When she was in charge of the Binghamtonics, an a capella group on campus, performing plays on the main stage and studying under Theater Professor Sue Peters, Ingrid Michaelson didn’t think she’d be singing to sold-out crowds for a living.
The indie singer-songwriter has been carving out a niche for herself in the music scene since her graduation from Binghamton University in 2001. But Michaelson is not the only famous alumnus to storm the arts and entertainment field after studying at BU; she is just one of many, including writers, comedians, actors, artists and more. Somehow these BU alumni have transitioned from term papers to screenplays, from the Dickinson Amphitheater to Carnegie Hall, and they’re sharing their tips.
FROM STAGE TO STAGE: MICHAELSON’S JOURNEY
Michaelson sipped decaffeinated tea with agave honey and lemon, soothing her voice before her upcoming performance. Her hair in pigtailed braids, she played with her scarf while sitting at the table. The March 12 concert at City Winery, located in SoHo, was the first show Michaelson had played with her band since December. But performing her own music was not what Michaelson said she intended to do after her four years at college.
“I went to school for theater,” Michaelson said. “That’s what I thought I was going to do.”
Michaelson said after graduation she ended up going back to her native New York City and going on auditions.
“It was just really hard,” she said. “When I was at Binghamton, I was like a big fish in a small pond. Then you go to New York City and you’re like nothing (laughs).”
Michaelson said she felt she was talented, but didn’t want to keep pursuing something like theater.
“I felt like I was better at songwriting and that I could focus on that and hone my craft,” she said.
For four years, Michaelson taught children’s theater, the same theater at which she performed while growing up, before releasing her first CD, “Slow the Rain.” Michaelson credits her time at BU as a major influence in her career, which now includes tours around the U.S. and Europe, two more hit CDs and another album currently in production.
“I always wanted to do something in the arts, and the theater department [at BU] is really great. Probably the best experience was the hardest [play] I did. We did ‘Electra’ and this woman from Greece, she came over and directed the play and starred in it and it was very intense. It was probably like one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Michaelson said.
According to Michaelson, all of her professors at BU were supportive; even with the school size, she was able to foster a close relationship with many in the theater department.
“I never took a class with a professor that shut me down — they were all really kind and believed in your potential,” she said.
Michaelson said there’s nothing she’d go back and change about her college career.
“Honestly, I don’t like to look back and say, ‘I wish I could change that, that should be different,’ because I think the stuff that you do that you fuck up are the things that bring you to where you are,” she said. “I had a really great time at Binghamton.”
As for her background in theater, Michaelson said she hasn’t ruled out a return to her roots, although with her singing career, could she eventually be Broadway bound?
“I might end up going back to theater,” she said, “I’d never say ‘No’ to that. I don’t know if I’d be on Broadway, but [might return to] acting.”
‘MINI’ WORK LEADS TO MAJOR SUCCESS
Chris Giarrusso, of Binghamton University’s class of 1997, has achieved mighty success with “Mini Marvels,” a comic series for Marvel Comics, the home of famous characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man.
However, Giarrusso said art wasn’t always his calling while attending BU — he started out as a math major.
“I majored in studio art,” he said, “a decision I made in my fifth year in order to make my escape.”
Giarrusso balanced his time at BU by working at Pipe Dream and at the Johnson City comic book store, Fat Cat Books. He said it was those two activities that influenced his current career path.
“Working at Pipe Dream was a tremendous influence, and what I learned there turned out to be more helpful to me than the sum total of all knowledge I learned in any classes I ever took,” he said. “Pipe Dream was my introduction to the world of publishing. It was there I learned graphics computer programs used, like [Adobe] Photoshop, [Adobe] Illustrator and QuarkXpress.”
Pipe Dream was also where Giarrusso said he first started drawing comic strips.
“I hadn’t thought it was a realistic goal for me before that, but seeing my comics published every week got me hooked,” he said.
Giarrusso said working at Fat Cat Books helped him gain a new perspective on the comic-book industry.
“I’d always been a comic geek,” he said, “but working at the retail level gave me a new perspective on the business side of things. And the folks at Fat Cat have always been incredibly supportive and encouraging.”
After BU, Pipe Dream and Fat Cat Books, Giarrusso started work in the production department at Marvel. His comic strip, “Bullpen Bits,” started appearing at the end of issues. “Bullpen” led to “Mini Marvels” and “G-Man,” a creator-owned series at Image Comics.
“It’s all like one big body of work to me, since it’s all the same little-kid superhero stuff,” he said of his comics. “The biggest difference is that G-Man belongs to me, so I enjoy the creative freedom with that a bit more.”
LAWYER, RADIO HOST, ESCAPE PRESIDENT
Perry Binder, of Binghamton University’s class of 1981, said nobody ever sits in Glenn G. Bartle Library and dreams of being a professor.
“No one I hung with ever thought about being a college professor,” Binder said. “I was going to law school to be the next Jerry Maguire.”
Binder wears many hats these days. A former litigation attorney, he’s now a professor at Georgia State University, radio talk show host and author of a new book, “Unlocking Your Rubber Room.”
