From stages to stethoscopes

Illustration of health care professionals wearing masks and PPE

Graduates of the Department of Theatre go on to pursue a variety of careers: stage and screen actors, costume and set designers, stage managers—and even health care professionals. In the wake of a global pandemic, the department recently checked in with a few alumni working as nurses, psychiatrists and lab technicians to see how COVID-19 is affecting their practice.

Tracy Styron (BFA ’88)

When Tracy Styron moved to New York City, she started working for a company that provides insurance for film projects. “It was my sideways way to get into film.” When she got pregnant, she and her boyfriend Kevin Kaupish decided to move back to Richmond to start a family, and now have four kids.

Tracy Styron, center, with her four children

After working at various hospitals in different specialties, she landed at one of Richmond’s premiere retirement communities, Westminster Canterbury. They were the first facility in the area to report a case of COVID-19 and they reacted immediately, placing the residents on quarantine in their rooms.

“It’s been several weeks of this,” she says. “I feel like I’m seeing some of the effects of the isolation. As the most vulnerable population, it’s scary for them. There’s a lot of anxiety, but we try to keep their spirits up and steer them away from the news.”

Chris Russell (BFA ’87)

When Chris Russell was a performance senior at VCU, he acted in The Sorrows Of Stephen, written by visiting playwright Peter Parnell. Parnell recommended that Russell and fellow student Andy Hawkes read A Lover’s Discourse by French essayist Roland Barthes as research. It was “heavy psychoanalytic stuff and didn’t register to me then, but that play and the themes and emotions set the hook that interested me in the relationship between two people.” He didn’t realize at the time, but this interest was a precursor to his future career as a psychoanalyst.

While working as an actor in New York (1991-00), he noticed, “a woman in one of the acting classes, the way she was in the world.” When he asked for her secret, she gave him the name of his first psychoanalyst. “When I entered that world, I was home, [even] in the first session as a patient.”

A lucrative commercial gig paid for his degree from Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. Russell started his clinical practice in 2003 and was fully licensed in 2011. These days, all of his patients are seen via telehealth.

Chris Russell

“Everyone on the planet is dealing with the same issue, and that’s what’s different now,” he says. “Now we are navigating the unknown together.”

Relating his current career to takeaways from his VCU days, Russell says, “Certainly, you learn that listening is as important as talking. When you do scene study, you study the text to answer, ‘What does your character want?’ Just like preparing for a role, I listen to motivation, conscious and unconscious, and what’s actually being said.”

Julie (BFA ’03) and Crystal Knight (BFA ’03)

Julie (Malon) Knight and Crystal Knight met in Acting 101 and their friendship was immediate. They’ve been together ever since, and married in 2015.

Both ended up in fields outside of theatre. Cris ran the Animal Wellness Clinic for the Richmond SPCA, and Julie worked in the fraud department for SunTrust for 10 years. Eventually, they both got degrees in Medical Lab Science and worked for HCA Health Systems in Richmond.

They now live in Culpeper, Virginia, where Cris works at Culpeper Hospital as a microbiologist. She processes specimens from bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19. Julie is an electrical engineer for Quest Diagnostic Labs, where she repairs and maintains lab equipment. She credit’s Lou Szari’s (now retired faculty) lighting classes for “100% of what I learned for this job, wiring instruments and working with high voltage.”

Erin Young (BFA ’02)

After graduating from VCUarts, Erin Young and classmate Tate Hanyok moved to Sacramento for a year, and then on to Los Angeles. Young worked on stage and on camera while in L.A., but now works in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Medical City Plano in Texas.

Erin Young with her children

Young’s experiences as a mother and actor inspire her career as a nurse. “I use my theatre training every day,” she says. “Theatre is such a team sport. When something unexpected happens, the show must go on, so you learn to rely on having a group of people who you can trust and communicate effectively with.”

“I’m able to read people very well and interpret body language, which is absolutely essential in nursing.”

Carrie Schaefer (BFA ’96)

Carrie Schaefer was one of only two students majoring in Theatre Education in her class at VCUarts. After graduation, she taught theatre to middle and high school students in Stafford County for 10 years. She also opened a community theatre in Caroline County.

Schaefer experienced burnout during her teaching career and decided to change career paths. She followed in the footsteps of her sister who is a nurse practitioner. Schaefer received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from George Mason University and became a public health nurse and case manager. After getting her master’s at Georgetown University, she became a Family Nurse Practitioner in 2017. She currently works with CVHS Fredericksburg in their primary care office.

Carrie Schaefer

“If people who have known me in the clinic find out I was a theatre major, they say, ‘Now it make sense!,'” Schaefer says. “I guess because I’m a happy, animated person who is always finding creative ways to educate my patients. Graduating from VCU’s theatre program, made me a very well-rounded person and helped shape me as a nurse.”

Susan Gardner (BFA ’98)

Upon graduation, Susan Gardner traveled around the country before moving to New York City. She ended up taking part in the resurgence of burlesque in the early 2000s, a movement that pushed the norms of femininity and what it means to be a woman on stage. She not only performed as RunAround Sue, but also acted as artistic director of Sugar Shack Burlesque in New York. In 2008, she returned to Richmond and continued to perform. Eventually, she tired of the late nights and decided to pursue a current career as a counselor.

Gardner credits her VCUarts training with a lot of skills that come in handy in her current career. “The core ethics and values are the same,” she says. “You believe the person is the author of their own experience. Also, the non-verbal skills translate, like reading a person’s energy, rhythm and eye contact.”

Susan Gardner with her husband and daughter

She received her Master of Social Work from New York University and is now a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She began her private practice a year ago and has seen the effects of the virus on her practice.

“Everything intensified, people are feeling lonely and anxious,” Gardner says. “Things that were already present are amplified. When we’re faced with ambiguity, we tend to make up the worst possible answer, and that becomes real.”

One of her suggestions for anyone feeling anxious is to create music. “Singing or humming is good because it’s an emotional expression,” she says. “Biologically, it soothes and rocks the nervous system, like a baby.”

Das Frank

Das Frank, also known as Ben Elliot (BFA ’02) designed a series of posters championing health care workers that have been projected on hospital buildings and posted on hospital walls. He graduated from the lighting design program and now lives in Las Vegas, where he is a painter and tattooer.

Lead image: detail from Positive Propaganda I by Das Frank