By the time Kristen Adele Calhoun graduated from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2012 with an MFA in acting, she already had signed with two top New York agents.
Since then, the roles have come nonstop. A few commercials led to appearances in popular television shows like The Good Wife, The Mysteries of Laura and Orange is the New Black as well as regional and New York theater productions from A Raisin in the Sun to To Kill a Mockingbird.
She is currently rehearsing the lead role of Oya in In the Red and Brown Water at the Curious Theatre in Denver.
There is some glamour in this, but not as much as people think, says Calhoun, whose stage name is Kristen Adele. “You have to be okay with being a gypsy – and unpredictability,” she says. “One week you’ll get seven auditions and then there’ll come that month when you’ll have none.”
That’s why Calhoun has high hopes for her new web series, The Struggle, which has potential to keep her grounded in the two things she loves: storytelling and New York City, where she lives when she’s not on the road.
The Struggle, which went live on the YouTube channel Feb. 8, was hatched with her best friend Jessica Kitchens, an actress from San Francisco whom she met in Rochester, N.Y., while working on a regional theater production of Clybourne Park.
“It was the dead of winter. We were freezing and missing New York City,” Calhoun says. So the two decided to create a web series about something they knew well: what it’s like to be two best friends – one black, one white – struggling to make it as actresses in New York.
In the series, Calhoun and Kitchens battle with health insurance (lack of), the New York dating scene, clueless bosses, ubiquitous catcalling and angry landlords.
The women found the process of self-producing and collaboration exhilarating. “We had to figure out everything: how a series gets made, what equipment to buy, how to shoot, star in, edit and market our creation,” Calhoun says.
Calhoun believes the web is transforming the entertainment industry. “The ability to go online – onto YouTube – empowers artists. It allows them to skip over the middlemen. We don’t to have to shop The Struggle to a network. We can produce it ourselves, cultivate our own audience and then bring it to the network with a following.”Calhoun caught the acting bug early. Growing up in Dallas – her father a surgeon and mother an accountant – Calhoun put on plays in her backyard. At age 9, she performed Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech at a school assembly and in middle school landed a role in the HBO miniseries, America’s Dream. She trained with the Dallas Black Dance Academy and went on to earn a BFA in acting from the University of North Texas.
After college, Calhoun continued to craft her portfolio. She taught theater arts in an inner-city Dallas school, directed summer camp productions at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and wrote and directed a play that was commissioned by the Black American West Museum based on the life of Justina Ford, the first African-American female doctor in the state of Colorado.
Rutgers would play a role in her life’s trajectory even before she stepped foot on its campus. Working at The Denver Center Theater Company, Calhoun met renowned African-American director Israel Hicks, chair of theater arts at the Mason Gross School for nearly a decade until his death in 2010 – and they became friends.
“I told him I was struggling, that I needed direction in my acting career, “ Calhoun recalls. “He told me he would help me and suggested I apply to the acting program at Mason Gross. He said, ‘I can open a door,’ but the work is on you.’”
In 2009 Calhoun arrived in New Brunswick to audition, her first time in the Garden State. She performed monologues from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Deborah Hedwall, director of the acting Mason Gross program, could see that Kristen was “the real deal,” a young woman who she describes as “talented, ambitious, beautiful, creative fearless and eager to explore the vast possibilities of herself.”
Calhoun thrived during her three years at Mason Gross School. “I loved being at Rutgers. I learned just what I needed to get out of a graduate program – and more.” It was through the Rutgers Showcase, where MFA graduates have the opportunity to perform in New York City, that she met her two longtime agents.
At Rutgers, Calhoun also made good friends, one of them Michael Thomas Walker, with whom she’s collaborating on another project, a play about Ferguson, Missouri.
Hedwell says that perhaps the most the essential ingredients an actress can have are the hunger and curiosity to say yes to everything. “‘These things cannot be taught," she says, "only inspired and nurtured.”
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