“‘Unlocking Your Rubber Room’ is a book of 44 practical, hilarious, and outrageous lessons about finding ourselves, both personally and professionally,” Binder said. “It motivates readers to laugh, think and act through everyday situations, by emphasizing that preparation, passion and compassion are the keys to unlocking our confining mindsets — our figurative ‘rubber rooms.’”
Binder said his time as president of ESCAPE, the student-run bus service at BU helped prepare him for his career, specifically by getting a feel of small-town America.
“I’d look around at the rusted-out buildings and saw how others lived with pride and dignity, which to this day influences my perspective on life,” Binder said. “I couldn’t get that on a self-contained college campus or a big city. This experience is reflected throughout my book when I go into great detail about the struggles of coal miners and a lawsuit they had to file against a coal company in West Virginia.”
WRITER, COMEDIAN, BU ALUMNA
Carol Leifer wants students to know something: if you aren’t making it, make it happen for you.
“I would encourage students to make their own shit happen,” said Leifer. She was a theater major when she attended Binghamton University before transferring to Queens College to pursue stand up. “If you don’t get cast in a school production, cast yourself in your own production and find a place to stage it. You have to be self-motivated to have a career in the arts. If you sit back and wait for someone to give you a break, you’ll wind up waiting a long time.”
Leifer has enjoyed a successful career as a screenwriter, stand-up comic, actress and now author. Her first book, “When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win,” is being published at the end of the month by Random House.
“What I love about my career is that I get the chance to do a bit of everything,” she said. “I have loved writing my first book and enjoy the solitary nature of sitting down for hours, hunkering down into my head and putting it all down on paper. And then when I’m tired of being alone and itchy to get out, I can go to a comedy club and try out some new jokes and get that social, audience experience. Writing and performing are the yin to each other’s yang and it’s a privilege to be able to do both.”
“When You Lie About Your Age, The Terrorists Win,” is a collection of personal essays with an emphasis on life after 40.
“We’re thrown a lot of gloom and doom about aging, especially us women,” Leifer said, “but I want to inspire people that the best part of your life can start when most people think it’s over.”
BU HELPED HIM ‘SADDLE’ UP FOR HOLLYWOOD
Students at Binghamton University in the 1960s have more in common with the student body than you may think: both sets of students are familiar with Andrew Bergman’s work. Bergman, class of 1965, screenwriter of such films as “Blazing Saddles” and “Striptease,” had a column in Pipe Dream back when it was called The Colonial News.
“[I] had a weekly column in which I exercised my right to be a wise-ass and know-it-all,” he said.
Despite his success as a Hollywood writer and director, Bergman wasn’t a creative writing or English major while at BU.
“I majored in American history with a minor in lit[erature],” he said. “It was basically an American studies program, with a lot of independent study, under a wonderful teacher, Professor Alfred B. Rollins.”
Bergman said by surrounding himself with “creative and hilarious people,” it helped influence his comedic writing. He also cited the atmosphere of Harpur College as another major influence.
“Harpur was, at the time, the only liberal arts school in the state university and thus attracted extremely smart and extremely out-there students from totally un-entitled, lower middle-class backgrounds,” he said. “It was a hot house atmosphere for wit and, in its own way, insanely competitive.”
Bergman has worked as both a screenwriter, director and also a novelist. In 2007, he was honored by the Writers Guild of America with the Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Lifetime Achievement in Writing. He said the success the 1974 hit, “Blazing Saddles,” was a surprise to all involved.
“I had the notion in my head of a black man arriving in the Old West to be a sort of accidental sheriff for a very long time, since graduate school, really,” he said. “Couldn’t get it out of my head. The rest, as they say, is history. The success of “Blazing Saddles” was a shock to everyone associated with it, including Warner Bros. Its enduring hold on people is very gratifying.”
Bergman said he has been trying to do a musical version of his film “Honeymoon in Vegas” for some time, but there have been a few snags.
“It has a terrific book and terrific songs by Jason Robert Brown,” he said. “All we need is about $15 million and we’re in business!”
DOING IT THEIR WAY
While you might not become Carol Leifer or Ingrid Michaelson, you can still get a career in arts and entertainment after graduation.
Giarrusso said he found his calling while working for a student organization and stressed current students to explore what Binghamton University has to offer.
“Take advantage of any resources, clubs, jobs, [or] organizations that are available to you while you’re in school,” he said. “There’s only so much you can learn in a class.”
Both Bergman and Leifer shared similar pieces of advice: just do what you want to do.
“Just do it. You’ll sit on the sidelines forever if you wait for someone to come up and ask you to dance,” Leifer said. “You be the engine and make it happen. Anyone I know who made it from college was aggressive and relentless in their pursuit. So get the ball rolling and be your own biggest fan!”
Like the other alumni with careers in entertainment, Michaelson’s path was her own. But she shared her secret to success, applicable for anybody hoping to get a career in the arts, not just a musician.
“I would say be ready for everything, but don’t expect anything. Do it for the joy, don’t do it because you want to see your name in lights, because inevitably you’ll just be disappointed or you’ll jump through hoops you don’t want to jump through,” she said. “Do it for the love of it. Not to say don’t try or don’t push yourself in whatever avenue that means, but don’t expect things to come to you because normally they don’t, but when they do — if they do — be ready for it. That’s all I did.”