Though she had been training in dance since she learned to walk, Elisabeth Bell ’97 was nowhere near as excited about the Upper School dance program as her mom was. Looking back, she is thankful that her mom had the foresight to know that the program would become central to her high school years and pave the way for her future career. Elisabeth was, as she puts it, “a difficult high schooler—I knew what I wanted, and there was no room for discussion.” Luckily, Ilona Kessell had a knack for seeing untapped potential and the patience to show her students their own latent capabilities. After four years in the dance program, Elisabeth was selected as a Stewart Recitalist for dance, which was her first exposure to putting on her own performance. “It was impressive to me to choose my own repertoire, because I got to do what I wanted,” she says. After graduation, she earned her B.F.A. in dance, cum laude, from Butler University, and spent time with the Dayton Ballet in Dayton, OH, and PHILADANCO’s touring repertoire, based out of Philadelphia, PA. Itching for change, she spent a year in the Netherlands taking a workshop in movement with Jan Van Dyke, and then moved to Hamburg, Germany, where she was referred to the State Theater to dance in their production of The Lion King. Dance has taken her many places and taught her many valuable lessons, but all of it stemmed from what she learned from Ms. Kessell. “Don’t think you know it all, because trust me, you don’t,” she smiles. “Just love what you’re doing. If you know your dream, things will fall into place.”
To see Justin Boon ’96 sitting at his desk in New York City, designing glass structure for skyscrapers, no one would think that he got his start sailing cardboard boats across the McDonogh Duck Pond. Still, the Cardboard Boat Race is one of his most cherished memories from his time here, and it was the experience that he says prepared him the most for his career as an architect. “Building the boat gave me a real world lesson in project management,” he remembers. “I had to figure out how to get things done, and the preparation and execution skills are the same in architecture.” Justin was a fixture in the art department during his high school years, and he took every course that was available to him, from drawing and painting to photo to sculpture. He learned another valuable skill in Advanced Art Studio with Oletha DeVane: digital design. “Rendering programs, Photoshop, movie editing programs, the Adobe suite—knowledge of these programs is indispensable in my field,” says Justin. “I learned more from Oletha than I did in any of my college courses on the subject.” Computer literate and construction savvy, he went on to graduate from the South Carolina Institute of Architecture, after which he happily fell into glass design for skyscrapers with an architecture firm in New York. The aesthetic understanding he gained from the Art Department, coupled with the building skills from the boat race, find the perfect nexus in his current career, and Justin is glad for the opportunity.
Lauren Dandridge ’00 was introduced to technical theatre by a classmate, who invited her to assist Bob Mahon with the sound equipment used for school events. At the same time, Larry Johnston was working to fund the construction of the Horn Theatre, and the prospect of a new venue filled with cutting edge technology got her even more excited about the program. The clincher was Sue Tanury’s arrival on campus during Lauren’s junior year. With Sue’s guidance, she gained a broad knowledge of technical theatre and went on to attend Northwestern University for tech. “There is an excellent support system built within the structure of the theatre program,” she points out. “It’s rare that a person gets to do something they’re good at and passionate about so early in life.” In an attempt to further expand her skill set, Lauren took an internship working on set design with a movie after graduating from college for lighting design, and her work led her back to the Baltimore area. She spent a year working at McDonogh with Sue and Mel Bratz, and then she returned to California to work with an architectural lighting designer. She took a job with Konsortum1 and eventually branched out to its lighting design company, Studio K1. For Lauren, her most important lesson was to gain a variety of skills in her field. “Every profession requires some kind of creativity. An arts education is widely applicable, particularly in today’s world,” advises Lauren. Experience with and exposure to technical theatre on a professional level was invaluable to her future as a lighting designer, and it will benefit any student who has similar aspirations.
