UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2008
Flair for the Dramatic
by Carol Cujec
photography by Tim Mantoani
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Graduate Acting Program director Richard Seer has the full attention of his students.

Seven young actors trot confidently onto USD’s Studio Theatre stage in front of admiring fans — family, friends, their hardworking professors and associates from The Old Globe who left work early to see them. This is a dress rehearsal for their 2007 showcase, which is traveling to New York City in two days, their final task as students in The Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Acting Program. Their next audience of producers, agents and casting directors may intimidate a bit more, but that New York performance will launch their careers as professional actors.

They pose in front of the audience, radiating energy from their wide smiles. The three women and four men in the class of 2007 teasingly call themselves “the seven wonders of the world” — this is, after all, no time for modesty. From here they unleash eight short scenes that exhibit their wide range of talent: a young woman confronts her new stepmother, who happens to be just her age; a fast-talking drug pusher attempts to sell his wares to a prudish geek; a wide-eyed college kid confesses his crush on his T.A. The final piece, darkly comic, portrays a manic woman who insists on role-playing a hypothetical scene with her husband, in which he is forced to choose between throwing her or his own mother out of a sinking lifeboat: “I know what you want me to say, OK? You want me to say my mother. You … want me to throw her into the sea — you do,” accuses Rhett Henckel, his tall frame stiffening.

“Somebody has to drown — that’s the situation … but who? Choose who,” implores Summer Shirey, her long, dark hair swinging as she clutches his arm with exaggerated pathos.

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of The Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Acting Program, perhaps the most acclaimed classical training program in the country. In this intensive two-year training, students take classes at USD and perform at The Old Globe, working alongside such theater legends as three-time Tony Award-winning director and USD honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Jack O’Brien and Tony Award-winner Richard Easton, who served as actor-mentor in the program for seven years. Though many graduates continue to work in classical theater around the country, the training prepares them for work in any genre. A case in point is the new CBS comedy Big Bang Theory, which debuted last fall to good reviews and stars Globe/USD graduate Jim Parsons ‘01.

“He’s a very funny character actor,” says program director Richard Seer. “That’s a sitcom, but he could do Shakespeare just as easily. Our students do soaps, TV shows, movies, everything.” Other graduates have guest-starred on more than 50 television shows (Law & Order, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and ER, to name a few) and appeared in more than 30 films.

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First year graduate theater student Kern McFadden takes a break between scenes.

The program also enjoys a strong reputation in New York, where in just the past five years more than 25 Globe/USD graduates have appeared in Broadway productions. The award-winning play Nine Parts of Desire, which Heather Raffo ’98 wrote and developed — partially out of her M.F.A. thesis — ran for nine sold-out months at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre in 2004. The same year, O’Brien won a Tony for directing Henry IV on Broadway, which also won for best play revival. That production included five Globe/USD graduates. And last year O’Brien accepted his third Tony as director of the monumental production Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s nine-hour trilogy staged in its entirety at Lincoln Center. The production won more Tonys than any other play in history — and it included four Globe/USD graduates.

The M.F.A. program sprang to life in 1987 from the friendship between Globe Founding director Craig Noel and USD Vice President and Provost Sally Furay. “The two of them thought we needed to train young actors to do the kind of work that the Globe is known for, especially the Shakespeare,” explains Seer. Though Noel’s alma mater, San Diego State University, was keen on joining forces with the Globe, Seer explains that the University of San Diego was granted the privilege because of his relationship to Furay, and also because USD was very open to the Globe having a major say in how the program was set up.

“The university has been great through the whole relationship, and as a consequence the Globe has very much done its part too,” says Seer. “To my knowledge, we have probably the best relationship in the country of a university to a professional theater.”

Globe benefactors Donald and Darlene Marcos Shiley got the program on its feet by supplying a million-dollar endowment. Each student accepted into the program is awarded a full-tuition scholarship from USD (two of which are endowed by the Shileys) and a monthly stipend from the Globe.

Darlene Shiley, herself a former actress and current chair of USD’s Board of Trustees, calls the program a boffo success and even takes personal pride in students’ accomplishments. “I get really excited when I go to the Globe and I see one of our kids up there,” she raves.

