Dramatic Entrance by Nicholas Ducassi
Larry Powell steps on stage of the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. The 700-seat theater, 3,000 miles from Broadway, has for decades hosted Hollywood stars hungry for West Coast stage time. The actor—who received his professional training in Carnegie Mellon University’s rigorous theater conservatory program—has already established a respectable career through starring roles in regional theaters across the country. He doesn’t have an Oscar or an Emmy yet, but at 29—and with stellar reviews in The New York Times for two Off-Broadway plays already under his belt, he might be on his way to one.
He’s far from the first alumnus of CMU’s School of Drama theater program to make a living as an actor, which he credits to how students learn to transform pages of ink into living, breathing characters during their conservatory training.
It’s not uncommon for the drama school’s alums to bump into each other on set or backstage. A few examples include Broadway’s smash-hit “Hamilton,” which features Leslie Odom Jr. (A’03) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (A’93) in starring roles, and the second season of FX’s award-winning and critically acclaimed television show “Fargo,” which features three generations of CMU drama school graduates—Ted Danson (A’72), Patrick Wilson (A’95), and Rachel Keller (A’14). When you’ve been harvesting a crop of working actors year after year since 1914, it’s not so much serendipity as the result of the school’s time-tested techniques.
The school’s success is defined by its consistency, but individual acting careers unfurl in fits and starts. Dive into the biography of nearly any success story, and you’re bound to unearth bouts of unemployment, struggle, and long stretches spent wandering in the dark.
The reality of the business is that no matter one’s pedigree, the odds of success—whether that’s defined as making a living in Hollywood, Broadway, or otherwise—are long. Don Wadsworth, head of the school’s acting program, says that for most actors, the big break—if it comes at all—arrives “not with the first or second job—but with the 40th or 50th.” That’s why the program instills the principles of technique, perseverance, and flexibility. “Those are what could give you a career,” says Wadsworth, “instead of just one or two flashy parts in your 20s.”
Of course, there are stories of quick success among CMU actors—Wadsworth points to recent graduates Casey Cott (A’16), who, just days after his New York showcase this March, was on a Vancouver-bound flight to shoot the pilot for a new television show on the CW called “Riverdale.” Or Denee Benton (A’14), who is now making her Broadway debut as the lead in “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.”
But quick success is not the norm, and it by no means guarantees a career. Drama graduate Michael Finkle (A’09) now works for William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, one of Hollywood’s most powerful talent agencies, which represents multiple Academy Award–winning actors. He says that maintaining a career in show business boils down to the values that the School of Drama has always espoused: “Education, passion, commitment. … It’s easy to get a ‘job’—it’s much harder to maintain value. At the end of the day, it’s both a business and a craft. … You can certainly make a lot of money and blow through it quickly. But if you want to achieve longevity—that’s where craft comes in.”
But technique, perseverance, and flexibility only help one weather the dark days—they don’t make them any brighter. Like many young actors, Powell’s early career trajectory resembled the spikes and valleys of an irregular heartbeat on an EKG: months of acting work interspersed with unemployment checks, food stamps, and the word “no.”
Lured by the prospect of a television and film career, he moved to Los Angeles—his hometown—soon after graduating in 2008. One year later, though, he had added only one line to his resume—a play—and his agents weren’t all that interested in him doing another. On some level, he understood their reluctance: agents, who help put the “business” in “show business,” work entirely on commission, and one day of film or television work can pay more than one month in a play. But Powell didn’t spend four years watching recordings of Broadway plays in the sun-starved basement of the CMU library to work on his tan while waiting for his phone to ring.
Moreover, just as he was trying to get a film and television career off the ground, an explosion of powerful new plays was taking American theater by storm, many by young playwrights of color like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Katori Hall. The Los Angeles Times recently dubbed the era “the most revolutionary moment in American playwriting since Sam Shepard,” and others “began reinventing the dramatic wheel in the 1960s.”New York City was its epicenter, and Powell says that being 3,000 miles away made him feel as if he was “missing out.” With Hollywood giving him the busy signal, he gave New York a call and moved east in June 2009.
Pursuing a professional acting career usually entails moving to an infamously expensive city: New York or Los Angeles. To survive, many aspiring actors work unfulfilling jobs that offer flexible schedules in lieu of higher wages. Some bartend, others babysit or wait tables or work with temp agencies.
New York City drained Powell’s meager savings in less than a month. In order to pay the rent for the room he was subletting from a former classmate, Patina Miller (A’06), who was in London starring in the musical “Sister Act,” he took the first job that came his way: cleaning up at a tanning salon in Queens.
He recalls the routine vividly. After each tanning session, he would lift the cover of the bed, grab the bottle of disinfectant and the rag slung from his utility belt, and spray the tanning bed’s glass. In one instance, just as he restored the bed’s glass to a clear sheen, his manager, three years his junior, barked at him: “Damn man, you’re sweating! Calm down! Don’t work so hard.” Powell replied: “No—I’m not gonna stand around here like you. That’s how I stay here. I’m trying to get out of here.”
