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Pandemic Provides Possibilities for Mentorship in the Arts

Amid shifting plans resulting from the ongoing global pandemic, professors in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Mississippi found new opportunities for students this fall by bringing in a diverse roster of alumni as guest speakers for a series of virtual masterclasses.

The idea began in the late spring, when Carey Hanson, professor of costume design, started calling on former students to see how they were faring in the changing environment – which has been particularly harsh to many who work in the arts and entertainment industries.

“I was worried about them all and how they were doing in the pandemic,” Hanson said. “I then wanted to connect our current students with our former students, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

“I had colleagues in the industry who had brought in professional guests via Zoom to meet with their students. Why couldn’t we bring in alumni who were also professionals as special guests? It seemed like a win-win.” 

Hanson’s initial bookings included Caroline Rea, a set costumer working on the NBC sitcom “Superstore,” and Jill Haley Gugliuzza, an assistant wig, hair and makeup supervisor for the American Ballet Theatre.

The idea was quickly picked up by Hanson’s departmental colleague Jared Spears, an associate professor of scenic design, who also began reaching out to former students. Spears noted that various conditions specific to the pandemic made it possible for guests to appear virtually when they might never have been able to otherwise.

“Under normal circumstances, between production and touring schedules and the expense of flying in guests, it would have been hard to pull together this kind of lineup,” Spears said. “Conducting these sessions remotely opened up a lot of possibilities.”

Six alumni – all graduates with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts who are working at a high level in their respective disciplines within theater design and technology – met with students in the Production Studies class via Zoom on Friday afternoons.

The talks lasted anywhere from one to two hours and, whether by design or by coincidence, followed a similar outline that could be summarized as “How I got from where you are to where I am.” All the speakers outlined their trajectory from their early interest in theatre through their time at UM and, for some, through graduate school and on to the career moves that led them to where they are today. 

While a variety of disciplines were represented – including costumes, hair and makeup, automation, lighting and sound – commonalities of experience among the alumni emerged, and certain nuggets of wisdom were shared, with slight variation, over and over again: Take every opportunity to learn and grow your skills; work hard and be nice; mind your reputation; and don’t be afraid to talk about money. 

The alumni who enlightened and entertained theatre and film students during the fall semester were: 

Caroline Rea (BA 05)

“If you are hard-working, and a good person, and determined, you will continue to work. Your reputation will become known really fast.”

Though originally interested in designing for Broadway shows, Birmingham native Caroline Rea works in Los Angeles as a set costumer for the NBC comedy “Superstore.” Not prepared to go straight into an M.F.A. program after graduating from Ole Miss, Rea moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and worked in and outside the industry for several years.

A chance encounter with Hanson, her former professor, who was in Jackson Hole designing a production of “Oklahoma,” reinvigorated Rea’s desire to pursue her career in costume design. 

Having discovered an interest in film and television, she moved to California in 2011 and enrolled at the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising to hone her skills. Following FIDM, Rea earned a position as a wardrobe intern on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, working there for two years and becoming a production assistant, and then worked as a PA on “Bones” for two seasons. 

Rea emphasized the importance of union membership to get higher-level jobs that big studios offer only to union members – something she didn’t know much about when she arrived in Los Angeles. After years of networking and a grueling stint at Western Costume Co., the largest costume warehouse in the country, with more than 5 miles of clothes, she achieved membership.

This allowed her to get bigger and better television jobs, on shows including “Bones,” “Ten Days in the Valley” and “Here and Now,” before joining “Superstore” as a set costumer in 2018.

Lee Martin (BFA 09)

“You learn so many things in your time at school that are marketable skills, and even though they may not be where you normally use them – to create a story and to create a show – those skills are there for you to support yourself on as well.”

Lee Martin is in his seventh season with the Barter Theatre, the state theater of Virginia, where he serves as resident costume designer after working his way up from costume design assistant, to assistant designer, to associate resident designer. The costume shop at Barter, a repertory theater, is responsible for about a dozen productions per year, so it’s fortunate for Martin that he’s intimately familiar with the theater’s production processes and that he’s done the jobs of everyone he now oversees.

After graduating from UM with a B.F.A. in theatre arts with an emphasis in design and theatre production, Martin completed an M.F.A. at the University of Florida. Throughout his undergraduate and graduate years, Martin sought out positions that would both clarify his career goals and allow him to develop new skills or refine existing ones, including with Oxford Shakespeare Festival, the Lost Colony, Virginia Shakespeare Festival and the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. 

At one point, perhaps farther along his path than others might be willing to do so, Martin took an unpaid internship at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival – a bold move, considering the cost of living – because it would provide him with skills he wanted.

That experience also helped him determine that the New York theater life wasn’t what he truly desired; what he really wanted was to be part of a company in a mid-size town with a supportive arts community that he could enrich through his work – which is exactly what he found at the Barter Theatre.

Wesley McClain (BFA 09)

The moment you put a human life on the other end of it, it changes the whole ballgame.”

