How the CMU School of Drama is working to broaden its definition of a star
The Purnell Center for the Arts is a relatively unassuming building on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus. Its utilitarian exterior doesn’t reflect the razzle-dazzle going on inside.
Its main doors lead directly into an atrium with staircases fit for a grand entrance and upper levels reminiscent of a hotel or mall. You may spy students rehearsing a scene from a show or working on their latest design project in the cavernous first floor area. Listen closely to catch singing emanating from the 450-seat Philip Chosky Theater, 140-seat Helen Wayne Rauh Theater — or anywhere someone is feeling particularly theatrical.
Welcome to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, Pittsburgh’s very own star factory.
“The amount of talent that passes by my door every day, the joy and theater that just kind of emerges no matter where you are, it’s indisputable, immutable and you can’t tamp it down,” said Anne Mundell, a professor of scene design who has been at CMU since 1989.
As of April, School of Drama alumni had earned a combined 52 Tony Awards, 13 Academy Awards and almost 150 Emmy Awards, plus the six Tonys that three CMU grads won at this year’s ceremony. The school has become a force to be reckoned with among the nation’s top arts conservatories.
But — like much of the broader entertainment ecosystem — CMU’s School of Drama is also trying to find a new sense of balance when it comes to pushing its talented students to do their best without burning out and preparing students for their next steps without feeding into stereotypes or discouraging those who might not fit traditional molds.
It’s not an easy balance to find. But then again, easy isn’t a word one hears much around the CMU School of Drama.
‘Working themselves to nubs’
About 3,000 prospective students apply to the School of Drama every year, according to Mica Harrison Loosemore, its inaugural director of recruitment and enrollment. Of that group, 1,000 to 1,200 typically get auditions for a freshman class that usually includes about 60 students.
Anyone who gets in can expect to work. Hard.
2018 grad Myha’la Herrold, now the star of HBO’s “Industry,” described her time at CMU as “the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.” The work was intense, she said, but she learned so much.
That’s not news to anyone at the School of Drama, including Mary Ellen Poole, who has been dean of CMU’s College of Fine Arts since August 2021. She has already gotten the impression that the students’ and faculty’s combined ambitions sometimes come at a steep price.
“They’ve created a kind of situation where they are working themselves to nubs,” Poole said.
“I don’t want to lose anybody unnecessarily. They know this. I’m not saying anything they haven’t been talking about for years. Everybody has a lot of optimism that … they can find ways to maintain the incredible rigor and quality of the program while making it a more humane workspace for everybody.”
Times and teaching philosophies change when a school has been around as long as this one. Established more than a century ago in 1914, it holds the distinction of being the first dramatic institution in the U.S. to offer a degree-granting program.
Set up as a conservatory, the school’s students are trained in every aspect of six disciplines: acting and musical theater, directing, dramaturgy, design, dramatic writing, and production technology and management.
It’s the kind of place where students like 1998 graduate Dagmara Dominczyk regularly “went to bed and woke up breathing theater.” That intensity is fed by the passionate students and teachers who believe in creating a training ground where young talent can “fail spectacularly” in the name of learning, as senior associate head and assistant professor of acting Kyle Haden put it.
Certainly, proof of the results are everywhere. CMU alumni grace the big screen, small screen, Broadway and stages across the country. There are even more in behind-the-scenes roles throughout the entertainment industry. This little school keeps pumping out generation after generation of stars, helping students from Joe Manganiello to Ming-Na Wen to Billy Porter achieve their dreams.
No one wants to lose that magic.
“You can’t teach people to be talented, but you can teach them to make the most of their talents,” said Stephen Schwartz, a 1968 School of Drama graduate who composed and wrote lyrics for the Broadway classics “Godspell,” “Pippin” and “Wicked.”
“And I think CMU really excels at that.”
‘Nobody is better educated’
It’s a safe bet that you’ve come across CMU alumni in your favorite movies, TV shows, and plays or musicals without even knowing it. Heck, all you have to do is turn on HBO or HBO Max to find Dominczyk starring in “Succession” and “We Own This City”; Herrold on “Industry”; 2003 grad Griffin Matthews on “The Flight Attendant”; 2006 grad Anthony Carrigan on “Barry”; and 2014 grad Denee Benton on “The Gilded Age.”
Before that, they honed their craft on School of Drama stages in Oakland — and maybe had a little fun in Squirrel Hill or Shadyside.
Alexis Floyd, a 2015 graduate, fell in love with local dining staples like Pamela’s and Mad Mex. “The Haunting of Hill House” star and 2017 graduate Victoria Pedretti bought her first drink at the Squirrel Hill Cafe. Herrold got inked at Sinners & Saints Tattoo Shop.
And they put on shows.
Local theater enthusiasts in the mid-1990s may have caught Dominczyk in a 1997 CMU production of “The Philadelphia Story” or 1995 graduate Patrick Wilson — Dominczyk’s future husband — in a 1995 student-run version of “Cabaret.” Anyone attending shows in the early 2000s could claim they saw performances from 2003 graduates Matthews, Josh Gad (“The Book of Mormon”) and Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”).
The early 2010s saw Benton in a 2013 production of “As You Like It” and Floyd (Netflix’s “Inventing Anna”) in a 2014 version of the August Wilson play “Seven Guitars.” More recently, folks might have seen 2018 graduate Kennedy McMann (The CW’s “Nancy Drew”) in “A Bright Room Called Day” and 2021 graduate Simone Joy Jones (Peacock’s “Bel-Air”) in “The Dance Floor, the Hospital Room, and the Kitchen Table.”
As Carrigan put it in a recent Post-Gazette interview, CMU afforded him “an opportunity to really try and fail and learn from all those failures.”
Jones told the Post-Gazette in February the school helped her gain the stamina for a shooting schedule that often requires 5 a.m. starts and late finishes. She cemented that work ethic through juggling classwork and performance responsibilities with real-world acting experience in locally filmed Hollywood projects like Netflix’s “The Chair,” Showtime’s “American Rust” and Amazon Prime Video’s “Anything’s Possible.”
Matthew Stocke, a Green Tree native and 1995 graduate, has been working consistently on Broadway since the late 1990s. Earlier this year, he was in town as a cast member in the national tour of “Pretty Woman: The Musical.”
As a freshman, he struggled to the point that faculty threatened to cut him if he didn’t get his act together. His desire to stick around became “the driving force behind my newly applied work ethic.”
“One of the things that has sustained my career is that every audition I’ve ever gone into, nobody is better educated than I am or has better training than I have,” Stocke told the Post-Gazette in February. “That’s a very confident thing to take into auditions with you. In a business that’s very subjective, that’s one thing I can always rely on.”
‘Very, very talented students’
Each freshman class at the School of Drama contains about 24 acting and musical theater majors, 24 design and production specialists, and 12 students across the other tracks, according to Loosemore. The school graduated 76 students in 2022 — 57 undergrads and 19 MFA candidates.
“One of the things that I talk with students about is that whether or not they get in doesn’t have to do with their talent level necessarily,” Loosemore said. “As we’re admitting students, we’re looking at forming a cohort. And there’s no right way to do that.”
Those accepted must be ready for a four-year crash course in what it takes to become a working entertainment professional.
Tomé Cousin, an associate professor of dance who has been teaching there for 11 years, schools his students in five different choreography styles and techniques. His plan is to “overtrain the actor” with “the hardest, most difficult things they can do.”
When they leave, he wants them to be skilled and confident enough to face any dance-related challenge with a mindset of, “That’s it?”
Students seem to take pride in their abilities to handle whatever is thrown at them.
“It’s rigorous, but in the best way,” said Susana Cordon, a 20-year-old rising junior and musical theater major from Durango, Colo. “I look to my left and right and there are people as passionate as I am and just phenomenal artists. … All of us are on our own path and in our own lane, and we all have each other for support.”
Sunday Saari, a 23-year-old Minneapolis native and recent musical theater graduate, said studying at CMU was an “incredibly challenging and grueling four years.” She’s quick to add that it was worth the grind thanks to opportunities like participating in a student production of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” and being part of a group that sang and received feedback from Schwartz in April.
“It completely rewired how I thought performance was supposed to be,” Saari said. “Everything I put into performance and creating and embodying a character is different than when I walked in.”
‘My own individual voice’
Not every CMU School of Drama student dreams of performing in front of a camera or audience. Many have found their passions lie in other aspects of entertainment creation. Their ranks include:
• Ann Roth, a 1953 graduate, renowned costume designer and two-time Academy Award winner.
• Paula Wagner, a 1969 grad who co-founded Cruise/Wagner Productions with Tom Cruise.
• John Wells, a 1979 grad and showrunner of TV hits “ER” and “The West Wing.”
• Christian Hoffman, a Shaler native, Pixar veteran and lead character supervisor on this year’s “Turning Red.”
The School of Drama invests heavily in behind-the-scenes training with spaces like its John Wells Video Studio, Costume Shop, Scene Shop, Sound Lab, Light Lab, design studios, and production and technology classroom.
Evan Riley, a 20-year-old rising junior and costume design major from San Antonio, chose Carnegie Mellon because he wanted to be challenged. He has enjoyed getting a lot of hands-on experience at a small school where everyone knows everyone. He said the costume department holds a forum once a week where everyone talks about the various projects they’re working on both within the school and elsewhere.
“You don’t just get in the program and the opportunities get handed to you,” he said. “Most of the people in the School of Drama have that work ethic and drive, and that’s why when they get out, they’re constantly hiring other CMU people who got the experience and training they got and can be trusted.”
One of Riley’s professors helped get him an internship in New York City last summer, and he has spent the past few months in Los Angeles trying to gain professional experience as a production assistant. He shouted out a few professors who have guided his path as a designer, including his adviser, Susan Tsu, a Bessie F. Anathan university professor of design since 2003 and a 1972 CMU graduate.
The world-renowned costume designer and educator teaches her students the finer points of costume-making while also emphasizing the need to develop their imaginations.
“I’ve always told our students that there is no difference at all between who they are as people and who they are as designers,” she said. “It’s part of our obligation as teachers to illuminate certain ways of thinking and questioning why we are the way we are and what our biases are.”
Peter G. Andersen, a 32-year-old MFA directing candidate from Mequon, Wis., came in with a decade of acting experience and the goal of pursuing a career in regional theater and arts administration. He prizes the leeway that CMU directing students are given to create their own work. His thesis project is a queer reimagining of William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” featuring original songs.
“I think it’s helping me get more specific in what I can push artistically in a piece so my own individual voice stands out a little bit more,” he said.
‘Couldn’t find my place’
No one disputes how well the School of Drama has long prepared its students to find their place in various entertainment ecosystems. But it wasn’t always great at helping them become the best versions of themselves.
Matthews, a 40-year-old McCandless native and 2003 graduate who is Black and identifies as gay, told the Post-Gazette last year that he “couldn’t find my place in that program.”
He would often get notes from professors suggesting that he put more bass in his voice or stick out his chest more. He didn’t study under a Black professor until he took a class taught by Porter, a 1991 graduate, his junior year.
In Matthews’ estimation, the school treated him like the actor they wanted him to be, not the one he was.
University officials and staff acknowledge they have heard that complaint before. They say they have worked, especially over the last decade-plus, to promote students’ individuality and foster an environment of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Interim leaders had been guiding the School of Drama since Peter Cooke stepped down from that position in September 2020 after 11 years as its head. Megan Monaghan Rivas took over as School of Drama head for about a year before leaving for another job at the University of Connecticut. Mundell, who had filled that role since August, notes the past decade has brought demands from students for more accountability from faculty and administration in terms of practicing the ideals they claim to value.
“There were some really public outcries from students,” Mundell said. “We decided we wanted to take that on from the front end and really listen. The work is hard.”
Last fall, Poole spent a week embedding herself in all five College of Fine Arts schools — drama, architecture, music, art and design. She came away impressed with School of Drama professors for moving away from “the professor is always right” model of teaching and with students for being both “hyper aware of” and vocal about the changes they want to see.
“Sometimes it can feel like there’s lots of turmoil in the School of Drama,” Poole said. “It’s because they talk openly and honestly about things and they have the courage to talk about things. Stuff comes out that might stay under the rug in more buttoned-up schools.
“School of Drama puts it all out on the table. Sometimes they’re able to make really good progress, and sometimes it’s painful.”
