Get out from under the bus! Get out from under the bus!” a young woman trills in a voice so sharp it could cut glass.
“Taxi! Taxi!” another young woman shouts in a deep voice, her arm waving wildly over her head.
There is, alas, neither a taxi nor a bus in sight. Instead, in this spacious room on the second floor of the University’s Lubin House in midtown Manhattan, there are three rows of folding chairs, a table, and a piano. And, like a scene straight out of the movie Fame, these two young women are among the 17 aspiring performers pacing the floor, swigging from water bottles, vocalizing, making small talk, checking for the perfect seat, all in preparation to get their chance to be evaluated by Adam Guettel, composer and lyricist of the Broadway show The Light in the Piazza, and grandson of legendary composer Richard Rodgers; and director/actress Daisy Prince, daughter of Broadway director and producer Hal Prince.
It is late Sunday afternoon, the day before Halloween, though it certainly doesn’t feel like it with the temperature hovering in the high 60s. It’s a perfect day to stroll through Central Park, toss a Frisbee, or strum a guitar on the Great Lawn. But not for these students, who are participants in the inaugural edition of the Tepper Semester, a College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) program that provides B.F.A. seniors an opportunity to spend the fall semester of their senior year living and learning in the heart of the theater district in New York City. Today, they are in a special musical theater Master Class session with Guettel and Prince.
Once everyone has found a seat, including program director Lisa Nicholas, Guettel, seated at the folding table alongside Prince, says gently, “OK, it looks like we’re all here, so we might as well get started.”
“You sound just like Hank Azaria,” one of the students calls out. Guettel simply smiles and reads the name of one of the final four students scheduled to perform. Wearing a black cocktail dress and black pumps, Erin Kukla ’04 approaches the pianist and hands over her sheet music. As she steps in front of the piano, Guettel asks, “What’s your special song, the one that you sang as a child all day long?”
She considers for a moment. “‘Long, Long Time,’ by Linda Rondstadt,” she says. “And I realize this sounds morbid, but if I were running the film of my life, the sound track would be ‘Canon in D,’ by Pachelbel.”
The room fills with laughter. “OK,” Guettel says, smiling, “now identify the moment when you knew that you could do this.”
“Well, I didn’t actually know I could do this in front of people until high school. Before that, I didn’t realize it was an option.”
“All right, now choose your first song and let’s go.”
Kukla consults with the pianist for a moment, then begins singing “Another Hundred People” from the Broadway show Company, by Stephen Sondheim.
Another hundred people just got off the train
Her voice is rich and confident and fills the room. When she finishes, she sits in a chair facing Guettel and Prince, awaiting their comments. But this is not simply a college version of American Idol, because no one’s getting the hook in this room. Instead, Guettel and Prince are here to give constructive criticism to some incredibly talented college students.
The original idea for what evolved into a semester in New York City was conceived by Broadway producer and SU Trustee Arielle Tepper ’94. In 2001, she established the Tepper Center for Careers in Theatre at VPA in hopes of helping drama department students with their transition from college into the entertainment industry. When it began, the center’s program included Professional Practices, a course that brought guest artists to Syracuse for workshops and incorporated field trips; a lecture series; and the New York City Tepper Week, an alluring feature that allowed seniors to attend Broadway plays and learn about the industry in workshops with renowned actors, directors, producers, agents, casting directors, choreographers, and composers. Along with the offerings for drama and musical theater students, there was an in-depth component for design/technical theater and stage management students, who honed their skills with guidance from designers, stage managers, and other accomplished theater professionals.
With the program’s success, Tepper expanded her vision to include a film and television component and encompass an entire semester. She wanted to create a total immersion experience for the students, exposing them to the city’s theater scene and other cultural and educational offerings while learning their craft under the tutelage of faculty and prominent professionals. After a faculty-sanctioned committee hashed out the curriculum, the Tepper Semester program began last fall. The plan was to completely engage the students with intensive training and classes in all disciplines of fine arts, including voice, movement, dance, professional development, and audition practice, as well as master classes with guest artists.
As the program’s director, Nicholas, an actress with producing and directing credits, finds herself in familiar territory. She teaches in the Professional Practices course and understands the challenges faced by students, knowing they need a supportive environment to develop their talents. Along with Nicholas, the regular faculty now includes James Calleri, David Caparelliotis, Rebecca Guy, Andrea Harring, Tom Kitt, Elena McGhee, and Daisy Prince, while Kristin Linkletter, Jason Robert Brown, and Adam Guettel teach special master classes.
“I’d love to talk about the song itself,” Guettel says. “What does it mean? Let’s figure it out. What’s in there for you?”
