Drama alumna Beth Malone appears this spring as the Angel

If you gathered every UCI graduate who has Broadway experience, you could practically staff an entire musical or play. And it would undoubtedly be a hit. Almost three dozen alumni have been employed or are currently working in New York City’s famed Theater District, says Gary Busby, chair of the drama department at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

“Our school has a very good reputation because we have had so many years producing alums on Broadway or in TV, film and opera,” he says. “We’re getting a critical mass of people from the department who are making names for themselves.”

Busby says this talent pipeline begins in the classroom with inspiring faculty whom students can emulate and who provide real-world experience.

“The faculty is so dedicated to helping these students,” he says. “Because of the work we do in the department, which is consistently at a very high caliber, the transition from school to the professional world is a small step. When the students study with us, we introduce them to the industry and help them make their first connections.”

In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter ranked the Claire Trevor School of the Arts undergraduate drama program, as well as UCI’s drama M.F.A. program, among the top 25 in the world. And three years ago, the university celebrated as two alumni, actress Beth Malone and producer Tim Kashani, were nominated for Tony Awards.

Students can tap into this star power. Every year, as part of a satellite program, the school takes a group to New York, where they live and breathe Broadway.

“During that time, whatever alumni are in the area hold master classes for the students,” Busby says. “So they get firsthand experience in what it’s like to make the transition from school to Broadway. These alumni are spheres of influence for our students.”

Beth Malone, M.F.A. ’00, drama

Beth Malone’s career and her commitment to LGBTQ advocacy intensified in tandem several years ago when she joined a group of writers and actors piecing together a new musical they hoped would someday see an audience. It did. Malone originated the role of Alison in “Fun Home,” a Broadway hit that garnered 12 Tony nominations in 2015, including one for Malone as best leading actress in a musical.

“You work on this thing in the dark, not knowing if it’s going to be anything, and then it’s something everyone is talking about,” Malone says. “We performed one show before United Nations delegates – all these people from other countries. I felt like it changed lives and saved lives.”

The musical is centered on a woman’s sexuality and her relationship with her gay father. The experience ignited Malone’s LGBTQ activism. She now performs around the nation to promote LGBTQ causes.

“It’s something that is so easy to do,” she says. “All I have to do is be honest and truthful and visible and not shy away from any questions that come my way.”

This spring, Malone appears at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre as the Angel in a revival of Tony Kushner’s acclaimed play “Angels in America,” which is set during the AIDS crisis and 1980s politics. Her education at UCI made the role possible, she says.

“There’s no way I’d be in this show without [UCI drama professor] Annie Loui,” Malone says. “I think it was the movement training that got me in the room, because it’s an extremely physical version of ‘Angels in America.’ Annie taught me the exact type of work for me to do the auditions with confidence.”

Alan Mingo Jr., M.F.A. ’98, drama

The ink was barely dry on his M.F.A. diploma when Alan Mingo Jr. joined the touring company of the Broadway musical “Rent.” When the national show closed a year later, he volunteered – on a whim – to help take the play to Italy. Within months, the young actor found himself assisting in its launch and performing in Italian.

“It was the most stressful and exhilarating thing I’ve ever done,” he says, laughing. “I thank UCI for that experience, because it allowed me to bite off more than I could chew and be successful at it.”

Mingo is a musical theater specialist, having performed in such hits as “Shrek the Musical,” “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” and the Tony Award-winning “Kinky Boots.” He coveted the role of Lola in “Kinky Boots” and auditioned to be a replacement six or seven times, he recalls.

“When I saw the show, I said, ‘I have to get this part,’” he says. “For two and a half years, I was told no, no, no. But the casting director said to me, ‘One day, you’re going to get this role.’ So I went to audition again – they told me to buy a new dress for the audition, but I said no way – and wound up booking it!”

Mingo, who rents out part of his two-family Harlem brownstone to two other UCI drama graduates, says he now knows to ask for what he wants: “I learned that lesson shortly after I left school, and it was a wonderful lesson for me.” 

Kimberly Faye Greenberg ’98, drama

You could call Kimberly Faye Greenberg the go-to girl on Broadway. The UCI drama graduate is a self-described multitasker who acts off-Broadway, operates her own solo tour playing Fanny Brice, fills in as a substitute wardrobe dresser on Broadway, and serves as a career coach and consultant for Broadway-based professionals.

“I have learned that if you want to work and be successful, you really have to create your own opportunities,” she says. “I’ve always found ways to get my art into the world and create opportunities that would grow me as an individual and keep me working in my field rather than waiting tables.”

Greenberg participated in UCI’s New York satellite program – which, she says, helped illuminate the business side of Broadway. “Because of that program, I learned how a business is run,” she explains. “Sometimes people are not taught that stuff. I was very educated as a businessperson when I graduated.”

