Story by Rachel Rockwell/photos by Lyon Duong, UF Photography
Malcolm Gets often tells his students, “If we’re in the business of reflecting life, we have to have a life to reflect.”
He graduated from the University of Florida in 1987 and, later, the Yale School of Drama before earning roles for theatre, television and film. It’s been a life worth reflecting, to say the least.
He continues to perform, but he’s taken on a new role these days: Professor of Practice in the School of Theatre + Dance.
“In its simplest terms, it means that I am teaching,” he said. “And in addition to teaching, I’m encouraged to continue working in the profession. If I was to book a television show or a film, then I was to take the necessary time off to go and film that and then come back.”
Prior to his tenure, which started in August 2017, he shot “Godless,” a Netflix TV series, and Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” Although his scene was cut from the latter, he said he had a great time with Spielberg and Meryl Streep.
Gets teaches two courses — Acting for the Camera and Singing for the Actor — in the MFA Acting program.
For Jonny Triumph, a second-year MFA acting student, Singing for the Actor gave him the opportunity to “roam within [his] curiosity.” A self-proclaimed professional shower singer, Triumph said Gets challenged him to bring that same confidence into the classroom.
“One of the primary vibes that’s in Malcolm’s class, and just around Malcolm in general, is the idea that everyone can sing,” he said. “We heard of Malcolm, his accolades, his Gainesville roots, but we were mainly interested in this class because of his personable approach and wealth of wisdom.”
Prior to UF, Gets taught at New York University. His current courses blend lessons he cultivated at NYU with new ones. Teaching Acting for the Camera is brand new for Gets. He based the curriculum for the class on his own experiences. TV tends to work quickly, Gets said, and requires actors to self-tape, so for the class, he’ll share his own audition material with students, who then have 24 hours to do a similar process.
“I think it’s about the immediacy of bringing my experience in the professional world right into their educational world,” Gets said.
The Professor of Practice position came about in 2015 when several college deans wanted to bring people with industry or practical experience to their colleges as faculty, according to Angel Kwolek-Folland, associate provost for academic and faculty affairs at UF.
At this point, Kwolek-Folland said, there are about 10 professors of practice at UF. Besides the College of the Arts, they can be found in the Colleges of Engineering, Business, Journalism and Communications, and Design, Construction and Planning.
Gets is a Gainesville native, and while there’s a newness to his position, there’s also a great deal of nostalgia for him.
“There are moments of great familiarity,” he said. “Like when I’m inside the Constans Theatre, it does feel like a time warp. It feels like 30 years ago.”
He said coming back to where he grew up to teach at his alma mater was a no-brainer.
“I’ve long said that my years at the University of Florida were some of the most happy and creative times of my life,” he said. “I stand by that.”
While teaching at NYU, Gets met with the College of the Arts’ dean, Lucinda Lavelli, for lunch near Lincoln Center. He offhandedly mentioned that he preferred teaching more than working at that point in his life.
“I’ve been very, very, very fortunate in my chosen profession, and I’m grateful for it, but there came a point when I realized I was actually enjoying teaching more than doing it myself,” he said. “I was really enjoying working with the students.”
And so the proposition began.
As with most things, there were challenges in the beginning. He’s spent his career hiding himself behind the characters he plays, so getting up in front of his class as himself, as Malcolm, was initially difficult.
Eventually, he realized, “It’s not really about me. I feel like I’m a facilitator.”
Now, the hardest part of the job is grading his students.
“I feel like one cannot grade based on talent,” he said.
To combat this, he enforces his attendance policy, has written assignments, and heavily takes into account class participation.
“I want the students to take responsibility for their work and for themselves,” he said.
For anyone challenge, there are plenty more rewarding experiences. Gets said the most gratifying thing is watching his students move forward and do things they didn’t think they were capable of.
“They may not turn into Pavarotti or Joan Sutherland, but, you know, they’re up there, and singing their hearts out, and have a new confidence,” he said of his Singing for the Actor students.
Gets plans to continue teaching — “very happily so” — for semesters to come. After his experiences last fall, he’s getting a better feel for what the role of professor entails.
For Gets, Gainesville is a tranquil contrast to New York.
“The thing about living in New York, it’s very easy to get distracted because life is so bustling there,” he said. “There are creative ideas I’ve thought about, mostly writing ventures, but someone calls at nine in the morning and I’m out for the day.”
He said he plans to use his newfound time and space to “expand his horizons,” write more and explore the town he grew up in, which he admits he took for granted as a kid.
He’s still auditioning — mostly for TV – but he’s also begun creative projects of his own, ones he hadn’t had the chance to work on until now.
Looking back on his career, he said he has his favorite moments. Starring on “Caroline in the City” for four years and working with Stephen Sondheim are at the top of the list.
“Now,” he said, “I have to say, that some of my fondest memories are of seeing the students’ performances.”