Jenna Fischer visited campus to help aspiring theatre students and pay tribute to a former professor.
Career success can be hard to come by in the performing arts. For every well-known actor, musician or artist, thousands practice their craft in relative anonymity. There may be no blueprint for success, but alumna Jenna Fischer (’95) is doing her best to create one.
“My favorite thing to do is to speak to aspiring actors and theatre students,” she said. “That’s because when I was an aspiring actor and a theatre student, I wanted more than anything to have access to people who were working in the industry that I so desperately wanted to be a part of, and I just want to give other people that access.”
Fischer did just that for Truman students when she returned to campus in April. During her two-day visit, the Emmy-nominated actress had multiple meetings with current theatre students where she took questions and offered them advice for seeking a non-conventional vocation.
“When you are pursuing an artistic career, you have to embrace that part of you that is a little crazy and a little delusional,” she said. “You have to be your biggest cheerleader, and no one is going to believe in you as much as you believe in yourself, not even your mom. Somewhere you have to create this unstoppable belief in yourself, and that belief will be tested time and time and time again.”
To help aspiring actors, Fischer literally wrote the book on what to expect for a career in the industry. In 2017, she penned “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide,” which documents her journey to becoming a professional actor.
“You have to know you’re choosing a path that’s not a straight line, so you can’t expect the spoils of a conventional career when you are choosing an unconventional one,” she said.
Since graduating from the University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre, Fischer’s career includes more than 50 credits as an actor and producer. She is best known for her role as Pam on the hit NBC comedy “The Office,” and the feature films in her body of work include roles in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” “Blades of Glory” and director Clint Eastwood’s 2018 picture “The 15:17 to Paris.” Fischer’s career goes beyond her acting duties. She starred in, and produced, the movie “The Giant Mechanical Man,” and she is currently producing and developing the comedy television series “National Parker” for Freeform.
In addition to providing moral support, Fischer used part of her time on campus to raise funds for theatre students. She helped create and endow a Truman State University Foundation scholarship in honor of longtime professor Ron Rybkowski. Fischer was the guest of honor at a gala in Kirk Memorial where she provided remarks, took commemorative photographs with everyone in attendance and participated in a social media video for the University.
“Ron was my most impactful theatre professor,” Fischer said. “I have been wanting to come back for a long time, and when I heard he was retiring this year, I thought, well, this is the exact right time to come.”
Revenue from ticket sales for the gala went to support the newly created scholarship, which was announced at the event and was a surprise to its namesake.
“It’s hard to describe the warmth I felt, and having Jenna be the one to deliver the news was very special,” Rybkowski said. “For her to take time from her busy schedule to honor me and share stories as one of my former students of how I, in some small way, helped her to achieve what she now has is a night I will always cherish.”
When alumni return, many like to get reacquainted with the town they once called home. For Fischer, who had not been to Kirksville in nearly 20 years, that meant stops at the Wooden Nickel, Dukum Inn, Diner 54, Take Root Café and Maxwell’s. All of her adventures were well documented on her Instagram story, including a late-night trip to Hy-Vee in an effort to find the brand of cheese puffs she fondly remembered from her college days.
“There are little changes in town, but the essence is the same, and that’s why I came to Truman in the first place,” Fischer said.
Fischer’s visit was capped off by her presentation as the 2019 Holman Family Distinguished Speaker. While addressing the crowd of 2,500 in Pershing Arena, she mentioned she could have gone to an acting conservatory, and how she visited schools more closely associated with the industry, like USC and UCLA. Ultimately, she said Truman just felt right when she stepped on campus, and she saw Truman’s liberal arts education as being able to provide more experiences that could benefit her career.
“I got to study on-stage performance work here, but I also learned how to light a stage, how to stage manage, how to build a set, how to break down a set. I choreographed a show. I learned about every element in a hands-on way about how a production goes together, and I think it made me smarter in the long run when it came to a career in the arts because I was able to fully appreciate how incredibly collaborative making a film, or making a TV show or making a play really is,” Fischer said. “Truman did a great job preparing me for my career because Truman made me work hard for what I wanted, and in my particular line of work no one hands you a career.”