Screenshot of Rich Sommer talking during a Zoom meeting with students

Alumni actors provide inspiration to MFA theater students

When Case Western Reserve courses went remote in March, Mad Men and Glow actor Rich Sommer (GRS ’04, theater) immediately reached out to Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Acting Program, to see how he might help the students handle the abrupt adjustment.

Within a few days, the alumnus—also known for his roles in The Devil Wears Prada, In the Dark and more—held an uplifting and informative question-and-answer session with about 15 students from the CWRU/CPH MFA program.

The wide-ranging discussion via Zoom ran the gamut of topics, from securing agents and auditioning in New York City and Los Angeles, to business practices and Sommer’s own professional experiences.

“Rich is an open and very giving person,” said Jerrold Scott, the Katharine Bakeless Nason Professor of Theater, and chair and artistic director of the CWRU Department of Theater. “The students were able to ask any questions they wanted.”

Sommer has maintained close ties with the Department of Theater and the CWRU/CPH MFA Program since his graduation.

“I met my wife [Virginia Sommer (GRS ’04, theater)] at CWRU. She and I had been discussing how scary and strange it must be for the third-year MFA students right now,” Sommer said.

He knew they would be missing out on the May “showcase,” a much anticipated CWRU-hosted event in which graduating students travel to New York City and present scenes and monologues to agents and managers. For students, the showcase presents their best chance at gaining industry representation.

“The showcase can be intimidating and extremely stressful in the best of times, but to be ending your schooling and starting your artistic career in the midst of an international health crisis, when there’s even less of a guarantee of work than usual, must be terrifying,” Sommer said.

Screenshot of a Zoom session with theater students, theater department chair Jerrold Scott and actress Elizabeth Davis

Just a couple of weeks later, another alumni actor shared her experience with MFA in acting students. Elizabeth A. Davis (GRS ’06, theater) told stories about her career journey, talked about resilience and answered questions from students.

Davis earned a 2012 Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for her role as Reza in Once. An accomplished violinist, Davis also discussed how to exercise the creative spirit when less formal work is available.

Both Davis and Sommer noted the need for creativity during the situation.

“One thing I’ve observed during this [pandemic] event is how readily people have turned to art for an escape,” Sommer said. “It’s usually easy to minimize the thing we do—let’s face it, we basically get paid to learn and regurgitate someone else’s words—but now, maybe more than ever before in our lives, performance art has become a necessary respite from the news, and the fear, and the mundanity. I wanted these students to know that I appreciate their dedication to entertaining, inspiring and informing their audiences.”