In our Alumni Q&A series, we caught up with David Fickas BFA ’96 to discuss why he’s an alumni volunteer, four ways students can prepare for the professional world, lessons he learned at SDA and more.
SDA: Tell us a little bit about your professional background.
Fickas: Well… that’s kind of a crazy rabbit hole of a question, but let me see if I can sum it up without rambling too much! When I was in school, I unofficially started my company, Drama 3/4 Productions, in order to put up my play The Iceman Chronicles. This was the beginning of my junior year as a BFA Acting major. I actually tried to make my play part of the official season but was denied. So I found a way to independently produce that show, and then another the following year. Nowadays, those would be known at the school as ISPs, but back then they were known as, “What the hell are you trying to do, Fickas?” Those two plays — along with my student films (I was also a School of Cinema minor) and a bunch of study films I made to save my grades — were the first Drama 3/4 Productions. After graduation, I made two short films and then an independent feature, The Basement and the Kitchen, which officially turned Drama 3/4 into a business entity. For those early D34 projects, I took on multiple roles… as producer, actor, writer, director, editor, etc… sometimes all at the same time. And all those projects featured many USC alumni from both the theatre and film circles. Shortly after Basement premiered in 1999, I co-created a live variety show with Alex Fox and Brice Beckham. It became a huge springboard for other D34 projects and brought me and the company into the television and digital spaces. I’ve been wearing multiple hats and juggling Drama 3/4 Productions across all kinds of media ever since.
What are you currently working on professionally?
I’m in post production on a few things at the moment. The one project I’m most excited about is a half-hour comedy pilot called Batshit. The show — which is produced by Drama 3/4, written by Brice Beckham and me, and directed by me — is very much in the same vein as the first independent show I put up at USC. It also stars alum Marisa Coughlan, who shared the stage with me back in that original play. Other notable alumni who helped bring Batshit together include James Lesure, Pam Cook, Mark Kelly, Jeff Wiens, Ric Barbera, Giselle Gilbert, Clay Elliot and Julia Stier. From the USC film side: Sasha Alexander, Joel Michaely, Gary Bryman and Kenn Michael are also involved. Aside from Batshit, Drama 3/4 has been expanding its production, post production and livestream capabilities as I have partnered up with Pranav Shah (also a member of the SDA Alumni Council) to launch D34 Rentals, a new source for cameras, gear and technical personnel.
What was your best USC experience?
I’m not sure I can sum it up in just one, so I’m going to tie three together. Top choice has to be the first play I produced there, The Iceman Chronicles, because it was the perfect comedy outlet for a bunch of disgruntled and hilarious actors. Comedy just didn’t seem to be a focus when I got to school, but I was meeting the funniest people… off stage. Iceman created an avenue for all of us to do some truly stupid comedic work for an audience. Then, with the success of that show, I was inspired to put up Alex in Wonderland the following year, which was my most difficult and rewarding project to date. So those two shows were definite highlights. Still, I have to mention that I got to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Bing stage, which was a dream for me as well as a bizarre full-circle moment, because I had auditioned for the program with a Puck monologue. Then, to top it off, I got to co-write original music for that production. So those were the top three experiences… but I think my classmates and other people I met through the school have turned out to be the best part. Sometimes I can’t believe how close I’ve stayed with so many of them, personally and professionally. I would never be doing any of what I’m doing now if not for those partnerships and friendships, which are all rooted back in my USC SOT days. We all need to find our people to go on the journey with. I found most of mine in school. Brice Beckham became my producing, writing, editing and business partner. Dan Forcey has produced multiple Drama 3/4 projects over the years. Too many to name. These are all my family. I mean… come on, have you met Pam Cook?
Why did you choose to become involved as an alumni volunteer at SDA? How long have you been volunteering at SDA and what has been the most rewarding experience thus far as a volunteer?
