Tinsel Town's Spotlights Shine on CSUF Alumni

Marc Cherry and Vanessa WilliamsCaption: Mark Cherry ’95 consults with new “Desperate Housewives” star Vanessa Williams on a scene from the seventh season of the hit series.

Marc Cherry ’95 (B.A. theatre arts) has had fabulous success as the creator and producer of “Desperate Housewives,” the hour-long satirical soap opera that is in its seventh season and is ABC-TV’s third-highest-rated show. But Cherry, who is now writing a new pilot for ABC, regards himself primarily as a storyteller.

“At some point the drama of the headlines and all the glitz fades, and I go to work on any given day to illuminate certain traits of the human condition,” Cherry said. “I tell stories that are relevant to human beings.”

Perhaps the most well-known CSUF alumni storytellers include Academy Award-winning actor/ director Kevin Costner ’78 (B.A. business administration- marketing) and “Lion King” and “Alice In Wonderland” writer Linda Woolverton ’79 (M.A. theatre arts). But good CSUF storytellers abound in Hollywood, and come from all walks of life.

“It’s all about the story,” agreed Lisa Solana ’80 (B.A. business administration-marketing), vice president for drama and movies for ABC Entertainment Marketing. Solana and her team are responsible for promotional marketing for ABC’s television shows through all kinds of venues. “We embrace technology and understand change. It used to be that we told our story only on TV – last week we may have told it on YouTube or Facebook  – in two years, who knows? But all our work is still about telling a good story.”

“Be relentless” is the advice writer John Pardee ’85 (B.A. communications) gives to those who want to pursue careers in entertainment. “Challenge yourself to be better,” Pardee said. “After 20 years, I’m still learning. Be focused. Do your research and always be a student. There’s a lot of competition out there.” Pardee recently sold a pilot to ABC. The former “Desperate Housewives” writer is developing the new show with writing partner Joey Murphy.

The competitive atmosphere of entertainment drives Jim McClintock ’83 (B.A. business administration-management), senior vice president for network media for ABC. “There isn’t a more dynamic marketing environment,” McClintock said. “I get excited and thrilled about it. I try to embrace and facilitate change, change based on thoughtful, logical analysis, and I think that if you can do that in any business, you can be successful.”

Cynthia Popp, Omid Abtahi and Ron Morgan
Caption: Left: Cynthia Popp ’85, left, directs the “Bold and the Beautiful” cast and crew on location.  Center: Omid Abtahi ’02 has starred in several TV series, including “Over There” on FX. Right: Ron Morgan ’77 recently worked on AFTRA contract negotiations.

Success comes in a lot of shapes and forms, noted actress Valorie Curry ’08 (B.A. theatre arts). “There are so many ways to be successful. The important thing is to be open-minded and know that you can make your own success.” Curry portrays Charlotte, one of the American nomad vampires, in “Breaking Dawn,” the fourth installment in the “Twilight” series.

Success for actress Kirsten Vangsness ’96 (B.A. theatre arts) came only after years as a starving artist, she said. The “Criminal Minds” actress lived hand-to-mouth but was nevertheless happy because she was performing, albeit for little to no pay. Her experiences at Cal State Fullerton taught her a respect for the work that goes beyond making money, but focuses instead on doing the thing one loves. “It’s best to do good work and create,” Vangsness said.

Actor Ron Morgan ’77 (B.A. theatre arts) agrees. Serving as president of the local American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA), one of two major performers’ unions, he appeared with Patrick Warburton in “The Woman Chaser” and “Spy Hard” with Leslie Nielsen. Most of his acting is in television commercials.

“I’d been going to school and decided I wanted to be a professional actor,” Morgan said. “A professor encouraged me to stay another semester and finish my degree. I’ve always been glad he did that. The theater classes taught me more about show, but the other classes taught me about the business.”

Writer Terry Rossio ’84 (B.A. communications) has had great creative success as writer of the “Pirates” series, the newest of which, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” recently wrapped up filming in London. Now trying to get “The Lone Ranger” into production, Rossio has finished work on a television series pilot called “Magical Law,” has an animation project at Sony called “Instant Karma,” and is working on a graphic novel.

Rossio credits Cal State Fullerton with helping prepare him for his career. “I was able to pick up a camera and shoot, then edit, movies,” he recalled. “Also the theater classes were crucial to learn blocking, lighting and performing. The writer of a film has to know a little bit about what everyone else does.”

