Taking to the stage eight times weekly at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Carvens Lissaint ’14CPS plays George Washington in the international smash hit Hamilton. It was only a few years ago that he was pursuing his Bachelor of Science degree in Dramatic Arts, Film and Television at St. John’s University.
He entered the theatrical world at 16 as a poet, honing skills that would eventually bring him wide recognition as a spoken-word artist, actor, singer, playwright, and author who published his first book of poems when he was 18. St. John’s, however, opened the door for Mr. Lissaint to connect with something of critical importance to him, and what he simply referred to as “my soul.”
Mr. Lissaint enrolled in St. John’s College of Professional Studies at the age of 22 after receiving a full-tuition scholarship through the Knicks Poetry Scholars program, a partnership between the New York Knicks and Urban Word NYC that awards scholarships to incoming students to St. John’s and four other universities.
A native New Yorker and the son of poor Haitian immigrants who highly valued a college education, he had previously earned an Associate of Occupational Studies degree in acting from The American Academy for Dramatic Arts, a two-year conservatory in Manhattan dedicated to training professional actors.
Soon after he arrived on campus, Mr. Lissaint joined Voices of Victory, lending his baritone voice to the University’s gospel choir. His natural leadership abilities soon moved members to select him as choir chaplain, a position that enabled Mr. Lissaint to lead the group’s Bible studies and deliver homilies at choir performances.
“Just before I began studying at St. John’s,” he added, “I had become strong in my faith as a nondenominational Christian, and Voices of Victory was very pivotal in terms of me finding a community of young people who loved God.”
Mr. Lissaint also found an ideal mentor in Nigel W. Gretton, Director, Performing Arts, and Musical Director and Conductor for Voices of Victory.
“I had some of the best times of my life when I worked with Nigel,” he said. “He taught about professionalism—what it means to show up, to be on time, and to be prepared. We would have rehearsals into the wee hours, working on just one song to make sure it was perfect,” recalled Mr. Lissaint.
“He also helped students find scholarships and financial aid to help them stay in school,” Mr. Lissaint added. “Even to this day, I feel like I can call him and he would be there at the drop of a dime.”
Mr. Lissaint is no stranger to tough times. When his parents faced financial troubles during his senior year of high school, he and his family moved in with his grandmother and shared her small, one-bedroom apartment. For three and a half years, after dropping out of an upstate community college as a freshman, he was homeless and resorted to a lot of “couch hopping.”
“I pretty much slept wherever someone would offer their couch,” he said.
Still, Mr. Lissaint never gave up on forging a career in the arts.
“I never had a side job or a survival job,” he said. “I sacrificed comfort and money to pursue being a full-time artist.”
In addition to touring throughout the US and internationally to compete in poetry slams during his late teens and early twenties, Mr. Lissaint performed and worked as a teaching artist at various universities and colleges, giving workshops and accepting residencies to teach poetry, theater, and creative writing at such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. He would earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts three years after graduating from St. John’s.
Throughout his years as a full-time undergraduate at St. John’s, Mr. Lissaint continued to maintain a packed schedule of performing at other colleges, delivered TED Talks, including one featured on TEDYouth about how to afford a college education, and also booked inspirational speaking engagements around the country. He also appeared in the University’s production of Dreamgirls. “That was fantastic; it was one of the first musicals I ever did,” he said.
Mr. Lissaint is particularly grateful to land a plum role in a Broadway megahit, considering Hamilton to be “the cherry on top for the work I do 24-7.”
“If I was not in Hamilton, I would still be in some type of play or some type of musical. I would still be writing,” said Mr. Lissaint, who recently published Target Practice, his second collection of poetry. His other creative credits include debuting his one-man show, Walk, off-Broadway at the Hip-Hop Theater Festival and performing in the hit television series, Verses and Flow.
Mr. Lissaint views his career in the arts as an embodiment of St. John’s Vincentian mission to help those most in need.
“I think everything I do is rooted in unconditional service to uplift those who are marginalized, those who are silenced, and those who are less fortunate,” he said. “I will always want to do a show or tell a story that has a very large impact on our culture and speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Mr. Lissaint also has some advice for current students at St. John’s. “There is this notion that once you graduate college, you are in the real world,” he said. “I think that is a dangerous mindset. When you are at St. John’s—that is the real world. Do not wait to graduate college to feel like you can make an impact on what you are called to do.”
Homepage Headshot photo by: Patrick Marcigliano