New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Tisch Alumna Talks ‘Shiva Baby,’ Goal-Setting and Twitter

Rachel Sennott discusses her time at Tisch and her upcoming projects.
Jenny Wong
Rachel Sennott, an NYU Tisch alumna, is an actress known for her appearance in High Maintenance, Shiva Baby and Hostess. (Photo Courtesy of Jenny Wong)

“I never made any of the, like, cool comedy groups,” says Rachel Sennott, looking back on her first year at NYU Tisch. “I auditioned a bunch of times, never got in. But I started doing stand-up.” 

We are sitting around the Madison Square Fountain, our plan-b meeting spot after we wound up at two different Dig Inns within five blocks of one another.

During her second year, she started writing and performing her own sketches, which she continues to post to YouTube. She also began auditioning for senior thesis films as a first-year and notes that she has done around 10 of them total. It was for the production of one of these thesis films that she met Emma Seligman, writer and director of the short film “Shiva Baby,” about a college student who runs into her sugar daddy at a funeral.

After wrapping the film, the two spent some time together off set. Seligman remembers that Sennott was eager to hear what else she was working on. “I told her about this idea I had and she was like, okay, what are your one-month and three-month goals?” Seligman says with a laugh. “She’s definitely the best goal-setter and has gotten me on the right path.”

“Shiva Baby” premiered at South by Southwest and was featured as a Vimeo Staff Pick. It was through SXSW that Sennott caught the attention of her now-managers. “They saw ‘Shiva’ there and then went to my website and saw my stand-up and all these sketches that I made during school,” she says.

While her career has taken off since her graduation from NYU, she credits how quickly everything is moving to the preparation she had while still in school. 

“I feel like people are so precious and they wait to make something,” she says. “And it’s like, the first couple things you make are gonna be bad.” 

She emphasizes that, with each attempt, the art you produce comes closer to the vision you have of it in your head. “There’s a quote about this from someone definitely famous that I’m forgetting,” she says. “I think it’s either the guy who wrote ‘Hallelujah’ or someone from NPR.” 

Even more valuable than the training she received at Stella Adler — her acting studio in the Tisch program — Sennott believes, was the real-world experience she gained and the connections she formed with other Tisch students, particularly those in other departments. Each month, she hosts a stand-up-comedy-drinking-game event called “Puke Fest” with best friend Moss Perricone  — “I have 11 best friends but they really all are my best friends,” she laughs  — a graduate of the dramatic writing program. 

“The most beneficial thing that I got out of school has been the friendships that I’ve made and the things that we’ve worked on together,” Sennott says. 

“I think she got sh-t from her peers for focusing on her own stuff instead of doing, like, Shakespeare soliloquies,” Seligman says. “She’ll joke about not finishing her assignments because she was busy making connections outside of the department.”

While Sennott spent much of her time at Tisch focusing on comedy, in the last couple years she has returned to acting and come to define herself in less rigid terms.

“Now it’s like I’m a performer; I perform stand-up live, I act and that’s what I wanna do,” she says. “I also like to write, but I really only want to write if I’m also going to be in it.”

The feature version of “Shiva Baby,” written and directed by Seligman, wrapped this August. In the feature, Sennot worked alongside big names such as Dianna Agron, Fred Melamed and Polly Draper.

Seligman is currently submitting the film to festivals, as well as developing another feature, which she describes as “more of an absurdist comedy.” 

Seligman believes that “Shiva Baby,” particularly the feature version, highlights the versatility of Sennott’s talents. “She’s a really talented, vulnerable artist and I think that might be surprising to people who follow her on Twitter,” she says. 

If you haven’t seen Sennott’s work, you may have read one of her tweets, which often make their way onto popular Instagram meme accounts. While her Twitter Feed may appear to be a series of off-the-cuff quips, she shares that she was actually very intentional in her efforts to build a following on the platform. 

It began when she noticed that people were using their Twitter followings to help them get work. “And also because I was in this relationship with a guy who didn’t want to be with me,” she laughs “I was just telling my therapist this. Some psycho part of my head was like, ‘If I have 10,000 Twitter followers, he will love me.’” 

“I just set goals for how many followers I wanted to have by a certain time,” she says. She would write tweets at night, send them to her friend Moss for approval and then tweet them at strategic times throughout the day.

“The only real knack I have is for, like, organizing and goal setting,” she says when I ask if she could see herself doing anything besides performing. “But I feel like I’m only good at doing that in terms of this career because it’s what I care about. It makes me think that if it was something else, I might not be good at it.”

She also thinks Twitter has been crucial in securing a series of stand-up comedy gigs at colleges across the nation. Even if they haven’t seen her stand-up, the students know who she is and have a sense of her humor from her tweets. “I’m not just a random comedian to them,” Sennott says.

“I feel like what’s helped me the most in booking jobs is being myself, being a little strange, a little whatever,” she says. “But it’s only been like two years, so what do I know?” 

Correction, Oct. 15: A previous version of this article stated that Sennott and Seligman are co-writing the feature version of “Shiva Baby.” This is not true. The two are working together on separate film, and Seligman is writing “Shiva Baby” independently. The article has been corrected. and WSN regrets the error.

A version of this article appears in the Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, print edition. Email Julie Goldberg at [email protected].

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Julie Goldberg
Julie Goldberg, Books & Theater Editor

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