the time, then get to be queen-for-a-day when I’d go on as the lead! I had to do that a few times in the middle of a show, so that really teaches you to be ready for anything. ‘The show must go on’ is not a cliché, it’s the truth.”
What are some projects that you have worked on post-graduation? What are some of your favorites and why?
“I’ve done a lot of symphony work for the last six to seven years, and I really enjoy that. Typically I book concerts one-at-a-time, but I have also been traveling with a show called
Disney in Concert
. We’ve been to a ton of U.S. and Canadian orchestras, but also Ireland, Australia, Taiwan, Korea, and Mexico! My favorite symphony show I’ve done so far was with the incredible London Symphony Orchestra. It was the film music of Dimitri Tiomkin, and they recorded an album live from that concert in London. One of the songs was nominated for a Grammy®!
I do book shows still, but the symphony work has been the bulk for me for a while. I find that I use the skills I learned as an actor at CU the same amount, just not in the same way!”
What does acting mean to you? Why is it important on both an internal and external scale?
“Acting to me is all about storytelling. This is not a revolutionary statement… it’s what we train to do! I just know that as a vocalist, acting is vital to the story of a song. We’ve all heard a pretty voice and thought ‘Wow, that’s nice.’ But it’s the singers that take you on a journey with the story of a song that is really exciting and moving. I strive with every note, every phrase, to invite my audiences into the world I’m trying to create as I sing. Sometimes it’s very obvious what choices I need to make (singing music from
, for instance, she says she’s glad she left her tower, and the story is that she’s glad she left her tower), other times it’s more subjective, and that’s where my training in acting from the inside out comes in handy. The story of the song has to have something to do with Whitney’s emotional life for it to resonate with an audience.”
I also would love to hear some fun stories about your experiences as a creator!
“How much time you got? I have so, so many… just this last weekend I was performing
Disney in Concert
with the Dallas Symphony. We do a medley of gospel songs from the movie
to close act one. For whatever reason, this time my three castmates and I really connected with each other during the show as opposed to just focusing on projecting the lyrics out to the audience. It was a blast! We’ve sung that medley 100 times, but this time was a ton of fun. It’s always great when a performance evolves over time.”