Knowing that turning his passion into a paycheck wasn’t going to be easy, he had listened closely to the advice doled out by visiting alumni during his CMU days. Successful CMU drama school graduates such as Zachary Quinto (A’99), Billy Porter (A’91), and Patrick Wilson (A’95) are just a few who have visited the campus in recent years and shared with current students the stories of their journeys. A common thread? That every actor’s path is unique. Advice? Never let your survival job break your spirit.
Yet, Wadsworth acknowledges that words of wisdom can only do so much: “To think that your career is going to be like anyone else’s is crazy. The work is so surprising and has so many detours—there’s really no way to prepare for it. You just have to learn it—live it—yourself.”
No wisdom could have ever prepared Powell for the fact that his early struggles would smell like chemical coconuts. Luckily for him, it didn’t last long. Less than a month into his tanning salon tenure, he booked his first New York show—as an understudy in the play “Broke-ology,” directed by Tony-nominated director Thomas Kail and produced by Lincoln Center Theater. Named “the pre-eminent theater in the country” by The New York Times, Lincoln Center Theater is the largest not-for-profit theater in the country and has launched several shows to eventual Broadway runs.
It gave Powell a shot of confidence at an especially dire time: “I had nothing—I was on food stamps, my phone was off. …” He didn’t even find out he had booked the role until the show’s casting director, who had already left him a voicemail, sent him an email after not hearing back from him.
Most importantly, the show granted him entrance into the theatrical acting union known as Actors’ Equity. One of the hallmarks of a professional actor, joining the union enabled him to audition for other professional shows at Actors’ Equity offices in midtown Manhattan, which are closed to those without a card. As an actor, joining equity is the difference between saying you’re good enough to be a professional baseball player, and actually being one. Until you have the card, you’re all talk.
Fast-forward seven years. His resume boasts dozens of plays, workshops, and readings, and he’s performed in Off-Broadway and regional theaters across the country, from New York to Louisville to Los Angeles. Though he hasn’t performed on Broadway yet, he’s earned a living working with some of American theater’s most important playwrights and directors—including several that prompted his leap from Los Angeles to New York in 2009.
Most recently, his work included a starring role as Pastor Joshua in the play “The Christians,” first produced at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky. The Humana festival, which The New York Times calls “the most prominent new-play showcase in America,” is the birthplace of three Pulitzer Prize-winning plays.
After its Humana production in 2014, Powell continued on with “The Christians” in its Off-Broadway run. After New York, the show has moved on to Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, with Powell again playing Pastor Joshua.
That a play brought Powell back to Hollywood’s doorstep shouldn’t be all that surprising, because, ultimately, survival as an actor means opening up as many revenue streams as possible. For a school that has always prided itself on graduating working actors—not just those who become household names, but those who earn their livings doing what they love, like Powell—it means graduating students who are employable not only in theater, film, and television, but also in paycheck generating media like commercials, voiceover work for audiobooks, animations, and videogames.
Peter Cooke, head of CMU’s School of Drama, says that “part of my job is to say, ‘In 20 years’ time, where will the jobs be? What might we need in five years’, 10 years’, 15 years’ time?’” For a school that was founded more than a century ago, that means threading the needle between teaching the classical theater acting techniques that stamped “Carnegie Mellon” onto the entertainment industry and preparing students to capitalize on new opportunities—especially those created by emerging technology.
To that end, Wadsworth says the school has added courses in voiceover work, camera acting techniques, and on-camera auditions. Moreover, because “people find talent on YouTube all the time, … we encourage our students to not wait for the phone to ring, but to go out there and create work for themselves. … Nowadays, you need to be a hyphenated performer: an actor-director, writer-director, actor-writer, et cetera.”
Right now, Powell is riding a hot streak. He is currently in rehearsals for the West Coast premiere of Suzan-Lori Park’s play “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3),” a three-hour Civil War epic that opens on April 19th at the Mark Taper Forum. In a bit of CMU serendipity, his starring role is being understudied by Donovan Mitchell (A’11).
In “Father,” Powell plays a runaway slave whose foot was cut off. Given the kinds of roles he finds he’s drawn to—“those that speak up, that fight back, that are resilient”—he seems to have been perfectly cast. “That’s my career—that’s my life. I don’t care if I don’t have any money, or if I’m embarrassing myself—I like characters that go through that and live through that and live with that, because that’s what I’ve gone through. Those are the characters I love stepping into, those who—no matter what—fight for their place at the table, or else sing from the kitchen.”
Powell, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of preachers and ministers, says that though he hasn’t “been ordained by any seminary, or any spiritual group,” he has “been ordained by the blood, sweat, and tears of the hustle and the grind and the calling to be a great actor, storyteller, and dramatist. That is who I am. And I think that is something I learned at Carnegie Mellon.”
About Nicholas Ducassi
Nicholas Ducassi is an actor, writer, and filmmaker. He was a drama major at Carnegie Mellon, earning his degree in 2010, and has been a regular contributor to Carnegie Mellon Today since his undergraduate days.