The arts—specifically the performing arts—set the stage for a non-cubicle career. New York-based actress Shiree Adkins discusses how acting has always been her one true calling.
As told to Hannah Cohen
I discovered acting in second grade. My elementary school offered extracurricular programs and I casually, almost by accident, signed up for drama. During our production of Pinocchio, my character would run through the audience searching for the unreal-boy. And right when I’d say my big line—“I think I see him!”—the entire room would black out, and all you could hear were these amazed gasps and laughter from an audience full of children. I felt like a superhero. I was hooked.
I’ve been performing and training since that second grade play all the way into grad school. Every project I’ve been part of has taught me more about what acting means to me and, even more, what I mean to it. I’ve found the love is mutual.
When I went away to Howard University for college, I majored in Psychology. I figured it didn’t make sense to major in Theatre when I could always pursue it on the side. And I was miserable. I was thisclose to quitting school. For my sophomore year, I changed my major to acting. That’s pretty much when I realized I couldn’t really do anything else in life.
While in college, my classmates and I were trained to be more than actors—we were artists. We were taught that our voices were strong and influential, that our imprint on the world would be significant, and that we should always keep that in mind with our work.
Filmmaking came to me in grad school. Majoring in Screen Acting, we students were charged with making a five-minute short film in our first semester. I was so uncomfortable. I knew I had no idea what I was doing with the camera. But discomfort eventually turned into passion. I realized I was learning how to tell my own stories, through my own lens, and to my own audience.
In grad school, I quickly learned the difference between people who see what I do as a way to connect with society versus a way to connect with some superficial idea of success. I remember for our final project, we were supposed to act in a feature film. And because of what the film was expressing, I didn’t feel comfortable lending my voice to the project.
I explained this to the department head as the reason I wouldn’t be participating. Her first reaction was something to the effect of, “Well, what if you were being offered a great amount of money, or what if this was in the real world with some big director?” I remember thinking, Did she just ask me if I would sell my soul for a paycheck?
When it comes to my interest in the arts, I’m really all over the place. I make accessories and have a line of brooches coming out called Breauxch. I draw fashion sketches, and have an art showcase coming up at y29 studios. I pole dance, which to me is definitely an art. I work-study at a pole studio for classes. (It’s about the closest I can come to barhopping on the weekend, so…)
I’m also part of The Popup Chair Productions (TPC), an ongoing art project that creates multi-media art centered around a chair. (It’s OK if that sounds confusing…we understand.) Founded on the ideas of Arthur Koestler’s Bisociation Theory, TPC believes that imagination is a muscle and that through interactive film, theater, and art, we can encourage audiences to open their minds and experience the world around them in new and inventive ways.
Additionally, Cardboard Artists is my production company. It will be officially launching with a project called Black Girl Do, a short video series that captures black women doing mundane things in not-so-mundane ways.
What’s surprised me the most about my non-cubicle career is how much it continues to shape me as a person. The way I think, feel, and go about the world—I don’t just create work, but the work creates me, too. It strongly affects how I see people. My non-cubicle career is the consummate classroom and every day is a new subject.
When I tell people what I do, I’ve actually only had positive reactions. I’ve never really had anyone tell me I couldn’t be an actress or that being one was a bad idea. In fact – I find a lot of “cubicle people” have fantasies about being artists, but understand they lack the drive and passion for it. So they tend to appreciate my commitment to the arts, and in a way, enjoy living vicariously through me.
Dear Grownups seeking alternative careers: Be forewarned. It is hard. Magical (like Harry Potter with stones, goblets, Prisoners of Azkaban, and everythang), but hard. Mostly because alternative careers force you to trust and love yourself—things that are never easy for people to do. However, alternative careers, if you let them, can not only show you how to love yourself, but they can also show you how to love those around you. And I think that’s worth it.
Hannah Cohen is a storyteller, adventurer, and image maker based in New York City. You can see more of her work at hannahcohenphotography.com