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Outside Academia, Volume 9: Melissa Hurt

Posted By Sara B. Taylor, Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Updated: Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Please take the opportunity to peruse the latest installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education’s: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy.

Outside Academia

Volume 9

Melissa Hurt

Interview conducted on August 11, 2015 and transcribed by Haddy Kreie, a PhD candidate at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Melissa HurtMelissa Hurt has been a theatre artist for more than twenty years and considers herself a theatre educator as well as a certified yoga teacher, public speaking coach, and performer. After earning her MFA in theatre pedagogy with a concentration in directing from Virginia Commonwealth University and PhD in theatre with a focus on acting theory from the University of Oregon, she spent fourteen years accumulating university teaching experience while also working as an actor, director, dramaturg, producer, voice and speech trainer, and makeup artist.

A certified trainer in Arthur Lessac’s voice, speech and movement work and was the last trainer personally certified by Mr. Lessac before his passing, Hurt has taught Lessac workshops at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festivals in Regions I and II, at the University of Mary Washington, at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, and for The Actor’s Center in Washington DC. She was a guest teacher of the Lessac work at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney (Australia’s premier acting conservatory) in Summer 2011. She also teaches the Lessac work with Adult Continuing Education in Fairfax County, Virginia. The Lessac Institute has named Hurt as one of five trainers that is “the future” of the Lessac work. Check out her book Arthur Lessac's Embodied Actor Training.

Goals and Academia

While graduate training in the humanities tends to focus singularly on preparing its students for the professoriate, the paths that lead us here vary widely. I began applying to graduate schools shortly after I returned to the US from working in the Peace Corps. I longed for a career path that would help me merge the love I had of making theatre with the real world issues that had become so important to me, like equality, race and gender issues, and intercultural understanding. At first glance, an MA in Theatre Studies seemed to do just that. Upon entry into my program, however, I was also thrust directly into a teaching assistantship. Suddenly teaching became my focus, and to a certain degree continued to marry my two interests: it gave me a platform to go beyond thinking about the issues to try to change the way people thought about them. And in academia, theoretically, I had a captive audience! Within just a few years, however, the realities crushed my idealism; disengaged students, pressure to deliver grades according to the expectations of faculty mentors and entitled twenty-somethings, and constant reevaluation of self-efficacy left my teaching feeling empty and pointless. Last Tuesday, as I sat looking into my computer screen, listening to Melissa Hurt tell her story of finding fulfillment as a teacher outside of the academy. It became clear that her most valuable teaching moments have occurred beyond the walls of the metaphorical ivory tower. I think I will  always be a teacher, she revealed, I think its what Im meant to do. And Ive come to realize, as of the past year or so, that that probably means it wont be full time in academia.

But why not?

Melissa Hurt is, first and foremost, a teacher. Her first foray into graduate education took her to Virginia Commonwealth University where she focused on directing as she earned an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy. Upon completion, she immediately landed a teaching position in Dodge City, Kansas or, as she said, the first and only job that was offered. As a native Kansan, I was unsurprised to hear that, despite efforts of neighbors and new friends to welcome her and even to set her up with local cowboys, Hurt experienced a bit of culture shock in southwest Kansas. She quickly encountered a dilemma common to many academics: letting her life follow her career or letting her career follow her life. Believing in herself as a teacher, Hurt returned to graduate school, pursuing the PhD that might land her in an urban community more suited to her personal life choices. Looking past the dry plains of Kansas, Hurt could see the lush Northwest beckoning: I realized in Kansas that I had to have a fuller picture in my life. I had to have a place that had a culture that I could fit into, that had people that were like me, or similar. Beginning to allow her career trajectory to follow her life focus, she joined the Theatre Department at the University of Oregon, a place that allowed her to feel a little less isolated from city life. There, she completed her PhD with a dissertation she later turned into her book: Arthur Lessacs Embodied Actor Training (Routledge 2014).

Like many graduate students in the humanities, Hurt saw the doctoral program as the next move toward a career in teaching. She had her sights set on becoming a professor. However, graduate school ultimately offered her opportunities that led her away from the academy. She cites three major factors in her move away from the tenure-track professoriate: Lessac voice training, meeting the man who would become her husband (and later having her daughter), and encountering yoga. Nevertheless, she reassures me, my life couldnt be what it is without having gone through my PhD.

Today, Hurt works free-lance helping others discover and utilize their optimal expressive selves through her small business, Integrative Studios, LLC. She offers private voice, speech, and movement coaching based in Lessac voice training, private acting coaching, public speaking consultations, vocal yoga courses, family and prenatal yoga, and team building workshops.