“It’s like my own child.”

Just getting into the program is an accomplishment. Out of hundreds of applicants each year, only seven are selected, making this one of the most competitive M.F.A. programs in the country, with an acceptance rate of just 2 percent. That’s more cutthroat than Harvard Law. “It’s amazing to see how many people really want to get in,” says program coordinator Llance Bower. “We have students that turn down Yale, NYU — the top programs in the country — to come here.”

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First year M.F.A. student Brian Lee Huynh lays himself open emotionally to great dramatic effect during a monologue.

Nearly all students enter the program with some professional experience in addition to an undergraduate theater degree. This is important, says Seer, since it shows commitment as well as an ability to perform at the Globe alongside some of the finest actors in the country. Before Rod Brogan ’04 came to USD, he had numerous television roles to his credit, including regular appearances on Major Dad and One Life to Live. But when he decided to try more theater, his agent told him he needed real theatrical training. “One of the big things they taught me when I first got to USD was that being a TV actor I was largely acting from my neck up,” he says.

On a similar note, Christine Marie Brown ’01 performed Shakespeare on a year-long tour with the American Shakespeare Center before joining the program. During that time, she realized the importance of classical training. “On the tour, we weren’t from any school of thought when it came to Shakespeare or acting. I felt I was surrounded by a lot of immaturity and bad habits as far as acting and performing goes, and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not sure I know what good acting is anymore.’”

Old Globe/USD students study a comprehensive curriculum that includes acting, voice and speech, movement, dramatic literature, stage combat, audition technique and singing. In the second year, students spend two weeks in London seeing plays and participating in tours of historic and theatrical landmarks. At the Globe, they appear in the summer Shakespeare Festival productions and serve as understudies for most main-stage plays in the regular season. “Our students work and perform in the professional theater — and I can say this with a certain amount of confidence — more than any other students anywhere in the country,” says Seer.

Brogan says that this connection with The Old Globe is what led him to USD. “If you go to NYU or Yale or Julliard, you perform your student shows in front of your friends and your family and other students, and you do only five shows over one weekend. At the Globe, our student shows are done in the Carter theater in front of 250 people for a week, and we’re also working on Globe shows and speaking Shakespeare in front of 600 people a night for a month at a time. I just don’t think that the two really compare.”

Arguably the hardest-working folks on campus, M.F.A. students can spend up to 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a week in classes and rehearsals — from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — with an hour break for lunch and dinner. And because of performance obligations, they don’t get time off for spring and summer breaks. “I think I clocked 13 hours a day one term,”

Brogan recalls. “After the day’s classes ended, I had rehearsals all day at the Globe for three different Shakespeare plays, including the fight rehearsals, and at night I had to do a show on the Globe stage. That was a killer week.”

With little time to learn lines, Brogan says that students typically walk around with script in hand trying to steal time during five-minute breaks. “I think we all look a little insane walking around the USD campus talking to ourselves the entire time,” he says, laughing.

After two years, graduating students perform their showcase, a series of brief scenes to display their talent, in Los Angeles and New York City in front of agents and casting directors. “It’s our equivalent of having IBM come on campus, only we’re going to them,” explains Seer. After this fall’s showcase, recent graduate Rhett Henckel admitted to feeling ready to collapse after running frantically for two years, but he’s also buoyed by confidence. “This will be my first time trying to live in New York.

I couldn’t do it before. I didn’t have the money or the resources. And now I still don’t have the money but hopefully a better chance of getting a job,” he chuckles.

And what sort of shot does he have? Statistically quite small, given the intense competition, and yet many graduates are in fact realizing the impossible — a career as a professional actor. “Instantly, coming out of the showcase, I was offered a bunch of understudy jobs at Manhattan Theater Club because they saw that we were capable of understudying big productions and well-known actors,” says Brogan. “I understudied the national tour of Doubt and now I’m understudying Bobby Cannavale in a Broadway show called Mauritius, solely on the strength of our showcase and my résumé from the Globe.”

