Brittani Minnieweather McElveen ~ The Interview

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Brittani Minnieweather McElveen. Her name stirs up the rhythm of a hip hop dance step, and a sense of distinction travels through its sound. Indeed, Brittani or “Britt” as she is called affectionately, is movingmovingmoving to the beat of her own drum—a beat that has led her from the basketball court to the center stage of the theatre.

It’s a curious progression for two reasons. First, Brittani enjoyed the thrill of the game of basketball for eight years. As an athlete, she learned strategy and how to be a team player. Curious also because as did I, Brittani comes from the same über-supportive southern community in Columbia, South Carolina. Youth were expected to excel in the vocational arts and/or go to college and, thereafter, expected to get the job with medical and dental insurance, one-week vacation (two after five years) – you know those tried and true benefits. Theatre and/or entertainment? Pshaw! No communal Elder anointed that occupation. Too unstable. Where are the benefits? Her mother, Sharon, even admitted, “All jokes aside, I was hoping she would see the light and go find a real job, and start building something of a future.”

These are tough sentiments but Brittani, with her mother’s support, managed her life stages well through discipline, focus, and training to step into her passion for theatre with a confidence grounded in her faith and, more important, love.

Want to know more about Brittani Minnieweather McElveen? Read The Interview.

What drew you to the game of basketball?

My height! Really, it all started when I was about nine years old. I played at the park, and my friends would tell me I should play basketball because of my height. So, in seventh grade, I tried out for and made the team. I played basketball year round from then until high school. When I played — from about when I was 10 years old to 18 —basketball was part of my identity as a person.

What do you like the most about the sport?

Whenever I watch a game, I always enjoy the competitive nature of it. I really appreciate how the players work as a team.The cheers, the applause, and just feeling the energy on the court … I think all of these tie into me being a team player. Plus, I see the game as a performance. Coaches push their team as a theatre director would teach me during rehearsal.

How did you grow into your own as an athlete?

As I developed on the court, I came to realize that I was a very good team player. I also felt comfortable in my own lane playing defense; I did not need to be the star because I matured into a good solid player—not a great one–but I honed my strength in the game. It worked out well.

Did you have any aspirations to play professional basketball?

No. I never thought I would play professional. By the time of my junior year in high school, I was through with basketball. In all honesty, I grew weary of it. We won some games; we lost a lot.

What were your plans after basketball?

I knew I was going to college; my mother made sure of it. I strategized how to earn a scholarship. In eighth grade, I took a couple of high school courses to get credit. Those advanced classes created in me the desire to be smart—to really go for the academics. I understood that a high GPA resulted in being in a certain percentage of your class. Also, at graduation, with a high GPA, I could wear a chord signaling academic excellence. I wanted all of those for me. So, I just did my work. I studied. My hard work paid off. I graduated from high school with a 4.1 GPA and earned a full scholarship at Wofford College [in Spartanburg, South Carolina].

Why Wofford College?

I applied to some out-of-state art schools but they offered no scholarships to cover tuition. I was happy to be accepted to Wofford because out of all of the schools I applied, Wofford stood out as one of the best schools in the southeast for academics.

Briefly sketch your first experiences/thoughts on being a college student.

I chose marketing because I wanted a practical major I believed could ensure employment after college. I have to admit, though, academics at Wofford were tough for me. I am a wiz at memorizing facts but writing papers were a challenge—it was very difficult for me my freshman year. In fact, I was put on probation and had to bring up my grades in order to keep my scholarship.

How did you turn that around?

I became good friends with Derek McElveen, a very studious guy whom I met during freshman orientation. He did not play around. We would meet and talk to each other about our dreams and goals—you know, the serious stuff. We helped each other to hone in on what we wanted to do. Sophomore year he started helping me with my papers; we studied and did homework together. College became a little easier for me because we were a focused pair.

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Brittani in Red Noses

At Wofford, you won the James R. Gross Award for Excellence in Theatre. When did theatre become your primary focus of study?

A professor by the name of Dr. Mark Ferguson, the director of Wofford Theatre, from whom I credit gaining a lot of my confidence, suggested that I double major in Theatre and Business. When I told Derek of my aspirations for acting, he encouraged me to go for them. I listened. At the end of my freshman year I joined the theatre department after audition. Needless to say, I enjoyed my time at Wofford after my freshman year. I am so fond of my junior and senior years because of my decision to change my major. My relationship with Derek was a plus. We have been married now for 5 years!

