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This summer, we learned that Bill Pullman '80G was to star in David Mamet's Oleanna with Julia Stiles on Broadway. Bill, who has not forgotten the Department as his star has risen in the film and theater worlds, was in touch with chair Penny Remsen. Before we knew it, the casual idea that some students would come see the show grew into a plan to bring a handful of the Department's most promising actors and stage managers to New York for an intensive weekend that included meetings with top theater professionals, behind-the-scenes opportunities, and top-quality theater.
Bill took the idea and ran with it. We knew he was busy setting up opportunities for our students via email missives he sent to Penny on a regular basis. We knew he meant serious business when he sent along 'homework' for the students about a week before the trip — a list of names, theaters, and more he wanted them to research before they arrived.
The students, 12 of them (10 undergrads, 2 grad students) took him at his word and were able to greet Bill's friend Johanna Day with a knowledgeable, "Hey, you were on two episodes of Judging Amy!"
But we get ahead of ourselves.
Bill selected the Drama Book Shop as our meeting point. There, he introduced us to Day and led the group, tour-leader style, to a nearby deli where everyone grabbed food. Bill and Johanna Day held a conversation that was an entertaining as it was informative. The talented former co-stars (Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry) spoke about their starts in the business and shared war stories, peppered with advice about how to survive in the business. Johanna left the group after lunch, but not before sharing her email with several students who were interested in staying in touch.
A short walk and a couple of flights of stairs up, we met up with the Barrow Group, which trains people in various areas of theater and presents new work. Headed by husband and wife Seth Barrish and Lee Brock, the pair warmly welcomed students for an information session that included specifics about interning for their organization, as well as a wide-ranging conversation about making one's own opportunities, a subject in which students thinking about starting their own companies had much interest. Barrish, the author of An Actor's Companion: 99 Bits of Craft, ended up selling about a dozen autographed copies to students inspired by his words.
After that, it was off to the Maggie Flanagan Studios, where we met with Ms Flanagan herself. The founder of an intensive Meisner acting program, she had assembled a panel of students and instructors to talk to our students. Though of course the panelists were enthusiastic about their school in particular, they offered helpful general advice as well to performers contemplating a move to New York and a further study of their craft. Bill waved his goodbyes to us after this event as he had a performance to give.
As much as the specific events were helpful to students, the whole day was an elegant master class in the values of networking. At each stop along the day's journey, Bill managed to parlay contacts into valuable opportunities for our students, and hopefully for those organizations as well.
For many students, the evening wrapped up with dinner with recent alumni; others headed off to Purgatorio, a sort of Halloween-haunted-house-performance-space-nightclub capably designed by another alumnus, David Korins '99. Once our hearts stopped pounding after we had been unceremoniously stuffed in coffins, we enjoyed seeing how a theater degree can be used toward unorthodox creative ends.
The next morning we gathered in front of the Players Club, where a light drizzle did nothing to dampen our excitement over getting to see this hallowed hang-out of New York theater luminaries. A kindly tour guide, club secretary Daniel Poole, allowed us a peek at Edwin Booth's rooms and shared colorful tales of the members' carousing before guiding us downstairs to lunch. We were joined by Bill's wife, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, who was as warm and wonderful a presence as her husband.
As Bill dashed off for his matinee, most of the group peeled off to Second Stage for a performance of Anna Deavere Smith's Let Me Down Easy, followed by dinner and a performance of Fela, then in previews (and since opened to rapturous reviews). We were particularly proud of the latter show since Visiting Professor in Sound Design Rob Kaplowitz created the sound design, assisted by Jack O'Brien '09.
The next day was the main event — we attended a matinee performance of Oleanna, where we had the privilege of seeing Bill at work. After two days of his affable, generous spirit and unpretentious interactions, it was thrilling to see him morph into a powerful actor, and specific character, in front of our eyes. The transformation was impressive, all the more so when he welcomed students backstage after the show. The students all crowded into his tiny Broadway dressing room and had a chance to say hello to Julia Stiles as well.