Moving Away from the Academy 

In their book So What are You Going to Do with That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius comment that, retrospectively, many career paths present an identifiable logic, but the most common answer people gave to the question How did you get where you are today? was Serendipity. The harsh realities of both graduate school and the academic job market demanded that she give as much attention to self-care and personal fulfillment as she did to her career. Together, Lessac voice training and yoga helped her to soften the ego and learn to not judge herself. It provided a balance against the critical feedback of the academy.

With this idea of serendipity in mind, and knowing that many of the readers of Outside Academia are interested in intentionally following a career path beyond the professoriate, I asked Hurt how her goals changed before, during, and after grad school. In part, I wanted to know how, when every day is saturated with expectations of teaching, research, and little else, one begins to identify that a career outside academia may provide a more fulfilling (and perhaps healthy!) career path than one within its walls. She replied very candidly: The thing about grad school isand just put a grain of salt over everything Im about to sayit makes you very narcissistic, and you have to be narcissistic to get through it, because you have professors who are purposefully trying to tear you down to see if you have the grit to make it through the program . . . its really, really, really hard. Its really hard. and you can either crumble in that or you can really inflate yourself. Despite the struggle and fully aware of her love of teaching, Hurt continued to pursue the goal of becoming a professor. I didnt know any different, she revealed, being a professor was just what I knew, in my adult life.

For Hurt, a valuable teaching experience comes down to nurturing. “Everybody has an essential right to feel good and express themselves,” she explains. “I just want to be a part of that. There were times when teaching within a university setting that she found fulfillment. Hurt told me about leading a public speaking course: I love helping these students face their fears . . . and to see that they are proud and confident, she told me.

Sometimes, though, the bureaucracy of academia can get in the way of that focus on positive growth. As university professors in a discipline like theatre that often has faculty urging students to explore intimate and personal aspects of their inner life, we are caught between the pressure of being both friend and enforcer. Many of us as graduate students and young faculty find ourselves in the precarious position of being Facebook friends with our students after working together on a show and then being obliged to discipline them for being late or inappropriately dressed  when we suddenly have them in  class. 

Frustrated by the arbitrary distinctions between these roles, Hurt is now adamant that the university classroom is not the only place where valuable teaching takes place. She makes it her mission to foster growth and exploration in all of her interactions with young people, whether its while leading a course, directing a show, or raising her daughter. In fact, she draws strong connections between teaching, directing, and motherhood, which have turned out to be crucial to finding balance among her life and career. Teaching and directing are very similar to me. . . I thought, well this must be the closest thing I could ever know to being a mom, even though I wasnt a mom, because its that nurturing aspect of helping people come to understand a body of knowledge and then present it from an ownership position, like theyve worked hard and now they can show it.

But its clear from Hurts stories that her greatest fulfillment in teaching theatre comes from turning strong performers into stronger people. I teach acting … to women who are non-violent criminal offenders, whove just come out of prison who are building their lives to function outside of the prison setting. Ranging in age from their late 20s to late 50s, many of these women have suffered from addiction, sexual abuse, or other traumas. Hurt uses acting classes like life-coaching, employing the actor's toolkit to help identify goals and super objectives for life and test out new tactics.Teaching them for an hour is way more fulfilling than teaching college students for a semester sometimes. Because, theres a lot at stake for them, so theyre really eager students, you know, they really want to learn because they dont want to go back there. Hurts focus on nurturing becomes vitally important in this setting. The women begin to see that you are relating to them as people of value and they appreciate that, Hurt shares. They could see a woman who had her head together, who was intelligent and her life on track, and it was inspiring for them that it could happen for them as well . . . that never happens in academia . . . to be one small part of that puzzle to help them start over is way more rewarding. 

And of course, for Hurt, that same joy comes into motherhood as well: you have to teach your child, youre teaching them the steps, and then when they have the courage its really wonderful, Im teaching her all the time how to just, kind of, be a person, she laughs.

The Value of Graduate School

Still on my own pursuit of a PhD and interested in teaching, I asked Hurt to reflect on how her experience as grad student related to developing the skills that she values as a teacher. The first thing she mentioned was paying attention to the myriad examples you have in front of you as a student. You have a lot of different types of teachers. If youre paying attention, you’ll notice the nuances of their approach in addition to their presentation of the material. You notice their timeliness in getting assignments back, the quality of their comments, if they are kind or nurturing versus critical and mean.

Hurt drew upon things that worked for her and things that seemed to work for her teachers, but also paid attention to what definitely did not. “Sometimes I would totally model what my teachers were doing and think, is this going to be my style?  And so I was the really, really hard-ass teacher who took no apologies, just really hard on my students . . . and then after a while I thought, ‘well, that doesnt feel authentic, I dont think thats me, and I dont think its helping them learn anything. Its just making them afraid of me.’ So Ill try a different approach this year, just finding where you can soften but still hold the tenets that are appropriate for them to respect you as the teacher, and respect the material, and the discipline that you are teaching them.

