Hopping down untraveled trails
There’s a moment that feels like forever. It’s the instant when anything is possible and all your dreams seem not just attainable, but inevitable. Then life intervenes, as it tends to. Plans change and happily ever after starts to look like a childish reverie. So you get practical and do what needs to be done.
But if you’re smart, if you’re paying attention, if you take charge of your own life and keep more or less on the path you’ve set, you may look around one day and see that against all odds, you’ve wound up on exactly the right road to get you where you didn’t know you wanted to go.
For the four alums in the pages that follow, there’s a common thread: The best way to find fulfillment in work is to make it feel like play. Being famous isn’t the point for Jim Parsons, who’s found his way back to one of his first true loves. Claudia Dominguez delved deep inside herself, and then took a leap of faith. Kevin Petti has created a niche that allows him to share his love for interconnection. Tara Shiroff’s career has taken a dramatic twist that she never saw coming.
They all reached for the carrot, and once they caught it, they held on for dear life.
The Lovely Fellow
Jim Parsons takes on Broadway
[NEW YORK] The heat bounces back and forth between the pavement below and the sullen sun above in unrelenting waves. But in spite of the record-shattering temperature — 95-plus degrees and rising — the throngs that flock to Times Square radiate more excitement than seems reasonable. Just a few blocks away, on West 53rd Street, a crowd is jockeying for position, cordoned off on the sidewalk by a line of no-nonsense police barricades. Periodically, a just-the-facts-ma’am type strides by and tells people to bunch up closer to the stage door.
Then, without warning, the stage door opens and it’s him.
When actor Jim Parsons ’01 (MFA) steps onto the sidewalk, it turns out that the crowd really can press closer together … a whole lot closer. He is tall, pale (or is that stage make-up?) and gracious, but he’s on the move, signing autographs for those pressed against the metal cordons, not pausing for photos, nodding and smiling as a voice here calls out, “Jim!” and another yells, “Sheldon!” He just keeps moving, signing, nodding, signing, smiling, then Mr. No-Nonsense decides that’s enough, and escorts Parsons into the backseat of a waiting car, which speeds down the street, takes a right and is gone. The crowd — some bereft, some still chattering with excitement — scatters, clutching autographed “Harvey” programs and posters and Playbills. A few look wistfully in the direction of the car that whisked Parsons away, then slowly make their way back toward 7th Avenue.
Is there any doubt that Jim Parsons has hit the big time? There really shouldn’t be, what with the pair of Emmys he’s won for his role as Dr. Sheldon Cooper on TV’s “Big Bang Theory.” Certainly, his star turn on Broadway this summer as Elwood P. Dowd — a dreamy soul whose best friend is a 6-foot-3 ½-inch-tall white rabbit — proves that his career has legs.
The reviews have been outstanding: “Mr. Parsons carries the weight of a role immortalized on film by the inimitable James Stewart as lightly as Elwood does the hat and coat he keeps on hand for his furry companion,” said critic Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. “His quirky line readings and courtly, unfailingly chipper manner bring just the right mix of graciousness and oddball eccentricity,” gushed David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter.
At a mid-week matinee last July, Parsons lived up to, even surpassed, those stellar reviews. The play — which somewhat notoriously won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945 over Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” — is a charming period piece about an endearing oddball with a penchant for cocktails and, of course, that aforementioned furry, invisible bunny.
Parsons has an authentic niceness about him that made him a perfect fit for leading the cast of “Harvey.” Elwood P. Dowd wants nothing more than to truly connect with everyone he meets, from solicitors on the phone to sanitarium nurses to taxicab drivers. The actor’s timing and dynamic range served him well in his performance in the play, a gentle madcap comedy of errors in which Dowd’s sister, Veta (played by Jessica Hecht), attempts to have him committed to an institution and winds up locked up herself through a series of misunderstandings.