I’d rather be known as a great team player than to be known as the best one on the stage. The best one can always get a job but I want a lifetime of jobs.

You were very popular at Wofford so much that your peers voted you Homecoming Queen in 2010. What accounted for your popularity?

Well, not so much as ‘popular’ but more an acknowledgement of what I stood for. I participated in the Association for Multi-Cultural Students and Wofford Women of Color. I joined the gospel choir. I was one of twelve black young women in a class of 300. My classmates came to know me through my activist work in those groups I joined, and I joined them to address on-campus racism.

Talk more about your on-campus activism.

It was not activism in the sense of organizing protests, but activism in terms of being part of an ongoing dialogue about current issues students of color faced at Wofford. General Robert E. Lee’s portrait hangs high in a campus frat house. My freshman year, someone or a group of people hung a noose outside of a dorm. I lived in a residence hall managed by a resident assistant who is Jewish; someone painted a swastika in the hallway. Certain fraternities didn’t allow black people to come into their frat houses—stuff like that. I engaged these issues with my classmates.

What did Homecoming Queen mean for you?

I earned my crown from the student body. After my crowning, I took the crown off and thrust it at the student section. In the past, young women who belonged to a sorority or who were president of a thousand clubs won the homecoming crown. I was none of those; so my win was an important one because it signaled that the student body of Wofford voted for me. Also, being the only black young woman on the field … I represented women of color at Wofford! I cried. It meant so much to me.

When did you become interested in theatre?

It all goes back to middle school. In the eighth grade, I auditioned for and won entry into the theatre program in the Palmetto Center for the Arts, a program for gifted students. In ninth grade, I played Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie. I loved the theatre. I wanted it to be my focus at the time but had to put it to the side for sundry reasons.

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Brittani and Derek McElveen after being crowned Miss Homecoming at Wofford College 2010

Sports and Theatre carry equal weight in terms of discipline and focus for a middle/high schooler. How did you balance the two?

Well, the first year Annie ran into basketball season. I had to sit on the bench because I missed a couple of practices. After that, I worked theatre around basketball so neither one would interrupt the other. At the same time, I made sure that theatre and sports would not interfere with my studies.

What is it that you enjoy about performing?

I love the storytelling aspect. I find pleasure in moving people while I tell a story through a character who can inspire an audience as she sings and/or dances. I enjoy seeing the immediate reaction from the audience to what is being told onstage. I love the applause. Every aspect about theatre is powerful—very powerful.

How do you get into character?

I have a process. I research my character—even the play–then I determine who I’m basing the character off of. I give them mannerisms and a voice. Then I’ll conduct some research if it pertains to a show, especially a musical because musicals have to do with past performances and shows.

Is there a time when you don’t want to go onstage?

Of course. Just recently I was so tired and worn out during a performance. An actor can even get tired of doing the same show for weeks at a time—sometimes twice in one day.

Do you have a ritual or habit for taking care of your body or instrument?

Dance class is my go to for exercise; I’m trying to pick up yoga. I like to power walk on my days off. I make sure I get my rest—to not party so much. I go home.

A person aspiring for the arts does not have to go to college but I am a firm believer in education; it is vital. … Training teaches you the real world of this business.

The industry is rife with competition. How do you handle that aspect of it?

I try to go into any audition or rehearsal being very kind. I do not backstab. I do my best to not make anything negative so I have to check myself when I feel negative vibrations coming from a group or even in an audition. I don’t throw shade at other actors. I strongly believe good experiences and behaviors reap good relationships with theatres and other actors. My attitude towards my chosen profession is this: I’d rather be known as a great team player than to be known as the best one on the stage. The best one can always get a job but I want a lifetime of jobs.

Every actor has to deal with rejection no matter how talented or even well-connected she is. What are your strategies for managing rejection?

