Weiss returning as 2023 Alumni Master for Hixson-Lied College
calendar icon16 Mar 2023
Lincoln, Neb.--Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film alumna Mari Weiss (M.F.A. 1988) is one of nine alumni named to the 2023 class of Alumni Masters by the Nebraska Alumni Association.
Weiss will be on campus March 23-24 for Masters Week and will be honored March 24 at the Nebraska Medallion Dinner.
Since 1964, more than 400 alumni have participated in the Alumni Masters. Selection of the Alumni Masters is competitive. Candidates are alumni who have shown great promise, success and leadership in their fields.
“It’s nice in that most of the times, these kinds of honorariums or distinguished titles tend to go to those who have more celebrity,” Weiss said. “I’ve been a journeyman, working actor in this business. I’ve made a very nice living for 32 years. With all humility, this is more likely to be what most of the students’ careers will look like. But even in that, very few people have that journeyman career that has the kind of length. I feel very fortunate, but I also worked at it. So it meant a lot for them to celebrate that.”
Weiss has built a diverse and expansive career in theatre and television, having performed, written and directed works from New York to Los Angeles. A native of Chicago, Weiss has performed with such theatre companies as Steppenwolf, Court Theatre, and Annoyance Theatre. Her television credits include roles on “Shameless,” “Jane The Virgin,” “Mad Men” and “Seinfeld,” as well as more than 100 commercials. Her voice over career includes being “the voice” for such clients as McDonald’s, Yoplait and Blue Cross, as well as animation, video games, narration and audio books.
She is looking forward to returning to Lincoln for the Masters Week events.
“It’s been quite a while, actually,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing the facility and what they’ve got going on there. I loved my time in Lincoln. I thought Lincoln was a great city to be in. It’s a capital so there were good restaurants and shows came in. When I moved in, the theatre was fairly new. They had great movement rooms. Those are still there. But now they have emerging media, which is really important because the business has changed a lot. The days of just focusing on acting doesn’t really prepare students for the reality of making a living. So the emerging media and having them work on camera and do voiceover is really important. I’m looking forward to seeing that.”
She is also looking forward to visiting with students in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film while she’s here.
“I always love teaching,” Weiss said. “I always love talking to students. I’m an open book. They can ask me any question. I’ll be pretty upfront and honest with them.”
Weiss grew up just outside of Chicago in Wauconda, Illinois, where her mother started the community theatre and where she was introduced to theatre.
“They always loved theater. My Dad did musicals. He had a beautiful voice, and he did community theatre. And then my Mom started the community theatre in our small town. So I kind of grew up doing it and being surrounded by theatre folk,” Weiss said. “I remember them taking me into Chicago when I was 13 or 14 to see the first national tour of ‘Godspell.’”
She received her undergraduate degree from Illinois State University before coming to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln for her Master of Fine Arts degree.
“I really liked the program. They had new facilities, and Dick Nichols was one of the best movement teachers in the country,” Weiss said. “Unfortunately, Dick left a month before I started classes, and he didn’t tell us, so that was a little disappointing. But it all really worked out because one of his proteges took over.”
She appreciated the experiences she received at Nebraska.
“I’d always wanted to teach, and Nebraska was actually one of the few programs that really offered like a TA possibility,” Weiss said. I taught acting for non majors. That was fun. It was stressful. You had a lot on your plate when you were a grad student. But kind of thrived in that situation. I really rather liked it. I got opportunities to play roles I don’t think I would have received when I was an undergrad. You did a lot of work on stage, and that was just really great fun.”
Being able to do a lot of different things at Nebraska helped prepare her for her career.
“You learn so much in the doing. You learn so much from getting up and making mistakes and figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, what is in your wheelhouse, and what might not be,” Weiss said. “It’s a place to go ahead and stretch yourself and try things you wouldn’t have tried before. The more you know your instrument, the more informed you are with how you go into the business. Because the business sometimes doesn’t have time to figure you out.”
Weiss returned to Chicago after graduation.
“There was a lot of theater happening in Chicago,” Weiss said, which was her focus initially before she also started doing work on camera and voiceovers.
Her big break came when she became the voice of Yoplait Yogurt, which she did for four years.
“I did something that was outside of my comfort zone, which was I reached out to someone I’d met and had a decent relationship with. She was at DDB ad agency. I asked her if she would take five minutes to listen to my demo and give me feedback. She listened and gave me feedback. Then, she went out the door, but she walked right into a meeting with a bunch of executives where they were trying to find the next voice for Yoplait Yogurt, and they basically described me. I got called to go in and audition for it, and I hooked it. That became my calling card.”
A few months after that, she went to New York with “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” where she originated the role of Alice and performed it in New York and Los Angeles.
“I never not worked as an actor again,” she said. “I never did another support job, other than the things I do because I enjoy them, like teaching. But it was just sort of like dead broke to boom, boom, boom, and then not looking back. I finished grad school around 25-26, and I didn’t really start to make a living at it until 30. But I kept working at it, and I kept building the skills and the resume. And then I took that risk, which is really hard to do, to ask someone for a favor.”
Weiss has enjoyed the voiceover work she has been able to do.
“The biggest thing is it’s not about what I look like, which sounds overly simplistic, but you can’t underestimate that,” she said. “Probably one of my biggest frustrations was never really quite getting a good agent’s attention for television and film, and I had many people who advocated for me. But in voiceover, there were so many things I was able to do. I did all these video games where I played kick-ass babe roles that I would never get on camera. You’re bound by your voice, but it’s really more open. I really enjoy it.”
Weiss is an adjunct professor at Roosevelt University’s College of Performing Arts in Chicago. She also has taught voiceover classes in Los Angeles, served on the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists Conservatory and volunteers with several other service organizations.
Weiss said one of the best things about her career is the schedule, even though it can sometimes be crazy.
“We used to joke about feast or famine, and there’s so much anxiety around whether you’re working or not,” she said. “But I have to say, the fact that I could so often go meet my friends for coffee in the middle of the day was great. Having spent five years behind a desk as a temp and getting miserable, I loved the sort of freedom of not having conventional hours.”
It's also been fun.
“Come on, to walk into a booth and do this crazy Russian accent?” she said. “It’s just so fun. When you’re on a set, it’s not always fun. It’s a heck of lot of waiting, and there’s a lot of rejection. But overall, it was a lot of fun."