Christal Brown teaching
Cover of 2003 Alumni Magazine

From 2003 Alumni Magazine to 2023: Where are They Now?

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. 

Samson Baker '03 BFA Theatre
Samson Baker
Chrissy Fiorilli-Ellington '03 BFA Theatre
Chrissy Fiorilli-Ellington
Jenny Greer '03 BFA Theatre
Jenny Greer

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, Fiorilli-Ellington, and Baker during a pizza dinner break in New York. Photo credit: Chris English (from 2003 UNCG Magazine)
Greer, Fiorilli-Ellington, and Baker during a pizza dinner break in New York. Photo credit: Chris English (from 2003 UNCG Magazine)

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 and Greer in an acting scene for the 2003 Theatre Industry Showcase. Photo credit: Chris English
Baker and Greer in an acting scene for the 2003 Theatre Industry Showcase. Photo credit: Chris English (from 2003 UNCG Magazine)

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.”  

Learn more about UNCG Theatre here.

 

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 

 

Bethany Uhler Thompson teaching violin

Making Music to Connect with Teens In Custody

For Bethany Uhler Thompson (’20 DMA and ’17 MM Cello Performance) music is a connector and an instrument for change, both of which are needed in her music classes at Les Peters Academy and Hillsborough Girls Academy in Tampa, Florida.

“When the girls come into class, they’re very unsure of their abilities, and a lot of them will tell me that they’ve had people in their past say they can’t succeed. They’ve been told they’re a failure and that they can’t do good things in life. And that’s their mindset as they approach these instruments.”

Les Peters and Hillsborough Girls Academies aren’t elite girls’ schools—they are facilities in the Florida Juvenile Justice system and Thompson directs the strings program there for girls ages 14-18 who are incarcerated by court order.

She doesn’t just direct the program, she founded it.

The seed was planted when, as a teenager, Thompson played her cello at a detention center as part of an outreach program. It was her first exposure to being inside a locked facility.

“What grew from that was a desire to use music to connect with people in difficult seasons of life. When I was at the UNCG School of Music, I was still trying to figure out how I could use music to impact people in vulnerable situations. I learned about a violin and cello program in an Alaska women’s prison, and I thought I could do that with young people.” (more…)

Will Kelley headshot

Music Alumnus Conducting an Acclaimed Career in Europe

This summer, when William Kelley (’14 BM Piano Performance) took the podium to conduct Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, it was his second time with that particular opera, with a lot of music and miles in between. 

The first experience came when Kelley was a senior in the UNCG School of Music, playing piano and acting as assistant conductor.  This time, Kelley is doing it as the Kappelmeister of Theatre Bremen, a state opera house in the town of Bremen, Germany, about 42-hundred miles from Greensboro. 

Kelley has held the position at Theatre Bremen since 2020, and before that he was Kapellmeister at Luzerner Theater in Luzern, Switzerland. He made his European conducting debut in 2017 with the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with following productions including the Swiss premiere of Abraham’s Märchen im Grand Hotel, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Carmen.maquia (version for ballet), Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, a world premiere in the Lucerne Festival: Im Amt für Todesangelegenheiten (2018) with the 21st Century Orchestra, and the 2019 Gübelin Luzerner Sinfonieball.  

Kelley hails from Burlington, NC. He took piano lessons growing up and earned a Bachelor of Music at UNCG, then a Masters degree from The Juilliard School. After that, Kelley says it was an easy decision to give Europe a try: 

“I think that when you have at least the slightest bit of curiosity, just jump the ‘pond’ in any direction and try out a culture that’s not your own, especially with a language that’s not your own. It’s not always going to be easy. There will be daily things that are much more difficult, but it’s also very enriching. I wouldn’t want to not do this.” 

Kelley’s star has been rising since his arrival in Europe, and he brought with him an American style that is getting rave reviews: 

Will Kelley conducting

Musical Magazine calls him “a formidable conductor.”

Opernwelt (a monthly German magazine for opera, operetta and ballet) says about Angels in America at Theatre Bremen: 

“The young American conductor William Kelley’s mastery of the complex score is a successful test of talent in every respect. He knows how to convincingly combine the different compositional ingredients such as Broadway flair, playback noise, vocal complexity, and differentiated orchestral-usage into an overall sound.”  

Kelley says Angels in America has been one of his favorite projects at Theatre Bremen: 

“It was an interesting situation where you had an opera, based on a very famous American text (Tony Kushner) and set in the United States, with music by a Hungarian composer. So it was a little bit of a combination of worlds. 

“What was fun for me as an American, and as an English speaker, was to be able to take a piece where the text is so famous and very nuanced and very particular to the 1980s-1990s New York City gay scene—with a tone and type of sarcasm the characters use and so many political references—and to use my cultural background to help make decisions when tackling the production. It’s easy to get a little lost in it, if it doesn’t feel close to you. It’s a huge text. It’s sort of like taking on the Ring Cycle of twentieth century America.”  (more…)

photo of Brendan Slocumb

Brendan Slocumb ’94: Musical Thrillers with a Message

“I just want people to look at people—really see them—not just their outward appearance. Look at me. You could say I don’t look like a person who plays the violin. You could just see me as a scary black man with tattoos.”

