Before she took on her role as grand marshal for Northwestern’s Homecoming festivities, film, television, stage actress and singer Ana Gasteyer (C89) spent an hour with a group of School of Communication students and guests on October 17 in the John Evans Center to talk about her career. The conversation was moderated by associate professor of theatre Rives Collins, who once taught Gasteyer at Northwestern.
“It takes amazing tenacity to sustain a career in entertainment—you work hard to keep that ball in the air,” said Gasteyer, who is known for her sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, her role and vocals as Elphaba in the stage musical Wicked and her role as Sheila Shay in the ABC sitcom Suburgatory. “But the skills you learn from a liberal arts education like Northwestern prepares you for the long game.”
Gasteyer credits her time at Northwestern’s School of Communication (then called the School of Speech), taking advantage of “a ton of storytelling, creative drama, performance and writing,” as career boosting. She was one of three first-year students to be in Waa-Mu, “an amazing experience” that changed the trajectory of her professional life.
After graduating, Gasteyer moved to Los Angeles and lived with three Northwestern friends in a one-bedroom apartment. “I slept on a futon that never laid flat,” she recalled. Her first post-graduate jobs as a production assistant at an animation company, in voice-over projects and on stage were landed through Northwestern connections.
“Being around motivated, excited people is contagious,” Gasteyer said. “Go where your people go—find your NU people.”
Responding to questions about her time at Northwestern, Gasteyer continued to praise the benefits of a four-year degree. “You learn how to put an idea together, how to interview well, speak clearly and write with integrity,” she said. “When you pitch Yahoo for that web series and you write it well and add a pretty picture and a great font, you are already way ahead of the others.”
Gasteyer said her career has been a bifurcated one. She arrived in Evanston as a music major, but found other opportunities. “I was lucky to have stumbled onto Northwestern where I could develop my skills outside of voice,” she said.
But singing became a huge part of Gasteyer’s success, particularly during her role in Wicked, a vocally and physically demanding one that empowered legions of young women. She recently returned to her singing roots in the recent release of a jazz standards record, I’m Hip.
As much joy as she has had entertaining people, she told students that the life of an entertainer “is an itinerant one.” “You miss a lot of bar mitzvahs, weddings and birthdays,” she said.
Seated beside Gasteyer and wearing a Wicked t-shirt was senior radio/television/film major Jamie Lee Cortese, who said “It’s one thing to read about a celebrity’s work online or see it in theatres, but it’s another when they come to talk with us about it in a small intimate setting.”
Jared Sprowls, a theatre junior studying playwriting, said, “She reinforced for me how good it is to be well rounded and the importance about the business end of things,” he said “And she was so down to earth, so not a diva.”
-Ellen Blum Barish (C81, GJ84)