On Pursuing an MFA and Being a Mother - Sunam Ellis

Sunam with her kids.
Sunam with her kids.

by Sunam Ellis

This is not my first time as a graduate student. Several years ago I was in a Ph.D. Human Development program. I wanted to research marital relationships. But not really. It was my back-up plan. Theatre is, and has always been, my first love. The lure of a full-ride at a prestigious school, though—the promise of becoming Dr. Ellis—it was hard to resist. And I had a fire to succeed. After two semesters and a summer abroad, I had already completed a solid chunk of my master’s thesis. But there was no joy. And I ultimately left the program.

Fast-forward several years…

After many discussions with my husband, we decided to take a chance. I was going to make a serious pursuit of acting, the thing that had always brought me so much joy. I brushed up on the craft by doing some community productions before heading off to auditions for graduate programs. The plan was simple: If a graduate program accepted me, I would follow that dream. If not…well, we’d see.

It was intimidating because I was now the mother of three. During my first go-round with graduate school, I remember being holed up for days, working frantically on papers and projects. How could I balance the rigors of graduate school with motherhood? And I wasn’t the only one with concerns. During graduate program interviews, I saw the exact moment many recruiters lost interest: when I mentioned that I was a mother. Representatives from one school told me flat out there was no way for a mother to complete their program. It was simply impossible. It couldn’t be done.

Thankfully, Valerie Curtis-Newton saw things differently, and was willing to give me a chance. Now here I am, three years later, finished with my graduate classes and ready for Showcase. It’s been quite a ride. And this is what I’ve learned. Are you ready? Having three kids wasn’t a liability in graduate school, but rather, my secret weapon.

Having three kids wasn’t a liability in graduate school, but rather, my secret weapon.

As an actor my job is to tell stories and, with wonder and amazement, explore worlds I help create. Each night I must be surprised anew, reacting to situations of a rehearsed story as if it were the first time, and invite the audience to come on that journey with me. Much of our training focuses on stripping away preconceptions and judgments that block our ability to do our job. And that’s no easy task. But you wanna know who excels at wonder and amazement? Children.

Do you remember this joke?

What’s your name?

Mama.

How do you spell it?

M A M A.

NO! It is spelled I – T!

As adults, we groan at this kind of joke. But the thrill my five-year-old gets from telling it is infectious. He walks me through the setup, leading-in in one direction, and, BAM!, he gleefully subverts my expectation. It is perfection. Even when I know what he is doing, his dedication to the form is a joy to behold. Even more impressive is his ability to turn around and take my husband through the same joke without losing an ounce of earnestness in the setup or thrill with the punchline. As a mother, I find myself delighting in simple things that I haven’t considered or explored since childhood. And it’s that innocent, uninhibited approach to the world that is gold for an actor.

As a mother, I find myself delighting in simple things that I haven’t considered or explored since childhood. And it’s that innocent, uninhibited approach to the world that is gold for an actor.

My children also help keep me grounded. An actor opens completely to the world of story, bringing all her experience with her. But if we become too enthralled with that world, we can forget to live in the actual world. If we only socialize with other actors, only participate in theatre events, and only discuss the events that occur on stage, the world of drama becomes a siphon, draining us of connection to the world we hope to engage. As a mother, I have three constant reminders that there is a living, breathing reality outside of my career. And when I delve into my craft that is the world which feeds my creative processes.

Finally, my kids remind me to dream, and to dream big. My oldest son wants to be president someday. But only after his career as an actor (of course). And an inventor who designs a new kind of car and creates a new alternative energy source. Those are big dreams, and my children have lots of them. And together we are working toward our respective dreams. They encourage me in mine. They tell me when they’re proud of me. And I get to do the same for them.

It takes resilience to stick with a dream, resilience fueled by joy in what you are doing. In my first round of graduate school I didn’t have that. This time it is different. Even with the need to be a partner to my husband and mother to my kids, graduate school was easier this time around. Not because the work was any less intense, but because this craft of acting brings me joy. And when that joy is deep in your soul it gives you resilience. There were days over the last three-years when I came home feeling beat down. But that joy gave me the energy to get up in the morning and head back with determination.

Even with the need to be a partner to my husband and mother to my kids, graduate school was easier this time around. Not because the work was any less intense, but because this craft of acting brings me joy. 

Don’t get me wrong. It is tough being a graduate student and a mother at the same time. Since starting the Professional Actor Training Program my children have collectively lost five teeth, and I missed every single one. I’ve missed birthdays and swim lessons and parent-teacher conferences. I’ve doubted and cried and ached. But I made it through. My kids feel loved. My family is strong. And I feel blessed. I will forever be grateful that Valerie Curtis-Newton took a chance on me, grateful that she believed being a mother wouldn’t prevent me from completing this program. That it was possible.

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