Graduate school, of course, teaches us more than just how to teach. Hurt also attributes to graduate school much of the shaping of who she has become today. “Theres much more to it than just writing a dissertation,” she told me. The graduate school years shaped her thought processes: Before it was just so easy to jump to an answer, you see a question and you think, oh, well its this. But when you are getting your PhD, you are trained to really look at it from cultural standpoint of, what are the dynamics happening in this culture, and then how do you respond?’ And you really do broaden your lens and how you look at things. And that happens day to day.

This skill permeates her daily life, whether its reading news about events related to the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri or watching the ways children are raised and learning how to raise her own daughter. The hardest part, she says,  about leaving the academy is not having your intellectual circle. When youre living with a group of people for three of four years, sometimes five,  and you have that stimulus at your fingertips where you can just grab coffee and talk about bell hooks, thats really great, and when youre away from that, its very alienating. And it’s hard. . . But there, the research Im doing with the Lessac work is useful because its stimulating.

Hurt also re-wrote her dissertation into a book, into the book I wanted it to be, she laughed. And now I can move on from the PhD world! What struck me most about her graduate school progress though is that, rather than her PhD preparing her for a career outside of academia, her life outside academia trained her for her dissertation, and eventually this book. Becoming a Lessac Certified Trainer and a certified yoga teacher certainly contributed to her research.And she does continue to write. Shes published papers on her Lessac voice work and has a couple more papers in the pipeline. She also continues to adjunct, teaching voice class at George Mason University, for example, but most of her life and work now focus on different kinds of teaching.

Finding Balance

Finding teaching opportunities outside of the academy has helped Hurt find a balance between her career and her life. She currently works part time in various capacities as a freelance teacher, and has has the time to focus on her family and raising her daughter. But its not just about balancing her time, its also balancing within the work itself. Moving outside the academy has helped Hurt to cultivate a teaching style that suits her and that harmonizes with her own life philosophy. Her profound love of theatre and teaching, even through the harsh hears of graduate school, have led her to opportunity. Reflecting on her MFA research on the Federal Theatre Project, she noted you start to learn more about the cultural implications of performance, how theatre history and social history have been interwoven and shaped, that have affected lawmaking. Its just really profound the more you really study it. Studying theatre is so much more than  fun improv and painting a flat. Its so much more important to whats happening historically in everyday life.

For Hurt, graduate school has developed her ability to engage with those societal and cultural implications on a personal level. Theatre artists and teachers have the opportunity of spiritually lifting their communities” and having a direct impact on where they live. A “regular old neighbor” who happens to be a theatre artist can “have a really profound and special impact on someone,” she notes. “You dont have to be a celebrity to do it. You just have to be honest. Your job is to share a story and have the other person connect with it in some way. And with a PhD, she can inspire others with the vast knowledge she has to siphon into the stories that she shares and contribute to her community in ways that provide fulfillment for her as well. Earning her PhD has allowed Hurt to continue to work in theatre and teaching in more meaningful ways that she believes more greatly contribute to the well-being of her community. I cant promise that youll make a living at it, but you may not make a living as an academic! she laughs. But there is so much more you can do!

Learn more about Melissa Hurt and her company Integrative Studio, LLC at

Tags:  Alt-Ac  Careers  Melissa Hurt  New Paradigms  Outside Academia 

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Outside Academia, Volume 8: Kimberly Dixon-Mays

Posted By Sara B. Taylor, Monday, June 29, 2015
Updated: Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Please take the opportunity to peruse the latest installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education’s: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy.

Outside Academia

Volume 8 

Kimberly D. Dixon-Mays

Interview conducted on March 26, 2015 and transcribed by Tiffany Trent, a PhD student at Arizona State University.

Kimberly Dixon-MaysKimberly D. Dixon-Mays frames herself as a writer and strategist in passion and practice. In title and in the language of corporate and business industries, what Dixon-Mays offers is brand planning.  She has a PhD in Theatre and Drama and Womens Studies from Northwestern University, and is a Cave Canem Poetry Fellow as well as a Ragdale Artistic Fellow. Dixon-Mays has published two collections of her poems: SenseMemory, and More Than a Notion: snapshots from a marriage. Her plays appeared in performance and readings with companies such as Crossroads Theatre Company, Plowshares Theatre Company, and MPAACT. 

Professoriate: A Balance of Life and Theatre?