Through it all, the character maintains his fundamental sweetness. In answer to a question about what he does, the character replies: “Oh, Harvey and I sit in the bars and have a drink or two, play the jukebox. And soon the faces of all the other people turn toward mine, and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a lovely fellow.’”
Clearly, Parsons is in his element on stage, and to hear him tell it, he’s loved the spotlight since his breakout role as the Kolokolo Bird in a first-grade production of “The Elephant’s Child.”
“It’s come to hit me that it was some sort of divine intervention, because looking back, it crystallized a lot of desires for me. I’ve known from roughly that age that that’s what I wanted to do.” Of course, being center stage in bright yellow tights and a breastplate his mother made out of paper feathers didn’t hurt.
Parsons sees any number of parallels between the work he does on “Big Bang” and his longtime love for the stage, especially since the TV show is filmed before a live audience. “It’s so similar to doing theater, in a lot of ways. But it’s not like that thing with theater where you work and work and work on a play for four weeks, then little things really land, like plot lines and moments when the audience is right there. That always surprised me, but it surprises me more that it was a surprise to me. I mean, duh!” His work ethic clearly keeps him plenty busy; “Harvey” closed on Aug. 5, and he was back in Los Angeles taping “Big Bang” by Aug. 14.
Back in 2009, Parsons spoke at length with USD Magazine about his career trajectory. During that conversation, he waxed nostalgic about his time in New York, where he had moved immediately after completing his MFA at USD in 2001. “I miss New York in a lot of ways. As the saying goes, ‘there’s no place like it,’ and that’s really true. Even though it can be very hard.” But as far as developing a sense of home? “Well, I feel pretty comfortable anywhere that I’m working.”
Still, when he took his leave of Broadway for the second time — in 2011 he portrayed Tommy Boatwright in a production of “The Normal Heart” — and headed back to L.A., it’s easy to imagine that a little piece of him remained in the Big Apple, perhaps wearing a fedora with two holes cut in it, the better to fit the long floppy ears. — Julene Snyder
The Honest Artist
Claudia Dominguez is Exploring what it means to be female
[SOUTH CAROLINA] Striking shapes and colors, boldly rendered. That’s the hallmark of Claudia Dominguez ’03, a visual artist whose work tells tales of her own story as an immigrant and a feminist. Change and transformation are recurring themes, which is apt; this past summer found her earning her graduate degree before packing up to move to South Carolina to start a teaching job at Coastal Carolina University.
Moving from Apex, N.C., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., may sound like a short hop to most of us, but it was no small matter for Dominguez, given the large quantity of marble and granite she keeps on hand to use when inspiration strikes. But even in the midst of upheaval, she had to have a creative project going. So she started a still-untitled series exploring another side of feminine identity.
“It’s about my relationship with my own mom, and also all women’s relationships with their own mothers. If we could all somehow change together, we could help each other break through the glass ceiling,” she says. “This series focuses on embroidery, which is something I’m trying to get more proficient at. I’m already good at stone. Embroidery is very slow, but it’s something I seem to turn to at times when I’m changing and moving.”
Dominguez came to USD from her native Mexico to study art and she fit right in academically. Socially, however, she found America to be very different from Mexico’s overt patriarchy. David Smith, then chairman of USD’s art department, told her, “There are people who do what they want and they find a way to do that.” It was valuable advice, since being a self-starter was a skill she had to work to learn.
“I thought America was so crazy that way, but now I get it,” she says. “It was a big moment in my life, in this culture so strange with values I had such a hard time understanding. USD was a place where I could figure that out.”
After earning her BA in fine arts from USD in 2003, Dominguez did a stonework apprenticeship in Italy. That’s where she met her husband, an academic who teaches Italian. She came to North Carolina State University’s School of Design when he was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earning a master’s, and then followed him again to Myrtle Beach and a position of her own at Coastal Carolina (where her husband is, Dominguez quips, “the entire Italian department”). Coming to the Carolinas after living in Southern California, Italy and Mexico brought on a much more intense level of culture shock than her previous move from Mexico to San Diego.
