Theatre School graduate uses performance for social change

One in a series of stories about graduates from the class of 2016

Jalen Gilbert
Jalen Gilbert will graduate from The Theatre School at DePaul University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting. Gilbert, who has a strong emotional connection with acting, plans to continue his career as an actor in Chicago after graduation. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO — Jalen Gilbert can still remember the reaction he received after playing the lead role in his second grade school play. “People kept reaffirming: ‘You did a good job, you should look into this more.’ So I did,” said Gilbert.

He will graduate this June from The Theatre School at DePaul University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting.

Most of Gilbert’s childhood was spent jumping between various arts schools in his home state of Mississippi, and he said acting always served as the “solid base” in his life. So Gilbert knew he was in the right place at DePaul. After touring The Theatre School and completing the audition program, Gilbert remembers thinking to himself, “I love this place.”

The power of acting

One doesn’t need to talk to Gilbert for very long in order to see how significant acting has been in his life. During his time at DePaul, Gilbert has been part of many productions including “The Misanthrope,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “The Duchess of Malfi.”

By “exploring the vulnerability of people” onstage, Gilbert has come to better understand the human condition. Acting allows him to express a certain level of emotion that not many people are able to express in their daily lives. “Even when you go to a fully emotional spot, you just have to cut if off to get through your day.”

Playing a variety of characters onstage is deeply personal for Gilbert, who engages in self-reflection after taking on a role.

Acting is “a two-way street. I look at the character, analyze it, get the play then I go back in my own life and reflect on, ‘What lessons can I take? What did this character teach me?’”

What must be done?

The question of “What must be done?” had a particularly strong impact on Gilbert during his senior year. For one solo performance class, Gilbert came up with a performance piece about racial issues within the African-American community. After this class, Gilbert realized what must be done.

“I have to use the skills I’ve been given to speak on things that are uncomfortable, to start up that conversation so we can make some progress start happening,” he said. Gilbert believes one of the best ways to reach people is through the communal aspect of theatre. When people “all agree to sit down and go on this journey with you, and if you’re on that journey, you can tackle some of those taboo subjects. It makes it a little bit easier to talk about through the lenses of the play,” said Gilbert.

The RA experience

In addition to performance and studying, the young actor served as a resident advisor — or RA — for three years.

Being an RA while at DePaul played an instrumental role in shaping Gilbert’s college career. “It’s also become a major part of my identity. I don’t even look at it as a job anymore, it’s just my lifestyle,” said Gilbert.

Working in DePaul’s residence halls not only provided Gilbert with a tight-knit community, but also helped him overcome his fear of confrontation.

“I love harmony, I love peace, I hate making people uncomfortable and I hate confrontation,” Gilbert said. And with his friendly demeanor that isn’t hard to imagine. Yet Gilbert is thankful that being an RA taught him to utilize his “more assertive side,” which is something he claims to have “always ignored.”

While some might have a hard time making the connection between acting and being a resident advisor, Gilbert sees a direct correlation between the skills he learned onstage and the skills he has used as an RA.

“I love how I could take skills I’ve used in theatre —  listening skills, collaborative skills —  and put that in a job setting,” said Gilbert.

After graduation, Gilbert plans to continue acting in Chicago and to use the connections he has developed in The Theatre School. When asked what he would tell his freshman year self, Gilbert said, “It’s OK to be uncomfortable and make other people uncomfortable, because when you’re uncomfortable, that’s when you grow the most.”

Read more stories from the class of 2016.​ 

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Media Contact:
Kristin Claes Mathews
kristin.mathews@depaul.edu​​
312-241-9856​​