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Making It Happen

Brandon Snider ’99 and Kevin Kane ’98 brought their act, along with seven members of their Collective NY acting ensemble, to CCU to share knowledge of what it means to succeed in New York.

By Sara Sobota 
Photos by CCU Photography 

     Seeing these nine actors lined up in simple chairs in the darkened Edwards Theatre, it’s easy to imagine we’re sitting in New York. They talk about their craft candidly and reflectively, conveying at once the excitement, the tedium and the intrinsic reward of pursuing an acting career in the Big Apple. CCU theatre students lean forward during this common hour session, listening and seeming to absorb with their very bodies the lifestyle, experiences and lessons these actors have to offer.

    CCU alum Kevin Kane ’98 and Brandon Snider ’99 brought seven members of their acting ensemble The Collective NY to visit CCU for five days in March 2017, running on a busy schedule of acting workshops, writing workshops, two performances that included three CCU students, and, perhaps most importantly, providing an insider’s perspective on what a career in acting actually looks like.

    Kane has won an Emmy and a Peabody Award for producing Inside Amy Schumer, has appeared in feature films including Trainwreck and this spring’s Snatched (see page 15), and is one of the founding members and co-artistic director of The Collective NY, a not-for-profit theater and film production company. He believed bringing a group of actors to campus would have a more significant impact on students than if the visit were limited to Snider and himself. In addition, he felt that seeing the ensemble’s work would offer students an experience they wouldn’t otherwise encounter in the area.

    “I just thought how much I would have appreciated that when I was here and how much I would have wanted to see that,” says Kane.

    The Collective’s work is emotional, raw, edgy and intimate. The group presented six original 10-minute plays that premiered in October 2016 at the fourth annual Collective:10 Festival in New York. Scenarios included a woman visiting a former love in prison the night before his execution; a group of passersby witnessing a man attempting to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge; and a man in possession of a piece of toast branded with Jesus’ likeness, which he exploits as a tourist attraction. The plays vacillate between moments of gut-busting humor and occasions of searing pain, loneliness and desperation, portraying scenes of poignant and brutally honest human interaction.

   Visiting Collective NY artists included Emma Canalese, Karen Chamberlain, co-artistic director Robert Z. Grant, Mike Houston, Lacy Marie Meyer and Ross DeGraw, with Rachel Dart as stage manager. Kane and Snider also worked with CCU students T.J. Little, Rhett Hanenkratt and Wes Williams, who all appeared in one of the plays.

    Kane leans forward in his chair during our brief interview, folding his arms and legs into himself and seeming to minimize the space his body occupies. He runs his fingers through his shoulder-length dark hair grown intentionally shaggy for a movie he’s recently filmed in Hawaii as he considers advice for aspiring actors.  

    “I want them to see the work we do, how it comes together, the kind of family aspect of the company, and underpeople,” Kane says. “It’s a collaborative business, and finding your network of people is as important as finding an agent. It’s as important as learning how to audition, but it’s the thing no one realizes.”

    Kane co-founded The Collective NY in 2007 with a group of actors, including Amy Schumer, Houston and Grant, with a mission of uniting professional artists who share a responsibility to create work in the contemporary American theater that is emotionally truthful, socially relevant and accessible. Ensemble members share roles of producing, directing and acting in original works, and they meet weekly to try out new material and exchange feedback among trusted peers.

    “We use each other to reflect back to ourselves what our choices are saying,” says Grant. “Truthful behavior – that’s what we’re looking for.”

    During his time on campus, Snider spoke to multiple student groups including theater students and Master of Arts in Writing students about his multifaceted artistic career. In addition to working with The Collective, Snider writes chapter books for young adults on licensed Marvel characters (see page 16). He is energetic, demonstrative and quick-witted, emphatically gesticulating as he takes the long view on his three decades in New York. 

    “The first thing I want to do is try to take the pressure off students,” he says.  “Don’t think about the performance; it’s the journey that matters. Don’t think about the end product. Dive into it – do the work, and it will happen, and you’ll say, ‘Oh, I did it.’”

    However, Snider’s message isn’t all optimism.

    “Nobody is waiting for you in New York,” he says. “People move to New York and they think of a big break; their path is like, ‘I get this, I do this, everything changes.’ And there is all this meat – this life – that happens on the way to whatever this break or this shift is. You’re not going to rise to and shift to this other place without having had all these other experiences, so I think it’s important for a young person to not just think they have it figured out. They have to get in there and have the journey. You have to get in there and start doing it and be willing to throw away some of the equation that you think will work for you, because you will find that it might not.”

    Those early years can be tough, Kane agrees. He headed to New York a few months after graduating from CCU with “no plan, no contacts, nothing. I didn’t know what I was doing.” Jobs included bartending, being a paralegal, and cleaning bathrooms in between brief acting stints. “In the beginning, the reality of the economics of that life becomes so real and so severe that even your career plans may have to be put on pause,” Kane says, “because it’s going to take you a while to even figure out how to live there. I remember thinking, ‘Paying rent is my profession, and I haven’t even taken one acting class yet.’”

