The School of Communication welcomes this academic year our first-ever cohort of MFA in Acting students, signaling an exciting expansion of graduate curriculum. Eight talented actors from across the country comprise the brand-new class that began coursework on September 24. The actors join graduate artists in a suite of complementary MFA programs, which includes design, directing, writing, and documentary media. These programs will be housed in a forthcoming performing and media arts center in Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s campus in downtown Chicago.
Read on to meet the inaugural class.
Maya Abram hails from Tennessee where she graduated from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga with her bachelor of arts degree. Some of her recent stage acting credits include Julius Caesar (Nashville Shakespeare Festival), Mill Fire (UTC Theatre Co.), and No Exit (UTC Theatre Co.).
She said Northwestern’s outstanding reputation and regard in the theatre community drew her to the MFA in Acting program. One of her college professors, a Northwestern alumni, inspired her by sharing what the University meant to her as a young artist.
“Northwestern is a school that sees and understands the value of art in all forms,” she Abram says. “Coming from a small conservative school, I did not always feel that what I loved was respected. The rich history of Northwestern’s theatre, their constant theatrical innovations, alumni, and current arts values are really what pushed me to want to be in an academic setting that supports students both in and outside of the classroom.”
After graduation, Maya would like to stay in Chicago, working professionally, taking more classes, and collaborating with friends.
“In the bigger picture, I would love to start my own theatre company primarily for marginalized voices (people of color, women, LGBTQIA+), and I would like to do it somewhere in the South,” she says. “Being a southerner, born and raised, I want to be able to provide the safe space that I did not have when I was coming up, because I feel that will be needed in future.”
Alexandria Crawford grew up in Florida where her family encouraged her to explore her creativity. She learned about the performing arts at a young age and went on to earn her BA in Theatre Arts and English from Rollins College. After college, she completed her apprenticeship in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the American Stage Theatre Company, which invited her to stay as a teaching artist.
She looks forward to being part of Northwestern’s brand-new program and contributing to its development in this first year.
“It is my hope that my time in grad school will bring me to the next level as an actress so that one day young children (especially children of color) can look at me and see that it’s possible to make a difference by doing what you love,” Crawford says. “I want to be in the position in which I am the author of my own story. I want to be able to further my understanding of finding the art within myself and bringing it to life in each role I play.”
She is excited for the opportunity to work with and learn from other theatre artists in a collaborative experience.
“After graduating, I want to continue to tell powerful and meaningful stories that allow audiences to see not only themselves, but the rest of the world through a different lens,” she said. “I want my work to ignite conversations that lead to the betterment of our society.”
Zack Dittami worked in information technology and workforce optimization as a consultant for the federal government before deciding last year to pursue his passion as an actor.
He made his professional acting debut in August 2018 at the District of Columbia Arts Center, where he co-starred in the world premiere of In the Closet by Siegmund Fuchs. He trained at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington and auditioned in January for the University Resident Theatre Association in New York where he met Northwestern faculty Anna Shapiro and Halena Kays.
He earned his undergraduate degree from George Mason University, and he competed on the university’s nationally ranked speech team.
Dittami, of Worcester, Mass., said he is ecstatic to now be in Chicago, one of the country’s most vibrant cities for theatre.
“Anna Shapiro is one of the most respected theatre professionals in the country and Steppenwolf is famous for producing the likes of Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Perry,” Dittami says.
The MFA program, including a full scholarship, stipend, and health insurance, is the “biggest blessing,” he said.
“Being an artist is so hard and it takes many sacrifices, especially in terms of finances,” he said. “Northwestern has made it possible for me to hone my craft and let my dream grow into something bigger and more beautiful.”
After completing his MFA, he would like to be a full-time actor and tell stories, collaborate on art, and promote activism.
Mickey Jordan worked in theaters across Portland before moving to Chicago go to Northwestern.
“The Acting MFA is kind of a dream opportunity,” he says. “I mean, I was recruited by Anna Shapiro. How many Acting MFA students get to say that? Anna is just the tip of an intimidatingly impressive iceberg though. The reputation of this faculty is unimpeachable, and if my experience over the last few days is anything to go by, well deserved. They are all high-caliber working professionals, and amazing, super engaging teachers.”
Jordan was born in rural Oregon, grew up in Portland and earned his undergraduate degree at Portland State University. He has worked at the Profile Theatre, Shaking the Tree, Defunkt, and Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative. He most recently played Edgar in the Portland Actors Ensemble’s production of King Lear.
He looks forward to the opportunity to develop himself more fully as an actor in the MFA program’s inaugural class.