Heavily involved in the performing arts during her McDonogh career, Adrian Hartley ’94 is now pursuing her passions as a performer. She sang in the choir with Philip Olsen, danced in concerts with Ilona Kessell, and acted on occasion for John Van Meter’s productions. She still has fond memories of singing the Faure Requiem with the Concert Choir and dancing an autobiographical duet with her sister, Alexandra ’96, entitled “Siblings Rivaling.” In fact, she returns periodically to choreograph for Ilona’s concerts. Adrian also worked to fundraise for the beautiful Burck Center, back when all arts performances were staged in Eddy’s Gym, the structure that was the precursor to the Horn Theatre. After earning her degree in geology, Adrian went on tour with the Josh Dodes Band, where she got her first taste of touring life. Next she sang back-ups with Fischerspooner, an electro-clash performance art group, which gave her the opportunity to perform throughout Europe and Asia. For the last three years, she sang lead vocals for the Blue Man Group’s Megastar World Tour, which was performed in twenty countries and eight different languages. Now her focus has turned to more personal exploratory projects concentrated near her home in Brooklyn, New York. Adrian is working on her first self-written album and is learning to play the guitar. She is also shifting her genre somewhat through her involvement in a show with burlesque troupe Ixion, in which she will sing classically in German and French, as well as tapping into her dance and acting skills. As well-rounded and active as ever, Adrian continues to follow the passions that were taking shape during her arts involvement at McDonogh.
As an eighth grader, Mike Leikin ’04 was introduced to technical theatre by Pete Hengen, who asked him to join the tech crew. The following year, he took Don New’s music tech course, which had just started to get off the ground. Mentorship from Don and tech teachers Mel Bratz, Sue Tanury, and Bill Toscano affirmed for Mike what he had begun to suspect: tech was his calling. He remembers holing himself up in the music tech room for weekends at a time, recording albums with friends and classmates. “The thing about McDonogh’s program, especially the faculty, was that it allowed me to find my own interests in a supportive environment,” says Mike. “I got to watch Music Tech grow alongside me, and that gave me direction.” Mike was a huge help to Don as well, who relied on him as a teaching assistant for his music tech classes. After graduation, he got his degree in music producing from the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, which at the time was a young program; he had only twenty classmates in his major. Through the Audio Engineering Society, he spent time working at Joe’s Pub in the East Village, and on the side he did some collaborating with McDonogh classmate Jen Wasner ’04 and her band, Wye Oak. After a year in North Carolina working to open a music venue, Mike returned to New York City to work for the marketing team at TuneCore, a music distribution website. Mike asserts, “I’ve learned that success in music business is not about talent. It’s about thinking creatively, about taking the skills you have and applying them creatively. That’s the most important thing McDonogh taught me.”
“I grew up in a very musical family,” says Stephen Mulligan ’06. “There was always something playing in the background, whether it was Abbey Road or the Sibelius Violin Concerto.” That early exposure to music sparked something in Stephen. His father, a violinist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, enrolled him in violin lessons at five years old, and he and his father still spend time playing duets and chamber music together. As he grew older and began to explore music more seriously, his mentor was choir director Philip Olsen. “He was really inspirational, even in a spiritual way, in his unwavering devotion to studying, teaching, and performing music. I just wanted to spend as much time as possible hearing him talk about music.” Stephen took everything that was available to him, from choir to theory, and he discovered his love of conducting in one of Mr. Olsen’s classes. The support he received from Mr. Olsen and from his close friends in the dorms his senior year encouraged him to pursue the growing passion. After graduating from Yale University as a music major, he hopes to continue studying orchestral conducting and to one day become a conductor, a dream which he attributes in great part to his McDonogh experience. “Take full advantage of the resources that McDonogh gives you,” he advises. “The natural beauty of the campus, the wonderful performance spaces, and more than anything, the intimate relationships you can form with the faculty and students.” The supportive environment he found here allowed him to grow into the person he is today.
Toby Poser ’87 got her acting start with John Van Meter in the Upper School productions. She remembers the experience as challenging but deeply rewarding. “Mr. Van Meter made us all feel like we were valid actors with unique qualities that were only heightened upon the stage,” she says. “I can fully thank him for piquing my interest in acting, and for giving me a hearty, spirited base from which to jump into the field.” And jump she did: her freshman year of college, she joined the professional acting company at Tulane University, where she earned her acting degree. She also spent a year at University of London, Goldsmith’s College, during which time she performed in London and Edinburgh and attended ninety plays. She started her career in New York City, playing in off-Broadway shows and independent films and TV shows. Notably, she held a three-year contract with the soap opera Guiding Light, during which she was fortunate to act alongside fellow alum Grant Aleksander ’78. Toby has led a vibrant voice-over and commercial acting career for the past few years, and you may hear her voice on commercials for Progressive Auto Insurance or Canon. After two years settled in California with her family, her plans have shifted to a movie production project. She and her husband intend to take their family on the road in an RV, homeschooling their two children and shooting a modern revenge tale throughout the United States. The project is incredibly exciting, and she hopes to incorporate her passion and her talent into a powerful production.
