Acting major Mariah Morris’s dance experience brings new life to the stage.
Mariah Morris started dancing when she was 6 years old. Following the advice of her mentor Debbie Allen, who portrayed Principal Simms in the TV series Fame, Morris enrolled as an Acting major at Columbia. As a junior, Morris appeared on the Golden Globe-winning series Empire and starred in her first Columbia main stage play, Love and Information.
On Chicago: I’m from Los Angeles, and theatre is lacking over there, because everything is centered around television and film. But in Chicago, the theatre community is just boundless--I think there are over 200 small theatre companies. It’s a perfect location for an actress, which is why I thought Columbia would be a great fit: it’s surrounded by endless opportunity.
On Columbia: When I came to Columbia, I had no formal acting training. I appeared as a dancer in music videos for Jaden Smith and performed at some music festivals, but that was all for dancing. I really wanted to act, and here’s the great thing about this place: Columbia trains you from the ground up.
You start with the Theatre Foundations courses, where you spend a few weeks performing the tasks of each theatre program, like directing or designing or acting. As you move on through the semesters, you take specialty courses like Cold Readings, where you learn how to audition with brand-new material. Three years into the program--which has an intense focus on technique and experience--I feel infinitely more confident as an actress.
On the theatre: In 2016, Columbia was putting on this show called Once on This Island, which is a story that focuses on classism and colorism [discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone]. They were looking for choreographers with a background in African dance techniques, because not many people have that training. I decided to email Ashton Byrum, an associate professor who was directing the show, suggesting that I could help out.
Normally, Columbia doesn’t select students to choreograph, but because it was an unusual circumstance, Ashton let me and a friend be co-choreographers. We had an all-black cast--I also got to act in the ensemble--and the choreographers were both black. This is what people mean when they say something is “so Columbia:” the school is always pushing for equal representation and opportunity.