Becoming a Thespian can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Not only can you find community amongst fellow students, but often it kicks off a long-term artistic journey. While every student’s experience will be different, there are always Thespian alum to look to for guidance and inspiration.

Muhammad Khaerisman and Tyren Duncan are two such Thespians.

Members of Troupe 7961, their Thespian journey earned them Thespy accolades, long-lasting memories at the International Thespian Festival, college educations from University of Houston and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi respectively, and a career as working artists, where they still attend Texas Thespians – now as teaching artists.

As Kendra Willeby, their former teacher and troupe director, explains, their journey represents that “pie in the sky dream outcome” of becoming a Thespian.

Today, they run Faces Network, an artistic collective and platform for artists, with performance arts pieces hosted in Atlanta and a new film, Prodigal, premiering in 2024. EdTA caught up with them to learn more about their Thespian experience and how these lessons have helped shape their careers.

The Early Days as a High School Thespian

Students performing In The Heights (2016) at Foster High School.
Students performing In The Heights (2016) at Foster High School.

For Khaerisman, who like many children, aspired to be an astronaut, the path to theatre unexpectedly started with early wins. “In the summer of 11th grade, Ms. Willeby signed me up for college auditions, and out of something like 74 schools, 72 called me back,” he says. “It blew my mind. I don’t know if it’s my upbringing or because I wasn’t exposed to anyone in this space, but it didn’t occur to me that I could pursue acting as a life course.”

For Duncan, football was the main priority, playing from elementary all the way until his junior year of high school. However, his passion for football declined, and the need for a new creative outlet led back to theatre. In his freshman year of high school, he had performed in South Pacific, had a “good time,” and figured it would be a great place to return to. But his second run in theatre didn’t start as expected.

“Oh God, [the audition] was a school bus breakdown on the side of road: flames, smoke, everything,” he said. “When you’re in high school, you feel like that’s it. You feel like ‘Ah, if I didn’t do this one thing then I’m completely done in life, and I’ll never amount to anything, I’ll be a failure.’ While the audition wasn’t ideal, he still got his opportunity to return to theatre. “Ms. Willeby took a shot on me and saw potential in my ability… I thought it was really great that someone saw a lot in me.”

Finding Theatre on a Larger Scale

Growing as a Thespian often means challenging yourself and expanding your skills. One of the easiest ways to start is by attending state festivals. “I decided to go to Texas Thespians [state festival] because I really wanted to be better. A better artist; a better actor for people around me and for myself,” Duncan says. “I remember a moment specifically where we made it to the hotel, and I was with my friends, and looking out the window of the hotel. It was just so beautiful, seeing Dallas and all the lights at night, and I was like, “Wow bro, theatre took me here, and I wonder where else it could take me.”

Ultimately, it took Duncan and Khaerisman to the largest stage of all, the International Thespian Festival (ITF), where they would make lasting memories and learn some tough lessons too. Khaerisman says those annual trips to ITF are filled with memories of adventuring with friends, random jam sessions with troupes from around the country, and a chance to connect deeply with the craft.

“One of the featured artists was the composer of Big Fish. I’d never been exposed to this musical before, and he sang a song called ‘Fight the Dragons.’ It was just him on the piano – a very simple performance – but I remember crying and [feeling] so much relief and catharsis,” he says. “If this medium of art could give me that, as a human being, as a student, as a person, I really wanted to commit to be able to provide that for other people.”

Competition 101

Of course, for many Thespians, ITF isn’t just about bonding with fellow theatre students – it’s a stage for competition and an opportunity to see talent from around the county – and our reactions to that dynamic can often be varied.

For some, it’s a comforting experience. “It’s reassuring that you’re not the only person that’s really good at what you do,” says Duncan. However, that experience also opens doubts that require intentionality and mindset shifts. “There’s a lot of kids who are also very talented. And, of course, that impostor syndrome sets in because you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not good enough,’” he says. “I just had to check myself and realize it’s not about that; it’s about being a part of a larger community and knowing that these people are bringing their best, I’m bringing my best, and we should all want to make each other better.”

Muhammad Khaerisman & Tyren Duncan performing In The Heights (2016) at Foster High School.
Muhammad Khaerisman & Tyren Duncan performing In The Heights (2016) at Foster High School.

For others, like Khaerisman, ITF is the ultimate proving ground on the largest stage possible. Coming from a competitive background, his mindset was laser-focused, seeing fellow Thespians as an obstacle to overcome. However, after an early exit from competition, it proved to be a learning experience too.

“I remember my first time going to [ITF] I was like, ‘We got main stage. We did it all: we got the right writing, we rehearsed it, my partner’s gas, I’m gas, everything’s going to be incredible.’ There was no thought in my mind that there was a possibility we wouldn’t even break out of the room [advance to main stage],” Khaerisman says. “Being taken out of the competition early on just freed my time to do workshops, watch shows, and experience [ITF] without having to be in that challenger mindset.”

Opportunities to be surrounded by thousands of theatre fans and practitioners are few and far between, which is why one of the things Duncan and Khaerisman agree on is that the biggest reward of attending ITF is finding community. Whether that means stepping out of your comfort zone to experience new practices in a workshop, chatting with Thespians from other states, or simply enjoying a show, there’s more to ITF than competition.

Finding Community Post-Grad

Faces Production “We Are.” © Kyle Woodford
Faces Production “We Are.” © Kyle Woodford

Part of the challenge for Thespians continuing their journey after graduation is finding opportunities. For starters, community is often a byproduct of being in high school. Having graduated from college at the height of the pandemic, where interaction was at an all-time low, figuring out new ways to meet artists was an experience both men had to navigate.

According to Duncan, one of the places to start is with social media. “I love acting, but I also love underground hip-hop, house music, people who create fine art as far as sculptures, paintings, and things like that,” he says. “I always go on Instagram and figure out, ‘OK, what gallery is showing XYZ, how can I pull up to show support and actually get to know these artists?’”

This intentionality has helped them land opportunities like costume designing for smaller theatrical companies and expanding their network of agency contacts, making life as working artists a real possibility.

The other challenge post-graduation is understanding who you are as an artist. “For me it was unlearning that my identity – who Muhammad is and what Muhammad be doin’ – are two separate things,” Khaerisman says. “I thought my community of artists was going to be just actors, because I’m an actor and those are the people who would understand my journey. But it’s the complete opposite. Don’t just seek out actors or theatre practitioners. Go to an open mic, go to a stand-up comedy night, go to a movement workshop. Be in community with creators, cause anybody doing [art] at a DIY independent level… there’s going to be alignment.”

“Making It” as a Working Artist

Today, they’re both working artists and have founded a business to continue their passion in the arts. And while their journey is unique to them, there are some nuggets of advice they offer Thespians looking to pursue a similar journey.

Thespians Muhammad Khaerisman and Tyren Duncan © Noir Media
Thespians Muhammad Khaerisman and Tyren Duncan © Noir Media

“Everybody’s path is different. I might be wearing something that may not fit for somebody else, but I can assure you, the more you actually listen to your voice as an actor and as a person, the better off you’ll be,” says Duncan. “That’s the biggest advice I can give to any young artists out there. Don’t let them change you, let the world be your mirror.”

“It’s kind of silly, but all of us jumped into art because there was something we felt emotionally passionate about. But if you’re going down a path where you’re trying to build a life as an artist – a career and something that sustains you – approach it logically,” says Khaerisman. “Figure out the tools, skills, and knowledge you already have. Then create that plan for yourself. It’s only impossible if you don’t write it down.” ♦

Stay connected with Muhammad and Tyren on Instagram @_xxfacesxx_ or their YouTube Channel.

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