To see her website, click here.
Growing up with two artists as parents, Adam Reynolds ’02 felt it was only
natural to carry around a video camera and shoot footage for fun. However,
he only saw it as a hobby, especially since he committed to McDonogh to play baseball.
His decision to take a class in computer animation changed all that though and Adam’s interests shifted from sports to filmmaking. “I instantly fell in love with it,” he smiles. His senior year, he
enrolled in the honors art program as the only student studying video,
meaning he got to design his own curriculum, which eventually became the
starting point for McDonogh’s film program. Upon graduating in 2002, Adam traveled north to
Syracuse University, where he majored in television, radio, and film at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and minored in film theory. During a semester abroad, studying film theory at the University of New South Whales in Sydney, Australia, Adam decided it would be in his best interest to migrate to Los Angeles after college in order to pursue a career in television and film. Once in LA, he began working as a production assistant for Mad TV, and was quickly promoted to executive assistant to one of the show’s producers. It was here, at Mad TV that Adam began producing original web content in order to promote new cast members on the show. Next he spent time in New York City with Daniel H. Birman Productions, working on an all-access documentary about Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. When that project was completed, he got a call from a former boss at Mad TV inviting him to work as a production coordinator for Comedy Central, so he returned to Los Angeles. In addition to his day job, Adam also runs his own production company, BoardHead Brothers, which specializes in producing scripted comedy, as well as music videos. “I get to go outside, play with a camera, and make entertainment for a living,” he exclaims, and he feels indebted to the art department here. “Even though technically film wasn’t their area, my teachers believed in what I was doing. That encouragement was so valuable to me.” Adam is grateful for the start he got here, and he hopes he can be that kind of inspiration for someone else someday.
To see his website, click here.
Nile Russell ’00 began his career as a professional dancer and choreographer by way of the Upper School Concert Band. That’s right, the band. Nile played the baritone during his first semester, and one of the band’s gigs was to perform at the fall dance concert. “I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage, not even to look at the page for what I was supposed to be playing,” he recalls. He signed up for the dance concert that spring and began working with Ilona Kessell. His sophomore year he tried his hand at choreography with Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream.” That exposure, along with Ilona’s guidance, sparked his journey as a choreographer. Although he arrived at Connecticut College with the initial plan to study forensic psychiatry, a chance meeting with the chair of the dance department led Nile to enroll in dance classes, and he auditioned to be a dance major the following year. His college studies included a year abroad at the University of Mysore in southern India, where he learned classical Indian dance, or Bharatanatyam. New York City “felt like the necessary next step,” he laughs, so after graduation he launched into the audition circuit. He was fortunate to land a job with Silver-Brown Dance, and since then he has worked with LeeSaar the Company, Luis Lara Malvacias, Naganuma Dance, and Stefanie Nelson Dance Group. He currently dances with Pilobolus and at the Joyce Theater in New York, and on the side he develops his own choreography and teaching skills. In retrospect, Nile is glad he picked up that baritone his freshman year, because it opened the door to his passion: dance.
Because she had trouble feeling comfortable on the athletic field, Susie Benchasil Seiter ’95 turned to the arts program, where she quickly found her niche. Susie participated in choir during her eight years at McDonogh, including four years with Philip Olsen at the beginning of his tenure here. She traveled to Scotland and London on the first international choir tour, and she also performed in musicals and dance concerts. When she attended Franklin & Marshall, she originally planned to take part in the pre-med program, but she was drawn back to music, deciding to major in composition and conducting the orchestra. After she graduated, she went to work as Director of Music and Theater at The Millbrook Preparatory School, directing choirs and ensembles as well as teaching music theory and composition. She attended the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music for Studio Composition, following a program that focused on commercial media. While attempting to continue her studies at USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program, a post-grad course for media composition, she ended up changing her mind about composition. “The life of a film composer entailed a very stressful and lonely career in front of a computer,” she says. “I decided to become an orchestrator and conductor so I could actually work closely with musicians and make the music come to life.” As an orchestrator and conductor, she has recently worked on scores for Piranha 3D, Freakonomics, My Bloody Valentine, Punisher: War Zone, and Ghost of Girlfriend’s Past. She also works as a freelance artist, most notably for Disney’s music preparation office. She loves her career, and she is thankful that she is able to follow her passion.