Starting as an NBC script-reader, Cynthia Popp ’85 (B.A. communications-radio/TV/film) worked her way up, holding nearly every job on the ladder. Popp is in her 24th year as director and producer of CBS’s “The Bold and the Beautiful” and garnered her second Emmy in June as the show won Outstanding Drama Series for the second year in a row. Now she is pitching a new television series, “Jacob’s Edge,” featuring the world of competitive swimming from a swimmer’s point of view.

“Cal State Fullerton gave me the opportunity to find my voice,” Popp said. She was a campus leader in Sigma Kappa sorority, Panhellenic and student government while earning her degree, and she said those experiences helped her in the job market. “I knew how to juggle a million things at one time, how to stay organized, and how to be a leader,” she said.

Like Popp, Omid Abtahi ’02 (B.A. communications-advertising) was a communications major, but when he took a class in acting for non-majors, he found his passion. “I joined the Theatre Department, and it was like a second home to me,” he recalled.

Acting in the FX television show “Over There” was his big break, and lately Abtahi has been doing guest-star work in shows such as “Nikita,” “The Mentalist,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Event.”

“CSUF’s acting program is on a par with the top programs in the country,” Abtahi said. “They taught me my craft and gave me the confidence to act, which I didn’t have before. They do a good job of helping people harness their talents and be the best they can be.”


Footlights Shine on Theater Alumni on the Great White Way

Andrew RoubalCaption: At center, Andrew Roubal ’09 recently made his Broadway debut as Mark in the national tour of “A Chorus Line.”

“Success is the good fortune that comes from aspiration, desperation, perspiration and inspiration,” said humorist and author Evan Esar. Such is true for several of Cal State Fullerton’s most successful performing alumni, whose dedication and ambition have landed them on Broadway. Though their journeys and outcomes vary, these performers have one thing in common: the training and experience that CSUF equipped them with, which was a catalyst for their achievements.

Andrew Roubal ’09 (B.F.A. theatre arts-musical theatre) received his CSUF degree only recently, but has already made his Broadway debut as Mark in the national tour of “A Chorus Line.” Roubal moved to New York last September and auditioned his heart out, hearing many “nos” from casting directors, forcing him to grow thicker skin. “I just have to keep reminding myself that this is what I’m out here for. I have the training and education, I just need to keep going,” Roubal said.

CSUF’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program is unique in that it instills the critical elements and techniques of the craft through practical application and experience to prepare aspiring artists for the rigors inherent in the performance career path. In particular, Roubal mentions the B.F.A. showcase in New York during his senior year as instrumental. He said it allowed him an opportunity to become comfortable with the city before completing the transition to residency.

Similarly, CSUF’s Dashaun Young feels that his experience juggling multiple performances in shows such as Vision & Visionaries and Concert Under the Stars, as well as a plethora of school programs and rehearsals, was one of the most beneficial ways the university prepared him for his professional life of eight performances a week. While in college, Young worked as a performer at Disneyland when, on a whim, he decided to audition for the “Radio City Music Spectacular.” After moving to New York, he booked regional gigs right off the bat, landed the national tour of “Hairspray,” was asked to play Simba in “The Lion King” on Broadway, and appeared in “Sex and the City 2” as a wedding singer.

From relying solely on public transportation to having Mondays as a day off, the life of a New York performer is drastically different from life in Southern California. “Being in this business, it’s always crazy that people I obsessed over are now my friends,” Young said. “It’s nice to talk to them as fellow artists.”

With three Broadway shows on her resume and a home in a fast-paced city where everything is at an actor’s fingertips, Mara Davi is also living the life she always dreamed of. Davi has held lead roles in the Broadway productions of “White Christmas,” “A Chorus Line” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” along with an array of impressive regional, off-Broadway and touring shows.

Davi became involved in theater at a young age, but always relied on talent and impersonation to land her roles until CSUF laid the groundwork for her acting technique. Once exposed to tools such as voice and movement exercises, playwrights she’d never heard of and vocal lessons to improve her skill, she was able to perfect her craft and achieve her dream.