Theatre has always been part of Dixon-Mayslife.  A childhood of community theatre, childrens theatre, and church theatre embedded performance as a natural aspect of life, though not necessarily as practical profession. Of making the decision to enter a PhD program, Dixon-Mays says, “I believed that I wanted to be a professor, and I wanted to choose something where I was passionate.  I did ask myself, ‘Why a PhD? Why not an MFA?I wanted to focus on the literary criticism, on being the historian. I could envision myself more as a professor; that suited me better than being a practitioner.”

Dixon-Mays certainly had production experience. While she majored in psychology in college at Yale, additionally studying playwriting and criticism, Dixon-Mays was also an actor, mostly in shows outside the department. “So you were always interdisciplinary?” I ask. Dixon-Mays describes how integrating fields continued for her during her Master’s in African American studies at UCLA. The degree permitted a concentration, and hers was playwriting. Thus, Dixon-Mays had courses with MFA playwriting students and had plays developed into production in the same process as the MFA playwrights.

Even with theatre practice alongside her rigorous academic experiences, Dixon-Mays envisioned herself solely in the professor role, “for what I thought was a sense of security: you could know your job every day, where to go and do it. Also my parents were teachers, and so I thought, continue in the family business. Another PhD option had directing as part of the work, and I didn’t want that. But halfway through my program, I realized how limited a world the academy is, and even more than that, I realized how hard it is to have a balanced life. I finished the program, because I had already done all this work, and maybe it was a point of pride to say that I did. So I did finish it.” 

Dramaturgy of Living: Leaving the Academy

Through the immersive rounds of job talks and sending out CVs, Dixon-Mays found that the academic jobs didn’t appeal to her. She stayed in Chicago, since it is a large city and was likely to have some range of opportunities. Then, at a job fair for undergraduates, she “stumbled into branding…I went to someone and said, ‘I’m not an undergrad but I am looking for a job.’ And she said, well, this thing and this other thing may not be right for your skills, but there is this thing called brand planning, and because you have psychology in your background, and cultural studies, and creative work, this might be right for you.”

When I ask Dixon-Mays to say more about what brand planning is, the interview becomes a process of discovery for her as well as for me. “I came to understand it as kind of like being the dramaturg!” she says. “We are responsible for representing the target consumer to the client: the world that the consumer lives in, what they want, and we ground everyone in the truth of the product. And we use that truth to create strategies for a brand’s advertising, designs, products, events, etc.” I tell her how fascinating it is that she could make that connection, and she laughs. “Yeah, I began to see it with the copywriter as the playwright, client services as the director, and the art director as the designer. Brand planning was dramaturgy. It helped to see it that way. It was key for me to figure out how to explain the connection of my studies to brand planning—first to myself, so I could explain it to others. Articulating that these are the skills that I’m using was crucial. You have to educate people on what otherwise seems like a narrow collection of academic experiences.”

Given the diversity of experience and credentials in Dixon-Mays’ online presence, her concern of appearing “narrow” stands out to me. I mention the wide range of work on her webpage. Additionally, I ask her to share the logistics of working in brand planning. “When are you working project to project, and when are you on staff with a company?”

“I have always been on staff,” Dixon-Mays responds. “Companies may work on retainer for one company, or bid on jobs with a client. So I can have multiple clients while at the same company.” I point out how that allows for diverse experiences, and echoes her consistently interdisciplinary journey. “That is probably something that I was craving when thinking about being a professor. I was thinking that I wouldn’t be stimulated with thinking about the same thing all the time. Now I have to admit, back then I had a limited view of being a professor. Now I know that there are many who work on different projects, who find ways to stay stimulated and find ways to stay relevant.  Also, today, self-promotion and accessibility are more acceptable. You can be a biologist and write a really approachable book about anatomy for laypeople. At that time, I wasn’t aware of that type of academic.”

Keeping Up with Writing Outside the Academy

Dixon-Mays has numerous publications and writing fellowships to her credit. I ask if the writing experiences were parallel with her work in brand planning. She replies that while the academic chapters were generated when she was still in academia, the poetry compilations and anthologies are parallel and current. I encourage her to please share some of the structure of her life that preserves her creative time, and she laughs. Dixon-Mays says that she never thought about it before; she finds the question affirming, and it mirrors back to her that she’s doing something inspirational.

“When I first graduated, I walked away from any form of writing. I was grieving… mourning, I think. Then I got an itch.” She submitted applications and was accepted to a writing retreat. “In 2004, I came back from Amsterdam, where I was working as a brand planner. I had written there about the experience of living abroad. In order to share with family and colleagues what it was like, I got into the habit of regular writing. And when I came back, I submitted a poem to the Guild. The submission and selection meant that I had to perform, and it lit something in me.”

