Alumni at Work: 6 MMC Theatre Grads Carving a Path in the Industry
MMC alums are proof that there’s no one road to success in theatre. Meet six who are making a name for themselves—and on their terms.
Monet Hurst-Mendoza ’09 (she/her)
Playwright, director, and theatre producer
This May, Hurst-Mendoza’s play Torera, which follows a Mexican woman training to become a matador, will have its world premiere at the venerated Alley Theatre in Houston. And that’s just the start: Following a month-long run there, the play will be produced by Connecticut’s Long-Wharf Theatre. “I haven’t had a significant run of one of my works before, so I’m looking forward to seeing subsequent productions and how the play will evolve,” she said.
Hurst-Mendoza, a coproducer and writer for Law and Order SVU, first began work on Torera in 2017 after hearing an NPR segment on a female bullfighter from Mérida, the Mexican city her family hails from. “I’d gone to a ton of bullfights when I was a kid, and I’d never seen a woman do it, so I was blown away by the story,” she said.
Still, as Hurst-Mendoza prepares for this career-defining moment, she’s quick to point out that, as is often the case in theatre, success hasn’t come in a straight line but a series of twists.
Game-changer: Hurst-Mendoza began starring in musical theatre productions as a child and moved to New York from Pasadena, California, to study acting at MMC. But after being waitlisted for the program, she switched to the College’s playwriting track. The decision meshed with a shift she’d begun to notice in how she approached theatre. “I was taking an acting for non-majors class, and while the instructor was staging scenes, I’d sit there and think of alternate staging that either intrigued me visually or highlighted the subtext instead,” she said. “I discovered that I was looking at the world in a different way—and not from an actor’s POV.” In her playwriting classes, she had more revelatory moments. “One of the things that was so formidable about Intro to Playwriting is seeing how much power the playwright has. You create the world and the characters, and there is no theatre without you.”
Success takes time: “I started writing Torera in 2017 as part of the Emerging Writers Group at New York’s Public Theater. It takes quite a bit of time to launch a new play,” she said. “There are several years where it’s stuck in development, and you’re trying to get somebody to read it, much less produce it. My friend Raquel Almazan [an MMC Theatre Arts adjunct instructor], always says it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So, stretch and pace yourself because it’s a long haul.”
Tenacity makes a difference: Hurst-Mendoza’s mother, a talented seamstress, would often barter her skills so that her daughter could take acting lessons as a child. “My mom was dedicated to supporting my dream, even though we didn’t have the financial resources,” she said. “And that tenacity has served me throughout my career because it’s taught me there’s not just one way to get what you want. You have to ask yourself, ‘How do I use what’s available to me to make my dream come true?’”
Hayden Anderson ’17 (he/him) and Rikki Ziegelman ’18 (she/her)
Producers and co-founders, HARP Theatricals
Anderson and Ziegelman became fast friends in MMC’s Theatre department. “We had pretty much every class together and were attached at the hip,” Ziegelman said. Their lives would intertwine in other ways, too. Ziegelman was part of the creative team for Evelyn, a show produced by the Musical Theatre Association that, after graduation, she and other classmates applied to take off-Broadway. When it became clear that they needed people to market the show and organize its logistics, she recruited Anderson to help.
Ziegelman had double-majored in Digital Journalism, while Anderson had double-majored in Arts Management, and they found that their skills complemented each other. “We never agreed that we were going to be coproducers, but it was clear that we were,” Ziegelman said. “And we realized, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good at this.’ It was sort of kismet.” After producing a second project, they established HARP, its moniker a combination of their names.
Nearly five years and 10 shows later, the company is thriving, with Anderson and Ziegelman focused on producing new and original work that isn’t just good but also promotes inclusivity and social change. Projects have included Group, a piece exploring the intricacies of group therapy, particularly during the pandemic, and The Lady Power Project, which is centered around intersectional feminism. Each show benefits a charitable organization, such as Women in Film or the Last Prisoner Project.
