Jill Lincoln: Cultivating Transformation in Theater Arts

Jill Lincoln, MA, loves training the next generation of great storytellers. As the head of Azusa Pacific University’s Department of Theater Arts, Lincoln is passionate about helping students become experts at their craft, sharing impactful stories through the art of acting. “Stories matter. They’re the way in which Christ communicated and if we equip students to become exceptional storytellers, that is success, especially when we’re 20 minutes from the largest entertainment industry in the world,” Lincoln said.

This close proximity to Hollywood led Lincoln and APU theater arts faculty to develop the first Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting for the Stage and Screen program in the country. Unlike most traditional acting programs which focus solely on classical theater training, APU’s innovative BFA equips students with skills for on-camera work too. “Our faculty knew that in order to make a living as an actor, you’ve got to understand different genres,” Lincoln said. “The entertainment industry is always reinventing itself. We want to train our students to be flexible and know how to work in both areas.” The BFA in acting begins training students in theater so they can learn acting fundamentals, script analysis, and character development, before moving on to on-camera work. “I’ve done both. I love theater and the thrill of performing in front of a full house on opening night. I’m always equally excited to connect with another actor in front of the camera and then witness it on the big screen.”

Lincoln uses her firsthand knowledge from professional acting experience in her instruction. Originally from Dallas, Lincoln was fortunate to attend one of the top theater programs in the country at Southern Methodist University on a full ride. After graduating from SMU, she interned at The Alley, a professional theater in Houston, before deciding to take the leap to New York City. For several years, Lincoln struggled to land major roles, doing mostly free and non-equity theater. It was while she was acting at a charity event at Fifth Presbyterian Church that Lincoln had a life changing realization from the Holy Spirit. Although she grew up in a Christian household, Lincoln’s faith took a backseat to her ambition during her early career. She had been separating her faith from her acting.

“In that moment, I was convicted that I wasn't going to be able to act anymore unless I was willing to do it for the right reasons, not for fame or accolades, but to serve God with the characters I was creating and through the stories I was telling,” she said. “That was a game changer for me. It empowered me to worry less about pleasing others and to tell the story from an authentic place of truth.”

After this realization, Lincoln saw her career blossom. She got her big break as an understudy in a John Patrick Shanley Broadway production. This led Lincoln to land major roles in a couple of Broadway national tours, including Ken Ludwig’s Moon Over Buffalo. “But right as I was breaking into Broadway, my agent called and said I needed to go to LA, so I did and I got my very first on camera job with Paul Giamatti and Vanessa Redgrave, two of the greats of the acting world,” Lincoln said. “Because I was on camera with them for 12 hours, I learned how to adjust from theater to film acting.” Lincoln continued landing roles on major shows including starring as “Crazy Carrie” in Gilmore Girls, Tish Atherton in Desperate Housewives, and Gracie Jane in Boston Legal.

While pursuing her acting career, Lincoln founded the Brennan Gould Acting Studio with colleagues who had trained at Yale. Here, she began to develop courses that would later influence the APU’s BFA in acting curriculum. Soon after starting the studio, Lincoln received an invite from a friend to lead a workshop on auditioning at APU. “I loved it. I instantly fell in love with the students and I was thrilled that it led to me getting to teach a class as an adjunct instructor at APU,” she said. Lincoln enjoyed teaching while still pursuing her acting career for a few years, but after having two kids, she decided to become a full-time educator. “I didn’t train to be a professor, but I realized pretty early in my acting career that I wanted to teach. I learned a lot at SMU, but there were so many things they didn’t teach that I learned through experience on Broadway and in LA that I wanted to share with my students.”

Lincoln’s faith played a major role in her choosing to teach at APU. When looking at colleges for herself, Lincoln didn’t seriously consider any Christian universities because their theater programs weren’t nearly as strong as their secular counterparts. “Even years later after I had kids, I thought it was a shame that there wasn’t a Christian university with an acting program that I’d want to send my kids to one day,” she said.

“Looking back, I saw APU as a great place to develop a premier Christian theater arts program. I think our incredible faculty, staff, and students have made that happen. I believe we are one of the leading Christian acting programs in the country.”

APU Theater Arts has received numerous accolades in the last two decades, including having the West Coast premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 2019, before the show even launched a national tour. APU was also selected as one of only five universities in the nation to receive the rights to perform Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera after the Broadway production closed in 2022. “I have friends from other top acting schools across the country who ask me how we got these shows at a private Christian school,” Lincoln said. “All of us in our department know that it’s God using our proximity to LA and this particular group of people to create exceptionalism in His name.”

Perhaps the accomplishment that Lincoln is most proud of is the development of the Industry Showcase at Warner Bros. Studios. Held in April each year, the BFA Showcase allows graduating APU seniors to perform in front of dozens of talent representatives and industry agents. Students share monologues and present a web series so agents can get a sense of their acting skills on the stage and screen. “We were one of the first programs in the country to create a unique BFA industry showcase like that. Most schools only highlight their MFA students. We had 50 talent representatives sign up for the Showcase last year, which is incredible,” Lincoln said. “It led to 70 percent of our students getting called to meet with an agent, and 50 percent of them got signed.”

APU alumni have gone on to star in numerous TV shows, movies, and even Super Bowl commercials. Lincoln loves seeing her students succeed in the industry, testifying to the training they received at APU. “It is exciting to see our students using their talents to be difference makers for Christ.”