May 08, 2023

Theatre major

from Ashland, Virginia

What do a standout football player, a theater major, and a TikTok influencer have in common? If you’re Hampden-Sydney College student Michael Harris ’22, they have a lot in common—because they all describe him.

Michael Harris '22 posing at a porch railingThis dynamic young man with a megawatt smile and easygoing nature is a true testament to what a Hampden-Sydney education allows students to experience, which is anything and everything they may be interested in.

Born in Newport News, Virginia, Mike was bitten by the performing bug shortly after his family moved to Ashland, Virginia, when he started singing in the Shiloh Baptist Church choir. The choir often performed in the Ashland Variety Show, and Mike’s talents caught the eye of the director of a community theater group. He was invited to audition for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Mike made his theater debut in fourth grade as Grandpa Joe in the classic Roald Dahl tale.

Through the years, Mike continued performing, but as he entered high school, he had planned to hang it up. “I couldn’t see anything coming from my interest in theater by way of a job, so I figured I would focus on other things as I looked ahead toward college,” Mike says. But when a long-time friend and mentor suggested him for a last-minute opening in the Patrick Henry High School Soundsations Show Choir, Mike got his first taste of musical theater—combining his love of singing and acting.

By the time he graduated high school, Mike had starred as Riff in West Side Story, King Triton in The Little Mermaid, and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, in addition to earning seventh in the state in Senior Honors Choir—Virginia’s highest choir honor awarded to high schoolers.

He spent his first year at Hampden-Sydney exploring a few avenues while also getting involved with the theater program. As he prepared to declare his major at the start of his sophomore year, Mike talked over his plans with his mom. She wanted Mike to major in economics, as she felt it would give him the best advantage when he graduated. But he just couldn’t do it. Economics didn’t interest him; Mike’s heart still lay with musical theater. He would simply have to figure out a way to turn his passion into a profession.

Training under voice coach Lisa Edwards-Burrs and Associate Professor of Fine Arts Helena von Rueden, Mike began coming into his own as a singer. The highlight of his college acting career being when he performed as Amos, the timid, pushover husband to scheming starlet Roxie in Longwood University’s production of Chicago in the fall of 2020—the only non- Longwood student cast in the show. “Amos was a real challenge for me,” Mike admits. “I was used to playing very robust, outspoken characters. But as Amos, I was supposed to almost blend into the background, which on account of my size alone is kind of tough to do.”

At 6’2” and 315 pounds, Mike has a commanding presence, and he uses that stature for more than just getting into character. He is a five-year veteran defensive tackle on the Tiger Football team, who has earned Second Team All-ODAC and ODAC All-Academic Team honors and was recently named a semifinalist for the prestigious William V. Campbell trophy—college football’s academic Heisman—one of only two ODAC and 29 DIII honorees out of 156 semifinalists.

Although these two interests may seem disparate to some, Mike has thoughtfully found interesting parallels between his training on the stage and on the gridiron. “A lot of success in both football and theater can be found in learning to trust your instincts,” he advises.

Mike recalls a game against Ferrum where he could tell by the way the opposing line leaned as to what play they were running, and he made the tackle every time. “It comes down to training,” he says. Similarly, during a performance of West Side Story in high school, his castmates were late coming to stage for their scene due to a costume mishap backstage. His training kicked in, and he was able to improvise and keep the show going until his fellow performers reappeared.

Additionally, Mike notes that singing has been found to combat brain injury in football players. And at a position that is in the fray on every single play, Mike—and his parents—take comfort in combatting that trauma however possible.

As he prepared to graduate in December 2022, Mike faced the same pains as many other graduating seniors with pandemic restrictions limiting internship and job opportunities the last couple of years: “Theater is very hands-on, and it was nearly impossible to find an internship or job shadowing a theater manager like I had hoped to do the last couple of years.”

But Mike wasn’t twiddling his thumbs during this unexpected downtime—creating under the handle @bigmike_675, he has taken his talents to TikTok to gain exposure and experience in the entertainment industry. His exploits on the video-sharing app have gained him a following of 3.8 million followers at the time of writing as well as brand deals and modeling opportunities with Vogue magazine photographer Rowan Papier. But it’s not just a hobby to Mike; he is leveraging his experience on TikTok to build a real-time, virtual portfolio.

“It’s been an unexpected blessing. I’ve learned a lot about engagement, audience management, content creation, and staying relevant and on-trend as the algorithm changes,” he explains. “And now that I have a substantial following, I can create even more authentic and personal content because my followers are interested in me as a person.”

As he discovered that his unique voice is critical to his success on TikTok, refining his personal voice and presence as a singer and actor was Mike’s key focus in his final semester. “Everyone’s on their own journey,” he says. “I may sound different when singing a song than someone else, but it doesn’t mean I’m bad. Sometimes those differences are what get you in the door.”

Mike’s journey thus far is proof that the original king of the stage, William Shakespeare, was on to something important when he wrote those immortal words: “To thine own self be true.” His commitment to exploring his individual creative voice and ability to take cues from his varied interests to enhance his performance will take him far.

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