“I’ll get to broaden and refine my skillset with the help of highly accomplished theater professionals,” he said. “While I’m doing that, I’m working alongside the next generation of superstar directors, designers, and actors. These are valuable relationships personally, but also for a long and productive career. I expect I’ll be working with a lot of these people 20 years from now.”
His plans for what comes after earning his MFA are fluid, but he said he can definitely see himself building a career in Chicago.
Mi Kang start acting at age 13. She was a dancer in her community theater’s musicals and performed in high school and college, but did not believe she would pursue a professional career as an actor.
After earning her BBA from the University of Texas at Austin, she took a break from acting and spent time figuring out what she wanted to do in her life.
“Eventually, I found my way back to storytelling and haven’t looked back since,” she says.
Originally from Texas and previously based in Seattle, she is thrilled to attend Northwestern.
“My main reason (for choosing this program) is the amazing faculty that we as students will be learning from,” Kang says. “I’m also excited to be part of a school that has established prestigious MFA programs in other artistic disciplines and the opportunity to work with those students as well.”
Some of her recent Seattle credits include John (ArtsWest Playhouse), The Journal of
Ben Uchida (Seattle Children’s Theatre), A Tale for Time Being (Book-It Repertory Theatre), Deers (Annex Theatre), The Earth Shakes (Heron Ensemble), and Nadeshiko (Sound Theatre Company).
Emiley Kiser grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and attended Desales University in Pennsylvania for her BA in Theatre. She worked as an actor with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and continued her acting career in New York and regionally following her graduation from college.
“The MFA program is being led by the top people in the theater industry who continue to be working artists,” she says. “That was very important to me—to be taught by those who are currently working and up to date with everything happening in our industry. It is also a huge bonus to be in Chicago.”
After graduation, she hopes to continue living and working in the area.
“I’m hoping that after (the two-year MFA), I can come out of this experience feeling confident as an artist in my own right,” she says. “I’m hoping to develop an artistic process that really works for me. I would also like to leave Northwestern knowing I am part of an artistic community.”
Some of her recent credits include The Winter’s Tale (NY Classical), Our Town (Palm Beach Dramaworks), Romeo and Juliet (Quintessence Theatre Group), All’s Well That Ends Well (PA Shakespeare Festival), Charley’s Aunt (Shakespeare Theatre of NJ), and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Quintessence Theatre Group).
For Al’Jaleel McGhee, the best acting, writing, and directing programs have a “mafia” of artists who become a professional resource after graduation for students.
“I was actually preparing to head to another one of those programs when I learned through Sydney Charles, another Chicago actor, that Northwestern was kicking off the inaugural Acting MFA class,” he says. “A few weeks later, I’m sitting with the Anna Shapiro at Steppenwolf talking about the world-class faculty, brand-new facilities, and the opportunity join the ‘Northwestern mafia’ and make history with the inaugural MFA Acting ensemble.”
McGhee, a Chicago-based actor, joins the new MFA class after appearing on the stages of the Goodman Theatre, Gift Theatre, Court Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and Timeline Theatre (Black Theatre Alliance Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in Paradise Blue). His television and film appearances include NBC, FOX, CBS, Showtime, and Sony Pictures. He completed his BA in Theatre and Performance at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Chicago, he argues, is the best in the world for theatre: “And I’m more than happy to fight about this.”
“Equity, non-equity, storefront, huge house, if you’re an artist with something to say, an artist that wants to ‘shake the table,’ an artist that wants to create something beautiful and ugly, and uplifting and tragic, something visceral, something real, honest, then Chicago is where you should be,” he says. “And we get to learn, live and create in the heart of it.”
Concetta Russo comes to Chicago from Boston, “the other coldest place in the country,” she jokes.
After earning her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Massachusetts, she worked as an actor, singer, and teaching artist in the United States and abroad. Her career has included working with the Italian touring children’s theater Theatrino and as a company member with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. She has worked throughout New England.
“I decided to come to Northwestern, because I was interested in this idea that my work as an actor should lend to my position as a person in society,” she says. “Not everyone can be a scientist or lawyer, but I was taken at the idea that my contribution to society was equally as important. I was drawn to the faculty being largely female and how affirming being surrounded by strong women in my field was nothing if not validating and encouraging for my future as an artist.”
She hopes to gain a better understanding of herself as an actor and to stretch and grow the abilities that she has, but may not be the most comfortable, at sharing.
“I know what I do well and want to be pushed further in developing abilities that can complement those things, even if they are scary and uncomfortable,” she says. “I also am in awe of all of the connections to the theatre community here in Chicago that are present in this program and department. Those connections and the ones I will make with my cohort are what can help me navigate life after my MFA training.”
To learn more about the new MFA in Acting, its collaborative partners, faculty, curriculum, and mission, visit acting.northwestern.edu.
By Katie Fretland