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AiS Team Intro: How the Theater Helped Prepare Me for Entrepreneurship (Ben Gillard)

It’s 9am on a Saturday morning in April, and while most of the college is still sleeping off their Friday night escapades, I am on the quad directing a group of comedic misfits through the choreography of an iconic film’s opening scene. We’re shooting a remake of the 1977 cult classic, Saturday Night Fever. This shot-for-shot remake is going to be the intro video to our comedy group’s first show of the semester, where we will introduce our four new members.

I fell in love with performing at 11 years old when I was cast in a community theater production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The minute I stepped foot on the stage, I knew that I had found my calling. From that moment on, I threw myself headfirst into as many performances as I could. From plays and musicals, to sketch, improv and stand up comedy, to student films and scripted podcasts, it didn’t matter what I was acting in; as long as I was acting. This led me to Vassar College, where I followed in the footsteps of Meryl Streep, Lisa Kudrow, and Noah Baumbach, majoring in both Film and Drama.

For the past two years, I have been the president of Nitrous Oxide Comedy Group. I was thrilled when I received an invitation to join Vassar’s only comedy group that performs both stand-up and improv. This fledgling group had existed only for three years prior to my joining, and the group’s co-presidents were having a hard time getting it off the ground. Coming into my sophomore year, I was determined to change the culture and structure of the group. Due to my experience running comedy groups in high school, the presidents approached me during my first month as a group member and asked me to help steer the group in a new direction. Shortly thereafter, I began running the group’s meetings and planning our first show of the semester.

Back on the quad, a discussion over who should play John Travolta breaks out, with each member making the case for themselves: each not wanting to give up the limelight. As the discussion becomes heated, I jump in, suggesting it would be funny for the group to play Travolta as a collective. Everyone nods in agreement as the tension dissipates and we refocus on filming as a collective. It’s 10 am and the campus has begun to stir to life with bleary-eyed students headed to the dining hall to get a cup of coffee. They give us confused stares as we dance to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees. I smile as I adjust the collar on the much too small borrowed leather jacket I’ve squeezed into. But on a shoestring budget, I’ve learned to get creative in finding costumes.

After the success of our shows during my first year, I was officially named president in March. I quickly learned that being a leader in the arts comes with many nuanced tasks, from organizing the productions to managing the cast. I had to juggle various scheduling conflicts when creating rehearsal and show timelines, as well as mediating social and personality conflicts that arose. In addition, I was responsible for petitioning the student government finance committee for an increased budget. During this process, I attended budget hearings and presented evidence for our group’s growing financial needs. This led to the first budget increase in our group’s history. I came to realize that the business of being funny was actually very challenging, yet my acting experience had prepared me well for it.

Back at our first show of the semester, Stayin’ Alive blasts in the background as the intro video we worked so hard on plays. The chuckles from the audience morph into full-blown belly laughs as the first members of the group appear on screen. I stand backstage, listening to the product of all our hard work paying off. As the video wraps up, I look to each member of my group with appreciation for the comedic success we have created. It dawns on me; I am the best version of myself when I am leading others towards a common goal.

This realization led me to Indiana University, where I am currently pursuing a joint entertainment law degree and masters in media management and film producing. This unique program has allowed me to lean heavily on my performing arts background while also gaining valuable experience in the legal world and film industry, bringing me one step closer to my dream of becoming a Hollywood producer and one day founding my own production company.

At AIS, I have found a community of fellow performer-entrepreneurs who have helped me to fully understand my potential and create goals for my future, through their constant support, advice, and encouragement.

It is only through my years of experience in the performing arts that I have found the ability to lead others in this way. My improv training has taught me how to think quickly on my feet and creatively solve any challenge that comes my way. Years of scene work with fellow actors has allowed me to approach organizational conflicts with empathy and compassion. All of this, combined with my comfort working with tight budgets and short timelines, has primed me for success in entrepreneurship. At AIS, I have found a community of fellow performer-entrepreneurs who have helped me to fully understand my potential and create goals for my future, through their constant support, advice, and encouragement.

Ben Gillard, a graduate student at Indiana University, is an AiS summer intern.

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