Through his avid engagement with the Penn performing arts community, notably as chair of Penn Players and member of the Performing Arts Council board, Tommy Christaldi (C ‘23) carved out his own path here at Penn. Dedicating most of his time to helping others do the same as a peer leader in the College and tour guide for the Kite & Key Society, the self–described talker also found his place on– and offstage. Hopefully, we’ll see him on a bigger stage in the not–too–distant future, fulfilling his dream of being a late–night talk show host.
Name: Tommy Christaldi
Hometown: Aston, Pa.
Major: Communications, with minors in consumer psychology and journalistic writing
Extracurriculars: Chair of Penn Players, Community Service Chair of Performance Arts Council, After School Arts Program Coordinator, Kite & Key Tour Guide, Peer Advisor, Research Assistant at Annenberg Public Policy Center
Which of your activities have particularly shaped your Penn experience?
I think that Players has been my top experience at Penn. I’ve met so many of my best friends there, and I live with Players people now, so that’s been a super valuable community that I jumped into right away. I acted all through high school, and towards the end of high school I started doing some tech stuff, which I do some of here as well. I’ve done lights and sound design for a number of shows across PAC, not just Players, which is a great way to stay involved in these other groups. I know that a capella isn't my thing, for example, but I really enjoy seeing other people do it. I did lights and sound for Penn Dhamaka last year and probably never would have seen a Dhamaka show otherwise, but it's so cool and was so impressive to see.
In general, even though I'm on the board of Penn Players, I consider myself a member of the theater arts council in the sense that I work on all of the shows. You can only be in one show every semester, but you can be on the production staff of as many as you want. So typically, I'm on the production staff of at least three, if not more, out of the seven total. It's just great, because everybody's always willing to lend a helping hand. There have been times that I haven't been officially on the production staff, but someone said, “Hey, we're in crisis mode, the show’s this week, and the lights don't work.” I'm willing to show up and help, and I know that they would do the same for me. It's a really diverse and vibrant community [where] everybody really supports one another.
We all care about the arts in some capacity, and even though we aren't necessarily all familiar with what one another does, it’s like, I can't dance, but I can respect dance.
What about your engagements with communities outside of the arts?
The After School Arts Program has been the most rewarding thing I've done in terms of engaging with the community. Once a week, we bring in Philadelphia middle schoolers, and we mentor them in things like improv, singing, dance, and instrumental music. That's really great because [our volunteers] come from all across the Performing Arts Council, as well as some people who are just really passionate about community service and giving back to the Philadelphia community.
Also, I think that all of those things where I work with incoming students and help guide prospective students have been some of the most fun I've had at Penn, because I remember how nervous I was to come to college. I matched with Penn through QuestBridge. While it's not something I've made a huge part of my identity at Penn, I am a [first–generation low–income] student, and there's a lot that comes with that when you come to college. You're worried, especially at a school like this. “Am I going to fit in? Am I going to find friends?” I feel like I've really found so many great and supportive communities here that really let me excel, and I have sort of made it a mission of mine, since even sophomore year, of doing that for other people.
It’s been important to me to be a part of opening those doors for people and reassuring them that anything you want to do at this school is possible, and you should believe in yourself and do those things. Kite & Key, peer advising, and being a Penn Arts leader all stem from that—that idea that Penn is my favorite place—and I want to help make it the favorite place of other people however I can.
As for your academic interests, how does all this engagement tie into communications for you?
I tell people all the time, “I'm majoring in talking.” I'm sure some of my professors wouldn't like me to dumb it down that way, and there's certainly more to it than that, but at the end of the day, the things that I learned in the classroom have really made me a better leader, in the sense that I know how to interact with and talk to people. I just have a better sense—through those academics—of how people think through the ways they communicate with one another.
But then, sort of going the other way, I have never once gotten up to present in front of a class and been nervous. Ever. Communication itself, through theater, is something I've been doing for as long as I can remember, so to me, there's no real difference between standing and presenting in class for ten minutes and standing on stage in a musical or giving a tour.
I think the unifying thing is that I've looked for activities where I have an audience, and I guess that kind of plays into what I'm studying. Interacting with people is something I love so much, and the comfort in doing so is something that I've gotten both out of my extracurriculars and out of academic pursuits.
My dream in life—long–term, and emphasis on long–term—is to be a late–night talk show host. I know there are six of those on television, and they all already have the hosts, but sort of everything I've done, I think, is not necessarily directly in pursuit of that, but building on those skills.
What are you going to miss the most post–Penn?
You know, it really just is the people, isn't it? I know that I talked about that a lot, because almost all of my friends I've met through some extracurricular or other. But that's the thing that I say at the end of my tours every week—I love the people here. Everybody here is so passionate about what they do and also so passionate about helping other people pursue their passions. I don't want to say I have a unique perspective on it, because everybody's gonna say they love the people here, but especially as a communications major and studying the ways that we interact with one another, that's what I'm gonna miss most when I graduate.
That, and WilCaf coffee.
In between now and being a talk show host, what's next for you after Penn?
That's a good question, isn't it? It feels like everybody around me is figuring out what they're doing, and I am still searching. Last summer, I worked at a talent agency in New York. It was a ton of fun. I got to read a bunch of early drafts of novels, and I was the guy who decided whether or not we should pass on those books, so that was a bit of a power trip. I would love to go back there after graduation, but I was the first intern in their New York office ever.
The plus side of that was that I got to do those really cool things like reading, not just ordinary intern tasks. The downside is that there was no position for me to just jump into, because the infrastructure is not there yet. I definitely want to stay in New York [and] stay on the East Coast. I like being close to home. You know, I'd love to work in some type of entertainment capacity production assistant. I've been looking into what NBC and ABC offer and just kind of seeing where I end up.
Honestly, though, right now, I'm writing a thesis, and that has been taking up all of the time that I wish I was dedicating to finding a job.
Last song you listened to? “Vienna” by Billy Joel
If you had to describe yourself as a building on campus, what would you say and why?
My gut says the Annenberg Center, because you know, there are three different stages there—three different auditoriums. There's always different stuff going on, and I feel like I'm always someone who has a lot of different things happening all at once, but all of them are entertaining.
There are two types of people at Penn …
I have to be honest with you. I've been thinking about how I would answer this question since freshman year, and I didn't settle on it until this morning. But the two types of people are the people who talk and the people who do numbers.
And you are? I talk.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.