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Directing a Career Toward Success

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Mary Lou Belli with Blackberry Smoke

After graduating from Penn State, School of Theatre alumna Mary Lou Belli moved to New York City, got her Equity card and an agent, and soon landed her first union job, touring in a theatre company that performed for school children. After a few years working in New York, she moved to Los Angeles, and within five days got her first job, on a Steve Martin-produced sitcom called “Domestic Life.”

Her acting career was off to a promising start. But then she had the opportunity to direct an episode of “Charles in Charge,” and everything changed. Today Belli is an Emmy Award-winning director, producer, and writer who also teaches directing at the University of Southern California.

Some of her directorial credits include the television shows “NCIS: New Orleans,”  “Pitch,” “The Quad,” “Hart of Dixie,” “Devious Maids,” “Monk,” and “Girlfriends,” and the award-winning web series “3Way” and “Jenifer Lewis and Shangela.” She earned Emmy Awards for her work on the documentaries “A Community of Caring” (director) and “Santa Monica Cares” (executive producer).

A director, Belli says, must strive for more than “better.” “I wish I had realized when I first started that ultimately, as the director, improvement is not enough. The director must be responsible for the excellence of the product. It can’t be better; it has to be best.”

Belli has shared her extensive experience in several books, including “Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing,” co-authored with Bethany Rooney. The second edition was released in 2016 and is now used internationally. She also co-authored “The Sitcom Career Book” (two editions), with Phil Ramuno, and “Acting for Young Actors,” with Dinah Lenney.

Belli said she decided to start writing books to beef up her teaching résumé, but soon realized that writing them actually made her a better director. “When you can explain, or teach something to someone else, you automatically improve your own skill set,” she explained.

Belli credits her Penn State education with providing her with a strong foundation for her career, noting the skills she learned in her set design class, taught by Ken Holamon, have been invaluable to what she does today. She also fondly recalls faculty members Archie Smith, Manuel Duque, Jean Sabatine, David Alan Stern, and Bob Leonard.

Belli’s extensive directing experience allows her to transition smoothly between new and established shows, and between sitcoms and dramas. “A new show is always finding its legs, and you grow with it. You also are discovering what that show will be—its strengths, its potential. You are part of that discovery,” she explained. “An established show is about fulfilling an already-established puzzle and learning how your skill set can contribute to what they are already doing well.”

With her experience and an eagerness to help aspiring directors, Belli is active in various mentoring activities. She is currently a Directors Guild of America consultant for the Disney-ABC Directing Program. She also teaches workshops for young women directors.

According to Belli, directors need to have good leadership and listening skills. “And you need to be prepared, and to know the acting process, so you can ultimately tell a story.”

She advises aspiring directors to make films or web series while in school, so they have something to show potential employers. “Be entrepreneurs—if someone is not giving you a job, create your own. And don’t get angry or bitter while you wait for your career to manifest itself. Never lose your joy!”

Image: Mary Lou Belli with the band Blackberry Smoke, on the set of "NCIS: New Orleans." Photo by Gordon Lonsdale.