At this point, most of the students headed home — classes the next morning beckoned — while the graduate students, faculty and staff on the trip joined a select group of guests at a dinner in Bill's honor. Besides offering these guests the opportunity to rub elbows with our favorite actor, the event had the added benefit of helping to offset some of the costs of the weekend, as the donors' generous gifts helped pay for some of the tickets and transportation expenses for students.
It was a remarkable weekend that students are still talking about.
We asked the students who participated in the New York trip in October to tell us what was most memorable about the trip for them. Here's what some of them had to say:
Bill Pullman took time out of his busy schedule to spend time with us.
He was genuine and inspiring. We met with Johanna Day, who gave us advice
about acting in New York, the importance of friends in New York and hysterical
stories about her experiences on and off Broadway. At the Barrow Group,
Lee Brock and Seth Barrish told us about their acting style, the inspiration
of their theater company and the journey they endured. Being an aspiring
Artistic Director of a theater company, I took a special interest in their
story. I was able to walk away from the trip with my pocket full of email
addresses and phone numbers of the people I had met and returned to Amherst
more focused and inspired.
— Melissa Cleary
One of my favorite parts of the trip, other than meeting up with Bill,
was going to the Barrow Group. Learning about the other opportunities; like
apprenticeships and internships, things that aren't paid but get you connections
and keep you within the business. The ideas that Seth Barrish had were just
amazing, I feel like he is highly approachable and I seriously consider
applying for an apprenticeship with them in the future.
— Kyle Lampe
The most influential parts were talking to the young actors and, also the
individuals running the smaller group, like Seth Barrish and Lee Brock.
While we were able to hear about Bill's experiences and his rise through
the ranks, which was quite good to hear, it was particularly helpful to
hear from people in a more similar situation as mine. It was really good
to see the small theaters, to get an idea of the scope of the work in New
York. The shows were fun, but the actors and other theatre professionals
we talked to helped make it an informative and valuable trip.
— Nick Ortolani
I loved going to New York and hearing the different perspectives from all
of the professional actors and acting student at the Barrow Group and the
Maggie Flanagan Studio. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly and
made me want to move to New York. One of the best quotes of the trip
was from Maggie Flanagan explaining how as an actor you need to respect
yourself as an artist. The virtuosity in acting is not as obvious as it
is in other performing arts, so in order for others to take you seriously
you need to take yourself seriously.
— Ellie Race-Moore
I thought the opportunity to tour the player's club and see the elevator
door that Sarah Bernhardt once banged her wooden leg against was pretty
fabulous. Bill and Tamara were so kind, interested/interesting. Seeing Anna
Deavere Smith, sitting two feet away from her, WOW!
— Toby Bercovici
We kept busy in New York. Embedded here, some links to the people and organizations we encountered during the trip.
Tony Award-nominated actress Johanna Day (2001, Proof) joined the students and Bill Pullman for lunch. The erstwhile costars traded acting anecdotes about their work with Edward Albee and shared advice about breaking into the business. Read a short interview with Johanna Day about, among other things, her work on Edward Albee's Peter and Jerry with Bill Pullman.
Bill introduced us to Seth Barrish and Lee Brock, who head the Barrow Group, a theater company with an active apprenticeship program. They welcomed our students to the theater for a free-wheeling discussion that covered everything from being an effective teacher to starting your own theater company. Many of our students left inspired — and carrying a signed copy of Barrish's book, An Actor's Companion: 99 Bits of Craft.
Thanks to Bill, the Maggie Flanagan Studio, a conservatory-based acting program in New York City invited our students to the studio for a Q&A with Ms Flanagan, some of the school's other instructors, and students.
Bill is a member of The Players Club, so he pulled some strings to get the group into the club for a tour of the hallowed gathering spot for performers, then bought us lunch.
Students attended a performance by Anna Deavere Smith, Let Me Down Easy, at Second Stage Theatre at Bill's recommendation.
We also attended Fela, a new Broadway musical that has a UMass connection in Five-College Visiting Professor of Sound Design Rob Kaplowitz and his assistant, Jack O'Brien '09.
And, of course, we attended a performance of Bill's current project, Oleanna, co-starring Julia Stiles. Students were invited backstage after the performance for a tour and had a chance to say hello to Bill and his co-star.
A video from the show's website: