Hello Friends, welcome back to I Wish I Knew! I turned 30 this week(!), which actually turns out to be a perfect segue into this post. With a new decade ahead of me, I have been doing a lot of reflecting, and this week’s interview speaks to something I’m very passionate about and has been a huge part of my journey: grad school.

I went to graduate school at American Conservatory Theater straight out of undergrad, and it was definitely the right decision for me: I made some of my best friends, learned a lot about myself and how to be a better actor and although I came out with lots of student loan debt, I don’t regret it for a minute. It changed my life and my career for the better.

Many of the young artists I know (not just actors) are struggling with the question “to grad school or not to grad school” and so I thought it would be nice to interview my friend Shanelle Leonard who is about to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill with her MFA in Acting.

Shanelle Leonard

I met Shanelle (she/her/hers) in January 2018 doing Tartuffe and The Christians (by Lucas Hnath) at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina. Shanelle played Dorine in Tartuffe and STOLE THE SHOW. I mean, she was incredible and the audience couldn’t get enough. At PlayMakers, graduate students and their faculty do shows together, and I noticed that her teachers couldn’t stop talking about how much Shanelle had grown as an actor during her 2 years in the program. She seemed like the model grad student: learning, growing as a person and an actor, challenging herself, taking risks, tackling comedy and drama…in other words, the perfect person to share her story with the StageAgent community.

Shanelle Leonard and April Mae Davis in Tartuffe at PlayMakers Rep. Photo by HuthPhoto

Shanelle is so transparent with her past and what brought her to theater, it is such an honor to hold space for her story. I hope that if you’ve been contemplating grad school she gives you some insight as to what it’s like and how to take next steps.

Without further ado, Shanelle Leonard:

Q: Where did you grow up and when/why did you get interested in theater?

I was born and raised in Seattle Washington and I became interested in theater during my junior year of high school. I remember taking a theater class as one of my electives and we put together a show called “Not another Westside story”. I was really going through a hard time with my parents’ divorce and theater class was my favorite part of the day because it allowed me to feel free and accepted. The joy and peace I felt while performing and creating with my classmates was a feeling I desired to feel again long after high school.

Q: Did you study theater in undergrad? What made you decide to go to grad school?

I received my BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in my hometown. After receiving my degree I did a few plays here and there but I mostly worked as a Pre-K teacher because I needed a steady job at the time to help out with some family issues. I felt a bit guilty chasing a dream and barely making any money while my mother was fighting to keep a roof over our head so I knew I needed to get a full time job to help out.

After a few years of teaching and feeling unfulfilled I knew in my heart it was time to transition and get back to my first love, the arts! I began to audition for different plays and commercials and I would book a few things here and there but not on the level I truly desired. I found that I was getting into the rooms for auditions and callbacks, but then I wasn’t being asked to stay in those rooms. I knew there was something I was missing: true confidence. I realized that needed more skill to truly feel free and comfortable in auditions rooms, so that’s when I decided to further my education and apply to graduate school.

Q: What was the grad school audition process like for you and why did you decide to go to UNC Chapel Hill/PlayMakers Rep?

I actually auditioned to get into grad school about three times before trying the URTA’s in San Francisco (learn more about URTA auditions at http://urta.com). No one wanted to give me the time of day but I was determined! So, when I heard of the URTA’s I thought it would be a great opportunity to audition for multiple schools at once. After my URTA auditions I received about five callbacks and Playmakers was one of them.

I decided to go with Playmakers because during my callback audition I felt so at home while meeting the head of the program, Ray Dooley. He truly made me feel seen and I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Being around honest, genuine, kind people was just as important to me as a great education and I knew I was in great hands with Playmakers.

Q: What has been the most enjoyable part of grad school?

The most enjoyable part about being in grad school has honestly been the personal growth that has taken place. With leaving my comfort zone and being away from family and friends I really learned a lot about myself and about what kind of artist I want to be. I truly learned how to trust myself on stage and off and that is a huge lesson I’ll be forever grateful for.

Q: What has been the hardest part of grad school?

I would definitely say the hardest part about grad school was learning how to manage a busy schedule and take care of myself at the same time. There were days when I was so tired I didn’t know if I could physically make it. In those times another part of me I didn’t even know existed would kick in like a warrior queen and we would just get it done! You truly learn how strong you are in those times when you feel tired, overwhelmed and weak. I now know that there is another part of me I can tap into when I feel like I have nothing left to give.

Q: What is your favorite part about being an actor?

My favorite part about being an actor is the freedom I feel when I am truly present in a scene, and the fact that I get the opportunity to tell stories that can inspire and reach people. It is a beautiful feeling. It really reminds me that it’s not just about me but that there are other life’s that can be changed through this art form. This keeps me connected to something bigger than myself.

Q: What are your plans for after grad school?

After graduation I plan to move to New York where I want to focus on theater and on-camera work. I’m also interested in being a teaching artist, working with youth and theater in some capacity.

Q: What are some things you wish you knew before going to grad school for acting?

  1. Take it one day at a time. (No time for anxiety!)

  2. Self- care is extremely important and every little bit you do adds up! Take five minutes a day to journal or go for a walk, it matters!

  3. Your professors are there for you not only as teachers but also as a resource; don’t ever feel like you’re asking for too much!

  4. Take full ownership of your own education. If you feel like there is something lacking in the program ask around your university for grants so that you can apply for workshops, seminars, and classes to attend during school breaks or over the summer.

  5. Don’t be afraid to be messy while learning in a classroom setting. Embarrassment is your friend.

Q: Where can people find out more about you?

Instagram: shanellenicole1

Website: shanellenicoleactor.com

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