Acting Up

Three cool actors get hot in front of the camera.

Photo by Lois Greenfield ’70

Actors dwell in possibility —— in the potential of a character, the promise of a performance, the prospect of moving an audience. Samrat Chakrabarti ’97, McCaela Donovan, M.F.A.’11, and J. Bernard Calloway, M.F.A.’00, are no exception. These actors relish complex roles and rich stories that allow them to flex their intellects and imaginations.

Of course, the flip side of endless possibility is near-manic preparation. Actors cultivate their knowledge (of languages, dialects and accents, for instance); physicality (with an emphasis on endurance and athleticism — roller skating through an entire performance might be required); musicality (singing, facility with multiple instruments; composing a plus); emotional depth (self-awareness and an ability to lose themselves/find themselves in the character; vulnerability a must); spirituality (to help them connect with their characters); philosophical temperament (to persevere in the face of frequent rejection and intermittent unemployment). And their capacity to promote and manage their career profitably.

Despite grueling hours, physically punishing work and sometimes startlingly low pay, these actors were inescapably drawn to performing. Chakrabarti abandoned a pre-med track at Brandeis to declare a theater major. Calloway chucked an accounting major and traded in a promising football career at Alabama State for the stage. Donovan, who in grade school started singing and performing for her disabled sister, never seriously considered anything else.

“Acting is an addiction,” Donovan confesses. “It’s a sickness, because it’s emotionally draining, financially draining, even abusive in a way. But there’s nothing else like it.”

In the photo portraits that follow, Lois Greenfield ’70, a celebrated photographer known for her arresting images of performing artists, showcases these rising stars at her Manhattan studio.

Photo of Samrat Chakrabarti ’97

After “Midnight”

Name: Samrat Chakrabarti ’97

Age: 36  ·  Height: 5 feet 11 inches

In production: A film adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel “Midnight’s Children,” set against the backdrop of India’s independence and partition. Chakrabarti plays Wee Willie Winkie, a street musician. “I had to learn to play the accordion for the role,” he says. “And, though I’m a piano player, the left hand of the accordion has nothing to do with piano. So I found a good teacher, locked myself in my apartment for a month and learned the instrument.”

Favorite role: Krishna, in the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival selection “The Waiting City.” An Australian reviewer wrote, “Chakrabarti manages to combine comedic dexterity with profound insight into the character of Krishna, a remarkably difficult feat.”

Dream role: “I don’t know if it’s about dream roles or about continuing to work with inspiring people and honing my craft. I want to play interesting characters who tell interesting stories about the human experience. I’m not here to play brown wallpaper.”

Special skills: Music, globe-trotting.

Photo by Lois Greenfield ’70

Photo of McCaela Donovan

A Triple-Threat Performer

Name: McCaela Donovan, M.F.A.’11

Age: 30  ·  Height: 5 feet 2 inches

Past production: This spring, Donovan played the lead role of Clio/Kira in the madcap musical “Xanadu” (based on the cult film starring Olivia Newton-John) at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company. She also roller-skated throughout the high-octane 1-hour, 40-minute performance, even as she belted out 12 musical numbers. “It’s kind of like being shot out of a cannon — it’s a burst of energy, and then you’re done,” says Donovan.

Favorite role: Playing Dot in the Brandeis mainstage production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” “It’s hard to pick one favorite, but Dot is the closest character to me emotionally. She’s an open vessel needing love and wanting to give love and not always knowing how.”

Dream role: Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” “The music is stunning and beautiful — music just isn’t written much like that anymore — and the comedy and dialogue are brilliant.”

Special skills: Singing, dancing, stilt walking, piano, dialects, sword fighting (fight choreography was required in the M.F.A. program).

Photo by Lois Greenfield ’70

Photo of J. Bernard

Theater Is Church

Name: J. Bernard Calloway, M.F.A.’00

Age: 36  ·  Height: 6 feet 2 inches

In production: Since 2009, Calloway has starred in the rousing musical “Memphis,” his Broadway debut. Calloway originated the role of Delray, an enterprising nightclub owner intent on promoting his talented sister Felicia’s music career (and his own) beyond the segregated 1950s rock ’n’ roll club scene.

Favorite role: Booster in August Wilson’s play “Jitney.” “August Wilson puts the experience of the African-American in perspective — how he deals with living in a society that was not built for him. How does he find love in a society that doesn’t love him? Booster’s character resounded with me.”

Dream role: “My dream is to play roles that evoke the consciousness and culture of our time. Theater is church — it should be thoughtful. You hated Stanley Kowalski for beating Stella  in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but the work that Marlon Brando did was impeccable — that’s the type of work I want to do.”

Special skills: Singing, piano, all percussion instruments, dialects, basketball, football, stage combat.

Photo by Lois Greenfield ’70