Their next big move: Anderson and Ziegelman are accepting new submissions and putting the finishing touches on their company. “That includes solidifying our LLC status, and, because we are mission- and values-driven, ideally, we’d like to incorporate into a nonprofit 501(c)(3),” Anderson said.
On taking initiative: “Don’t wait for something to happen when you can make it happen yourself,” Anderson said. “We weren’t afraid to be resourceful or to ask people for help.” That dovetails with another piece of advice they both agree on: You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself. “Theatre is one of those industries where you can do a million things and wear a million different hats at one time,” Ziegelman said. “So, if you’re performing and not finding satisfaction there, try stage managing, directing, or running lights. See what makes you happy.”
Why relationships are key: “I hate the concept of ‘networking’ and hanging out with people with a specific goal in mind,” Anderson said. “But being yourself and building relationships that are meaningful to you on a personal level can naturally breed opportunities. That’s what happened with Rikki and me.”
Riley Elton McCarthy ’21 (they/them)
Playwright, performer, producer
This year will be a pivotal one for McCarthy as they make their off-Broadway debut with The Lesbian Play at the Triad Theater in June. The work—a response to The Boys in the Band that centers lesbian and trans characters—received a private industry reading in November and earned McCarthy press coverage. “I was at my job when I saw a text from my lead actor that said, ‘Hey, you’re in Playbill,’” McCarthy said. “It was the fourth most trending article on Playbill’s site for 20 hours, which was overwhelming.”
McCarthy started working on the play as a student and finished its draft before the city went into a COVID lockdown in 2020. “I had seen The Boys in the Band my freshman year and was fascinated by the fact that there’s a body of work that centers gay men specifically,” they said. “I started to question why the industry was built in a way that left women and trans people out of the room.” They staged early versions with classmates, and the play’s current cast includes MMC community members.
In addition, McCarthy’s queer romantic horror Ivories will run at Brooklyn’s Brick Aux and The Makers’ Ensemble in March before moving to theSpaceUK at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland this summer. Two other full-length works are semi-finalists for major conferences.
On writing for students: “At the end of the day, The Lesbian Play is a gift for young acting students to have scene work that excites them,” McCarthy said. “It’s a love letter to the people I went to school with who inspired me every day and struggled as marginalized people to find something that resonates with them. Since I first wrote it, I’ve gotten emails from college students all over the nation who found the play, and I’m very honored. They’re the people I want the play to reach, though I’m always surprised by the larger audience it garners.”
Lee Harrison Daniel ’21 (they/them) and Max Berry ’20 (he/him)
Playwrights and producers, First Kiss Theatre Company
Best friends since Welcome Week, Daniel and Berry remember trading messages in MMC’s accepted student portal about wanting to start a group where people could share their plays and support each other. Post-graduation, they’re making that dream a reality as part of First Kiss Theatre Company.
Launched in 2020, First Kiss initially aimed to give theatre artists an outlet and community during the height of the pandemic. “Everyone was looking for something to do, some way to keep our creative practices up when we weren’t able to be in-person at theatre spaces,” said Daniel, director of community engagement. They joined the leadership team after meeting company founder Ellie Strayer at a summer theatre apprenticeship and helped First Kiss organize its annual festivals and a year-long residency program. Berry, who completed a residency, came on board soon after; he now serves as director of development and a creative producer.
Connecting artists with opportunities: First Kiss held its first in-person retreat last summer and presented its first in-person season at The Tank last fall. Still, it continues to find success with online events; its 2023 virtual festival FebruaryFest will take place February 24-25. Working virtually, Daniel said, has been pivotal. “We’ve been able to collaborate with artists who are scattered geographically,” they said. “In some ways, it’s opened up a lot of possibilities for independent artists that are a lot harder to get when you’re working in a traditional in-person space.”
On what it takes to start a theatre company: The first step, Berry said, is to look around you. “All a theatre company is is a bunch of like-minded artists who want to make art together,” he said. “If you start there, you might already have a company in your midst. So, if there’s a group of people you enjoy doing stuff with, keep working with them.”