“Well,” Kukla says, “I think it’s a piece of a conversation.”
“When you’re listening to a song we need more to inform us what the song means.” From memory, Guettel recites the song’s first few lines and asks, “What do you think?”
Kukla hesitates a moment, then responds, “I think he’s a young actor, and it’s the idea of being one of a number of actors.”
“That’s good,” Guettel says. “It’s got images of decay and connecting with other people to create a sort of regeneration. Now connect your actual experience in your young career to the words of the song. You’ve got a fabulous voice, but it’s knowing the intention behind the words that will improve your diction. Right now, it’s a little bit of a recitation. Let’s remove the tempo and we’ll see what happens.”
Kukla begins to sing again, but Guettel stops her after a few lines. “You’re still locked into your stuff. Let’s experiment. Let the ideas of the piece, the inherent ‘oneliness’ come out.”
She tries it again and heads nod knowingly in her audience of peers, who are paying rapt attention, obviously rooting for her. When she finishes, Guettel says, “That was so moving, so very affecting.”
Sixteen of the students in this semester’s inaugural class are from Syracuse University and one, Kristin Faucher, is from Tulane. She joined the program at the last minute when Tulane was closed for the fall semester due to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The program’s ultimate goal is for the class to enroll as many as 40 students—20 from SU and the rest from universities across the country. Syracuse students must have a minimum 2.5 grade point average, have passed their sophomore evaluation, and have junior status to apply for the program. Depending on their program of study, students coming from outside the University may have to audition.
Students are enrolled in a five-day-a-week program, during which time they’re fully immersed in theater, film, and TV. Using rental space from the Theater Row Organization, which includes access to the complex’s five rehearsal studios and several theaters, the students begin their day with a voice class taught by Harring or McGhee. After that, they take classes offered by the rest of the faculty, as well as visiting casting directors, agents, and other professionals. “Along with the full-time faculty, weekly industry guests give the students the opportunity to be inspired and build relationships with and learn from an array of professionals in a supportive atmosphere,” Nicholas says.
In addition to these “regular” classes, the curriculum features movement and dance classes. Students can also petition to enroll in Improvisation class with Second City Improv, opt for a specialized movement class on the Alexander Technique, or take something as unique as horseback riding. In addition, the program includes weekly field trips to such New York City cultural institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Historical Society—places “that can nurture you as an artist,” says Nicholas, whose energy and commitment to the program is obvious. She sums up the program’s purpose as this: “We’ve been there ourselves and have built the program to serve as a bridge between the students’ college training and their professional lives by creating an atmosphere in which the students are building relationships, collaborating, and demystifying the process of getting started in the industry,” she says. “The program provides students with the opportunity to continue excellent training with exceptional theater professionals, all while immersed in the cultural experience of living in New York City. We want to help the students gain momentum to move into their professional lives. We look to have a relationship with our students that helps direct them so they blossom. And when you have a deepening relationship with someone, you can then start to understand their dream and perhaps find ways to assist them in realizing it.”
Sitting in Studio I on 42nd Street’s Theater Row in early November, the students, al--most equally divided be-tween men and women, talked about their expectations and experiences in the program. “I thought when I signed up that it would be 9 to 9, non-stop acting with lots of one-on-one attention,” says Caitlin Brodnick ’06, “but it turned out that we have some free time. I get all kinds of perspectives. It’s about becoming flexible. I’m acclimating to New York and learning how to market myself.”
Jenna Paone ’06 envisioned something akin to drama boot camp. “I saw it as a chance to gain exposure to the business side,” she says. “It was an opportunity to tie college and the actual business together.” Neil Roberts ’06, who is from the Midwest and spent the summer in California, says, “I wanted to make the choice as to where I end up living, in California or New York, and not just on hearsay. After being here for a couple of months, New York doesn’t scare me anymore.” For Jessica Novotny ’06, “it was a way to ease into the city and to learn how to use resources that are available to us.” Kristin Faucher ’06 says it’s the first time she felt fully dedicated to acting. “I love the intimate nature of the program and I’m impressed with the caliber of those in it,” she says.
Sage Suppa ’06 offers his take on the experience: “It’s giving me the chance to grow as an actor and hone my craft. It also gives me a really good jump on others. For instance, the ABC casting director came in and spoke to us, which gives us a tremendous head start.” Few if any have more of a head start than Zach Messner ’06, who took advantage of being in New York to send out his headshot and resume, which resulted in nailing a job as an extra on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
For others, the experience allows them to build much-needed confidence. “Acting is really scary,” says Alison Bennett ’06, who moved to New York in June. “Because of the program, I now come to the profession a lot more relaxed. I actually think I can do it.” Jenny Jordan ’06 agrees. “The best part is that I feel so much more professionally prepared,” she says. “Something like auditioning for camera class is a tremendous help. It gives us such an advantage over everyone else.”
