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Gates-Markel credits liberal arts for role in shaping a fulfilling life

Barry McNamara
Below: Lindsey Gates-Markel in her role as Hamlet. (Photo by Jesse Folks)
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – When the theatre lights go down, when her written message is conveyed, when she finds a creative solution for a client – these are a few of Lindsey Gates-Markel’s favorite things.

The lead content strategist at Pixo, a consulting firm in Urbana, Ill., the multi-talented 2006 Monmouth College graduate is also a member of The Celebration Company at The Station Theatre and is a published author, specializing in non-fiction essays and memoirs.

“When the lights go down in the theatre for one of our productions, I think, ‘This is my favorite thing in the whole world,’” said Gates-Markel. “But I also have that feeling when I read something I don’t remember writing, and I think, ‘Oh, that really says what I wanted it to say.’ ... At Pixo, helping our clients is about being creative in the ways I ask questions to draw out information – communicating in a way that really helps the client get their message across.

“I’m lucky that I get to feel like all those things are my favorite. It’s all about feeling fulfilled.”

In other words, said Gates-Markel, Monmouth College’s “liberal arts aspect influences me every day.”

“It really taught me to look at things critically and to ask questions,” she said. “When I’m meeting with clients, it’s all about asking the right questions. My education has just influenced me in such a core way and helped me to relate to people with different points of view.”

From Jamaica to Monmouth

When she began her college journey, it’s fair to say that Gates-Markel was a fish out of water. She started at Illinois State University, which was a far cry from her 28-member graduating class at tiny Jamaica (Ill.) High School, which has since consolidated. A street map of her “very rural” hometown community takes up less space than a tic-tac-toe board.

“I enrolled as an acting student at Illinois State, but after about three weeks, I realized it was not for me,” she said of what she called “a very competitive” atmosphere.

Gates-Markel started to feel more at home during a stint at Parkland Community College in Champaign, Ill., staying involved in acting but also exploring English and women’s studies.

While looking for a next destination, she and a friend visited some Illinois colleges, and Monmouth checked a very important box.

“It’s corny, I know, but when I came to Monmouth, it really felt like home,” she said. “I had that feeling when I walked into the library, and I remember meeting with (English professor) Craig Watson on that first visit. It just felt so perfectly sized – small, but still plenty to do.”

Gates-Markel jumped right into the theatre scene, earning a role in what she called her most memorable production at Monmouth – The Laramie Project.

“That was a major production just because of the subject matter,” she said. “You’re in college, and you have certain beliefs. And then art and the people you meet challenge those beliefs. The Laramie Project was a major catalyst for me in that regard – the way it teaches you to have compassion and empathy for people who are different than you.”

Gates-Markel can’t credit her reputation for securing that role.

“Since I transferred in during the winter, no one knew who I was,” she said. “People were literally saying, ‘Who ARE you?’”

But those people soon became what she called her “first core social group” – a group she remained tight with throughout her time at Monmouth, which included living in the Performing Arts House.

Not sticking to the script

Despite her stage presence, Gates-Markel opted not to major in theatre, instead choosing English. Part of the reason, she said, was practicality for future employment, but there were other factors, as well.

“I’d been in community theatre since I was about 12, so I had already proved to myself that I was going to be involved with that craft. It was clear to me that I could major in English and writing and still be involved in theatre. Writing was just as important to me, so by majoring in English, I could have my cake and eat it, too.”

Gates-Markel found a mentor in English professor Mark Willhardt, who is now Monmouth’s dean.

“He was a huge influence for me,” she said. “He really took me under his wing and mentored me in a way that wasn’t in his job description. He loaned me books to read and would read drafts of things I wrote for other classes. He was just very encouraging to me. The whole English department really had a huge impact on me. I can’t say enough about what a formative experience it was for me.”

Gates-Markel used her degree as a springboard to a master’s degree in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She called that a “zag” in her writing journey, as she has since turned her focus to non-fiction writing. Her work has most recently been published in Little Fiction, WhiskeyPaper and Sundog Lit.

“I took a class with Mark Willhardt where we studied several non-fiction essays,” she said. “I really loved it and was drawn to it. I remember thinking at the time that not much had happened to me yet in life to write about since I was only 20, but that type of writing stuck with me, and it’s what I do now.”

Gates-Markel also hones her acting craft, with such memorable experiences as playing the lead role of Hamlet and starring in a one-woman show. She has also directed a Celebration Company production.

She can certainly identify with the line by Polonius in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”