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Why Theatre Training Matters

Updated: 2 days ago

Like most theatre artists I knew from a very young age that theatre was going to be my life. We talk a lot in theatre about how theatre is a ‘calling,’ and to me what this means is that most young emerging artists know from a pretty young age that this is what they want to do with their lives. Everyone and everything will fight against it, but real artists ultimately are not influenced by what other people think. It’s a strange paradox that as artists we are constantly evaluated, critiqued, and reviewed, but at the end of the day what other people think of us cannot guide the course of our artistic lives. 

“What other people think of us cannot guide the course of our artistic lives.” 

Throughout history there have been countless numbers of artists who were not recognized in their own times or were pushed away from artistic endeavors. I have told this story many times to many people, but I had a career crisis in 1990 soon after I got married in Bogota, Colombia. I came back to the United States to NYC (where I am from) to begin to create my own family. I felt a lot of financial pressure and conflict about what I was going to do next and I called my father. My father was an extraordinary human being, Richard Smith McCray. He grew up in a working-class Irish family in Pennsylvania. He was an only child and his parents helped him go to Wesleyan for college and afterwards he attended Yale Divinity School to become a Presbyterian minister. After that, he decided he wanted to become a physician and he went to Columbia Medical School in Manhattan, which is where I grew up and lived for half of my life. It was definitely a different time period where finances were less of the focus of my own upbringing and life in general.

I grew up in the 1960s in Manhattan: a time of great change and great freedom. My family life always had focus on service as the most important part of our lives. After marrying my husband in Bogota, I returned to Manhattan to live and work and I called my father and told him that I was considering applying to medical school. I had already graduated from Yale University with a BA in Theatre Studies. I assisted a Broadway Director Gerald Gutierrez (Group 1 Juilliard) in New York and attended the Yale School of Drama in the Directing program where I received an MFA. After that I spent two years touring with the Juilliard Acting Company overseeing and directing Broadway-level productions of Shakespeare with actors from Yale and Juilliard.

After two years in The Acting Company on a bus going to 87 cities over five-month periods I was pretty burnt out and wanted to do something new and applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in Bogota, Colombia to direct and teach acting for one year. While I was there, I met my husband, Carlos Rincon and had the extraordinary experience directing Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Spanish at the Teatro de Popular de Bogota in collaboration with Jorge Ali Triana, the Artistic Director and close colleague of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After telling my father that I was considering applying to medical school, (medicine had always been a major interest in my life, probably because I was the first-born child of a physician in NYC), my father said: “We have doctors to heal our bodies, but we need artists to heal our souls. You not only have the highest level of education possible in your chosen field, but it is your calling.” He saw theatre and art as a calling like his own in the ministry and in medicine. After that conversation I never wavered for even one day ever again. 

I needed to hear that as life was changing and I was becoming an independent adult who wanted not only to work, but also to have a family and children. I began applying to multiple universities and theatre companies looking for directing positions as well as teaching positions. I sent out about 50 applications and got three interviews. One in Albany, NY, one in Miami, FL, and one in Denver, CO at the (now closed) National Theatre Conservatory (NTC) at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The weekend after my husband Carlos and I were married for a second time, now at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, I flew to Denver to interview as the Head of Acting at the DCPA with Tony Church and Donovan Marley. Eventually I was offered a permanent position in the company and Tony and I created the curriculum and structure for the conservatory around his kitchen table, now more than three decades ago. I spent the next 18 years at the DCPA teaching what I was taught at the Yale School of Drama and Yale undergrad and through my relationship with Gerald Gutierrez. At Yale undergrad my mentor was Nikos Psacharopoulos. He pushed me into directing and brought me to Williamstown every summer to work with some of the top actors and directors in the country. I met Gerry at Williamstown and spent four years working with him in New York City on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, often in collaboration with Andre Bishop at Playwrights Horizons. 

Later, at Yale Drama School I met the extraordinary Earle Gister, whose 5 Questions technique and approach to text analysis became the foundation for my teaching and directing to this day. In the Juilliard Acting Company I spent two years watching Shakespeare productions, taking notes and giving notes to the actors. My year in Bogota taught me not only about Colombian culture, writing, artwork and language, but gave me a new family that also changed my life in many ways. While I was at the DCPA I not only taught what I had been taught, but I also had the great fortune and experience of directing over 100 productions while having three amazing children, Catalina, Sonia, and Carlo. When it was announced that they would be shutting down the National Theatre Conservatory, which was the only Masters in Acting in the state of Colorado, I had been working for years with a close friend and colleague, Bill Pullman, who had begun to write and direct new material that I had produced and co-directed through the NTC. When it became clear that the Conservatory was going to shut down, Bill and I decided to create a company together in 2010 and it has become my own life’s work to this day. 

While we could have founded a theatre or production company, that is not what we did. We definitely wanted to create and produce completely new works together, but I was 100% committed to also providing professional training based in graduate-level study to actors of all ages, levels, and backgrounds in our community. The company was founded soon after my mother Joyce McCray passed away. My mom was a great educator, Head of Friends Seminary in NYC and Head of the Council for Private Education in Washington D.C. She had also been another major influence on my life and supported me not only continuing to work in theatre, but to focus my own work on the education of artists and their training. 

The last 15 years of my own professional life have been with Visionbox Studio. It is an uphill battle to not only create a company dedicated to professional training, but to find a way to make training as important as production work in our community. I often say that artists are born, which I definitely believe, but they then need to be made. Talent alone will not sustain a life in the theatre. It takes extraordinary study, training, education, and practice to work at the highest level. Talent is not enough. Even seasoned professionals in other cities like NYC go to class throughout their lives. 

“Talent alone will not sustain a life in the theatre. It takes extraordinary study, training, education, and practice to work at the highest level.” 

Finally, I recommend every artist read Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. In this short book by this extraordinary writer, a young poet asks Rilke if he thinks the young poet is good enough to make it. I am paraphrasing here, but Rilke says something to the extent of- “When you lay your head down at night and you think I must write, then that is what you must do. You can let no one or anything convince you otherwise.” 

The life of an artist is not easy. There are many challenges along the way, but the one thing I’ve been sure of all my life is that I wouldn’t change this journey for anything and it is my education and training that has been the foundation for everything that I’ve done in my life including my most important creation: my three children. 

-Jennifer McCray Rincón

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