Dixon-Mays references the Guild Literary Complex, a respected, twenty-five-year-old, literary presenting collective in Chicago with the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Ana Castillo, and Alex Kotlowitz in its legacy. Dixon-Mays has submitted work, performed, and served as a past Executive Director across her relationship with the Guild.  In 2004, however, the executive director role was still an unthinkable responsibility—Dixon-Mays still considered herself “just” a writer. 

“The then executive director approached me, and invited me to be the artistic director of the Guild’s new Poetry Performance Incubator Project.” Dixon-Mays explains that PPI brings poets together to write original theatre pieces. PPI has multiple objectives: to make the traditionally solitary practice of poetry more collaborative and to explore an alternative to the “slam” model of performing poetry. She continues, “I didn’t think I was capable of directing the actors and the piece, so I chose to be an incubate instead. That got me into writing consistently. There was expectation and deadline and the habit of writing new pieces to help populate this project.

Finally, in the phase I’m in now, I try to I write daily—I know I cant just wait for the weekend. Almost every morning I write something, on the train, or before I leave, and spend the weekend digging into it and polishing work. Im getting up earlier than I need to, so that I can write. Also in this new phase, Im more disciplined about submitting work.”

I asked how often she submits, and Dixon-Mays shares her practice. “Three times a month, for a couple hours, I look through all my listservs and check submission deadlines. I submit maybe two times per month.” She quotes herself: “This one is April 1st, theres April 7th...” Laughing, she says, “Its my guilt list!” However, now, Dixon-Mays also craves some balance between her written and spoken word experiences. “I would also like to come up with some sort of routine for myself to share work regularly through live performance.

Entrepreneurship in the Academy and in Theatre

I re-visit the purpose of the Outside Academia interviews, and mirror to Dixon-Mays that how she describes becoming the Guild’s executive director exemplifies the push toward the entrepreneurial not just in theatre, and not just as a response in competitive job markets, but in any field or discipline today. “And, as executive director, it was a return to theatre: I was planning and putting on live events with performers, audience…it had the excitement of theatre and also the burden of it!” 

Dixon-Mays returns to the idea of self-promotion and offers an example. “That was a learning curve: self-promotion, building community, building connections. Just recently I talked with a professor in Race Studies and public policy about how to promote her projects and develop a communications strategy that would raise visibility for her work. She reflected back that having both academic and brand planning backgrounds is an asset. She said, ‘Its not just me. Several academics would welcome help and perspective on how to promote their work for the greater good.’”

The intersection of the academic and branding reminds me of language on Dixon-Mays’ “business” page of her website. “I see that favorite tools include ethnographic observation and co-creation! Say more about how you integrated those terms, because those are familiar to your theatre community.”

Dixon-Mays exclaims, with some surprise. “I hadn’t made this connection...!—Those are very common words in design! Wow. I use those words because of my most recent work in design strategy.” Dixon-Mays continues to marvel at the colliding of her worlds. “But right, they’re not just words that people use in design! Creating interaction; structures, spaces, experiences – that’s theatre and performing arts too. So I was drawn to that aspect of branding…how audiences connect with something and take something away with them.”

I thank Dixon-Mays for her time, and for transparency in sharing her unknowns, re-routings, inspirations, and routines. Dixon-Mays thanks me, with great sincerity, for the interview and how the reflection celebrates her path. Articulating the connections, she says, “Makes me feel a little taller.”

Tags:  Alt-Ac  Careers  Kimberly Dixon-Mays  New Paradigms  Outside Academia 

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Outside Academia, Volume 7: David Escoffery

Posted By Sara B. Taylor, Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Updated: Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Please take the opportunity to peruse the latest installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education's: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy.

Outside Academia

Volume 7

David Escoffery

Interview conducted on March 25, 2015 and transcribed by Amanda Boyle, PhD candidate (ABD) at the University of Kansas.

David Escoffery

David Escoffery is currently the Senior Director of Higher Education Assessment within the Assessment Division at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Similarly to other profiles, Escoffery followed a unique path from his time as a student to his current position. Escoffery earned his BA in English from Princeton University in 1995. From Princeton, he decided to pursue a joint MA-PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed his PhD in Theatre History, Literature, and Criticism in 2001.  