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Vivia Font throws herself into character when working with peers in the Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Acting Program.

Aaron Krohn ’99, who appeared in O’Brien’s Tony Award-winning productions Henry IV and Coast of Utopia, is now working in his fifth Broadway show. Speaking by phone from his dressing room during a break from The Farnsworth Invention, currently playing on Broadway, Krohn calls it “amazing and unlikely” that he is able to earn a living as a Broadway actor and hang out with folks like Ethan Hawke and legendary playwright Tom Stoppard (whom he casually refers to as “Tom”). Krohn and other M.F.A. grads expressed gratitude for their relationship with O’Brien, who has opened doors for many of them. “Jack’s own trail back to New York sort of plowed our way,” says Krohn. “He has continued to be a mentor to us.”

Brown, who also worked with O’Brien in New York, recently completed a run as Viola in Twelfth Night at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

In 2006, she returned to The Old Globe to star opposite Jonathan McMurtry in the well-reviewed production of Trying, directed by Seer. Speaking by phone from her temp job as a legal secretary in New York, she recalls Seer’s advice to view an acting career as a marathon rather than a sprint. “It can be such a crapshoot. That’s one of the lures of this profession: at any moment, any audition, any door that opens could be the one that gets you on TV or in a movie.”

Melissa Friedman ’96 — who along with fellow graduate Jim Wallert ’98 founded a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway company called the Epic Theatre Ensemble — expressed gratitude for the mentorship she received from renowned actor Richard Easton. “Richard would pull us aside and give us notes on how to capture an audience’s attention and focus the story correctly.” This foundation led her to become a mentor to students in New York City public schools by running arts education programs. Using primarily classical plays, she and other actors in the company help students explore critical social questions and then create and perform their own original play.

“I can hear his voice even now,” says Friedman. “Richard would say, ‘The moon is always out there.’ When you’re talking about the moon in Shakespeare, it’s always out in front of the audience. He retrained us so that our eyes could be seen and the audience could see right into our souls.

“He was never a teacher in the pedagogical, didactic sense, but being around him as an actor and watching him work was probably the biggest influence on my work,” recalls Krohn, who played with Easton in a number of Broadway productions. “He doesn’t buy in to the idea that if I’m playing Romeo I need to decide what my objective is,” he says, laughing. “Richard would say Shakespeare has put it all there for you. You get back to Hamlet’s speech.”

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. … (Hamlet, III.ii.1-8 )

It’s Saturday — one of those memorable autumn days where the warm air is tinged with the crisp scent of fallen leaves. As hoards of people crowd the University of San Diego campus for a football game, a handful of M.F.A. students head in the opposite direction toward the dark Studio Theatre, where they’ve been spending about 25 hours a week outside of class. They are in rehearsal for their student production of Pericles to be performed at The Old Globe. “Let’s start from the beginning of the scene and see what’s changed since yesterday,” chirps their director, Sabin Epstein, after chatting amiably with his actors. He slips into one corner of the theater and observes, taking only mental notes.

What he’s teaching them is the process of rehearsing a play from the moment they first read the title on the page to the moment the show opens. “We spend a lot of time not only analyzing the text but determining how to break the code to discover the author’s intent in what the character is doing at that moment,” he explains. The goal is to create intelligent actors capable of adding flesh to words and bringing fresh ideas into the rehearsal room. “It’s much more fun to engage the actors in a discussion of what they’re doing rather than my being a puppeteer and just manipulating them,” he says. “And I think their performance has a different sense of ownership because they’re playing things that they’ve created.”

At the end of the scene, Epstein asks several actors about their motivation: “How do you want him to feel? Where are we in the scene, and what’s happened the moment before?” All the actors, taking a seat on the floor, offer suggestions and ask questions in an effort to breathe life into characters created 400 years ago. Epstein listens, interjects, nods. “It’s D — it’s all of the above,” he approves. “Let’s see what happens with that.” After an hour, he runs the scene once more. This time the actors play with such focus that one of their colleagues is brought to tears.

“Thanks,” says Epstein.

“This is progress.”