Twenty years ago, Chrissy Fiorilli-Ellington, Jenny Greer, and Samson Baker were featured on the cover of the UNC Greensboro Alumni Magazine, smiling and striding across a New York City street, full of hopes and dreams for what might become their role in the world of theatre.
It was the spring of 2003, and Baker, Fiorilli-Ellington, and Greer had just received their BFAs in Theatre. They, along with 12 other graduates, were in the Big Apple for the Theatre Industry Showcase, a chance for students to perform for agents, directors, producers and casting agents in hopes of getting their foot in the door of a highly competitive career.
We checked in with the trio, now two decades later, to find that not only have they successfully made a life in the arts, but they have also remained close friends, strengthening a bond that began at the UNCG School of Theatre.
Baker runs a private, early childhood program in New York City as the Director of Education and Professional Learning.
Fiorilli-Ellington is a casting director in Los Angeles, auditioning actors for films, television shows, streamed series, and commercials.
Greer is an actor, dialect coach, and college professor based in Los Angeles and finishing up a program in London to become a certified teacher of Knight-Thompson speech work.
Here’s how they got there, and some of their memories and advice.
What are your memories of that trip to New York in 2003?
Baker: “I remember it being really hot and having the new experience of water from window A/C units dripping on me, but I was still absolutely obsessed with the energy of the city. I remember being a bundle of nerves and feeling like my entire life hung on what happened during that showcase. I remember feeling so close to the people in my UNCG Theatre crew and laughing a lot. I so deeply admired the actors in the class before me, and Chrissy, Jenny, and the others in my BFA class, we were like siblings. I remember us all taking this trip very seriously and rooting for each other in the best way.”
Fiorilli-Ellington: “Gosh, it feels like both yesterday and a million years ago. Samson, Jenny, and I shared a small hotel room and spent every minute of that trip together. I was so full of energy and optimism—the kind that only a 22-year-old could have. It was so much fun seeing and spending time with the alums who were already living up there—honestly, that was the best part.”
Greer: “I remember eating pizza while walking down the sidewalk before the showcase and having some meetings afterward with casting directors. Even though it wasn’t my first visit to NYC, it was the first time I was really on my own. I remember people-watching and loving the feeling of there being so many people you can’t help but just blend in. It was kind of a relief to me in a weird way. And I knew I wanted to live there.”
What was your path after graduation?
Baker: “I moved to NYC with Chrissy! We packed up a U-haul and drove overnight from Greensboro to Roosevelt Island where we forged our parents’ signatures as guarantors to get an apartment. I tried auditioning a little, but the main event became making a living, which was much harder than I anticipated. I worked at BB King Blues Club and Grill in Times Square along with a lot of UNCG Theatre alum who connected me with that job. During that time, I found more easy and meaningful opportunities to perform in the downtown contemporary dance scene. I danced for some small companies and basically stopped trying to act. I also started working at a private school camp and after-school program as a way to make extra money. I ended up becoming really into working with children. I began teaching, went to graduate school to get my M.S. in Early Childhood Education, and have been working in education ever since.”
Fiorilli-Ellington: “Almost immediately after showcase I quit the job I had lined up doing touring theatre in elementary schools, and instead stayed in Greensboro, waiting tables to save money to move to New York. Once there, I worked as a nanny, then in beer and liquor sales in downtown Manhattan for a couple of years until getting laid off. I was so frustrated and sad, and knew I needed a change. My mom encouraged me to collect unemployment, take a break, and really figure out what it was I wanted to do. A friend and fellow alum Stephanie Yankwitt (BA ’01) was working for Bernard Telsey, one of the biggest casting offices in New York, and she asked if I had ever considered working in casting because Bernie’s office was hiring interns. It was like I heard bells ringing! I quickly said yes, started working there, and never looked back.”
Greer: “I did some theatre in NC. Then I worked to save money and moved to NYC as fast as I could. It was really hard at first but got better. I eventually started doing more theater. I moved to California for grad school at CalArts in 2008.”
How did UNCG Theatre prepare you for what you are doing now?
Baker: Doing theatre at UNCG was all about community for me. It provided a space where I felt like I belonged and where I learned about myself and others in a way that made me a better, stronger person. All of the tools I learned in that program actually completely translate to what I do now, because that is the kind of learning community I am helping to build. It may sound silly, but I am “talking and listening” every day, I’m constantly dialing up N-E-C-K (a listening technique) and practicing mindfulness thanks to Marsha Paludan, and I facilitate the same type of collaboration and teamwork with my staff as we did when putting on shows together at UNCG. When you’ve learned how to listen, nurture relationships, and be empathetic to people’s stories and motivations, that really is the key to doing any type of work well.
Fiorilli-Ellington: “The acting classes at UNCG gave me the tools I need to help give direction to actors every single day. We learned so many approaches and techniques that I’m able to look on a resume and see where someone trained, and then speak to them using lingo I know they will understand. I also still get to act whenever I read with actors during their audition or callback. Honestly, I think they enjoy our reading together because it elevates their performance. Plus, for me…it scratches that itch juuuust enough, ha-ha.”
Greer: “I think we had some great teachers and acting and technique training. I also think we created some really strong relationships. I am learning more and more how essential community is.”
When do you first remember falling in love with theatre and what inspires you most today?
Baker: “I fell in love with performing when I was in preschool. I was Captain Hook in a production of Peter Pan, and I remember a silly scene where I got chased by the crocodile—everyone laughed, and after that I was hooked. I think I fell in love with theatre for real when I saw Showboat on Broadway as part of a high school trip. It moved me in all the right ways (and it was also my first trip to NYC.) I was enamored by the actor who played Julie, and that character (who is mixed race and passing as white) made me feel seen in a way I had never experienced before watching a play. Art, music and theatre still inspire me a great deal! I love to see shows and talk to creators. It’s one of the best things about living in NYC.”
Fiorilli-Ellington: “I remember being a little kid doing plays for my stuffed animals on the stage my grandfather built in our attic. High school was when I really got into acting in a meaningful way and started taking classes and doing community and professional theatre in addition to school plays. Every day I am inspired knowing I have the opportunity to hire someone to act, to help make their dreams come true. Having a hand in crafting stories that entertain people around the world is a great feeling. It’s also worth noting I absolutely could not do what I do without the love and support of my husband and kids—they are truly my biggest inspiration.”
Greer: “Honestly, it was most likely seeing CATS as a kid (LOL). At a very young age, I wanted to be Grizabella so bad—an old torch singing diva. Today, I’m inspired by a lot. I love unexpected storytelling and unlikely protagonists. I see less theatre now, but I’d like to see more. I’m in a community of people making really interesting performance work more on the experimental side of things, and I am inspired by them. I am very much into cinema. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop streaming tv shows and seek out a good film. Over the pandemic my husband and I dug into a lot of older movies and that was good for our souls. Also, LA is pretty inspiring.”
We always ask alumni what their advice might be for current students, so looking back, what would you tell your 2003 self?
Baker: “Love yourself, you are good enough…you are your best thing. I’m still working on that today, but I sure wish I had believed that back then.”
Fiorilli-Ellington: “You’ve got this, kid.”
Greer: “Don’t sweat being different. Don’t sweat rejection or negative feedback. It’s ephemeral. Don’t worry about doing things “the right way” or about what other people think. Don’t get too distracted. Find your own inspiration.”
Story by Terri W Relos
Photo credit for images from the UNCG Alumni Magazine: Chris English
Current photos provided by Samson Baker, Chrissy Fiorilli-Ellington, and Jenny Greer