Ajarae D. Coleman ’02 is an actress and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. She has appeared in such television programs as “Scandal,” “Revenge,” and “2 Broke Girls” and has taken parts in films like “Iron Man 2.” She also founded The Workshop Guru, a resource for actors to navigate through the world of casting workshops and make the connections necessary to further their careers.
The Harvard Crimson: Can you tell me a little about your Harvard experience?
Ajarae D. Coleman: I lived in Quincy House and I concentrated in Biological Anthropology. I wasn’t really quite sure what I wanted to do after graduation, but one of my jobs was a recruitment director for Teach For America on campus, so I ended up becoming a Teach For America corps member after I graduated. I recruited myself. But also during my time at Harvard, I was a member of BlackC.A.S.T. and did a few plays with the Dramatic Society, so [I had] a bit of theater during the second half of my experience there.
THC: Did your time at Harvard help inform your choice of career path, or did you decide to go into acting before that?
ADC: I didn’t really do any theater or performance in high school. Or didn’t do much, because I played sports, and you couldn’t really do both. So Harvard was the place where I developed my passion for [the] performing arts and realized it was something that I really loved to do. I didn’t really consider it as a career until several years after graduation, but I would definitely say my love started there.
THC: What factors contributed to your decision?
ADC: I started continuing my education as an actor out here in Los Angeles. I worked as a manager at an industrial supplies distributor, and I had some time after work, which was very different from my time as a teacher, where I was pretty much teaching, grading, sleeping, calling parents, you know, all day. So I started taking acting classes at UCLA, and I was encouraged by some of my professors there to really give it a shot.
THC: What projects are you currently involved in?
ADC: Right now, I am just actively auditioning for film and TV projects and commercials. I actually co-created a pilot presentation called S.M.A.C.K. Unit. It’s an action-comedy television pilot. My partners and I are working on pitching that out to management companies and networks and things like that. Other than that, it’s just the standard grind of an actor, right? Just going to auditions every week. Some of those you get called back for, and some of those you don’t. Some of those you book.
THC: Do you have any tips for up-and-coming actors that might have that process ahead of them?
ADC: I would say that no matter how good you feel as an actor, you should always be studying and pushing yourself—working on new material, working on more difficult material, material that stretches you. I would also say that a lot of artists in general focus on their craft, but they forget that we are also businesspeople. I am the CEO of myself as an actress. So you have to focus just as much on your marketing materials and building relationships with industry decision makers and creating your own content. Now, with the technology that we have, it’s easier than ever to create really high quality content with great production value, and it’s not super expensive to do it. So I would say that my biggest tip is just to be creative, and don’t wait for people to give you opportunities. Create opportunities for yourself.
THC: You received some attention this year for your defense of casting workshops in Deadline. Would you mind giving a rundown of the debate surrounding the issue, for readers who are not aware of it?
ADC: Casting workshops—or industry workshops, because casting directors aren’t the only people who teach these workshops—are really opportunities for actors who aren’t as experienced, who haven’t gone on as many auditions and don’t know that process, to learn more about what it’s like to audition and also to hear from casting directors more about the process at large, so you’re actually learning from people who are working in the industry. It’s great. When I quit my corporate job and just jumped into acting, I didn’t have a really good agent who was able to create relationships for me. I didn’t have any credits. A lot of times you can’t get an agent without credits, so your only opportunity to network as well with industry professionals is through these workshops.
I’ll give you one example: One of the casting directors of one of my first projects, I went to a workshop with her. It was a two-day, full-day weekend thing—Saturday and Sunday we went—and she was amazing. She told us things like whenever you go in for a daytime audition, you should always be off-book because the actors are expected to learn so many lines. Just tips that you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you were hearing it from somebody who really worked in the trenches day in and day out. We performed multiple scenes for her, got redirection on those scenes, learned about what it was like to work in her office, what it was like to be on set, all kinds of stuff. I would say maybe a week after that, she called me in for an audition because she liked my work in class, and I ended up booking that, and that was one of my first TV roles.
So that’s an example of what the process is supposed to look like. You’re supposed to go in and learn something from the workshop, and if the relationship being built results in an audition, that’s great, but that’s not something that happens all the time. However, I would say that is why most actors do workshops, because they’re looking for opportunities to get auditions. So the people who are against casting workshops are against them because there is the chance that casting directors can go in and not teach anything and charge these actors just for the opportunity to network with them. But I would say that the vast majority of casting directors that I have done workshops with are really teaching good content as well as meeting actors.
But the reason I involved myself in this conversation is because I am an entrepreneur as well. I founded a business called workshopguru.com, and the reason I founded it was to help actors distinguish between workshops that were really good and workshops where the casting directors are just there for a paycheck. So we have reviews of casting directors, reviews of workshop studios on the site, and we also show a schedule of all the workshops in Los Angeles and New York, so actors can compare prices and really find the workshops that are reasonably priced and intermediate for them. That’s my business. When this Hollywood Reporter article came out, which is basically a very one-sided representation of workshops, I kind of felt like it was up to me to speak for actors who really benefitted from workshops and to share the other side of the story.