contributing editors

Kevin Morrissey
Los Angeles City College

Editor’s Note: In this issue, City’s Theatre Arts Chair Kevin Morrissey discusses the healing power of theatre and how the theatre artist can make a life—and a living—for him- or herself. He also shares photographs from City’s Theatre Academy productions.

To see the pictures from the production of City's Theatre Arts Department, click here.

Developing a Voice Via Theatre and a Life in Theatre

Nuala Lincke-Ivic: Kevin, in this Fall 2012 issue of West, I interviewed a very good 23-year-old creative writer—William Diaz, who is a former gang member. In my interview with him, he told me that a lot of young people join gangs because they have no outlet to express themselves; all they know is the four corners of their neighborhood. When William told me this, I immediately thought of James Baldwin's famous 1963 speech "A Talk to Teachers." In it, Baldwin said of black children: “They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see, and we, their elders, know how to intimidate them very easily and very soon.”

I think that what Baldwin said about black children in 1963 applies to all children in lower socioeconomic communities today, especially ethnic minorities: There are fewer creative outlets for them to express themselves. With California in a budget crisis, community arts programs are dwindling. What are you thoughts about the arts—and particularly theatre arts? Do you think that art programs—and theatre arts programs, in particular—can save young people from the mean streets of Los Angeles and elsewhere, wherever gangs flourish?

Kevin Morrissey: What a great question. I have seen students in exactly this predicament enter the Theatre Academy and thrive and develop a voice as a creative artist. Not just people at risk with gangs, but also substance abusers who find the demands of personal discipline placed on them at the Theatre Academy a strong influence and positive reinforcement of working a 12-step program.

In the eight years I have been at City College, I have had the privilege of working with students from all corners southern California and of the globe. Our students learn very quickly that the collaborative work of the theatre is demanding and requires true commitment. One of the exercises done in early acting classes—a trust exercise—requires an actor to fall backwards into the arms of classmates from the top of a ladder. This is a tangible, real-life metaphor of the work we do as theatre artists, whether as actors on stage or designers or technicians relying on others to show up and participate. While being an artist in the entertainment industry may take talent, it also takes commitment and the ability to show up and participate. The theatre academy and its faculty and staff provide this environment that allows creative inquiry—it, in fact, demands it.

NLI: In your opinion, why do comparatively few people in the population—isn't the number around 3%—attend plays?

KM: Well, unlike European or Asian countries, theatre does not receive the same cultural deference [in the United States]. The art form evolved into radio and television and film and currently web-based media, but at the heart of those events is the practice of storytelling. The instruction a student receives at the Academy provides core storytelling skills based on the context of Western theatre literature, new and old.

I would be curious to know if live events like concerts or events such as Cirque de Soleil are included in that figure. Live performance events, musical or otherwise, all have their roots in early drama. I would hope that including these types of events would increase that number somewhat. I do recognize, however, that the art form has evolved, and film and TV are in a direct lineage to the storytelling practices of theatre. Many of our courses at the Academy, including our most recent certificate in Design and Digital Media for the Entertainment Industry, reflect that evolution and allow a student studying in theatre to apply his or her skills to the broader entertainment industry.

NLI: Kevin, do many parents of college students seem to consider Theatre Arts to be too risky to choose as a major—not "safe," like business or nursing, which can enable students to earn a decent living? Do you think that the relatively low percentage of the population that attends plays—the 3% number I gave you in Question #2—has anything to do with a parent's possible opposition to a child majoring in Theatre Arts?

KM: It may, but what I remind parents and my students of is that the entertainment industry is an economic powerhouse and provides billions of dollars toward California's GDP. Many working artists live in our state and can honestly say that they make a living doing the work they do.

I truly believe that everyone on the planet has a role to play. Some people discover at a very young age that they cannot be kept from the "stage," and parents generally come to recognize this—why get in the way of a child's happiness, that child’s desire to participate in an art form that he or she truly loves? Most people who are driven to work in this field figure out a way, as Tim Gunn says, to "make it work," so while the chances of making it big as a star are not great, the chance of making a living is and can be achieved if you stick to it and remain dedicated to your goal.

NLI: How did you become a "theatre" person? When did your parents learn about your interest in the theatre arts? Did they respond favorably for your passion for the theatre arts?

KM: My parents were and to this day are very accepting of my desire to be an artist, to draw and paint, and they did what they could financially to support that. Although we were not well off by any means, my parents were able to enroll me in private art lessons while in junior high, where I studied drawing and painting.

I was able to channel my creative energy into theatre after attending a performance that my sister was in at high school. I discovered that I could design the "rooms" that were on stage. Also, I was really lucky in that I come from a long line of creative people.

My maternal grandfather was a graduate of the Art Students League in NYC back in the 20's and had a career as an illustrator and commercial artist. My grandfather's family, after emigrating to the U.S., made their living in the design field, and I was told had made curtains for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. Also, through my grandfather, Francis Kullak, I am directly related to Theodore Kullak, who was a prominent musician in Germany during the middle of the 19th century, and wrote symphonies and concertized and was a court composer. Although I have no musical training, I did continue the connection to the visual arts. My family always encouraged me and my siblings to pursue any field we wanted to as long as it was something we could devote all our energy to.

NLI: I heard once that a person can "make a life" for him- or herself in theatre, but not a living; is that true, in your opinion? What practical advice do you give to City's Theatre Arts majors about making a life for themselves in theatre—and making a living?

KM: I try to be honest without being too brutal to my students. Life in this business is not easy, and I worked many odd jobs to put myself through undergraduate and graduate school, from being Snow Bear during the holidays for Talhimers Department Store to waiting tables at restaurants. I think you can make a living, but not necessarily be wealthy. There are jobs all over the Southern California area in the entertainment industry at local amusement parks to industrials for corporations, so the work is out there. What I encourage students to do is be methodical and relentless in their pursuit of their goals, and [I tell them] that by staying focused along with developing good marketable skills, they will find employment.

In my case while I had experience in designing. I am also able to draft, and I parleyed that skill along with my ability to "show up" into membership in the Set Designer and Model Makers union for film and television. Granted, there were a lot of twists and turns in that journey, but I have had the pleasure to work on sitcoms like Frasier and Becker, episodic shows, and several feature films all because I know how to draft by hand and on a computer. Questions I tell students to ask themselves is: “What is the state of the art, and where can I learn the skills to be on the top of that wave?”

I was also lucky to study with a phenomenal teacher while at NYU, one of many, Lowell Detweiler. He had designed costumes for Saturday Night Live and many other TV shows. Lowell always said that a job had to have at least two of three attributes in order to accept it—it had to be artistically fulfilling, it had to be financially rewarding, and it had to advance your career. If the job did not have at least two of those attributes, you should pass it by, and to this day I find that to be very sound advice, so sound I still pass it on to all my students.

NLI: Kevin, let’s pretend that I'm the parent of a college student who wants to major in Theatre Arts. I want her to be a dental hygienist—because I hear she can make $400 a day in this field. I come to you to express my concern about my daughter's intended major. What would you tell me?

KM: What I would say to you is: "What makes your child happy, and will she be happy for the rest of her life if she does not pursue her dream? Perhaps being a dental hygienist is the best choice, but it is a choice that your child ultimately has to make for herself.”

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