Professor balances two professional lives



Brian Shaw, a professor in the college’s Theatre Department and a 1986 alumnus, has balanced his careers in acting and teaching for the past 25 years. Shaw, who has  credits in both stage and screen, is currently starring in The Hypocrites Theater’s production of the Samuel Beckett play “Endgame.”

By Campus Reporter

Columbia prides itself on faculty members who work professionally in their field in addition to teaching. Theatre professor Brian Shaw embodies that ideal with an acting career that features both stage and screen credits.

Shaw, a professor in the Theatre Department and a 1986 theatre alumnus, has been at the college for 25 years and is a prominent figure in the city’s acting community.

Having landed a role on the hit TV show “Chicago Fire,” appearing in Steppenwolf Theatre productions and starring in Chicago International Film Festival films, Shaw’s resume reflects his status as a diverse performer.

Shaw currently stars in a production of “Endgame” at The Hypocrites Theater, 4201 N. Ravenswood Ave. Samuel Beckett’s dark comedy follows a man and his servant speaking about the cynical nature of life. The show runs until April 5.

The Chronicle spoke with Shaw about balancing acting and teaching, his extensive resume and his advice for aspiring actors.

THE CHRONICLE: How would you describe your experience performing in The Hypocrites’ “Endgame”?

BRIAN SHAW:  Earthy, I would say. The show is really funny, but also really dark and sad at times. It’s a very funny and pretty chaotic [show]. 

CC: How was your first time working with The Hypocrites theatre?

BS: It’s a great organization. They approach the work really professionally but with a great sense of play, enjoyment and, again, earthiness, which I think is good. They hire really good people, [and] they hire a lot of [Columbia] alumni, which is great.

CC: Do you have any advice for aspiring actors who want to find success in the field?

BS: Prepare and then be prepared to play. Do all the work necessary and then be prepared to make adjustments immediately. You have to do the memorization, analyze the text, think about the character, think about what you’re going to wear, make decisions about what’s happening in the scene, prepare your body physically, warm up, all of that disciplinary stuff. Do all of the preparation work and then be prepared to improvise. That’s definitely true on film shoots, that’s true on TV shoots I’ve done, it’s true when I’ve walked into voice-over booths. You have to be prepared to play but to have the ability to release and enjoy yourself. You have to have done the prep work.

CC: Do you prefer performing live or on-screen acting?

BS: No, I don’t have a favorite. They’re different kinds of challenges and it’s a different experience. What I enjoy is being able to shift between different kinds of performance.

CC: Why did you decide to become a teacher in addition to acting?

BS: That’s changed over [the past] 25 years. Initially, I was curious about teaching. I’ve always enjoyed school, so I didn’t purely go into it in order to make a living. Over time, [I’ve realized] it’s a fascinating time for students. It’s really great to watch students come in at 18 years old and leave at 23, 24, 25. The changes they go through as young adults [make it] an extraordinary time [in their lives], so it’s really great to be a part of that. It’s energizing.

CC: What do you enjoy about being a professor at Columbia?

BS: Columbia is a great resource. I work a lot with people in other departments. There’s a great connection to a lot of really interesting professionals in other areas or in my own area, so I’ve done a lot of interdisciplinary work. It’s a really fascinating, creative place to be, so that’s healthy. I’ve learned a lot about the art form of theater and different [techniques] that can be applied over the 25 years through a bunch of different things I have done as a teacher but also as a professional. Mixing that outside work and the work at Columbia and thinking about how to teach those skills and apply those skills, I also feel that I have been able to experiment and explore within my art form, which is also really exciting.

CC: Do you think it is important for students to see successful alumni?

BS: Students want to see that [success is] possible. It is enormously important.

CC: What kind of things were you taught at Columbia that you were able to take into the professional acting world?

BS: You can’t be a lazy sod, so professional discipline is really important—to say yes, and to really pay attention when you have an opportunity to work. Soak up as much information as you can for the people that you’re working with, and make contacts and network, especially early in the work. You want to really expose yourself to as many opportunities to explore the work as you can and build a network of people who know you are totally capable of doing the work and are going to be fun to work with. Another big thing for Columbia is really enjoying the work, I think—to take a lot of pleasure in doing what it is you do.

CC: Are there any challenges that come with balancing your acting and teaching career?

BS: Yeah, I’m tired. It’s a lot to do both those things at one time, especially when you go into the technical rehearsal and preview part of the process because you’re working 10–12 [consecutive] days and [they’re] long—six-, seven- or eight-hour days. Then you still have to maintain your teaching and all the stuff that comes with it. It is exhausting doing two at a time, but I’ve been doing it for 25 years—I work pretty regularly on this and that. I’m used to finding that energy and knowing that I have to prepare [and] that I know my schedule is going to be hectic for a period of time, so I have to make sure that I take care of myself before that. I try to do extra stuff with my kids and my wife and prepare lectures or classes ahead of time. I try to make myself prepared so I don’t get too chaotic when it gets to be crunch time.

CC: What is your method to balancing it all?

BS: I try to do stupidly simple, sensible things like eating well, getting exercise and trying to sleep. Honestly, you just have to have the energy. I’m not 28—I can’t stay up until two in the morning. I can’t do that anymore. A lot of it is being sensible and taking care of myself. If I have the opportunity to get home early from school, I’ll  try to take a nap before I go do a show, which makes me sound like an old person, but maybe that is true.