One of the biggest recent changes was hiring Robert Ramirez, a queer Mexican American man and Poole’s former colleague at the University of Texas at Austin, as the school’s first-ever BIPOC head. Poole brought Ramirez in for “his empathy and tough-mindedness.” Ramirez said he’s ready to hit the ground running.
“CMU is already engaged in the work of listening to students and trying to figure out how to become better global citizens,” he said. “I’m excited to become part of that process and bring my perspective to it.”
At a recruitment level, Loosemore said the COVID-19 pandemic forcing virtual auditions turned out to be an unexpected boon for enticing more BIPOC applicants and allowing the School of Drama to reach prospective students in more parts of the country. They hope to continue that for the sake of accessibility and inclusion.
School of Drama-trained thespian Ayana Cymone, a 22-year-old Richmond, Va., native, was the school’s first diversity ambassador and helped create a spreadsheet of BIPOC-heavy schools, communities and theaters to reach out to during the undergraduate recruiting process.
Cousin co-founded and co-chairs the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee and was instrumental in establishing an anti-racist theater course in the wake of protests stemming from the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He said when he came to CMU in 2011, there were only two BIPOC professors. The faculty has since gotten much more diverse.
“It’s still choppy waters,” Cousin said. “But at least there’s a system now for change. Everyone has a voice and a language to actually say things and understand how to deal with harm, harm repair and harm reduction.”
‘A different appreciation’
Those who have been around CMU’s School of Drama for the last few decades bore witness to both its struggles and evolution.
“For years, it was like, you have to be thin, buff and look like you can fit into that soap opera. I don’t necessarily blame our teachers for defining what America defined that to be. I’m very pleased that we’ve been broadening that.”
Mundell said that when she arrived here more than 30 years ago, the curriculum was largely centered around “what we would now consider a very narrow canon of Western European and American work” and has since expanded to include “broader and more global-facing” texts.
Tsu said the student bodies she is costuming have also changed.
“For years, it was like, you have to be thin, buff and look like you can fit into that soap opera,” she said.
“I don’t necessarily blame our teachers for defining what America defined that to be. I’m very pleased that we’ve been broadening that.”
Hollywood’s slow transformation into an industry that values different creative voices has allowed School of Drama professors to “let go of [students] having to be a certain type,” according to Haden. He sees his job as not so much trying to mold a student based on industry expectations, but rather to “identify talent and help a person figure out who they are.”
Matthews, the 2003 graduate, agreed with the notion that Hollywood is moving in the right direction in terms of providing more opportunities for entertainers of all stripes. He doesn’t blame CMU’s School of Drama for trying to prepare him for the roles available in the mid-2000s.
“I played the sassy secretary on several shows,” he said. “I’ve just come out of playing the sassy best friend, and I’m 40!”
Matthews hopes there “would be a different appreciation for the package I’m in” if he was a CMU student now.
‘Talent is a true gift’
Despite its evolutionary pains, the school is still churning out Hollywood and Broadway-ready talent at a rapid pace. Just having “Carnegie Mellon School of Drama” on a resume can be an inherent advantage.
There’s also the giant network of prominent alumni who love taking care of their fellow Tartans. Having the likes of Patrick Wilson actively telling the casting directors of his latest projects to make sure CMU alumni have a chance to audition is a benefit few other institutions can match. Alumni regularly drop in on classes either virtually or in person, and they often attend the school’s annual student showcases in New York City and Los Angeles.
Cymone, the recent School of Drama graduate, hopes to one day start her own production company.
It wasn’t that long ago that she was a timid, withdrawn freshman stepping into the Purnell Center for the Arts for the first time. The building’s walls are lined with photos of former students — including some famous alumni — that could intimidate anyone. Could she follow in the footsteps of alumni like Odom and fellow “Hamilton” star Renee Elise Goldsberry?
“I knew coming into the school that it would be very rigorous and this was a conservatory and I would be doing this to set myself up for the future,” Cymone said.
She has advice for prospective students: “Come to this school if you want to be not only a better artist, but also a better person.”
Photography: Pam Panchak
An earlier version of this article stated that the school was leaderless after Peter Cooke stepped down. It has been updated to show Megan Monaghan Rivas’ tenure.