It’s interesting… I never thought in a million years that I would become so involved with the alumni. I had stayed in touch with some professors over the years. Before John Blankenchip passed away, I was working to try and figure out how to get USC back to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a tradition I never got to be part of during my time there. And I was always in contact with Dean Scales and Paul Backer. Sadly, none of them are with us any longer. In 2016, Drama 3/4 took a bunch of USC alumni to do a show at the Fringe in Scotland, and that reopened some of that dialogue. At that time, the Alumni Council was just being formed, and I was shocked and thrilled at some of the changes that had occurred over the years. Embracing comedy and film, classes in standup comedy… there were just a lot of avenues being explored now that we didn’t have in my day. Also, I learned about the evolution of the ISPs, which had really started as protest shows (such as my own), and how that program has become this bright star of what the school has to offer. Kim Muhlbach and Delphine Vasko recruited me to the council, and I loved the idea of doing whatever I could to help connect alumni, and to bridge that scary gap from graduation to real life. Since then, Adrienne Visnic and I created the SCene Partners live and virtual events, Pranav Shah and I partnered for our D34 Rentals business. I was able to shoot three episodes of my alumni chat show (hoping to do more this year!) and I was introduced and reconnected to all kinds of talent. I actually think that in these last couple of years, especially with Dean Roxworthy coming into the fold, the alumni pool is stronger and more connected than it has ever been. Of course, the irony of me being such a monkey wrench back in the day is not lost on me.
Do you have a particular passion program within SDA?
I feel a special kinship with the ISPs and the many groups and companies that have produced shows there over the years. I would love to open a pathway for shows that started on campus to extend into professional theatre communities by including alumni, especially in Los Angeles, but also nationally and to Scotland. I know a lot of alumni would be excited if that USC tradition were to come back, and it would be empowering to include student productions this time around as well.
Was there a class or professor that was particularly meaningful or influential during your time at the School?
For me, it was Josh Karton. I had a lot of great teachers and directors for sure, but Josh was the teacher who saw me, understood me and what I was struggling with, and went out of his way to connect with me, to really teach me. I think I may have been tough to teach because I never felt like I fit in anywhere. I just felt like I saw everything so differently from my classmates. Josh (who was half of my sophomore Acting teaching duo, alongside Raye Birk) knew I was struggling with my place in the school, especially with my passion for comedy and writing, both of which seemed very absent from the curriculum. I was going to the school of John Ritter and had assumed there would be some sort of comedy representation; Raye himself was in the Naked Gun movies! Josh saw this struggle in me, and he saw it in Pam Cook too. I’ll never forget when Pam and I were doing scene work for David Mamet’s The Woods, a very dark and brutal play. We were both kind of lost, and then Josh approached us about infusing comedy into the scene. I thought, “Are you crazy? I’m playing an abusive boyfriend… what’s funny about this?” Josh just said to try it. So we did, and it was like a light bulb went off. I had always categorized comedy and drama as two separate approaches, but after working with Josh, I came to understand that, at least for me, instincts are just instincts and there is no difference between the two genres. I’ve carried that lesson with me into everything that has followed. Also, Josh arranged for John Ritter to come back to the school that year and I was able to do a comedy workshop with Mr. Ritter, which was one of the best days of my life. Damn! Should that be in my “best experience” question? Probably.
What (if any) productions did you work on?
As a freshman, I was very lucky to be included in the sophomore class show, Street Scene. That was truly an experience. A terrible production!!! But it’s where I met some of my best friends and future collaborators. I’ve already mentioned my own shows, and Midsummer. Blankenchip directed me in Blood Wedding. I played The Moon, had one monologue, and about three rehearsals which consisted of John yelling “learn your lines” a lot. We all loved John so much, but I think the scene transitions added up to be longer than the play itself. I also remember finally booking a lead in our second-semester sophomore class show, but the production got totally uprooted because of the Northridge earthquake. The show was basically cancelled and we did an awkward stage reading instead. I think this is worth mentioning because I know that current students are dealing with all sorts of disruptions these days. It’s all gonna be okay!!
