From Cows to Casting Calls: Two Carleton College Graduates Prepare to Launch Careers in the Theater

Two Carleton College graduates on the path to professional acting careers cringe when theater veterans advise them, “You should only do theater if there’s absolutely nothing else you could see yourself doing.” For Sharon Polli and Maesie Speer, that old theater saying doesn’t do justice to the breadth of the liberal arts education they’ve just completed at Carleton, where they each earned a B.A. degree with a special major in theater studies this past June.

9 August 2000

Two Carleton College graduates on the path to professional acting careers cringe when theater veterans advise them, “You should only do theater if there’s absolutely nothing else you could see yourself doing.” For Sharon Polli and Maesie Speer, that old theater saying doesn’t do justice to the breadth of the liberal arts education they’ve just completed at Carleton, where they each earned a B.A. degree with a special major in theater
studies this past June.

Both Polli and Speer are company members of Northfield’s Uninvited Company (UNCO) and are performing in UNCO’s upcoming production of Georges Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear,” August 11, 12, 18, and 19 at Carleton’s Arena Theater.

In the fall, each will plunge into theater full-time. Speer, a native of Cordova, Tenn., will be an acting apprentice for the next year at the prestigious Actor’s Theater of Louisville, one of the country’s premier regional theaters. Speer was chosen as one of 22 apprentices from an applicant pool that ranged in the thousands.

“Basically, it’s unpaid labor,” she explained. “You take classes in the morning and you spend the afternoons working in different technical positions.” She will have the opportunity to audition for the company’s productions of “Dracula” and “A Christmas Carol” and will be participating in the company’s renowned Humana Festival of new plays written by the country’s leading playwrights.

Polli, who grew up in Schaumburg, Ill., will spend the year as a freelance artist, auditioning for professional productions to gain experience. She is still deciding what city she’ll choose to launch her career: Chicago or San Francisco are currently the top runners.

The two are well aware of the challenges that await them in the real world of theater: the financial insecurity, the dry spells of auditions that don’t lead- to parts, the intense competition from the thousands of others who are looking for chances to prove themselves in front of the footlights.

They are hopeful, however, that their liberal arts education will help them stand out among the competition. Pre-professional actors often avoid liberal arts settings, opting instead to study theater at conservatories that focus exclusively on technical, pre-professional training. For Speer, though, that exclusivity was counter intuitive.

“Being challenged intellectually and honing my writing and critical thinking skills have been just as beneficial to me as an actor as any of my acting classes have,” she said.

Both Speer and Polli have found benefits and disadvantages to studying theater at Carleton, where theater studies is not offered as a regular major. Students must petition to create a special major in the area and design an individualized course of study. Moreover, Carleton’s theater department consists of just three professors, two of whom divide their time between the theater arts and English departments.

Despite those drawbacks, Polli is confident that her decision to come to Carleton will benefit her career. “I think if you’ve been taught how to think, you can always catch up to everyone else. While we’re at a disadvantage in having the right terminology, the right tools to break into the field, or the showcase in New York that a conservatory would offer, we have benefited immensely from everything else we’ve learned at Carleton.”

According to both women, studying theater at Carleton gave them the chance to expand their definition of themselves, their understanding of what theater is, and their ability to become autonomous actors.

“I’ve grown more comfortable with my body on stage, just being in the space on stage,” Speer reflected. “I’m able to be more selfless, to give more to my scene partner and realize that the most important person on stage is not myself but the person I’m working with.”

Polli believes her experiences at Carleton have led to a new sense of independence. “I’ve learned how not to rely on a director to tell me what to do,” she said. “I need to create the character; I need to make choices, work hard, go home with my script every day and go over it. You can’t just go to rehearsal three hours a night and then say, ‘Okay… I’m done.'”

The true test of their education came this past winter when they worked together on their senior comprehensive exercise. For the special theater arts major, students select a play and produce it. Outside reviewers from the Twin Cities area attend the play and critique it. Ed Sostek, professor emeritus of theater arts, directed Polli and Speer in Jean Genet’s dark, psychological drama, “The Maids.” Because the text was so difficult, the two feared their final product was not as impressive as they had hoped it would be. “It’s a really inaccessible script,” Polli explained. “Its language was really hard and it was hard to unpack all of its layers – the sisters’ relationship to each other and to themselves.” Despite their doubts about the piece, they two were awarded departmental distinction for their outstanding contributions to Carleton theater over the course of their four years.

Throughout their senior year and especially during their comprehensive exercise, Polli and Speer became one another’s support structure as each decided that they would devote their immediate futures to acting. Speer feels lucky to have a classmate in the same situation. “We’ve been thrown together a lot,” she laughed. “She’s been a creative partner and support system – we share so many of the same experiences and frustrations and hopes.”

As the summer winds down and the two prepare to leave Northfield to enter a world of casting calls, stage doors, and uncertainty, they find themselves ruminating more and more over the importance of the lessons they have learned outside of the classrooms, on and off the stages of Carleton College. “It’s all in what you do with what you learn,” Speer reflected. “So much of it is perseverance and attitude-stuff you can’t learn in the classroom.”