“It’s a very different experience to be Mexican in the South than in California, so there was definitely some culture shock,” Dominguez says. “In general, Southerners tend to think of minorities as African-Americans and not much else. Of course, there’s been a lot of work in the South from African-Americans about minority roles in society, which was a rich thing for me to discover. And feeling like I was more on my own here also made me work harder at searching for who I was.”
Eventually, Dominguez found her artistic identity on a series of trips home to Mexico, where she reconnected with her heritage — and felt like an immigrant in two places. Themes of connection and self-discovery dominated her NC State master’s thesis, an ambitious seven-image visual memoir titled, “Transcending Cultural Boundaries,” which used a variety of materials including marble, cotton, tree-bark paper, silk, felt, dried beans, corn husks and even burned pages from a Bible.
“She was very specific in choosing materials that convey meaning along with the imagery,” says North Carolina State Professor Susan Brandeis, one of Dominguez’s thesis advisors. “She made some really unusual choices, but each is embedded in her meaning. It’s very strong work that tells her own story, as well as the story of people with lives in two different cultures, challenging assumptions about the role of women.”
In “Transcending Cultural Boundaries,” Dominguez depicted herself, as well as various figures from Mexico, including Sor Juana Indes de la Cruz (a 17th-century writer and nun, and the first Mexican feminist) and La Malinche (another historical figure, and a term that has come to be a derogatory term for those perceived to place too much value on foreign ideals). The in-progress series about Dominguez’s mother is more personal in its outlook.
“When My Mother Was Everything” represents Dominguez’s mother as an iconic, towering figure — almost like a pyramid, framed by a halo. It’s based on Coatlicue, the “Mother of Gods”; Dominguez herself is represented as a small figure inside her. Another piece, “Hysteria,” looks like the product of a bad fever dream from Dominguez’s stormy adolescence.
“In that one, I’m a monster ripping my mom apart,” she says. “She and I did have kind of a horrible relationship when I was growing up. Your mother is usually the first person to tell you what you can and cannot do, and that was definitely the case with mine.”
So what does Dominguez’s mother think of this?
“Oh, she loves it,” Dominguez says, laughing. “She’s so excited I’m an artist. She grew up in a small town and was a chemist, but she couldn’t find a job, which she figured was because she’s a woman. So she left for Mexico City to find a job. Even though I did not know this while growing up, she had her own struggle. And we’ve been able to mend some things through my art.” — David Menconi
The Creative Scientist
For Kevin Petti, the surface is just the beginning
[ITALY] The room is a lot smaller than one would think. It’s old; it’s not well lit, humble at best. Still, just walking through the door of that unprepossessing chamber in Ospedale Santo Spirito, near the Vatican, was enough to take Kevin Petti’s breath away. And his reaction had nothing to do with the fact that back in the late 15th century, the smell of unpreserved cadavers would have been pungent.
“The sense of history alone is enough to make you gasp,” he says. “To be in the room where Leonardo da Vinci performed dissections, well, everybody gets very quiet. Of course, that’s the thing about Italy. It’s too much to digest all at once. That’s why you have to keep coming back.”
While the group of anatomy and physiology professors from the U.S. and Canada that Petti shepherded around Italy for 11 days this summer did hit the usual tourist spots — Rome, Florence, Venice — sightseeing was just a side dish to the main course: Petti’s “Anatomia Italiana 2012,” tailor-made to provide a below-the-surface anatomical and cultural tour of the Italian Peninsula. “People go to Rome, and flock to the Vatican, go in droves to the Uffizi,” says Petti ’06 (PhD). “But when we go to the Museo di Palazzo Poggi at the University of Bologna, we’re the only ones there.”
If he has his way, there will be at least one group of tourists coming through every summer from now on, eager to wander through cool rooms filled with wax models of human organs and bodies — with skin peeled away to reveal the mysteries beneath. Why? Well, to hear Petti tell it, Michelangelo’s Pietà couldn’t have existed without late-night forays to Florence’s Church of Santo Spirito, where the then 17-year-old prodigy first explored human dissection in hopes of uncovering the secrets of the body. It’s fascinating stuff, and Petti revels in getting others as excited about the intersection of art and anatomy as he is.