“There are days when it’s so hard to stay motivated to exercise for an hour, practice singing for an hour and practice my monologue. It’s hard to be disciplined, but I try to do one of those each day,” said Davi. She advises aspiring performers to continue taking classes even after they leave school, not only to keep skills sharp, but also to build a network of other performers who are serious about the craft.

Chatman, Emonds, Davi and McKinnellCaption: Far Left: Chris Chatman ’09, performing in the “In The Heights” national tour, is thankful for the chance to perform for a living. Second to left: Linda Emond ’82 recently appeared in theaters in “Julie & Julia,” and on television in “The Good Wife,” and has a vast onstage resume. Third to left: Mara Davi has starred in many Broadway, off-Broadway and touring productions, including “Throughly Modern Millie.” Right: Lesley McKinnell ’08 is performing in the national tour of “Wicked,” as part of the ensemble and understudying the parts of Glinda and Nessa Rose.

Another CSUF Musical Theatre Program alumnus, Eric Gunhus, has had the privilege of participating in the only two Broadway shows to be nominated for 15 Tony awards: “The Producers,” which he stayed with for the entire run of the production; and his current show, “Billy Elliot,” the 2009 Tony award recipient for Best Musical. During his time in college, he danced every day, trained with the Music Department, and found a place to focus on both his strengths and weaknesses.

“There are immediate rewards with a live audience, but you need to have tough skin when constantly subjecting yourself to the approval of others,” Gunhus said. He added that he would never forget the memorable experiences Broadway has afforded him, such as performing the week of 9/11 when, at the conclusion of the show, the cast and audience sang “God Bless America” together.

Patrick Ortiz is the second alumnus to go to Broadway directly from CSUF. [Dana Meller ’96 (B.A. theatre arts), who performed in “Les Miserables,” was the first]. Ortiz finished his junior year in the bachelor of fine arts program in musical theatre, flew to New York right after his finals and was cast in “West Side Story” as Indio, one of the Sharks.

He said his Broadway experience has been “absolutely amazing. ‘West Side Story’ has been my favorite musical since I was little. Seeing the talent that I’m with every night, I’m just pinching myself. It’s amazing to walk into Times Square every day and go to work.”

Remembering his college years as a roller coaster, he said that he was impressed that productions on the campus brought out students’ commitment and passion. “Every once in a while I see someone who just shows up for the paycheck,” he said. “In college, everyone’s there for their love of the art.”

Chris Chatman ’09 (B.F.A. theatre arts-musical theatre) is performing in the first national tour of “In The Heights,” playing the role of Sonny and understudying the role of Usnavi. Chatman worked at Sears Auto Center to put himself through college, and is thankful for the chance to perform for a living. “The moment you realize that you love what you’re doing, it’s not work,” he said. “The show is a confirmation that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Interestingly, recent alumnus Noah Rivera also is performing as Sonny in “In The Heights,” but on Broadway. Alumna Elise Hernandez also is in the national tour of “In The Heights.” She previously performed in “Capeman” and “Tom Sawyer” on Broadway. Titans with recent Broadway credits include Linda Griffin ’82 (B.A. theatre arts), who performed in “The Drowsy Chaperone;” Emily Mitchell ’00 (B.A. theatre arts), who appeared in “Hairspray;” and Larry Daggett ’79 (B.A. theatre arts), who was in “Ragtime.”

Lesley McKinnell ’08 (B.F.A. theatre artsmusical theatre) is performing in the national tour of “Wicked,” as part of the ensemble and understudying the parts of Glinda and Nessa Rose. “The B.F.A. program prepared me for the real world, where it comes down to talent and being a hard worker,” McKinnell said.

“Everyone gets their education in different ways,” she added. “It was really important to me that I earned my degree.”

Linda Emond ’82 (B.A. theatre arts) appeared on television in “The Good Wife” and in theaters in “Julie & Julia,” but is perhaps best known for her work onstage in “Homebody/Kabul” and other high-profile plays. Emond is in workshops for a new play by Tony Kushner, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.”

Emond said she was lucky to get onstage right away as a Cal State Fullerton student. “It was great to just get out there and do it,” she said. “We had wonderful teachers, and we were required to work on productions in different ways.”

Cal State Fullerton’s alumni flourishing in New York and on the road make it abundantly evident that CSUF is contributing much to the future of this art form, producing students who are not only well-rounded and well-trained, but infused with the tenacity and passion required to reach the pinnacle of their theatrical careers. end of story