Pitt theatre arts alumni succeed on and off stage


Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

The Stephen Foster Memorial Theater is home to many of the Department of Theatre Arts’ productions.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Culture Editor

Pitt’s department of theatre arts serves hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students per year, covering theatrical production, training and study. Class topics range from the obvious, such as studies in acting and performance, to the technical, such as lighting and set design.

Annmarie Duggan, an associate professor and chair of the theatre arts department, said the department’s program of study is designed to cater to a variety of students, highlighting its undergraduate curriculum.

“We are multi-layer program — a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Being a B.A., we get students who want to do multiple things. We have students who want to take the traditional theatre route, then we have those who want to use theatre to go onto something else,” she said.

Pitt alumni around the country live up to Duggan’s words, with post-college pursuits of theatre majors ranging from acting to law.

Ben Blazer, Class of 2006, Bachelor’s Degree:

Ben Blazer, an actor and professor of movement at Point Park University’s College of Performing Arts, discovered theatre by accident.

After graduating high school in Homeville, Blazer worked in carpentry, but he eventually decided that manual labor was not for him. Everything changed for him when he attended a Model Search America competition in Monroeville with his younger brother. After being scouted at the competition, the boys headed to Washington, D.C., with the organization for further exposure. It was there that Blazer was first exposed to acting, as he had to read several scripts for casting agents.

Blazer said he was bit by the theatre bug after this encounter. After failing to find work in modeling, he returned home and enrolled in an acting for television course at the Community College of Allegheny County per a friend’s recommendation.

“I was so fortunate to be at CCAC because I became a better and better student,” he said.

Eventually, Blazer decided to apply to Pitt, going above and beyond for his application by submitting a variety of supplemental materials, such as a theatre resume and headshot. To Blazer’s surprise, he got in.

He made the most of his three years at Pitt, becoming involved in a variety of University productions, most notably acting in the play “Arms and the Man” by George Bernard Shaw and directing the play “The American Century” by Murphy Guyer. He said that these opportunities were essential in his growth as a student and actor.

“We felt supported as undergrads in terms of the opportunities we had to do things like direct our own shows, in addition to leaving room for MFA and PhD students to direct as well. Providing those opportunities for undergrads is fantastic, as it helps them develop the ability to communicate their ideas with all kinds of people,” he said.

While at Pitt, Blazer discovered his passion for teaching and decided to go to graduate school to further his education and skills. He attended the University of South Carolina for his MFA in acting. Here he received extensive training in movement in performance, a skill which helped him acquire his position as an assistant professor at Point Park University after completing his MFA.

Blazer is passionate about teaching acting to others and feels that his time at Pitt helped him figure out what kind of teacher he wants to be for his students.

“It starts with having good teachers. I can’t remember any teachers at Pitt that I didn’t get a lot out of,” he said. “It’s good to have great instructors that you have a great experience with and find you want to emulate them. Both good and bad instructors can make you want to become a teacher — some you want to emulate and some you want to be better than.”

When school is not in session, he works as a professional actor, most notably with the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Starting on May 30, he will play one of the lead roles in “Marjorie Prime,” a sci-fi comedy play by Jordan Harrison, a writer from Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” The play will run from May 30 to June 30 at the O’Reilly Theater.

Chloe Torrence, Class of 2019, Bachelor’s Degree:

Chloe Torrence applied to Pitt on a whim.

“I applied to Pitt because I could apply for free,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh Pittsburgh is cool, I’ll apply’ and then I ended up going without knowing much else about the school.”

Upon arriving on campus, Torrence, a Berlin, Ohio, native, became deeply engrossed in the theatre arts department. She credits her advisor, Gianni Downs, for guiding her on her Pitt journey.

“When I came in I immediately felt so comfortable. [Downs] was so interested in my goals as a theatre artist and finding ways that I would fit into the program. They were really concerned about making sure they knew what I wanted to do and putting me where I needed to be,” she said.

Torrence assistant-directed Pitt’s mainstage productions throughout her college career, and even had the opportunity to direct a few of her own, most notably “Roustabout: The Great Circus Trainwreck,” which happened to be written by her uncle, Jay Torrence.

“To grow up watching him write that play and then have the chance to direct it at Pitt was absolutely incredible. The department was so supportive of it and they really wanted and worked hard to make it happen,” she said.

Torrence was also heavily involved in Pitt’s Musical Theatre Club, serving on the executive board and as president during her senior year. While in MTC, she had the opportunity to direct, perform in and produce various shows. She acted in “The Drowsy Chaperone” her first year, served as assistant director for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” her sophomore year, directed “Legally Blonde” her junior year and produced “Pippin” her senior year.

According to Torrence, Pitt’s B.A. program for theatre arts greatly prepared her for all aspects of the field.

“Not only was I taking performance-based classes, but also tech theatre classes. I also took classes in costuming, so I am pretty well versed in sewing and design,” she said. “If I’m ever in a rut and am not getting directing gigs, I am fully marketable as a costume designer and as a dresser. The theatre department was really focused on putting us in a place where we can never not get work.”

Torrence graduated this past April and is currently preparing to move west for her job at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria, California, where she will be an assistant director for its mainstage season, as well as teach acting classes to public school students in the area.

Sarah Andrews, Class of 2002, Master’s Degree:

Sarah Andrews arrived at Pitt to avoid leaving school behind. After graduating with a B.A. in theatre from Gannon University in 2000, she wasn’t sure what to do.

“I didn’t really have any kind of plan upon graduating. I was studying what I was passionate about, and that didn’t really translate into much thought about how I was going to support myself,” she said. “Going to grad school at Pitt was a way to delay making any decisions about that.”

According to Andrews, the theatre arts department’s master’s program was focused on seminar work and intensive readings of various texts. She was particularly enthusiastic about re-examining women’s involvement in the history of theatre.

Andrews graduated from Pitt’s master’s program in 2002. Originally, she had plans to pursue a PhD and become a theatre professor, but then re-examined that goal after a discussion with one of her advisors.

“I was told there was a lot of risk in teaching, even though I was passionate about it,” she said.

Andrews then took a real estate job leasing apartments in order to take a year and assess if she wanted to apply to a PhD program. While working, she was encouraged by her now ex-husband to take the LSAT exam. She received a very good score, so much so that she received a full scholarship from Duquesne University’s school of law, deciding her talents were better suited for the courtroom than the stage.

“I like being a student. Unlike with the theatre, where I don’t know how I’m going to make money, maybe I can make money as a lawyer,” she said.

Andrews was at the top of her class while at Duquesne. She credits her success to her work in the theatre department’s master’s program.

“I know with dead certainty that the work I was pushed to do and the academic rigor of my master’s program is why I was able to go to law school and knew how to self-navigate, pace myself and then became sixth in my class at the end of my first year,” she said.

Andrews graduated from law school in 2006. She now works as a knowledge management attorney for Morgan Lewis, a major law firm located in Pittsburgh, helping lawyers evaluate their practices and find ways to innovate the way they do their job.

According to Andrews, her theatre experience has helped her immensely in her job.

“I do a lot of teaching and training to increase new lawyers’ self-awareness and their ability to communicate, such as basic public speaking skills and how to read a room and project their voices, something that I’m pretty familiar with due to my theatre background,” she said.

Andrews also notes that her theatre background, specifically her Pitt training, has made her a diverse thinker in the law world.

“I am not a typical corporate lawyer type. I function very differently from the very studious and focused people I work with,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to fit the ‘law firm partner’ mold, but I’ve been able to use my skills to help others and fulfill an innovation role at the firm.”