“Italy is the fountainhead of the Renaissance, but it’s also the fountainhead of the life sciences,” he explains. “When you look at the Renaissance masters, there’s no way that Michelangelo’s David could have been done without the study of anatomy. That was knowledge that stayed with him throughout his career.”
Petti is a dapper fast-talker with a neatly trimmed goatee and piercing eyes. At a summer lecture for life-learners at USD’s University of the Third Age, he offered up a rapid-fire overview of the many culturally significant spots in Italy he’s toured, such as the Luigi Cattaneo Anatomic Wax Museum at the University of Bologna and the University of Padua’s Anatomic Theatre.
While of course the delights of Italy’s wine, fresh pasta and historic beauty are legend, can learning about the history of anatomy along the way compare to more mainstream tourist spots? Absolutely, says Petti, who holds dual U.S./Italian citizenship.
“The University of Padua, outside of Venice, has the oldest dissection theater in the world, dating from 1594. William Harvey, the father of cardiovascular physiology, did his dissection in that room,” Petti says. “All these great people that we teach our students about, this is where they worked. I mean, I stood at Galileo’s podium. That’s one of the big things that people take home from a trip like this. They were in the actual rooms, at the actual institutions that are still doing this work. And we’re doing it too, now, in another part of the world. It gives us a connection to the history of our discipline. I think that’s very meaningful.“
How did Petti, a professor in the departments of science and health at San Diego Miramar College, come to make the leap from musculature to the masters? As it turns out, it’s really not that much of a stretch. “I was part of the first cohort to earn their PhD from the School of Leadership and Education Sciences in 2006,” he explains. “And I took full advantage of the interdisciplinary option. Dean Paula Cordeiro is a big proponent of that approach; fully a third of my units were earned through the School of Nursing.”
The notion that seemingly disparate studies are connected is interlaced through the courses he teaches at Miramar as well. “With everything I do, every course I teach, I really emphasize the multicultural, the interdisciplinary aspect. It’s all interconnected.” Petti says that for as long as he can remember, he’s been intensely interested in bodies, in sport and in fitness. He had initially planned to spend his career working with athletes, but once he started teaching, he quickly changed his trajectory.
“My dissertation was really the impetus for Anatomia Italiana,” he recalls. “That’s when I started really thinking about weaving interdisciplinary studies into the undergraduate curriculum.”
And his 2012 tour built upon the groundwork he’d laid on a 2009 trip to the Italian Peninsula. “I was astonished at how well it went this time,“ he says. “Everyone seemed to find it really meaningful, really impactful.”
One of the 2012 participants, Peggy LePage, a professor at North Hennepin College in Minnesota, agrees. “It is difficult to describe how we felt standing in the exact spot [da Vinci] stood. In awe only comes close,” she said in a blog post about her experience.
For Petti, it’s really all threads from the same vast tapestry. “Look, anatomy as a science, it permeates art, culture, literature. Regardless of your faith, among all the world’s religions, what’s the greatest of God’s creations? The body. And what is the body? Is it the vessel of the soul? If you’re Christian, is it the vehicle for the Resurrection?” He pauses, waiting, then answers his own question. “Well, that’s a big deal.” — Julene Snyder
The Genuine Article
Tara Shiroff’s legal acumen hits the small screen
[LAS VEGAS] Since the early days of grainy, black-and-white images and rabbit-ear antennas, television crime dramas have alternately startled, confounded and captivated generations of small-screen audiences. And perhaps no series in the genre’s history has been more effective in glamorizing the science of catching bad guys than “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Strange though it may seem, the state-of-the-art technology employed by characters Dr. Gil Grissom and Catherine Willows in their pursuit of justice has made the formally esoteric and, occasionally, macabre practice of gathering crime scene evidence seem … well, downright cool.