Kukla begins her second song, “Bill,” from Showboat by P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome Kern.
I used to dream that I would discover
When she finishes, Guettel says, “Choose your Bill as your dance partner. This way, you can relate to him physically and it will help you sing the song more emotionally. You’ll get more freedom into it. You’ll find the sensual, earthy part of the song.”
Kukla chooses one of the other students and, engulfed in each other’s arms, moving slowly, almost infinitesimally to the music, she begins to sing again. When she’s done, Guettel, smiling broadly, says, “That was really beautiful. A big difference. Every time you connect with yourself your singing gets better. Try it again and keep the intimacy. Make believe he’s still there in your arms.”
Most of the students—those who haven’t found their own housing in the city—live in the New Yorker Hotel on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street, less than half a mile from where they have most of their classes on Theater Row. As Paone says, “We have the experience of living in the hustle-bustle of Herald Square and Times Square.” They take their meals at the Tick-Tock Diner on the corner or, if they’re particularly lazy, the diner will even deliver up to their rooms. In addition to their classes, the students have had other, unscripted views of New York, the view most New Yorkers see every day. One of them was moving in with her boyfriend on a rainy day and, “just like out of a movie, a cab came shooting by, hit a puddle, and I was drenched for the rest of the day.”
Part of the program includes seeing a Broadway or off-Broadway production every Tuesday evening; often the students have “talk-backs” with some of the performers. When they saw the Tepper-produced Pillowman, for instance, they were able to talk with actors Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup after the performance. Other activities have included sitting in on a workshop for High Fidelity, the music for which was written by Tom Kitt, one of their instructors, and venturing over to Queens to see a taping of the TV show Hope and Faith.
At 9:30 on a Friday morning, the students are attending David Caparelliotis’s Professional Audition Theory and Practice class in Studio I. Dressed casually in jeans, Caparelliotis, who casts for the Manhattan Theatre Club, works hard to demystify the audition process, which can be fraught with anxiety. Part of his job is to teach students how to prepare for auditions and handle a casting session. This morning, he hands out sides (scenes) and then, one by one, he calls students up and reads a short scene with them. “It’s all about the beats,” he explains, before he begins to read a scene with Caitlin Brodnick ’06 in which she plays a young nun and he is her superior. At one point, he reads the line, “Sit down!” She pauses a moment and then sits.
Caparelliotis shakes his head. “She’s your superior. When she says to sit, you sit. You don’t think, you do. You’re acting smarter than your character and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Let’s try it again and be clear on your beats.” Brodnick steps to the right of the chair, so it’s in a line between her and Caparelliotis, her scene partner. “Wait a minute,” he says. “The chair is upstaging you. You want a clear line between you and the other character. You don’t have to leave the chair there. You can move it anywhere you want it to be.”
Brodnick moves the chair to her right and this time, when told to “sit,” she practically throws herself into the chair. The class laughs. Caparelliotis nods approval.
The rest of the class includes scene readings from The Miss Firecracker Contest, by Beth Henley, which elicits more advice from Caparelliotis concerning beats.
“Show me how you’re going to drive the scene.”
With class nearing an end, Caparelliotis answers questions with practical advice. When one student asks if he’d be at a disadvantage auditioning early in the casting process, Caparelliotis says, “Actually, I’d say that seven out of 10 times the person eventually cast came in the first day.”
As the students file out slowly, Sage Suppa pretty much sums up the feelings of all the students. “In no other program would you get face time with these kinds of people,” he says. “You just can’t put a price on it.”
As an on- and off-Broadway producer since 1998, SU Trustee Arielle Tepper ’94 has received 42 Tony nominations for her work. The Department of Drama graduate has quite a list of credits, including the revival of A Raisin in the Sun, Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, and John Leguizamo’s Freak. Her most recent success is the smash hit Monty Python’s Spamalot, which won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical and is scheduled for the London stage later this year. In 2004, she founded the Summer Play Festival for Emerging Writers (SPF), which offers beginning writers, directors, and producers an opportunity to work on their material in a protected environment, while guided by established professionals from the theater community. Tepper also provides internship opportunities at SPF to SU students. About the Tepper Semester, she says, “The transition from college to real life is possibly one of the hardest. There is nothing that could make me happier than to make that transition easier.”