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A Conversation with Inspiring Artist Autumn Thelander

Inspiring Artists Stories

Today we'd like to introduce you to Autumn Thelander (she/her)

Current Location: Chicago, IL

Autumn, thank you for taking the time to share your story. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?

I was born a performer, quite literally. My initials, A.C.T., prophesied my future career before I was even walking and talking.

In all seriousness though, my parents will tell you that I have been singing, dancing around, and demanding an audience's attention for as long as they can remember. I grew up belting the Mama Mia cast album in the car and dancing at my city's Recreation Department, which was the combination that started it all. I performed in musicals all through middle and high school. I began dancing more seriously at a local studio and in school, incorporating new styles like modern and contemporary alongside jazz, tap, and ballet. I knew I was captivated by theatre and live performance, but little did I know that I would follow this path professionally.

As senior year of high school drew nearer the question became, "So what are you going to do next?" I knew I wanted to continue my education, as I have always been an avid learner, but my love of performing and theatre was also pulling strongly. After a long and exhausting college search, I found a place that allowed me to pursue both, to the fullest degree: Northwestern University.

At Northwestern, I was given extensive training in performance, theatre history, and the business of theatre, while also receiving a well rounded liberal arts education. I can honestly say my four years there were the most formative of my life. I have found who I am as an artist, and I made memories to last a lifetime.

Having just graduated, I am now a resident of Chicago and an aspiring professional artist. Right now, I am teaching dance at a studio, instructing exercise to older adults, and auditioning as much as I can! It's not always an easy life, but it is one that I'm very proud of.

The life of an Artist can be a hard one. Can you tell us what you think are the biggest barrier(s) or challenges to you being an artist, and how you've worked or are working to overcome them?

Most of the time, it's your own doubts and fears. It's so easy to think that there's nothing that makes you special, or that other people are more talented or connected, or that you'll never get that chance you've been dreaming of.

The best way I move past these things is to focus on what I can control. There's so much in this industry that is out of your hands; how the casting director is feeling that day, what roles are available, the vision of the director, the body you were born into. However, you do have control over some things; how prepared you are, your excitement and passion about a project, how kind you are to the people you work with, and how well you can adapt. When you let go of trying to control everything else, and focus on your artistry, you are no longer "failing" when you receive the rejection that is bountiful and commonplace in this industry. Rather, you are taking chances and letting yourself be vulnerable, knowing that you are enough, whatever the response from the outside.

What piece of advice would you share with the next generation of Artists?

Don't box yourself in. Try something you think you won't be very good at. Take time for yourself along the way. You are more than your career. I came to know this advice at Northwestern, where everyone has too much on their plate constantly. I am just now learning how to care for myself, so I can do the best work possible for others. It's also a place of perfectionism, in which some people spend the entire time doing the same things they were good at when they got there. I grew most when I took a chance on something entirely unexplored.

Can you share with us what your creative process looks like?

The best way I can describe my creative process is through the way I choreograph dance. For me, it's usually musically based. Hearing the whine of a violin or the crash of a snare drum will light up my imagination quickly. I let myself move, free of judgement, for a few minutes, just playing certain sections over and over again. Once I am familiar with the piece I am working with, and I know what I want to highlight in the music with my body, then I start setting some choreography. I'll work through a section of music, making an idea of version one. From there, I start to play around with questions like: What if I did this facing this way? What if I repeated this? What if I did this with a partner? What if we traveled this in a circle? I am always looking to break the boundaries I create for myself in the process of choreographing. Once I get bodies in a room with me, everything changes. You have to be willing to throw things out, take things in from your dancers, and communicate the heart of what you want, to your collaborators. Eventually, it will all come together.

Creating a community can be beneficial as an Artist. Do you have a network of other artists you rely on? In what ways do you support each other?

Absolutely! My roommate, Sophie Civetta, is my rock. We've known each other since freshman year, and are in our third year of living together. She inspires me to keep hustling when I grow cynical, and rest, when I'm overworked.

There is a huge network of Northwestern grads in Chicago, and these are the people who help connect me with new opportunities, give me a hug as I walk out of the audition room, and hang out with me just as normal people on the weekend. We are all in this together, and we are stronger when we lift each other up!

Who has influenced you the most on your journey as an Artist? Where do you draw inspiration from when creating Art?

I honestly feel most inspired by the people I get to work with. Watching performers and creators who excel at what they do inspires me to rise to the occasion, and match their energy and enthusiasm. I especially feel this in collaborative settings, where people get to make the final product based on ideas that might come from anywhere!

I try to look at the world around me for inspiration when I am creating, and express from what I know. Your point of view is the most unique thing you have, so use it!

How do you seek out new opportunities to create?

I talk to my pool of artist friends, I look on Backstage, or I just start making things myself. I love to just groove around in my living room, make up a minute of movement, and record a video of it. Setting aside some time for yourself to engage in making something is vital.

What do you consider to be your greatest, professional or personal, achievement?

My greatest achievement thus far was directing the filmed new musical, A Bridge to the Moon, written and performed by Michael-Ellen Walden, Emmet Smith & Ruchir Khazanchi, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. It was early 2021 when my collaborators and I were set with the task of staging, filming, and presenting A Bridge to the Moon, all within the span of a few weeks. Not to mention the fact that COVID was sweeping through the nation, vaccines were not within reach, and our set was the living room of an apartment. However, against all odds, we pulled it off, and it turned out pretty darn good. This show was my first time directing anything on my own, and I will never forget this incredible experience.

What are your hopes, either personal or overall, for the future of the Arts & Entertainment industry?

My hope is that our industry grows into a place in which all people can exist and thrive. Currently, the arts are an extremely exclusive space, particularly for folks of marginalized identities. We need to make changes, and they need to be equitable ones. I will fight to make this industry a place of acceptance and unity, rather than one of harm and exclusion.

Personally, I am also hopeful that the arts industry will flourish in the next few years as the pandemic becomes more manageable. It would be great to have enough work in my area of passion, so that I can support myself through these means exclusively.

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