A specialist in automation equipment and supervisor of the automation department for Cirque du Soleil’s “O,” Wesley McClain is responsible for keeping a lot of moving parts going in the air – and in the water, as the 60 acrobats and swimmers in “O” perform both in the air above and in the water of a 27-foot-deep, 1.5 million-gallon pool in Las Vegas. 

Performers rely on the proper functioning of hydraulic lifts, flying apparatus and other pieces of motion equipment for both their safety and their artistry, and this is McClain’s domain. 

McClain graduated from UM in 2009 with a B.F.A. in theatre arts with an emphasis in design and theatre production. Attending the Southeastern Theatre Conference that year, he secured a summer position as a crew chief with Georgia Shakespeare Festival. 

But his SETC interviewer had also recommended him for automation; McClain, a self-professed “dabbler,” was intrigued, so he signed up to work for Carnival Cruise Lines that fall, starting out in Alaska, and was “immediately hooked.” 

In his four years with Carnival, he continued to build his automation skills, eventually becoming the fleet supervisor of all automation technicians for shows on eight ships. During that time, he also met his now-wife, a performer from whom he often was separated for long periods while they were working in different locations. 

Las Vegas was a place where they could live and work together; he joined Cirque du Soleil in 2013, and its production “O” in 2014. 

Kenneth Foster (BFA 10)

“Always, always, always take every opportunity to learn. If someone asks you if you have ever done something, and you say no, and that’s the end of the conversation, that is such a missed opportunity.”

In the 10 years since Kenneth Foster received his B.F.A. in theatre arts with emphasis in design and theatre production, he has held numerous technical theater positions, including lighting designer, carpenter/electrician, light board programmer, crew supervisor, stage technician, lighting supervisor and technical director. 

He held these roles at venues across the country, from the Lexington Children’s Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky, to Stagedoor Manor in Loch Sheldrake, New York, to Walt Disney World, where he worked at the storied “Puppet Hospital.” 

Foster’s wildly varied resume should come as no surprise; he considers himself a lifelong learner and has always jumped at the chance to learn something new – often adapting skills he already had to earn the opportunity to learn new ones. As an undergraduate, he spent three weeks in performance before realizing it wasn’t for him, then dipped his toe into props and scenic design until being encouraged into lighting design by department chair Michael Barnett. 

As technical director of the Marriott Theatre, which has received a record 500 Joseph Jefferson Award nominations – Chicago’s highest theatrical honor for artistic achievement – Foster is something of a jack-of-all trades who can jump in as quickly with a sewing needle as he can with a welder. 

Jill Haley Gugliuzza (BA 12)

“Work ethic and personality always win over talent. If you’re a hard worker and have a good personality and you show up on time, you will always be hired. Always!”

As assistant hair and makeup supervisor for the American Ballet Theatre, Jill Haley Gugliuzza creates wigs, styles hair, and paints faces for some of the most talented dancers in the world. 

After graduating from Ole Miss in 2012 with a B.A. in theatre arts, Gugliuzza completed an M.F.A. in wig and makeup technology at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and headed to New York, where she soon found herself working in the wig shop of “Saturday Night Live” and on such Broadway productions as “The Lion King,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” 

Like many of her fellow alumni, Gugliuzza early-on sought opportunities to build and practice her skills outside class – in her case, at M.A.C. Cosmetics, a global brand that allowed her to get her “hand on a brush, and that brush to people’s faces.” She considers this a small but pivotal part of her career.

Having worked with the American Ballet Theatre in some capacity since 2015, in her current role she has a hand in every hair- and makeup-related aspect of the theater, from managing stock and maintaining supplies, to organizing and packing everything needed for touring productions to building and styling wigs for each new show.

Kurt Davis (BFA 15)

“Post-college, it’s all about finding what works for you and how you measure your own success. Success is different for everyone.”

Kurt Davis is the campus technical director for Brevard College and head of sound and video for the Brevard Music Center in Brevard, North Carolina. He graduated in 2015 with a B.F.A. in theatre arts with an emphasis in design and theatre production focusing on sound design, and he’s another alumnus who’s been diligent in determining what kind of career would be most suitable for him. 

Davis had a clarifying experience when he went to work as a sound operator for the prestigious Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., almost immediately after graduation. 

Despite enjoying the work, he discovered quickly that the organization’s fast-paced schedule and associated high level of stress were not conducive to the kind of lifestyle he wanted to enjoy outside work: something quieter, with a predictable schedule and plenty of time for family. So he left D.C. and went back to his hometown of Jackson, where he went to work for New Stage Theatre. 

From there, he had the time and space to undertake a very deliberate search for his ideal career, which led him to Brevard, where he is able to do a mix of theatrical sound design and audio technology for events and musical performances. 

Davis reminded students that every experience – even ones that don’t go as hoped or planned – is valuable for the lessons learned as well as new skills acquired, and that nobody should be afraid to be honest about what they really want.

By Katherine Stewart

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