Actress and alumna Stephanie March on success and risk

March 31, 2011

Students at Northwestern University in Qatar had the opportunity this week to learn about success from a woman who knows something about the topic: Stephanie March, who starred in the American television series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

March graduated from Northwestern’s School of Communication (then the School of Speech) in 1996 with a theater degree. During her visit to Education City she sat in on a Northwestern acting class and talked about everything from the value of a Northwestern degree to the personal characteristics that will help graduates succeed.

Her first piece of advice: “You should do all the crazy stuff when you’re young and you have nothing to lose.”

For March that meant pursuing an acting career.

After graduating from Northwestern’s Evanston campus March started auditioning for stage productions and eventually landed a small role in the play “Death of a Salesman” in Chicago. The show saw great success and moved to Broadway in New York City. A year and a half later, March earned her spot on “Law & Order.”

Like everyone, she had to “start small and work (her) way through.”

Over the course of 10 years on “Law & Order” March’s character, Alexandra Cabot, appeared in 89 episodes and endured death threats, a drive-by shooting, a separate murder attempt and time in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Witness Protection Program.

In addition to “Law & Order” March has appeared on the critically acclaimed shows “Rescue Me,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “30 Rock.” (See the Internet Movie Database’s full March profile here.)

March resigned from “Law & Order” in 2010 after she began to feel like she’d done everything she could with the Cabot character.

“You can only do the same thing over and over so many times,” she told the Northwestern students. “I thought, ‘I’m a hamster on a wheel. I have to get off this wheel.’”

Today March spends most of her time volunteering and speaking publicly on behalf of children’s organizations with which she’s affiliated.

Just before her visit to Northwestern, March visited Kenya to work with children. At one point she found herself reading to a group of school children and, although she didn’t speak the same language, she was able to communicate with them thanks to her education in acting.

“Actors learn a universal human language,” she said. “I speak ‘human’ and that’s directly attributable to human behavior work I did in classes like this.”

Whether she is on stage or screen or reading to a group of kids in Kenya, March feels she was well prepared for the task by Northwestern.

“You come out of Northwestern with a good whole education,” she told the students. “Northwestern has an excellent reputation and it opens a lot of doors.”

So diverse are the skills that Northwestern students learn, that many of March’s classmates have gone on to careers on the business side of the entertainment industry.

“Half the people I went to acting class with are now working for studios or are agents,” she said.

Others went on to completely different industries.

“One of my friends who took a lot of performance classes is a banker now,” she said, explaining that the friend simply enjoyed theater as an academic exercise but didn’t have any desire to make it a career.

Though her education was critical in March’s success, the ability to decide what you want to do and commit to it is a key to success – a lesson she implored the Northwestern students with whom she spoke to remember.

“Nobody regrets trying to achieve,” she said. “You’re not going to grow up and say, ‘I wish I’d worked less on that.’”