What was your favorite theatre at SDA? Why?
I’m a Massman fan, for sure. A lot of students from my era loved the Greenroom Theatre, which I barely performed in. The main stage productions were all in the Bing, and most people wanted to end up there. For me, that wasn’t always the case. I got my time on the Bing stage but the Massman felt like the pulse of the school. I went from seeing a scene there as part of the college tour, to auditioning for the program, to running lights for several shows, to having my classes with Raye and Josh, and then finally putting up my two original shows, all in the Massman. Then there was auditioning for Joe Mantegna and the Ava Greenwald Award… The Massman was the place that the school gave me the keys to. I don’t take that lightly. Every time I’m on campus, I stop by the benches in the courtyard. Also, unlike the Greenroom Theatre, it didn’t burn down!
What can students do during their training to prepare themselves for the professional world?
1) Buckle up!! I think everyone who is wrapped up in their college experiences and then gets thrown out into the real world will always have some level of a rude awakening, and everyone will go through it differently. After I walked, I studied Shakespeare in Canada for six weeks and then came back to USC for a final semester to finish my film schooling, so I was able to ease into it a little bit more than some of my peers. Still, it’s terrifying.
2) Stick together! And don’t judge each other! You never know what project will turn into what. I think we all have these ideas that we’re going to meet and work with people who are “in it” and have “made it,” but a career in entertainment is a marathon, not a sprint. The people who are really going to make your career may already be sitting next to you in class.
3) Please, please, please, enjoy each other’s successes. It’s hard not to compare yourself to the person who booked this show or got that part, but the truth is that everyone’s path is different and no good comes of beating yourself up because someone else got an opportunity that you didn’t. Your classmates’ successes are also your successes because we are a big Trojan SDA family. Same goes for your alumni family.
4) Be kind and professional. There are a lot of ruthless people out there but kindness wins out over cutthroat every time. A professional attitude and commitment to your craft gets you the next job and then the next one.
What lessons from your SDA training have you applied to your professional life?
Time has given me a much different perspective on what I actually took away from my USC experience. I was very frustrated with the school when I was a student; a lot of people were. The School of Theatre had only been functioning independently for a couple of years. My high school had spoiled me rotten with creative opportunities, so when I got to college, I just struggled so hard at first. I thought about transferring out of the BFA program. I thought about quitting acting to try and become a film major. I almost just left school entirely to start auditioning professionally. All of those moments of being afraid and nervous and insecure kept adding up. I felt so lost. Luckily, I found those pockets of inspiration with Josh Karton and my classmates and friends that encouraged me to stay true to myself and not be defeated by school politics, or bad teachers, or crappy productions, or the Northridge earthquake. They urged me not to let any of these things that were out of my control, that were unfair, to kill my dreams. Rather than hate the school for what it wasn’t, I decided to accept what was there and use it all to create my own opportunities, to forge my own path. That’s how my ISPs got started, out of frustration and lack of opportunity. And through those shows I learned that I was not alone. We were all struggling to understand who we were and what we were going to do about it. When I got out of school, I quickly discovered that the injustices of theatre school were incredibly mild compared to the injustices of show business. I now realize that all the dysfunction and chaos that was happening during my time in the SOT was exactly what I needed in order to crystalize my process and my vision. Had I quit the BFA program, I might never have figured out what I truly wanted to do in my professional life. I wouldn’t have learned how to apply my unique comedy voice to “serious” work. I wouldn’t have learned how to maneuver within an inflexible system to create my own art. I wouldn’t have learned to trust my instincts and stick to my guns. And I wouldn’t have been rewarded for my ingenuity and individuality with the opportunity to play Puck on the main stage. All those experiences, all the disappointments, all the chaos… they set the stage for everything that was to follow, and I am so thankful for every one of them… now. My struggles at USC have enriched not only my professional life, but every aspect of my life. Now, at this point in my journey and career, I couldn’t be more grateful.