Journey To and Through Graduate School

Like many theatre practitioners and scholars, Escofferys interest in theatre began through participating in high school theatre; he caught the bug. He was drawn to the collaboration and the ensemble that theatre rehearsals afforded him. I was going to be an actor. That would be my future. But I realized I was a bad actor in college, which is fine, Escoffery told me with a laugh. He acknowledged that if he spent the time training and working that there was potential for him to be a decent actor, but he was not willing to commit to it. He added, But I loved everything about theatre. I loved history and literature. So, Escoffery talked to his professors at Princeton, including Michael Cadden, about his future and career. There was some consideration of pursuing a DFA in Dramaturgy, but Escoffery realized he desired the option to teach while in graduate school and that the DFA would not provide the type of training he needed. It was then that he realized an academic career in theatre history would give him everything he wanted because, teaching is a performance, he noted. He found a way to do what he loved while he studied the topics he was interested in: theatre, history, and literature. Escoffery explained, In a way, it became a natural path to a graduate degree in theatre studies. The decision to attend the University of Pittsburgh was the right decision for sure, he told me.

The next decision was to commit to the two-year MA track or the MA-PhD track. Escoffery described the choice to take the MA-PhD path as being locked in, but in a positive way. I asked him about his first impression of graduate school. He answered, This may seem unusual, but I thought, Wow. This is exactly what I wanted. This is exactly what was looking for.’” As an undergraduate English major, he never took a theatre history course, but he did read a lot of plays. He said, I did not have a historical sweep of history, art, philosophy, and how that connected to plays in production, theatre buildings, audiences, and how all those things interact in interesting ways. Also, the program at Pitt requires the MA-PhD students to pick an area of special focus in acting, directing, dramaturgy, or playwriting. Escoffery chose playwriting and wrote a stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevskys novel The Double (1846). 

Escofferys other research focused on early twentieth-century avant-garde movements. A classmate and Escoffery proposed a course on avant-garde theatre from realism through theatre of the absurd and they were given the opportunity to teach it. He explained, Im intrigued by people who want to question the status quo and expand ideas about what makes something a work of art or a piece of theatre. He went through the standard comprehensive exams for the PhD, which included selecting a playwright, a time period, a theoretical approach, and learning all he could about that particular combination. Escofferys interest in the avant-garde led him to his dissertation topic, which investigated Luigi Pirandello and his affiliation (or lack of affiliation) with Mussolini and issues of historiography. He questioned, How do historians write the stories they are telling?  Why do they focus on this instead of that? What is in the historical record? When and how is it contradictory? Pirandellos story has been told by many historians and in very different ways. I was examining how Pirandello was a Pirdandellian character who refused to be one thing in a consistent way. He sort of lived what he wrote about, Escoffery explained. After five years, he completed his coursework and his dissertation and was ready for the next step.   

The Precarious Brink of Academia

I asked Escoffery if he considered work outside of academia while in graduate school, but he never really did. Non-academic work was not discouraged at Pitt, but it was not something he explored. He knew where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. Escoffery graduated and found work as an adjunct. Teaching was what he hoped it would be, the life-style of adjuncting was not. He acknowledged, I knew I had to pay my dues, but I was often roped in with we are going to have a tenure track position soon. But the funding would not come or someone else was hired. Despite the exhausting schedule, it was a very good experience in terms of training to be a good teacher, to work on teaching muscles. One semester he taught theatre history to thirty actors in a conservatory in the morning, and in the afternoon he would drive forty miles away to teach the same material to four freshman girls in a small liberal arts school. That actually happened. That was my Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule one semester, he tagged on. Escoffery admits, he did not make much money and spent more on gas than he made, but he did build his CV.

After two years as an adjunct, Escoffery was offered a position as Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Missouri State University (formerly Southwest Missouri State University). Missouri State has a good-sized undergraduate theatre program and only a handful of graduate students. Escoffery told me, It was a great place to be. It has a large BFA program for actors and an even larger BFA musical theatre program. Escoffery was tasked with redesigning the theatre history curriculum. He came up with a new model and the department faculty and the faculty senate approved it. The challenge of the position was part of what excited him about the program. It wasnt just teaching. I got to take on other responsibilities: advising students, serving on committees, etc. I was learning all sorts of new things, he expressed.

While he enjoyed his role at Missouri State, he also had to consider his personal life and, for Escoffery, that meant trying to work his way back east.

