Alumni Spotlights

On-Set Teacher Emily (Abriola) Van Brocklin’s Classroom Is the Film Studio

Emily Steele with Enzo Rodriguez, one of the actors she has tutored on set.

Emily Steele with Enzo Rodriguez, one of the actors she has tutored on set.

Sometimes your path leads to unexpected destinations. That was the case for Emily (Abriola) Van Brocklin, ’01, who works under the stage name Emily Steele. Emily wanted to be a singer, so, after earning her bachelor’s degree in secondary English education from Niagara University and a master’s degree from the University at Buffalo, she packed a U-Haul and left for Nashville, Tennessee, where she planned to teach until her singing career got off the ground.

The Liverpool, N.Y., native pursued her performance aspirations for a couple of years while working as a teacher. She even signed to an independent record label. But her career wasn’t advancing as she had hoped, so when the label owner suggested she draw from her high school theatre background and write a play that she could both star in and showcase some of her songs, she followed his advice. Although her play was never produced, Emily realized that she had a talent for writing, and she began to write and produce YouTube comedy sketches with the man who would become her husband and a group of their friends.

Emily also realized she was beginning “to fall in love with the film world.” To improve the quality of her YouTube videos, she attended film meetups and volunteered to work on other people’s films so she could learn more about the craft. Eventually, that led to a couple of paid jobs as a production assistant, which she would look for whenever she had a break from teaching.

While teaching jobs in Nashville were plentiful, film work was not. Few long-term projects filmed locally and, with six film schools in the area, there were numerous, more experienced applicants for the jobs that were available. Emily was finding it impossible to get her foot in the door.

Then one day, while having lunch with a friend who worked in the locations department for the show “Nashville,” Emily discovered that there was another way for her to find work in the industry—as an on-set teacher.

Working actors under the age of 18 must complete a certain number of school hours each day in accordance with state laws and actors' union regulations. An on-set teacher provides this schooling and also serves as an advocate to ensure these actors don’t work more hours than they are allowed, that they get their required breaks, and that the work environment is safe and comfortable.

“Are you serious? That’s a job?” was Emily’s initial response. She discovered that not only was it a job, but it was one that was in high demand because very few people in Nashville do it. The classroom experience Emily had from her first semester at Niagara University, which included placements in several different schools and with a wide variety of students, prepared her for the job, she says.

“That experience helped me feel comfortable with kids of different ages, with different learning styles, who are working on a variety of subjects,” she notes.

Emily was hired for “Nashville,” which was in its last season at the time. Although the main child on the show already had a full-time studio teacher, Emily taught other children who worked on the show for short periods of time.

That led to other on-set teaching opportunities, including jobs as Grayson Chrisley’s full-time teacher/tutor; on a Nike commercial featuring Memphis Grizzly player Ja Morant and rapper Moneybagg; for Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus’ two children on “DeMarcus Family Rules”; on an upcoming Lifetime network Christmas movie starring Mario Lopez; and on “George and Tammy,” a new Hulu series produced by and starring Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette.

“I love the fact that I get to be on set every day,” Emily says of the work. “I love that I don’t have to grade papers or take my work home with me. I love that it’s never the same day twice.”

While the idea of working in a studio instead of a classroom can seem glamorous, Emily notes that on-set teaching also has its drawbacks.

“You have to be able to go with the flow,” she says. “The schedule is very unpredictable, and you have to be able to adjust to it when it changes last minute—and you’re usually the last person to know! For people who are used to a teaching schedule that is extremely rigid, it can be hard to get used to. And when you have a family, it can be an even bigger challenge.” Fortunately, she says, her husband is very supportive and understands when she tells him she might not be home until 10 p.m.  

Emily adds that although she enjoys on-set teaching and it enables her to learn more about film production, she hopes to transition to jobs a writer and, eventually, a show runner. To that end, she worked as a production coordinator for “Barmagedon,” a reality competition series starring Blake Shelton and Carson Daly that will be aired on USA network. She also has written a sitcom pilot she is hoping to pitch and is working on another pilot, a drama, with a professional screenwriting coach. She also continues to write for ScreenRant, an entertainment website that offers news in the fields of television, films, video games, and film theories.

For more information on Emily’s screen and songwriting career, visit