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IOWA CITY — When the pandemic hit last spring, Caroline Stefanie Clay was living in Los Angeles as an actress and had just wrapped up work on an episode of “Shameless” — a TV series starring William H. Macy.
Like many in her field, Clay was between gigs and auditioning for roles when a “shelter-in-place” order came down March 19 in her state.
“I’m an actress — a working actress,” she told The Gazette, describing the shock of watching her profession “evaporate overnight.” But it gave Clay — who returned to her East Coast roots during the pandemic — the impetus to consider an adventure in the heartland.
“It was like, ‘OK, it's time for me to get serious and start looking at alternatives within the arts and within what I love to do and am good at,” she said. “And, not to toot my own horn, but I'm a hell of a teacher.”
‘I come from teachers’
So when a friend alerted her to the University of Iowa’s search for a new lead acting professor atop its master of fine arts program in the Department of Theatre Arts, Clay applied.
“I had competition,” she said. “I had to interview several times. I had to come down and teach a class. I had to meet with panels, the Board of Regents, and the dean and chair there.”
Although Clay has made a name in Tony Award-winning productions on Broadway and in television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “House of Cards” and “Shameless,” she also has taught acting and instructed voice lessons and intensives at Georgetown, Howard, Bowie State and Duke universities, and the University of Maryland. In those academic roles, she follows her family footsteps.
“I come from teachers,” Clay said. “My mother was an English teacher. I come from a long, long line of guidance counselors and educators, usually the first African Americans in their school district.”
In that way, Clay also is following suit with her new UI gig.
When interviewing, Clay was told, “Should you get the position, you would be the first African American female — women of color — to have a full-time tenure track position within the 70-year history of the department.”
That actually gave Clay some pause.
“But then there was a part of me that was like, ‘Well, you got to start somewhere,’” she said. “There are a lot of institutions where there’s shame around their lack of diversity. Well, the energy that’s being used to be ashamed, couldn't that energy be used to diversify?”
So she praised UI for recognizing its shortcomings and doing something about it. The storied UI Department of Theatre Arts — among the oldest and most revered in the nation — acknowledged, Clay said, “We need new blood. We need new ideas.”
“’We need to blow a huge blast of new oxygen into the place’,” she recalled. “’And we think you’re the one. We think you are the one.’ … And I was flattered. I also love a challenge.”
‘Fish out of water’
Aside from a 2007 trip to Des Moines for her role in the national tour of the award-winning Broadway show “Doubt,” Clay had never been to Iowa before recently interviewing for the position as lead acting professor.
“Talk about a fish out of water,” she said. “This is so different than anything that I've ever done.”
Clay was born in 1968 in Boston and moved with her family in the 1970s to the Washington, D.C., area. At 16, she got into D.C.’s Duke Ellington School for the Performing & Visual Arts and later earned a bachelor’s degree from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
She got a master of fine arts degree from the University of Maryland — years after forging her acting career on the stage and the screen.
For her pre-pandemic portrayal of “Faye” in Geffen Playhouse’s production of Dominique Morrisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” Clay recently received the NAACP 2020 Award for Best Actress in a Play. And she’s been in one film and one play as the pandemic fades, “both with full COVID-19 protocols.”
Although Clay plans to keep acting — even while teaching at Iowa — she noted, “I suspect it will be quite a while before I feel fully comfortable, if ever.”
When Clay announced her next career move, which she’s set to begin on the UI campus in August, some friends raised an eyebrow about her transplanting to the Midwest. But Clay rebuffed them, calling Iowa City an “oasis” of sorts.
“Iowa City, in particular, I found to be quite diverse,” she said. “When I came down for an in-person visit, I saw all these Black Lives Matter flags in businesses. And I saw there was cultural diversity, there were people of color. Had I not seen that, I don't know that this would have been a choice that I would have made.”
Clay said that the 12-student cohort she’s leading is predominantly minority.
“If you have students coming to a place that is not as diverse just because of the landscape … I cannot overstate the importance of students seeing themselves reflected in the faculty,” she said. “Whether it’s culturally, whether it's ethically, whether it's experience-wise.”
With UI’s eye for growth and the industry’s forced evolution, Clay said she’s excited to both impart her experiential wisdom on up-and-coming thespians while also learning with them nuances of the shifting arts and entertainment landscape.
“I've got technique up the wazoo, I know the theoretical part,” Clay said. “But what I wish there had always been … is the business of the business. This is called ‘show business’ for a reason. It’s not called ‘show fun.’”
Clay plans to help students understand agents, marketing, and unionizing, among other things. But she acknowledged some of what her experience has taught her involves humility.
“So much of my teaching positions the power of inquiry and interrogation at its center,” she said. “I don't claim to know all of the answers. Actually, I don't claim to know any of them. What I do bring is the spirit of the teacher as a co-learner. I am on the same journey that my students are, only my testimony is informed by wisdom and experience.”
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