I left a tenure track position with nothing in hand. No job to head to. But the best self-motivation is to be unemployed, Escoffery shared, lightheartedly. Once he returned to New Jersey he applied for every theatre history position that was open in the area, but quickly realized he would need to apply to anything and everything that might seem relevant. He laughed as he said, Yes, I could be Dean of the School of the Arts or an Admissions Officer, sure! He looked for jobs in academic settings although they were not directly connected to his training. Editor positions and other types of adjunct roles were among the ten to fifteen job applications he filled out daily. I was saved from teaching Composition 101 and editing/proofreading jobs by finding work at Educational Testing Service, he explained. In fact, he had applied for a job there while still at Missouri State and later found out that he was not considered since he was not living in the area. As part of his New Jersey job hunt, he found that ETS was looking for people to do ten-minute recorded lectures to use for listening comprehension as part of TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). After recording several lectures, he began grading TOEFL essays as well. He recognized, I wish I knew about this holistic way of grading while I was still teaching! If I knew that way of grading, I would have given more writing assignments. It was a challenge, but a great experience. Soon after, ETS posted a position for verbal and writing assessment, which Escoffery applied for. On subsequent days, Escoffery interviewed for the ETS position and a theatre history slot at a college, but took the ETS job. What I found out at ETS is that I really enjoyed it. I was somewhat surprised by this because I loved teaching and theatre history, he said. Escoffery explained that it had never crossed his mind to think that someone had to write those standardized test questions. He found it to be an interesting task to construct valid test questions, as he noted, You think when you are teaching you know how to do it, but its different when you have to write a question that 400,000 people have to answer. He described ETS as a half-way-house; half way between the academic and corporate options.

Finding Fulfillment at Educational Testing Services

At ETS there is more flexibility for advancement than in the academic tenure and promotion system. Escoffery moved through the ranks fairly quickly. Soon after Escoffery was first hired, he was handed the state of Texas licensure tests for teachers of theatre, speech communication, and dance, and within a few years he was managing people. He started at ETS in 2006 and by 2012 he was in the position he currently holds, Senior Director of Higher Education Assessment within the Assessment Division. In this position, Escoffery manages the work of around seventy test developers who work on a wide variety of assessments for writing, reading, literature, and other language skills. These developers are writing questions for the SAT, GRE, AP courses, and more. One element of ETS that he truly enjoys is that there are constantly new opportunities that come up and there is always a demand for people willing to take on new projects.

I asked Escoffery about skills that he acquired during his academic training that have translated to the work he does now. He told me that the two that stand out the most are critical thinking and the ability to write clearly. Those two skills will serve you well no matter what you do, and in the realm of assessment, they are essential, Escoffery noted. A lot of the work he continues to do at ETS is collaborative, therefore he is still able to be a part of what first drew him to theatre: the ensemble. He explained, Nothing is done in a vacuum at ETS. A lot of people touch each project, because it has to be right. In general, communication is vital to the work he does. The back-and-forth exchange between test writers, clients, colleagues, etc. is a large part of his work, and it is part of what he loves about the job.

As far as advice for current graduate students, Escoffery offered this, Dont discount non-academic careers outright just because it is not what you are trained to do or because you think it might make you look bad. All the skills youre gaining can be applied in many different places. Look around, perhaps before you are desperate. Just see whats out there. There could be fascinating work that you may have never considered. 

Although Escoffery is no longer working in academic theatre, he still finds ways to get his theatre fix. He still works on the licensure tests for theatre whenever he gets the chance, he attends New York productions whenever possible, and he recently took up improv performance.

Tags:  Alt-Ac  Careers  David Escoffery  New Paradigms  Outside Academia 

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Outside Academia, Volume 6: Gary Genard

Posted By Sara B. Thiel, University of Pittsburgh, Monday, November 10, 2014

Outside Academia

Volume 6


Gary Genard 

Interview conducted on October 14, 2014, and transcribed by Katherine J. Swimm, PhD Candidate at Tufts University.


Dr. Gary Genard is a public speaking coach whose technique, The Genard Method, provides public speaking training to corporations, government officials, and professionals of all types. His performance-based approach draws on his career as an actor, academic, and communications professor. Dr. Genard has published two books on public speaking success: How to Give a Speech and Fearless Speaking - Beat Your Anxiety, Build Your Confidence, Change Your Life. He is the author of numerous articles on effective public speaking, as well as the blog, "Speak for Success!"

After receiving an MA in Theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Genard went on to complete the actor-training program at Webber Douglas in London. Once the training was complete, he worked both in New York at Classic Stage Company and around the country. He left show businesses and began his PhD Program at Tufts University in 1994. There he wrote his dissertation on the evolution of verse delivery as exemplified in three audio recordings of Hamlet, under the advisement of Dr. Laurence Senelick. I asked Dr. Genard what led him away from his career in performance and towards a career in academia. Dr. Genard answered, "
I came to that crossroads that a lot of actors do. Is this the kind of life I want to live for the rest of my life? Or is it a little too risky? A little too unsettled? Does it lack the kind of control that you would like, to be able to control your own destiny? Which is of course a significant issue for actors, you're always looking for work. I came to that crossroads, and decided I would get out of show business. So I came back to Boston and I decided that I would apply to the PhD Program at Tufts. I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship."