She has discovered that she loves assisting others, whether it’s helping an actor zip into costumes backstage or providing advice about leveraging one’s skills. “I really enjoy inspiring others and helping them thrive,” Greenberg says. “Even as a dresser, it’s about giving the actors what they need to go onstage and be successful.”

Ross Jackson, M.F.A. ’15, drama

Imagine landing on Broadway three days after graduation. That’s what happened to Ross Jackson, who trained in stage management at UCI under senior lecturer Don Hill. Commencement was on a Saturday, and Jackson flew to New York on Sunday. He began his job as an intern on the set of “Wicked” on Tuesday.

“I had done a couple of internships with touring companies while I was at UCI, and I got the ‘Wicked’ job all because of those other companies opening the doors,” Jackson says. “None of it would have been possible without UCI. When I chose UCI, I could look at the alumni and see that they were out working and doing what I wanted to do.”

During the “Wicked” internship, he helped three actors who were new to the musical learn their roles and stood in the wings during shows to oversee entrances and exits. “It was an amazing experience,” he says.

Today Jackson is in demand as an equity stage manager. Based in Los Angeles, he often works at the Geffen Playhouse and travels extensively. This spring, he’s attending the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology conference to be a mentor in USITT’s Gateway Program, which assists theater majors from underserved communities.

Jackson wants to give back in the same way that others helped him. “I’m excited about the program because it creates an opportunity to mentor somebody throughout their career,” he says.

Gwyn Conaway, M.F.A. ’13, drama

Costume designer and illustrator Gwyn Conaway was seemingly destined for a life in the arts – she hails from a family of entertainment professionals and has been exposed to everything from the circus to film to opera. Nevertheless, she had to work hard to find her niche.

An expert at “Marvelous Designer,” a 3-D garment simulation program, Conaway serves as a consultant for feature animation studios producing films and video games.

“The software allows you to pattern and sew and alter costumes in a 3-D space on a 3-D character,” she says. “I help teach [the animators] how to see and fit clothing and how to alter costumes within the program.” She’s also co-author of a recently published book, The Story We Wear: Costume Design for Animators and Illustrators.

Conaway has been an assistant costume designer on several Broadway projects and the Broadway-produced “Carrie: The Killer Musical Experience.” But success didn’t come knocking on her door. After graduation, Conaway turned down job offers to get the technological training she needed to do 3-D animation costume work. Her time at UCI prepared her to tough things out.

“The environment at UCI was challenging,” Conaway explains. “It made me able to stand up for my choices and fight for the things I wanted to do with my career.”

Hideki Yamaya, M.F.A, ’01, music

On a recent weekend, Hideki Yamaya headed home to New Haven, Connecticut, after teaching a master class at Oregon State University. On Monday, he flew to Chicago to play with an orchestra. Then it was back to the Belasco Theatre, on Broadway, for “Farinelli and the King.”

It’s hard to believe Yamaya once wondered if he could make a living as a musician.

Today he enjoys a reputation as an expert in the lute, early guitars and mandolins, performing as both a soloist and a chamber player with numerous opera companies and orchestras. In “Farinelli and the King,” his first time on Broadway, Yamaya plays the lute onstage in full costume as a member of the baroque ensemble that accompanies the lead character. “It’s a play but with live music incorporated into it,” he explains. “It’s been a fun experience and very different.” Yamaya credits the attention he received from John Schneiderman, a senior lecturer in guitar and lute at UCI, for his career success. “John was very encouraging, and he was very eager to play with me,” he says. “We performed together on a number of occasions when I was still a student. That’s not something all faculty members do. I was so grateful for that.”

Tim Kashani ’86, information & computer science, MBA ’88

Tim Kashani’s tech and business expertise didn’t go to waste when he became successful in entertainment. He founded Apples and Oranges Studios, which produced the 2010 Tony Award-winning musical “Memphis,” as well as the Tony Award-winning revival of “Hair,” on Broadway and in London’s West End.

Kashani also launched THEatre Accelerator, which focuses on blending technology and theater, with his wife, Broadway actress Pamela Winslow. Moreover, he didn’t abandon the computer science field; he runs a highly successful information technology company too.

“I don’t like buckets,” he says. “We’re becoming more fluid in the way we live. We’ve found that extremes don’t work.”

Kashani encourages entertainment industry professionals and students to develop business skills. “When you’re bringing a show to Broadway, it has to have commercial viability,” he says. “Students sometimes ask me, ‘Are you selling out?’ I tell them, ‘I hope I’m selling out the entire theater!’”

An active supporter of UCI, Kashani is working on a campus project that bridges the computer science and fine arts schools. “There’s an idea that you have to be broke and starving to be in the arts. I always thought that was stupid,” he says. “I want to see more UCI students become employed around the world right when they graduate.”

Originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.