Brendan Slocumb (’94 Music Education) says that’s one of the reasons he writes, and why one of the main characters in his new novel is a neurodivergent woman.  

“Everyone has a story. I want people to look beyond the physical characteristics of people.”

Slocumb spoke to a packed house at Footnotes Bookstore in Winston-Salem on April 18th, greeting fans with smiles and “thumbs up.”  It was the national launch event for his second book, Symphony of Secrets, which has been described as a gripping page-turner. 

In the book, music professor Bern Hendricks discovers a shocking secret about the most famous American composer of all time—his music may have been stolen from a Black Jazz Age prodigy named Josephine Reed. Determined to uncover the truth that a powerful organization wants to keep hidden, Bern will stop at nothing to right history’s wrongs and give Josephine the recognition she deserves.

A New York Times review praises the novel, and the genre Slocumb is developing: 

“Brendan Slocumb’s first novel, The Violin Conspiracy, displayed his deftness at crafting character-driven stories featuring amateur sleuths with a deep reverence for music history — and everything to lose. With his pitch-perfect follow-up, Symphony of Secrets, he firmly establishes himself as a maestro of musical mystery.” 

Slocumb grew up in Fayetteville, NC and started playing the violin at age nine, thanks to an elementary school music program. He graduated from UNCG with a degree in Music Education, with concentrations in Violin and Viola. He spoke on campus last spring during the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival.

“I’m the product of public school education. Music is a life-saving force. It took me to college, and it took me around the world. I have so many opportunities that I owe to this place (School of Music). I have “thank you” tattooed on my forearm because I have so much gratitude for the people and places who have helped me get where I am today.”

Slocumb says Winston-Salem, where the book launch was held, is a special place, too. His first teaching job was at North Forsyth County High School. Several “Vikings” were in the audience for the talk, including former band students, who cheered wildly when Slocumb took his violin out of its case to play a brief musical interlude during the Q&A with musicologist Kate Storhoff.

Storhoff asked Slocumb how he was able to bring fictional musicologist Bern Hendricks so perfectly to the page:

“It was that stellar education I got at UNC Greensboro,” said Slocumb with a quick smile. 

After the moderated conversation, attendees lined up to have the author sign their books and take selfies with them. Again, there was that Slocumb smile and his signature “thumbs up”.

Symphony of Secrets is published by Penguin Random House. Read more here.

Learn more about the Music Education degree at UNCG.

Story by Terri W. Relos

Jazmine Warren co-captain of the Spartan G dance team

Jazmine Renee Warren BFA Dance: Choreography/Performance

“I have never had more of a passion towards anything else than being creative and dancing. I couldn’t see myself doing anything other than being an artist for the rest of my life. I have seen and met many people in my life who have had a successful career in the arts, and that’s given me the inspiration to give it a try.”

Jazmine Warren says one of the first sources of that inspiration is a UNC Greensboro alumna. Valencia Lipscomb (‘14 BFA Dance) was one of her teachers at Hillside High School in Durham. Warren says Lipscomb quickly became her mentor, and she recommended that Warren choose UNCG’s School of Dance.

Warren says she took that advice, and after being accepted by the university, a successful dance audition, and a tour of campus, she was convinced:

“My experience here was so good. This turned out to be the perfect fit for me because I was able to deepen my passion for dance on a whole other level. Not only did I have the opportunity to perform numerous times and choreograph my own piece, but I had access to the most beautiful and spacious studios!”

Warren also found good friends and other ways to explore her love of dance:

“I met my best friend Kerrington Palmer (BA Arts Administration) on the first day at a university event for first-year students. She encouraged me to try out for the Spartan G Dance Team (a group of UNCG students dedicated to performing throughout the volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball season as well as various special events during the academic year). We became co-captains our senior year!”

After graduation, Warren is planning to move to Atlanta:

“I’d like to pursue my dream career of being a professional dancer. To be more specific, I want to be successful in the commercial world of dance. This includes dancing for television shows, commercials, movies, music videos, and going on tour. I also love musical theatre and would like to also audition for some shows.” 

Warren says she feels ready because of UNCG:

“Something I’ve gained here is to never be afraid to ask for help. You never know how many doors and connections that could open up for you to be successful.”

Jazmine Warren’s advice for current and future Spartans:

“Please allow yourself to be open to new opportunities and experiences! UNCG has so many opportunities to meet new people, to have fun, to stay connected to cultural avenues, and to express your true self.”

Watch Jazmine Warren’s BFA Thesis here.

Learn more about studying in the UNCG School of Dance.

Story by Terri W. Relos

Photo credit: Josh Bell