When I have what I believe to be a bad audition, I have to check myself. So one Monday, for example, I had submitted for an audition. I was sent all of this stuff having to do with the play; I felt overwhelmed because I had to find time to read it all even though I was performing and working. I didn’t get a callback and was not asked to read anything else. I was disappointed. That next day, though, I had to get it back together because I had another performance. I prayed the whole afternoon because I knew I had to keep pushing forward or I would not have been able to give my best to Tuesday night’s performance.

What keeps you motivated? Grounded?

My faith. In this field a good number of people do not believe in God but I want people to see me as a Christian. I want God’s light to shine through me and in my performances. I attend church and Bible study to strengthen my spiritual life. I listen to my gospel music; it encourages me. In life there are so many disappointments. I call on my faith and Christian principles when I experience those times.

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Brittani in ‘Thought’

What have you learned about the business of theatre?

It is the hardest of businesses because an audition and performance requires the actor to be so open and vulnerable. I am so sensitive – like super sensitive — so I have to take care of that part of myself.

Your job requires you to be there at certain hours. Does this pose a problem when it comes to auditions?

I have made so many sacrifices for my art because I had jobs that had nothing to do with my art. Now, any job I take needs to be one where personnel understands that I am a performer first and everything else second. Right now I work with other aspiring actors; so, when I have an audition, they can cover for me as can I for them.

Does your profession interfere with your marriage and vice versa?

No. Not at all. Derek and I uplifted each other during college, and we continue to do the same during this journey. I am so blessed to have him on my team. I have to say he is satisfied in his own career as a pharmacist so he’s not like ‘you’re not paying attention to me’. Some people assume that I just can do what I want to without responsibility because of Derek’s profession. That is so not true. I make sure to make my own contributions to our household; I work. After the death of my father, my mother raised me as a single parent. I witnessed her strong work ethic; I take after her. I am not one to depend on anyone to provide for me no matter the situation. We had planned to move to Atlanta after graduation because Derek had been admitted to Mercer University. Our plans changed after his early admission into the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. So, I worked in a bridal shop in Charleston while he finished up his studies. Derek and I desire for the both of us to achieve and to meet our goals.

In your opinion, is it necessary for one who aspires to work in the entertainment industry to have a formal degree in theatre? Should she enroll in a theatre program?

A person aspiring for the arts does not have to go to college but I am a firm believer in education; it is vital. It doesn’t necessarily have to be college but you need some kind of training in the field. Training teaches you the real world of this business. There is a time commitment and a way to think about your participation in theatre. Then, an aspiring artist must realize that Broadway or film may not come as soon as s/he gets out there in the field; you may find you are practicing your craft in regional theatre or as a guest on television here and there.

You are forging a theatrical career in Atlanta and not Los Angeles or New York. Why?

We moved to Los Angeles for about a month and found out we are southern babies! We love the south. Atlanta always was on our radar. By the time we moved here, Atlanta had grown into a vibrant artistic hub for theatre and film. The Alliance Theatre originated The Color Purple, and Bring It On went to Broadway. Other theatres stepped up their game.

It has been the last few years that I understand. She is an artist; this is her passion. I have to support her. I do.

~ Sharon Dreher Minnieweather, mother

What advice would you give to someone who wants to venture into a career in theatre?

Well, I look to Taraji P. Henson as a role model … as a light … She got started in the late 1990s and had her break out role in 2001 in the film Baby Boy at the age of 31. If you keep at it and you keep trying it will come to you. Stick with it. Go through the ups and downs. My advice goes for anyone at any age who wants to venture into this territory. You have to really want it because it is not a pretty business. It has more downs than up so have to really want to do it.

What is the first step?

Your first step is to go to the audition of a show you don’t really know that well but have a character where you think you can relate. The second step is to take classes and learn all you can about your craft.

 How are you feeling now … right now?

Well today I feel good because I had a good audition and I had so much going on. I had workshop of new play and web series. I feel good and accomplished next week might be different but today, right now, is a good day.

 Brittani lives in Atlanta with her husband Derek. She is currently in rehearsals for play Little Shop of Horrors with Actor’s Express to open July 15. She just wrapped Thought, a film short about a woman who becomes disillusioned after the 2016 presidential election. Thought is directed by Alfred Robbins of Bottom of the Net Filmworks. Brittani also wrote Sundays at 4, a play about the dynamics of Sunday dinner with her family after church.

 

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