Due to our small class sizes, conservatory-style training, and the personalized education for which Chapman University, CoPA students develop a strong sense of community that continues to serve them well after graduation. Recently, Monica Furman (BFA Theatre Performance ’17) interviewed Leah McKendrick (BFA Theatre Performance ’08) and McKendrick’s producing partner Mariah Owen about their newest collaboration—the superhero short Pamela & Ivy—which has just been released. Read on to learn about career outcomes of CoPA Theatre Performance alumni, Chapman career support for students and alumni, and an example of how collaboration and mentorship persists among CoPA graduates as they grow their careers in the performing arts.
During my time at Chapman, I had the privilege of working at the Office of Career & Professional Development for three years. I majored in Theatre as well as Peace & Conflict Studies, so some people may wonder why I invested so much of my time working with the Career team. Since graduating, I have moved back to my hometown of New York City and have begun pursuing a career in the performing arts. I can say, without a doubt, that the administrative, networking, and interview skills I learned throughout my work-study position in college have helped tremendously in securing day jobs, specifically with confidently negotiating pay and scheduling.
While these transferable skills helped me indirectly, I was curious to hear what career-based advice was available specifically for recently graduated artists. I visited my former Career supervisors a little over a year ago and was pleasantly surprised to hear that now there are area-specific career advisors. Emma Trammell, the CoPA career advisor, is a great person to talk to regarding the specific challenges creative majors face when graduating, from job search to union affiliation.
Additionally, I reached out to Chapman alum and filmmaker Leah McKendrick and her producer Mariah Owen, whom I met during my senior year at Chapman when then-President Doti granted them permission to shoot their first feature M.F.A. on our campus. Both McKendrick and Owen are definitely well on their way to the height of their careers. Since the success of M.F.A., they each have multiple projects in the works, the first of which is the recently released short film Pamela & Ivy, which chronicles the origin story of superhero Poison Ivy through a feminist lens. We sat down for a career chat across topics and timezones.
What are some things you’ve learned in your first few years post-grad that you believe should be a required course in theatre and film school programs?
Mariah: For me, I went to school for English and Cinema Studies. I think the biggest thing post-grad was learning how to fill out proper paperwork for all of the unions and how to get insurance permits. You already know you can create, you are a creative person. Well, how do you support that? You need to have some business skills. I think that would be an awesome kind of class to have in school programs.
Leah: I think the business is constantly changing, updating, and evolving to the point that it’s so hard to keep up if you’re not in it, you’re not in the trenches of it. And I think a huge thing for me is actors creating their own content. Not just actors, directors and writers too, and not waiting for permission. I wish there was a class teaching you how to get things made without money, because you’re probably not going to have any in those first few years and the answer really comes down to getting crafty and finding people that have similar goals.
Throughout my senior year at Chapman, the one resounding statement we received from alums and industry guests was, “Make your own work!” Why do you think that is so important in today’s entertainment industry?
Leah: I do think that people sometimes tune out when they go, “Well, I don’t write so this doesn’t apply to me,” and I just think there are so many scripts that are sitting in people’s computers that are gathering dust and never get made, written by writers that are too shy and afraid to go out and produce and get it made. And if you have a producorial spirit, whether you want to be a producer, a writer, an actor, you can champion a script, the way Mariah champions my scripts. She doesn’t necessarily need to write her own stuff to have a deep belief and get things made. And that is why I think so many people make excuses—oh I don’t have a script—so go find a script. There are film festivals every day. I’m sure there’s one in whatever town you’re living in and those are full of filmmakers and writers that are dying to have their stuff made. So I just think there’s no excuse. If you want to be in film, you need to make films; you don’t get better by thinking about making films.
Mariah: I think it’s really cool and empowering to make something and then have it out there. That’s the ultimate exercise in vulnerability and kind of, for me, what it means to be an artist. It all comes back to passion—if you really believe in it, if you really work on it, and you love that baby so much that you kind of set it up with all the potential opportunities you can and then you put it out there, and that’s a really rewarding feeling.
How important is mentorship in this industry? If you have a specific mentor, how did you create that relationship?
Leah: I definitely have my mentors that I turn to for guidance. One of those is a filmmaker, Shin (Shintaro) Shimosawa, who was our producer on M.F.A. and my professor at Chapman, John Benitz. I never thought I’d have the skillset to be a professional writer or director and I’m very grateful for the men in my life that could see me and say, “Just go write it yourself, you have all of these ideas.” I’m so grateful that Shin didn’t baby me and write any of my ideas for me. Instead, he said, “Yeah, go do it,” and he didn’t hold my hand. And I’m grateful for those mentors that see things in you that you can’t see in yourself necessarily. Imagine if he had just only seen me as an actress the way that I saw myself. John (Benitz) had me write my own scenes in Acting for Film class because I refused to do the scenes that everyone else was recycling.
Mariah: You really need to have people around you whose work and work ethic you admire. When you constantly surround yourself with people who inspire you, your work is just going to automatically elevate, it has to. There are definitely people like Shin, and other people, Bill Marshall, who started TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), who I’ve really looked up to early in my career who said, “You can do this,” or, “I’m available for a coffee anytime, what are you up to?,” people who I can ask questions to anytime and people who I connect with. I think a big thing for me that’s helped as well is having mentors outside the film industry, people who are in business, or in tech, to keep my perspective fresh and to always be thinking outside of the box. As much as we are in the artist industry, it’s also a business. And having those mentors are helping me keep my artist vision afloat.
Chapman students and alumni can request career advising appointments through Handshake. All Chapman career services remain open throughout the summer, with the most up-to-date operational information here.