In Al Califano’s eyes, there’s no business like the business of show business.

Like any Broadway hoofer or Hollywood hopeful, he is crazy about what goes on in front of the footlights. But unlike many of those aspiring stars, Califano is just as interested in what goes on off the stage — the hours of work involved in producing any creative venture.

Singing since he was 12, Califano dove into performing when he came to Richmond, studying voice, joining Schola Cantorum and the men’s a cappella group the Octaves, and playing the role of Georg in the University’s production of Spring Awakening last spring — “probably one of the most artistically stimulating experiences I’ve had,” he says.

But although Califano’s passion for theater and music are strong, he realized as a teenager that performance wasn’t the particular path he wanted to take. Instead, he wanted something broader that would allow him to study more subjects and embrace more experiences.

“I think that’s what led me to think about careers in the arts outside of performing so that I could still engage in the artistic climate of this generation without being stuck in a performance track,” he says.

With a mindset of never wasting any experience he encounters, Califano has embraced the liberal arts, particularly the philosophy, politics, economics and law program, which he describes as “a really complete and diverse curriculum.” As a result of his experiences both in and outside the classroom, he’s become a passionate advocate for an approach to education that focuses less on a step-by-step career path and more on opening up his mind to subjects and disciplines he doesn’t know much about.

“I’ve found that just having an interest in something and pursuing that interest makes someone a well-rounded and interesting person. That makes other people want to interact with them and have conversations with them,” he says. “At the end of the day, people want to hire people with passions.”

It’s an approach that has worked well for him, landing him a UR Summer Fellowship-funded internship with William Morris Endeavor, the largest diversified talent agency in the world. In an unexpected twist, it turned out that Califano’s father knew Lynn Ahrens, the Tony Award-winning lyricist of Ragtime. He connected the two, and Ahrens lent Califano a hand in exploring his options and eventually nabbing an interview at WME.

For Califano, the internship was a perfect fit. In addition to educating him in the nuts and bolts of getting projects off the ground — dealing with contracts, reviewing scripts, processing royalty checks — it also offered him a chance to see major players in a range of creative areas in action.

“I learn a lot more by observing — hearing conversations, watching [people] interact,” he says. “You get to see the people you want to become.”

He’s taken that same eagerness to absorb all the ins and outs of an industry into his study abroad program at Goldsmith’s College in London. In addition to courses in politics, London theater, and British and American musical theater, Califano also arranged an internship with Paines Plough, a renowned theater known for encouraging and producing new plays. There, Califano is focusing on script evaluation, a task he was introduced to at WME, but one that he describes as being “at the other end of the spectrum” from most of the work he was doing.

“I’m just trying to figure out where my place is in this business,” he says.

He may not have found it yet, but with his appetite to learn and his enthusiasm for everything the creative world has to offer, there’s little doubt that he will.

Photo credit: John Joiner