For Tara (Hamilton) Shiroff ’02, a legal consultant for “CSI: Las Vegas,” that perception has its benefits — and its drawbacks. “I enjoy researching the questions the show writers have about the correlations between developing an interesting script, and following the guidelines of the law.” She pauses, acutely aware of the paradox her career path has provided. “As a lawyer, I notice that jurors want to know where the DNA evidence is, and all the cool stuff they see on TV shows that are brought into court cases. It’s known as the ‘CSI Effect,’ and it tends to create an unreasonable expectation on the value of forensic evidence in some cases.”
For the past six years, Shiroff has adroitly balanced the demands of a successful career in civil litigation with her work on “CSI,” a gig that the Las Vegas native adamantly declares “is really not as glamorous as it sounds. I’m not on the set chatting with the actors. It’s more research than anything.” Ah yes, but it’s intriguing research — like determining whether or not casino chips discovered in concrete can be cashed in 50 years after their issuing (yes), or how many women in a house constitutes a brothel (depends on the county in which it’s located).
And it all began with a casual afternoon visit to her law school campus. Back in 2006, Shiroff was just a year removed from receiving her JD from UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law. While perusing an alumni newsletter, she came across an ad for an on-campus presentation discussing the CSI effect, which would be led by two of the show’s researchers. While she found the presentation informative, what really grabbed her attention was the fact that the show’s researchers, David Berman and John Wellner, were also supporting cast members.
Reserved by nature, Shiroff suppressed an initial urge to head for the exit and struck up a conversation with Berman and Wellner. Turns out the chat also served as a mini audition. “They asked me what I did, then told me that they really needed a Nevada attorney who could advise them on the consistency and the authenticity of their scripts, and asked me if that would be something I’d be interested in. I figured I’d never hear from them, but I got a call the next day.” Since then, she’s spoken with one or both of them several times a week. The experience has been incredibly rewarding on a variety of levels. “They ask me everything under the sun in terms of making sure things are authentic, and it’s a challenge to keep up with all the topics the writers want to cover.”
Truth be told, Shiroff would’ve been perfectly content focusing her energies on her responsibilities with law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, and if the folks at “CSI” happened to call, she’d have been more than happy to help. However, in 2009, Berman and Wellner — who had started their own Los Angeles-based legal research firm — were singing Shiroff’s praises to a group of executives at the Lifetime Network who were developing a legal comedy-drama called, “Drop Dead Diva.” The story centered on a plus-sized female lawyer whose body becomes inhabited by the soul of a recently deceased fashion model, and a whole host of hijinks ensue. Sound like a stretch? Shiroff and her husband thought so. At least at first.
“I was reading the initial script with my husband, and he was telling me how he thought it would never fly, how it was a crazy premise,” she recalls, laughing. “But the characters are very relatable, and what do you know? It’s become one of the most successful shows the network has ever produced.” Now into its fourth season, “Drop Dead Diva” and its life-affirming plot lines have struck a chord with a broad viewership, and Shiroff, who serves as the show’s lead legal consultant, feels its success is attributable to a universal axiom that she embraced during her undergraduate years as a political science major at USD.
“It really comes down to feeling comfortable in your own skin, and that’s one of my treasured memories of USD — just how comfortable and happy I was while I was there,” she says. Shiroff graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science, but perhaps even more importantly, she walked away from Alcalá Park with a heightened understanding of what it takes to be successful in law — and in life.
“I would absolutely credit Del Dickson, my faculty advisor at the time, for some great advice he gave me about pursuing a career in law. He told me that networking is absolutely critical to the opportunities you create for yourself, and that you need to be aware of when to make those connections.”
And right there, Tara Shiroff’s journey from USD classrooms to Hollywood courtrooms is perfectly encapsulated: “Who knows? If I didn’t take that advice to heart, I may not have gone up to the podium and introduced myself six years ago.” — Mike Sauer