Chelsea-Anne Cymrot, junior at USC and TMU contributor
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ben Donenberg, a professional actor who is the Founder and Executive Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA). He not only directs and produces professional theater, he teaches acting in LA and has acted in shows on and off-Broadway, in Central Park at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte Theater, and has appeared in film and on television. Donenberg oversees the work of the National Endowment for the Arts as a member of the National Council on the Arts. Additionally, he annually directs Simply Shakespeare, a series of staged readings by Board Member Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks to benefit SCLA. He is a graduate of The Julliard School of Drama Division and received his Bachelor's degree in Philosophy from the University of Southern California.
What advice do you give to graduating students? "Advice I give to graduating students is to take their destiny and fate into their own hands and to not put it into anybody else's. I would say that they should continue to train and keep themselves nimble and active and stretching and taking risks and do what they need to do to take care of their spirit and their body and their mind."
If you could go back in time and speak to your college self, what would you say? "If I went back to talk to my college self, I would tell myself to be fully committed and fully prepared and fully present each moment. You need to really practice being present moment to moment, with an open heart and a curious mind and a healthy body."
What was your biggest mistake in your career? "My biggest mistake in my career came when I decided that I didn't really have to prepare fully for an audition. I just went in and winged it. Well, I went through a phase where I thought I could just improvise my way through everything, and I gave up doing the kind of preparation I was trained to do. And that was my biggest mistake."
Where did you get your first job in the theater, and what was your big break? "My first job was working in a play called How It All Began at the Public Theatre. I don't think there are really big breaks, I think that you create a cumulative momentum of working and growing and developing and learning and each experience accumulates. It's more like a spiral, but the chain of the experience continues if you remain focused and disciplined and committed and continue to train and hone your craft. Each experience builds upon the next, and you learn and you go up like on a spiral, and then you go down. And you keep learning so that you never go as low as the last time."
What are three habits that contributed to your success? "1) Practicing the Alexander technique 2) Practicing mediation 3) Doing Yoga. I've been mediating for about forty years, and I've been doing yoga pretty regularly since the mid 1970s and also [practicing] self-reflection and self-examination, continuing the quest to learn about myself and how I relate to my community."
How do you get you first job? "I auditioned. Well actually, my first job at the Public Theater came out of a classroom project. We were doing a play at Julliard, and the play got picked up and brought to The Public."
What are you working on now? "I am working on a lot of organizational development projects at my company, helping to build the infrastructure and strengthening its footing organizationally. I also am working on a couple of creative projects, developing a musical with a well-known recording star and developing two different approaches to two different Shakespeare plays at the same time. I collaborate on all of them."
So you studied at Julliard and USC? That's great. "You have to understand that a lot of the plays that Shakespeare wrote were based on a classic Greek model, so going back and studying the Greeks and studying that milieu and that part of civilization and the way people thought was very supportive of the other kinds of work I was doing. I did four years of Julliard and graduated from Julliard, but I didn't take the academic track so I received a diploma, a certificate, and then I went back and got a degree [in Philosophy at the University of Southern California.]"
1. Own Your Destiny: As great as having connections may be, at the end of the day, you should not rely on others to create opportunities for you. If you take matters into your hands, you are demonstrating confidence that will likely guide your career where you want it to go.
2. Be Present: Fight the urge to regress to old habits that may include just "improvising" or lacking to prepare for a role as thoroughly as you possibly can.
3. Meditate: Meditation and yoga will help you relax, will strengthen your body and your mind. And most importantly, will get you in touch with yourself.
4. Study the Classics: Shakespeare is called the greatest playwright of all-time for a reason. Make sure you take the time to read, research, and absorb his great works.
5. Respect Yourself: At all times, attempt to keep an open heart, a curious mind, and a healthy body.