Dr. Genard reflected on the professors, courses, and opportunities that he was able to take advantage of while at Tufts, reflecting a wide variety of interests: "In my program, I took a lot of courses in the classics department. One of my interests has always been Ancient Greek drama...I took a course in the archaic period of Greece, which was amazing. One of the most interesting courses at that time was a course in theatre research, which was done at Harvard. We took courses in the Harvard Theatre Collection. We would indicate what we wanted to study - I did Edwin Booth - and put on our gloves and look at these documents, and you know it was great! I became knowledgeable enough about Booth that I was able to say, 'this is supposed to be his signature on this document and it's not his signature!' Before I got in the program I thought, you know, I've got my undergraduate degree, my master's in terms of scholarship I think I'm pretty good, pretty knowledgeable...then when I got into the program I realized, wow. I learned so much and there was so much I didn't know. This is an entirely new level of research. That opened my eyes to what a doctoral program really was."


At the end of Dr. Genard's time at Tufts, a unique opportunity presented itself that would open doors later in his career. "As I was nearing the end of my program at Tufts, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy contacted the department and said 'we have a diplomatic training program where we train diplomats from foreign services in a number of areas. We offer them a customized program and we are looking for someone who will teach communication. Is there someone in your department who could fill that bill?' My name was given because I was teaching public speaking. I talked to the Fletcher School and they hired me to teach in this program. This [opportunity] really opened up my thinking; I liked the communication and public speaking components."


Following the completion of his dissertation, Dr. Genard served as adjunct faculty at Tufts, Bentley University, and was hired at Emerson College in the communications department. "That's the point where I was thinking that I wanted to work in communication because I really liked voice and speech. I've always been interested in language and loved Shakespeare.  The position opened up at Emerson and they hired me. I was teaching communications courses to all the international students. The experience I had had at the Fletcher School, the foreign diplomats, with the United Nations...gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of international professionals, and that became a specialty of what I was doing as well."


Dr. Genard went on to teach in the English as a Second Language program at Harvard, as well as courses at Simmonds and Tufts. He said, "as it happened I had moved out of teaching theatre to teaching communication. I was perfectly happy doing it; when you're teaching public speaking you're helping people with their performance, rather than your own. I liked helping people perform well in situations where it mattered that they did: Giving presentations, speeches, keynotes, and appearing in the media. Sometimes they were standard business presentations, but sometimes they were high-stakes situations. I really wanted to work with people on the front lines rather than teaching a university course, which, as rewarding as it is, I liked working with working professionals who were giving presentations, making media appearances, in the world of business, non-profit, politics, government, diplomacy. I was looking to make that the core of what I was doing."


About thirteen years ago, Dr. Genard was able to make a complete transition to that kind of work.  He was given the opportunity to fill in for a friend on maternity leave, one who ran a public speaking training company. In 2001, after that experience ended, he established Public Speaking International, which was rebranded in March of 2014 as The Genard Method. Dr. Genard elaborated on the technique he developed: "The tagline is, 'Performance Based Public Speaking Training,' because its based on and informed by theatre based techniques. Everything that I do is grounded in the theatre and theatrical performance in some way."  The list of clients with whom Dr. Genard consults with ranges from for-profit and non-profit organizations and government agencies to those in the legal, healthcare, and financial fields.


Dr. Genard is still involved with the Tufts Fletcher School of International Diplomacy.  He remarked, "It's a specialized program, I'm not on the Fletcher staff, but we've trained folks from Qatar in the Middle East, Armenia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq. I went to Iraq in 2009 to train the Kurdistan regional government, which is the semi-autonomous region in the Northeast of the country. I went there with another professor who taught research methodologies and I taught public speaking and media training to their foreign service and the protocol office to the President and the Prime Minister. I've also conducted training at the United Nations. I've trained at the State Department since 2001."


I asked Dr. Genard what, in particular, he took away from his doctoral program at Tufts that he uses now in professional career as a public speaking consultant: “That's a very interesting question for me. What I'm doing now is at a tangent to what I was doing at Tufts. But of course, what one takes away from a program like that is the rigor of the work that you're doing, the research that you're doing and the absolute need for excellent writing skills.... those skills can be applied in anything you do...There's a practical consideration, too. That's the connection that occurred when the Fletcher School contacted the department. The reason that I started on that path is because I happened to be in the doctoral program at Tufts."


I suggested to Dr. Genard that his current career seemed to be a reflection of his cumulative experiences as an actor and communications educator as well as his time in the academy.  He agreed. Although he is not active in the academy, he still feels deeply connected to the theatre: "The techniques I use with my clients come from my work in the theatre. That's an extremely important connection. I didn't envision any of this. You never know."

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Tags:  Careers  Gary Genard  New Paradigms  Outside Academia 

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