    Snider, who had known Kane and shared the stage with him in a 1996 CCU production of The Importance of Being Earnest (which was Kane’s very first time on stage and was directed by Charles Whetzel, former CCU associate professor of theatre), joined Kane in New York after about a year, in addition to a “revolving cast of roommates,” Kane recalls. The two remained roommates for about five years and learned quickly that humility and flexibility are essential to carving out a life in the city.

    “An unwillingness to adapt will make your journey in New York very difficult,” Snider says. “People who think they’re above it are going to have a tough time. You’re going to have to go outside your comfort zone; otherwise. you might not survive.”

    Kane explains that every actor who finds his or her way through the early years gains crucial experience, insight and maturity: “It’s the life that needs to be infused into the work,” he says.  “Every artist is going to have that ‘aha’ moment when it’s about interpreting how they feel and how they live and what their ideas and their ideals are.  For me, it happened probably in my late 20s. It just happens after doing this thing for years and not quitting.”

    Kane and Snider were happy to return to the CCU to visit, work with students and perform. Besides being shocked at how the campus and the theatre program have grown, they were eager to see former faculty members including Sandi Shackelford, retired CCU professor of theatre whom they credit with having a long-term influence on their careers.

    “People invested in me while I was here,” Kane says, “and I don’t take that lightly.”

Spirit of the Superhero

By Maggie Nichols

    “Balance is the eternal struggle,” says Brandon Snider, who blends writing, acting and producing in a multifaceted artistic life.

    When he isn’t acting or directing, Snider works in licensed publishing, writing original chapter books for children based on movies and television series such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Adventure Time.

    “Because I write for established worlds, I’m always trying to find ways to layer in positive messaging,” says Snider. “My Guardians of the Galaxy chapter book starring Gamora may look like a cosmic adventure, but it’s also a survivor’s story about the family you create for yourself.”

    Though his target audience is children, Snider doesn’t shy away from tough subjects.

    “Kids have an open mind and heart,” he says. “That makes it easier to present empowering, emotional stories of inclusivity. They’re not as resistant to things as some adults might be.”

    Snider notes that his acting background allows him to tap into his characters’ heads and find their motivation.

    “It’s possible to tell fresh stories that feel familiar because some themes are timeless. I try to find that symmetry.”




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Having It All

By Maggie Nichols

    Since its inception in the fall of 2010, CCU’s Master of Arts in Writing (MAW) program has been a home for burgeoning writers of all kinds, offering an experience unlike those of other graduate level institutions in the field. While many programs divide the fields of English into separate degrees, MAW offers a range of courses from creative writing to composition and rhetoric, from literature to linguistics, from editing and publishing to pedagogy that allow students a wide range of choices for concentration or diversification in their experience.

    MAW students also benefit from an array of experiential learning opportunities including graduate assistantships, which include positions teaching composition courses alongside professors, working in the Athenaeum Press, and researching, marketing and tutoring in the University’s writing center as lead consultants.

    “I’m in a position where I can sort of have it all,” says Lanessa Salvatore, a first-year MAW student. “I can continue honing my craft in poetry while exploring the field of rhetoric and composition and teaching at the college level.”

    Joe Oestreich, coordinator of the MAW and CCU associate professor of English, directs the program, which has grown from only a handful of students in 2010 to a class of 25 in 2016.

    “I’m proud of the fact that most students are awarded graduate assistantships,” says Oestreich. “One of the best ways to learn anything is to be teaching it at the same time.” These positions also grant students work experience that makes them more desirable in the job market and in the application process to other programs.

    Sam Riley ’16, current Ph.D. candidate in composition and rhetoric studies at the University of New Hampshire, entered the CCU MAW program specifically to take advantage of the teaching assistantship opportunities.

    “I went into the program expecting to graduate and continue on for a Ph.D. in composition and rhetoric. That was my plan since day one,” Riley explains. “I wanted to gain experience teaching in a college classroom to see if it was something I would enjoy doing in the future.”

    For the full duration of the program, Riley worked as a teaching assistant with Emma Howes, CCU assistant professor of English.

    “I watched her teach, taught alongside her and received individualized feedback every step of the way,” said Riley. “I still use many of the writing activities that Emma and I used together. I very much attribute the writing instructor I am today to the guidance of my mentor.”

    Krystin Santos ’16, currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Kentucky, says the flexibility and breadth of CCU’s MAW program allowed her to study multiple genres of writing, which has been a true advantage in her terminal degree coursework.

    “Cross-genre experience was encouraged,” says Santos. “The classes I enrolled in during the MAW ranged from fiction workshops to poetry forms to technical writing. The wide range that I was able to experience and see how my genre, creative nonfiction, fit into the others was vital in my MFA experience.   

    “In my MFA, I’m able to bring in various aspects of different genres and fields in order to not only strengthen my writing but also the conversations I am having in the classroom.”

    What makes MAW a valuable experience for students is that they get what they want out of it. Students in the program are offered opportunities that branch into real-world experience.

    Editor. Publisher. Teacher. Research consultant. These and more are potential career paths for graduates of the program who emerge with a blend of writing and teaching abilities in their professional arsenal.

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