‘Cosby Show’ actress imparts words of wisdom to students

Phylicia Rashad, known for her role as Clair Huxtable on the NBC sitcom "The Cosby Show," speaks to a group of reporters at Shenandoah University's Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business during her visit to Shenandoah University on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University students braved the snowdrifts on Monday to listen in as award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad – seen on “The Cosby Show,” in the film “Creed” and many other stage and screen productions – gave a presentation on “The Business of Show Business.”

Despite the impact of this weekend’s snowstorm and cancellation of thousands of flights, Rashad was able to arrive for the scheduled presentation at the university’s Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business for its Distinguished Lecture Series. Originally, she was scheduled to fly in on a 10 a.m. Sunday flight, but she ended up coming in 24 hours later – after facing the possibility of a Tuesday flight.

Although this was the first time Rashad has brought “The Business of Show Business” to a university as a Q&A-styled presentation, it isn’t the first time she’s spoken as an academic. She has served as an adjunct professor at several universities and has taught masterclasses at Carnegie Mellon and New York University, among many other scholarly titles and experience. In her words, “I just … end up places.”

Event host and moderator Miles Davis, dean of the business school, collaborated with Rashad to present the two sides of show business and her personal experiences to his students – as well as plenty of students in the performing arts.

“So many of us pursue our dreams and our artistic endeavors, but often forget some of the fundamental business aspects that allow us to have a long career,” he said. “You can’t have a long career if you don’t understand the business of show business.”

“The business of show business has something – but not always a lot – to do with art, but artists must remain true to what it is we do,” Rashad said. “It behooves us to be intelligent about the business.”

She said she’s enjoyed her experiences teaching and speaking with students.

“The ability to communicate from the heart and to touch other people’s hearts – that’s what I like about it,” she said.

During the presentation, Rashad gave listeners a full scope of the work going into a show or production and described the early stages of her commitment to acting. She encouraged students to go beyond their comfort levels and accomplish as much as they can while in college, to keep at their disciplines and surround themselves with encouraging people.

“Start where you are. Some of the most creative, innovative and important art happens on university campuses,” she said at a press conference prior to the presentation. “It’s a wonderful time to be cocooned, because realities outside of the university environment are harsh at times.”

Jordan McCaskill, a junior music theatre major, asked Rashad where responsibilities may lie for lack of diverse representation in Oscar nominees this year. Rashad responded by repeatedly asking her, “What is your responsibility as an artist?” and “When do you feel most creative?”

“You feel most creative when you are invested in your art form, right?” she finally questioned McCaskill. “What has that got to do with a statue?”

“I didn’t get necessarily the answer I was expecting, but … it hit me emotionally in a way that I was just very appreciative,” McCaskill said after the presentation. “It was something that … I can say as an actor that I really needed.”

Rashad also spoke on the issue to press before the presentation:

“Whereas I am not dismissing the concerns of anyone,” she said, “I cannot say that it’s at the top of my list of priorities as a human being or as an artist … and I hope that doesn’t offend too many people.”

For those students on the business end, Rashad said effective work happens when they understand the art and the artists.

“People who are looking at talent not just as a commodity, but really looking at talent with an appreciation for the individual talent and for the intelligence that’s behind it – those are the type of people you want to work with,” she said.

When asked by one student when she knew she possessed an undeniable product in her craft, she said she still doesn’t know and has miles to go.

“I don’t think of myself as a brand, I think of myself as a person,” she said. “And I let other people do that for me, because I need to stay in my lane.”

Rashad said she continues to learn and grow as an artist. Her next work will be in New York as part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “Head of Passes.”

“I am looking forward to being molded … I’m looking forward to working with this company of actors that’s been assembled, I’m looking forward to being on a stage at The Public Theater once again,” she said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com