Sean Cook (MFA, 2020)
Why did you decide to go to graduate school? Why did you choose to pursue your degree at Pitt?
I’d say that there were two major factors that influenced my decision to seek a terminal degree. By 2017, I was the ultimate “multi-hyphenate” artist. My resume included, but was not limited to, actor, director, producer, 2nd AD, writer, teacher, coach, casting assistant and production manager. While there was something energizing about that gig-to-gig hustle, it was also quite taxing mentally, physically, spiritually, and for my relationships. I started to consider how I might filter and harness all this experience into one outlet.
At that time, I was part of the fundraising campaign for the Sylvia Center for the Arts in Bellingham, WA. The first iteration of this space was called the iDiOM Theatre of which I am a founding member. One of the calls was to an old friend and cohort from my undergraduate experience, Chris Bange. While we were catching up, Chris shared that he was a candidate for an MFA in Acting with an emphasis on Pedagogy at California State University in Long Beach. Chris, also a “multi-hyphenate” artist, shared his excitement for having found this degree and suggested strongly that I commit to researching the degree and how it might use all of my varied experiences in the entertainment industry.
I created a list of programs that would fit my needs. My first priority was time in the classroom as an instructor. I wanted to be sure that I was teaching as much as possible. Learning through embodiment works for me. Secondly, it was important that the department, faculty, staff and students feel welcoming and supportive. I was coming back to academia after a seventeen-year hiatus, so I felt I might succeed with a bit more patience and mentoring. Finally, it was extremely important that the position offered a tuition waiver and a teaching stipend. The MFA in Performance Pedagogy at the University of Pittsburgh was the only qualified program!
How did the degree program help prepare you for your career?
Trust. During my second semester at Pitt, my cohort, Meg Pryor, and I took a course called “Methods of Acting” with Professor Kelly Trumbull. On the first day of class, she asked us both to speak aloud or write down a fear or challenge related to our teaching. Meg and I shared that we often felt like imposters.
Kelly took this information and devised coursework that challenged us and gave us an opportunity to rise and succeed. She trusted that she could respond to the specific needs of her students by listening first. I have taken this lesson and applied it frequently over the last year. When I was approached with an opportunity to co-direct live-stream theatre in accordance with Washington State COVID-19 film set guidelines, I trusted my collaborative spirit, ability to assess efficiency and productivity, and my unique and valuable insight from years of working in film and TV would benefit the process.
What is your current position and what does it involve?
Admittedly, I am still working the gig-to-gig hustle. The difference is that teaching and mentoring is at the core of my work. Since May 2020, I have worked as an Acting Instructor in the High School program at the New York Film Academy in Burbank, CA. This position required building curricula for one-, three-, and four-week sessions on Auditioning for the Camera, Camera Acting Technique, the Business of Acting, and others.
In December 2020, I was invited to lead a workshop for SONY Pictures’ Television Diverse Directors Program in which I introduced the basic ingredients for Intimacy Choreography on set. I also taught a five-week course in a casting director’s studio and a six-week course in Acting for Camera with Pittsburgh Music Masters.
Then, in January of this year, I worked with my dear friend and director Karen Gilmer on “Spark” by Tom Arvetis as a Movement Consultant. As a co-director with the Sylvia Center for the Arts, I worked on Samuel Beckett’s “End Game” as well as Rosalind Reynolds new works, “Julian the Humble” and “Unsung.” Now, my current production, Glenn Hergenhahn-Zhao’s “Priestess of the Witch Goddess,” opens May 14th. Our process involves a seven-camera live-stream, live-edit, and audiences regularly write that they are amazed at our ability to create the feeling of the theatre experience through our camera work and edits.
Oh! I also opened an acting studio. At the moment, I have several ongoing one-on-one clients and a Saturday techniques class. I have helped former clients build audition packages which afforded them acceptance into the BFA Acting and Performance programs at Central Washington University, Michigan State University, AMDA, and the New York Film Academy.
Besides coaching auditions, I’m interested in working with folks who are in a period of transition or pivot. We examine where the client is in their career or journey, name where they want to be and create action steps to achieve those goals. This week, I’m working with Thumbprint Studios in Chicago that is interested in using a live-edit system for their upcoming production. You can find out more at SeanCookStudio.com.
Do you have thoughts or advice for current Graduate students?
From the beginning, I think every student should know two things. You are exactly where you are supposed to be, and you are exactly who you are supposed to be. Beyond that, be open to finding a mentor during your study and academic life. As you move deeper into your academic career, say yes to projects that sometimes challenge how you see yourself. You’ll keep your curiosity and passion alive.