Dartmouth 'made me feel like a big shot,' Kaling '01 says

by Rachel Pakianathan | 4/24/18 2:45am

In five words, Mindy Kaling ’01 would describe her own Dartmouth experience as, “Indian girl enjoying the forest.” Now this June, Kaling will return to Dartmouth to deliver the Commencement address for the Class of 2018 this June.

Described by her professors as having a clever and biting sense of humor, Kaling spent her time on campus as the “Badly Drawn Girl” for The Dartmouth; a member of the improvisational comedy troupe Dog Day Players and the a capella group the Rockapellas; a writer for the humor magazine the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern; and an actress, director and playwright in the theater department. In other words, she did a lot.

Kaling entered Dartmouth as a prospective Latin major but graduated with a degree in playwriting, according to the College’s website.

“I got so much confidence as a writer and a performer going to Dartmouth,” Kaling wrote in an email interview. “I would write these little plays and sketch shows, and they would all sell out, because there was literally nothing else to do in town for entertainment. It made me feel like a big shot, and confidence continued on after college.”

Theater professor Dan Kotlowitz said that he remembers an incident in which Kaling put on an illicit after-hours performance at the Bentley Theater in the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

“We’re sort of careful with who we give keys to our theaters, and one of the reasons is [Kaling],” Kotlowitz said. “She had keys to the Bentley Theater and she did a performance in the middle of the night that none of us knew about.”

Theater professor James Rice, who taught Kaling in Theater 30, “Acting 1,” said he recalled Kaling as being frequently involved in her own self-driven projects.

“I remember that [Kaling] seemed subversive — at least very independently spirited,” Rice said. “She always had a lot of things going on at once and attracted a group of very talented, smart actors around her that coalesced into what they called the Short Attention Span Theater.”

Kaling had roles in several theater productions while on campus, including Jack’s mother in “Into the Woods” and Maria in “Twelfth Night.” Her own one-act play, “Happy Endings for Rueful Masses,” won the Eleanor Frost Playwriting contest in 1999. She additionally wrote and directed a collection of short plays for her culminating senior project entitled “Shocking Appalling Terrible Awful,” an experience she lists among her favorite memories from Dartmouth.

“I loved swimming in the Connecticut River [during] sophomore summer, which I did almost every day,” Kaling wrote. “I loved writing and performing my senior project, a series of short sketches, at the Bentley. I loved driving with my a cappella group to Fort Lou’s at midnight on a weekday. I loved traveling from one frat party to another on a freezing cold night hoping you might see a cute guy you went to class with — I forget if I ever attended class.”

Kaling added that because she spent the bulk of her time engaged in activities outside of her classes, she believes that she neglected some of her academic work.

“I wish I had taken more classes!” Kaling wrote. “I was always so involved with my extracurriculars that I didn’t focus enough on my schoolwork. I don’t think I took a single film course, which is insane!”

According to Kaling, her favorite places to study on campus were Sanborn Library and the lounge in the theater department, and her favorite place to eat lunch was the Courtyard Café. Her favorite classes included a theater class taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson and a discussion-based class on Kaling’s theater foreign study program in London.

Kaling said her favorite Dartmouth song was “Dartmouth Undying,” which she described as “gorgeous and melancholy.”

Upon graduating from Dartmouth, Kaling moved to New York City with two friends from the College, she said. While trying to find work in television, Kaling and Brenda Withers ’00 won the best overall production award in the New York International Film Festival for “Matt & Ben,” their short absurdist play on how Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote the movie “Good Will Hunting.”

“I always hoped I would work in TV, but I didn’t exactly understand what that meant or how I would accomplish that,” Kaling wrote. “The year after I [graduated] college I spent in New York with my best Dartmouth friends [Withers] and Jocelyn Leavitt ’01. I wrote spec scripts and plays in my apartment while I babysat for money.”

Today, Kaling is best known as the writer, producer, director and actress on the TV shows “The Office” and “The Mindy Project” and author of bestselling books “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)” and “Why Not Me?.” She is also the voice of the character “Disgust” for Pixar’s animated film “Inside Out.” She is currently a creator and executive producer on NBC sitcom “Champions.” Kaling is also beginning production on a film for which she is a writer, producer and lead actress.

She wrote that what she finds most difficult about navigating the entertainment industry today is the lack of creativity in the new material being produced.

“I wish heads of studios and networks cared less about re-booting old shows or expanding the superhero crime fighting universe and more about investing in new, original material,” Kaling said. “That said, Wakanda forever.”