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FTT department stages first reunion

Brian Doxtader | Monday, September 19, 2005

Notre Dame alumni who work in the entertainment industry had a homecoming this weekend, returning from Hollywood and other world media centers to campus for the Film, Television and Theatre Alumni Reunion.

The event was organized largely by Ted Mandell, a professor in the FTT department. The decision to host the reunion this year was based on timing and the overwhelming interest of past graduates, he said.

“There are so many people in the industry from Notre Dame, but they never come together,” Mandell said. “Reunions are usually based on what year you graduated.”

Among the events hosted during the weekend was the Alumni Film Fest, which featured five short films created by Notre Dame graduates, and a screening of “The Late Shift,” a film by 1971 alumnus Bill Carter, who is now the television writer for The New York Times.

The Alumni Reunion was not just held for the returning graduates but also for students, who got a chance to meet and talk to the men and women in the business. It allowed students an opportunity to learn firsthand the manner in which the industry operates.

Mandell was especially impressed with the enthusiasm of the returning graduates.

“In the entertainment industry, it’s all about connections,” Mandell said. “The alums have really reached out to the students with that, networking and getting to know each other.”

The department hosted a series of themed panels and workshops on Friday. These panels and workshops touched on a wide variety of topics, including the development of programming in the industry, ethics in broadcast journalism, writing, producing and editing. Theater workshops included panels about acting, producing and the societal role of theater.

Perhaps most surprising was the low number of alums who were majors in FTT while enrolled at the University. Instead, they came from a wide variety of disciplines, including business and English.

The Film, Television and Theatre major has not always been in existence in its current form, but the Alumni Reunion aptly demonstrated that background and major do not dictate success in the entertainment industry, as many of the alums combined the skills learned at Notre Dame in their careers.

“If you can think, talk and write, then there’s a job for you,” said John Walker, a 1978 graduate from the English department.

Walker began a career in theater before switching to film and is currently a producer for Pixar, where he produced “The Incredibles.” He stressed the importance of the arts and was especially impressed with the school’s dedication to film, television and theater.

“Notre Dame has certainly demonstrated its support of the arts,” he said. “It’s always been a big commitment here, but they didn’t have the wherewithal that they do now.”

The alumni all came from a wide variety of careers and backgrounds. Many of them work right in the heart of the industry, such as Nate Rackiewicz, a 1998 graduate from the Mendoza College of Business. Rackiewicz is now a Manager in Technology for HBO and works with the Sales Marketing Group and the Finance Group there.

There were also many alumni present who work in fields that are not directly involved in film, television or theater but still utilize the skills learned in the department. Jeffrey Spoonhower, a 1999 graduate, worked for EA Sports doing video game character animation before moving to Volition Studios.

“Film is what I was really interested in,” Spoonhower said.

He now animates cut-scenes for video games, which allows him to explore more cinematic territory.

“It’s like writing and directing your own mini-movie,” he said.

One major difference for returning alumni is the Debartolo Center for the Performing Arts, which opened formally last fall. The advent of the DPAC was one of the inspirations for the reunion, said Mandell, who noted that it gave the department the space and resources to host such a large-scale gathering.

The alumni were uniformly impressed with the building, and all agreed it would help emphasize Notre Dame’s support of the arts. Before the DPAC opened, the FTT department had no formal housing and was thus scattered throughout the campus.

Classes were held in DeBartolo or O’Shaughnessey, professors’ offices were in Decio, and screenings were hosted at the Hesburgh Library. Nearly all FTT classes, screenings and offices are now in the DPAC, which provides a single location for the department.

“This building is incredible,”Rackiewicz said. “It should really enhance the FTT department here at Notre Dame.”

Chris Vierig, a junior FTT major, agreed.

“I think [the DPAC] brings, not only some uniqueness to the FTT major, but also centrality and unity,” he said. “We’re all in one place now, as opposed to being spread around.”

The FTT Alumni Reunion was deemed a great success by many involved. It reached across generations and disciplines and brought all together under one roof.

“It’s just been incredible,” Mandell said. “You’ll never have the opportunity to have so many people working in the industry at one place at one time. It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The entertainment industry is one of the most notoriously difficult fields to succeed in, but the alumni reunion demonstrated that perseverance and hard work pay off.

Anne Maxfield, a 1979 graduate from the English department, recounted her difficult road to success. She worked for minimum wage at several different radio stations, worked in retail and was fired twice before finally getting her own sports radio show at WSCR in Chicago.

When asked if she had any advice for aspiring FTT majors – or anyone interested in working in the entertainment industry – she had appropriate words for the Notre Dame undergraduate body.

“Keep the faith,” she said.

Through their tales of hard work, failure and success, the FTT alumni demonstrated the wide variety of possibilities open to graduates in the entertainment industry. The reunion also gave them an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of graduates from the department’s past.