Pitt alumni reflect on finding success in arts and entertainment industry


Image courtesy of Samantha Saunders Studio

Ariana Starkman as River and Christopher Staley as Franz in a production of “Appropriate” by UPitt Stages in 2020.

By Jessica McKenzie, Culture Editor

When Ariana Starkman was an undergrad at Pitt, she couldn’t find a major that encompassed all of her passions, so she invented her own, called theater and social change. The self-composed major encompassed classes in dancing, acting, political science and history. It also included two semesters of study abroad at performing arts schools in Arezzo, Italy, and Moscow, Russia.

“It was a massive major, but one that I ended up putting together myself,” Starkman said. “I did a bunch of theater through Pitt Stages and that was always really wonderful. Pittsburgh — it’s a really strong theater community, everyone kind of knows what’s happening around town.”

Starkman, a Cleveland native and 2020 Pitt graduate, assumed many roles in remote and in-person Pitt Stages productions, such as “She Kills Monsters,” “Appropriate” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.” She now lives in London where she is auditioning for various productions and taking acting classes. She is also a member of the Alliance for Jewish Theatre, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spotlighting Jewish theater worldwide.

Starkman said she had plenty of experience traveling as a child, so she always knew she would want to live abroad after graduating from Pitt.

“I actually lived abroad when I was five, seven and 14, so I always knew that travel was super important to me, part of my values — getting to know other cultures and seeing the world,” Starkman said. “But I’m also such a homebody, so I know I’ll be back.”

Because of the ticket discounts many theaters offer for young people, London is the ideal city to live as a theater-lover, Starkman added.

“I love London. I usually walk to a coffee shop every day, work there, then go to an acting class or audition,” Starkman said. “Theater is really inexpensive for people under 31. So I’ve been here about a year and a half and I’ve been to close to 120 performances. Those are under 10 pounds. It’s really accessible here.”

Starkman said her experience at Pitt taught her to go outside of her comfort zone and act as a pioneer for her own learning and growth. She said one of the most beneficial things she did as a student was always following new paths and curiosities.

“I was a real advocate for my own learning and my education at Pitt. It prepared me to reach out to people, to know what I want, to stay in connection with people,” Starkman said. “Just making somewhere that just feels big — Pitt is a pretty big university — to make it seem small, find a community, hold on to people that you care about and can learn from.”

It’s essential for students to maintain the connections they make during undergrad in order to find success in the entertainment industry. This is a sentiment Cameron Krause, a 2012 Pitt graduate, shares with Starkman. He currently acts as production manager of animation on “Dora” at Nickelodeon’s headquarters in New York City.

As a Pitt student, Krause was a film studies and U.S. history major. When he graduated, he pursued a career in talent management at Latchkey Recordings in Tarrytown, New York. After assuming many different roles in the industry, he said he sought to do something more creative.

Krause said in order to thrive in the industry, he suggests practicing flexibility if students don’t get their dream job right away.

“Give it till you’re 30. I went through periods of my life where I was bartending after having had the job or waiting to get the job. It’s very competitive and it takes a while, but if you want it enough, you don’t feel like it’s done,” Krause said. 

After working as a production coordinator at Passion Pictures, Krause worked as a freelance creative consultant and producer. He later landed a job as a production manager at Titmouse, the cartoon company behind the cable channel “adult swim.” He oversaw production teams on Disney Junior’s “T.O.T.S” and “Pupstruction.” He later became the production manager of Nickelodeon’s Paramount+ reboot of “Dora” in 2022.

Krause said his current position has many facets, both managerial and creative.

“The day-to-day is really overseeing the production team and the entire production itself. And kind of it all boils down to the schedule and the budget,” Krause said. “In this industry, it doesn’t matter what your position is, people listen to your opinion. So you get to really feel like you’re a part of the show and creating the look of the show, which is pretty cool.”

Krause said although he had a long journey to get where he is now, he hopes to center on underrepresented characters in the future, as he is doing with “Dora.”

“Getting to do what I’m doing on ‘Dora’ was a really big deal for me. I know the importance it holds for young kids that come from underrepresented backgrounds,” Krause said. “That, to me, is something I really, really wanted to focus on — something that impacts the world in a positive way for people who have less opportunity than I have.”

Alex Kennell, a 2018 Pitt grad, said she had aspirations to become an author when she started her undergraduate career. She majored in English literature and fiction writing and became the culture editor of The Pitt News when she was a junior. She now resides in the Washington DC-Baltimore area, where she is a story producer at Johnny & Iz LLC. The company produces content for YouTuber and video journalist Johnny Harris, who posts informational videos on a variety of topics. The channel currently has 3.4 million subscribers.

“I liked to write, and I just went to college because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And as I was there, I found that I wanted to do something in journalism, but I also knew that I loved movies, and I felt like I had to pick one,” Kennell said. “I didn’t know that this was an option because this isn’t a job that existed a couple years ago.”

Kennell said although producing explainer videos isn’t what she imagined herself doing for a living when she was a student, she loves her job. Her career allows her to explore fun topics that she didn’t previously know existed.

“Whatever Johnny, the YouTuber, finds interesting, he’ll just throw my way. Right now I’m currently working on a video about North Korean cinema and how obsessed Kim Jong Il was with cinema. So very random,” Kennell said. “Kim Jong Il abducted a South Korean director to make a monster movie and I think that’s ridiculous. We try to do more journalistic-type things, but it’s also entertainment.”

Kennell said because of recent advancements in technology, she can combine her passions for journalism, education and entertainment into one career.

“I also have always wanted to do education and be an English teacher or something. But I’m not good at public speaking,” Kennell said. “My job is half writing and researching, half art direction. I get to come up with the color palettes and the fonts we use and things like that. And so everything is in one job. This is my dream job, I’m here already.”

Kennell added that students who want jobs in arts and entertainment should take as many opportunities as possible after they graduate. As someone who originally intended to become an author after graduating, she said she is satisfied with her ventures into a new professional sphere.

“If opportunities come around, and you’re not open-minded to them, you’ll miss something that you might like, even better than what you initially went out to do,” Kennell said. “This is a whole other world I didn’t know existed.”