Laura Shipman ’99 studied architecture at Cornell University, but her architecture education really began in Oletha DeVane’s Environmental Design class. With only two classmates, Laura was able to get individual guidance through the process of making. Much of the class time was spent in the woodshop or designing furniture out of unexpected materials, like a chair she made out of PVC piping. “It was the perfect precursor to my architecture education and really helped me feel comfortable model-making and understanding the design process,” she says. After her time at Cornell, which included a semester abroad in Rome, Laura worked with an Atlanta firm designing affordable housing for families and migrant workers, then a Baltimore firm on institutional projects for the Smithsonian, Baltimore School for the Arts, Barbara Ingram School, and UMBC, among others. She pursued graduate work in Urban Design at Harvard University, during which time she traveled to Mexico, Peru, and New Orleans for design studios. She also worked on a community center in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. The experience fueled her conviction to work at the intersection of design and social justice, and since her return, she has been an Enterprise Rose Fellow in San Francisco, developing permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals and families. In the spirit of John McDonogh, she is using her artistic skills to do the greatest possible amount of good.
You may not know it, but if you’ve ever rocked out to one of Avril Lavigne’s songs on the radio, then you’ve heard the music of Evan Taubenfeld ’01. While at McDonogh, he took a record number of music classes, playing in everything from Concert Band to Percussion Ensemble to the high school musical productions, and he was a Stewart Recitalist his senior year. Evan deferred his acceptance to Berklee College of Music in order to become lead guitarist for Avril’s band. Following her first album, he became involved in the songwriting process, eventually transitioning into his role as Music Director. He has also consulted as an Executive Music Director for networks like MTV, and he has produced for artists including rapper Tyga, hip-hop artists The Pack and Japanese pop group Oreskaband. Now he is a writer with EMI Publishing, and his first album with Warner Bros Records, Welcome to the Blacklist Club, was released on iTunes in 2010. “I try not to plan too much, because right now I wake up, make music, get paid, and laugh about it all day,” he exclaims, but he does plan to tour to promote his debut album alongside Avril’s latest, as well as continuing work on his sophomore record. Evan attributes much of his success to the freedom and opportunity made available to him at McDonogh. “Bottom line,” he says, “Appreciate what you have at McDonogh, even when it’s annoying, because you’re very, very lucky to have the incredible resources the school provides. Follow your dreams, and don’t ever listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something. They’ll be working for you someday.”
To see his website, click here.
Jason Williams ’92 discovered his passion when he was in Mrs. Burgess’s fourth grade class. He and his classmates put on a production of The Wizard of Oz, and since that performance, he’s been hooked. Jason was highly active in the theatre program, acting in every play from eighth grade on. Working with John Van Meter, head of the Drama department at that time, helped him become comfortable on stage, no matter where that stage happened to be. He remembers, “Mr. Van’s program was best for its out-of-the-box thinking. We had no budget and no theater, so we did plays all over campus, even in the back entrance to Keelty. He always made it work magically.” That unconventionality was good preparation for Jason, who spent his years at UVA as a theatre and English major redefining spaces. He couldn’t stay away for long, though; after graduation, he returned to McDonogh to co-direct The Merry Wives of Windsor with John. Next he moved to New York, where he has been an actor and playwright ever since. He has done some off-Broadway work, performed on soaps like All My Children and Guiding Light, and his plays have been produced throughout New York. He feels lucky to be able to balance his writing and performing, an interdisciplinary life that mirrors his McDonogh days. “I don’t remember there being anywhere else that I got such variety,” he says. “We spent warm spring nights rehearsing Henry V, with everybody, freshman through seniors, hanging out under the stars. Everyone should have a memory like that. It’s no wonder I went into theatre.”