This past weekend, a wealth of SVSU students participated in the Irene Ryan Scholarship competitions at the regional Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) in Indianapolis, Indiana. The event is a national festival split into eight different regions across the country in which theater students go to compete in various different categories.
This year, SVSU had eight theater students, along with their partners, compete in the Irene Ryan Scholarship acting competition as well as several others for the design, management and technology areas.
“For our students, this is like going to the regional championships,” theater department chair Ric Roberts said. “The national festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in April is like our Super Bowl.”
The process for selecting the students that will compete is a thorough one that requires various different screenings. Responders from the KCACTF come to performances on campus throughout the year and give the cast and crew verbal critiques. These responders then nominate who they feel is the most excellent choice to compete.
After students are nominated, the potential participants then must prepare another audition for SVSU faculty to ensure that they are ready to compete.
“[Nominees] still must prepare and present to us three weeks prior to the regional festival,” Roberts said. “There have been times where the SVSU faculty has denied students to go to the festival. This is rare, but it solidifies the importance of the regional festival.”
Among the students competing were theater majors Donte Green and Jonah Conner, who were the only students to advance past a pool of 250 students from the region in the preliminary rounds and both advanced to the final round. This was the first time any SVSU student has made it through the first round since 2013.
“The preliminary responders, all professionals in our field from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, all felt (Conner and Green) best represented their ability to partner well with the other actor in the scene,” Roberts said.
The criteria for the competition includes the actor’s ability to urgently pursue strong, clear objectives and mastery of an expressive and flexible vocal and physical instrument, among several others. The competition offers rigorous sessions in which competitors have a set amount of time to perform their selected piece.
“The largest challenge was remaining under the time limits,” Conner said. “Those time limits would immediately eliminate some of your choices and would force you to rush through.”
Inspired by a performance of “Wicked” at the Detroit Opera House, Conner began acting at a very young age when he tried out for and was cast as the lead of his first play in middle school.
In order to stand out among the vast amount of hopeful students, one has to showcase something unique and memorable. Fortunately, participants had the ability to select their own pieces to perform which allowed each to pinpoint an exact angle to get across to the audience and, more importantly, the responders. Conner feels that it was his decision to attack the stage with humor that allowed him to advance.
“I chose ‘Your Mother’s Butt’ by Alan Ball and I’m sure you can already tell what kind of scene I had with a title like that,” Conner said. “But another aspect is that we students block our own stuff, so the fact that I made bold, unique choices also made me stand out.”
At the end of the competition, Conner came out on top in the Region III 10 Minute Play Directing Award category and senior theater major Jacob Kaufman won the inaugural Region III Arts Management Fellowship, earning him a chance to compete at the national level in Washington, DC in April along with Conner and Green. This was the first time SVSU has ever had multiple students win their respective categories.
No matter the outcome, Conner still feels as if competing in the event is beneficial for any student hoping to become a better actor.
“I enjoyed being able to participate as much as possible, to network with other students from the region, and explore a new city to me,” Conner said.
The KCACTF is a resource that the theater department has become incredibly proud to be apart of since joining in 1997 and has proven to be an exceptional asset to SVSU.
“As a small, regional university, the faculty views the Kennedy Center as an actual extension to our program,” Roberts said. “We feel it gives us a platform to provide access to industry professionals through these competitions and 100s of workshops.”