Tenneh Sillah on Acting and Being True to Yourself
Tenneh Sillah, ARTS ‘23, studies acting and works with University Life as a Communications Assistant. You may recognize Tenneh from University Life reels and her performances at Columbia. We spoke with her in the lead up to graduation about her experiences in the MFA Acting Program, the joys and challenges of being an actor, and what she's looking forward to after graduation.
This interview was edited for clarity and style.
Could you share a little bit about your background and what drew you to Columbia’s MFA acting program?
I started acting in my junior year of high school. I really wanted something to keep me after school, and I remember going to the office and asking, “Do you have any more after school programs still open?” And they said, “Yeah, the theater department. You can still join that.” So I auditioned for Once on This Island. That was my first show ever. I still listen to the soundtrack to this day. I'm not a musical fan, but this one is just so good.
During my senior year of high school, I already knew that I wanted to attend graduate school for acting. I had seen Catch Me If You Can. I've always watched movies. My mom and I would go to the movies almost every weekend, but this was the first time a movie really captured me.
Right after undergrad, I applied to MFA programs, but I didn't get in. I went back home to Boston and started acting professionally there. I ended up acting steadily for about a year and a half before auditioning for grad school again.
Can you describe your coursework? What’s it like studying acting?
Classes are Mondays to Fridays, 9 AM to 5 PM. You get a scene, you rehearse with your partner, and then you bring it in class for about three weeks in a row. The teacher works on it with you. And with every class comes rehearsals, so you have rehearsals about 3 to 4 times a week with your classmates. And then if you’re in a show, rehearsals 6 PM to 11 PM and Saturday mornings. That's the schedule. It's pretty intense because the only time you have off is about one hour between class and rehearsal. Also it's during business hours, so it's hard to make doctor's appointments and all that stuff.
Because we have our showcase coming soon, my whole class is getting together tonight for a “stuffing party” to prepare folders for agents with our resumes and headshots.
“Jean McClelland… is one of the teachers who I run to get reviews from because I know she's always going to be honest with me.”
Who have been some of your mentors?
One of my mentors is another student, Kristin Dodson It’s hard to find Black women in this industry that are my age. She's slightly older and has more experience, and she's been helpful in guiding me in this industry. So was Bianca LaVerne Jones, who is a working actress and director. We worked together during my second year, when she directed a show that I performed in.
My teacher, Jean McClelland, has also been a mentor. I've learned so much from her as an artist. She's one of the teachers who I run to get reviews from because I know she's always going to be honest with me.
The University Life team has been very supportive and kind and understanding. It's been such a great thing to have to be a part of this community. I learned a lot about social media, how to maneuver that world, create relationships, and make it feel like a community. I've learned consistency and preparation–and all that goes into an interview like this one.
What do you enjoy outside of the classroom?
I’ve spent most of my time busy, acting. I did pick up Muay Thai, and I watch a lot of anime: Ranking of Kings, The Promised Neverland, The Rising of the Shield Hero, Heroes of Goo Jit Zu, Hunter × Hunter. All the storylines are just so good to me.
What advice do you have for students who are new to Columbia?
It's okay to only focus on school for a while. Figure out how you study well, where you study well, what your study routine is. Sleep. Take care of yourself. When you're ready, you can open up to the rest of the community. Focus on what you came here for, and people will find you. I spent three years working on my craft. In my final year, I've had more time to enjoy and try new things.
“It's okay to only focus on school for a while. Figure out how you study well, where you study well, what your study routine is. Sleep. Take care of yourself.”
What are you looking forward to after graduation?
I am looking forward to figuring out who Tenneh is when she's not trying to get into grad school or be in grad school. Since my first year of undergrad, I was trying to get into grad school. When I didn't get into grad school right after undergrad, everything was a means to an end to get into grad school. For the first time, I'm going to be graduating and figuring out my life in New York City without an acting cohort and class schedule. I plan on getting a job, focusing on hobbies, joining classes, and going to events just because I want to. I want to make a steady living as a working artist.
I'm also looking forward to being more religious. Right now, it is Ramadan, and I've been coming to Earl Hall to pray with people when it's time to break fast. It's been such a wonderful community, and I'm excited to find my next religious community in New York City.
“I am looking forward to figuring out who Tenneh is when she's not trying to get into grad school or be in grad school.”
Tenneh Sillah, ARTS'23, is an American-born, Guinean-raised Muslim actress. She is graduating from the MFA Acting program and has worked with University Life as a Communications Assistant during her time at Columbia.