This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 Harker Magazine
By Marla Holt
It’s not surprising that many Harker graduates go onto successful careers in the performing arts, given the school’s reputation for providing outstanding opportunities for students to shine in music, dance and theater.
Students benefit from top-notch teachers and mentors, they earn certification in Harker’s heralded Conservatory certificate program and, now, they will perform in a world-class facility, the new Rothschild Performing Arts Center.
One thing these talented alumni have in common is the foundational education they received at Harker – a strong work ethic, a commitment to professional respect for all artists and the drive to pursue their dreams. Read on to learn how several graduates of Harker Conservatory’s certificate program are contributing to the performing arts world.
Daniel Cho ’11
Contemporary ballet dancer Daniel Cho just completed his last year with San Francisco’s Alonzo King LINES Ballet training program. His long days were physically strenuous, filled with ballet classes, rehearsals, workshops, courses on topics such as dance anatomy, and preparation for the school’s biannual performances.
Cho also works part time tutoring students in SAT/SSAT/ACT prep. “I love the community aspect of dance, moving my body while connecting with other people,” Cho said. In June, he will move to Cleveland for a yearlong apprenticeship with Verb Ballets, a contemporary ballet company.
“I wanted to have a professional dance career before going to graduate school in fine arts and dance,” Cho said. “My ultimate goal is to teach at the college level.”
Cho has only been formally dancing for about five years. He focused mostly on vocal performance at Harker, dancing in musical theater and dance shows “because it was fun and came naturally to me,” he said.
He had a lead role in “Pippin,” which toured at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. “That experience challenged me to think about whether I wanted to pursue the life of an artist,” he said. A Harker friend convinced him to try a dance class and he was hooked
He took his first ballet class as a sophomore at Swarthmore College, where he majored in dance and education. He caught up to his peers with a year spent refining his classical ballet technique with Coastal City Ballet’s training program in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Harker instilled in me a strong work ethic,” he said. “I also learned the importance of respecting everyone involved in a production. As I’ve done more professional work, I’ve realized these things really matter.”
Audrey Kwong ’07
Artistic operations manager Audrey Kwong helps the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra run smoothly by managing projects such as electronic media and recording activities, tours and special events, and the orchestra’s calendar and performance contracts. She also has regular “concert duty,” coordinating with musicians and stage and house managers before signaling to start a performance to avoid delays that could interfere with the artists’ collective bargaining agreements. “If we run into overtime, it gets very expensive very fast,” said Kwong, who enjoys the logistics of orchestra management.
“I like wearing lots of hats,” Kwong said. “I also couldn’t imagine not being around music every day.” She previously worked in operations for Colorado’s Aspen Music Festival and School and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Kwong, a classically trained violinist, first realized that orchestra management was a career possibility while studying violin performance at the University of Southern California. “I had no idea about nonprofit arts jobs until I took a class in arts administration,” she said.
She went on to earn a Master of Arts Management degree at Carnegie Mellon University. At Harker, Kwong participated in orchestra, choir and theater, and completed a conducting and score study independent project with music teacher Chris Florio, who also encouraged her to solo with the orchestra.
“Harker teaches you to approach the arts from different points of view,” said Kwong, who recalls having to clock tech hours for any theater production she was involved in, for example. “I learned that everyone has an important role to play, and that’s of value in my current job.”
Grace Hudkins ’08
Grace Hudkins never imagined she’d teach theater, let alone teach internationally, even though she’s been active in theater her whole life. At Harker, she was involved in many productions and took every theater class offered. At Mount Holyoke College, she immersed herself in theater – acting, directing and stage managing, as well as joining the executive board of the student theater organization.
“The fact that I was poised to be so involved in college was due to the preparation I received in Harker’s Conservatory program,” Hudkins said. “I had fantastic mentors in Jeff Draper, Susan Nace, Brian Larsen and Laura Lang-Ree.”
After earning a degree in psychology and education from Mount Holyoke, Hudkins planned to teach elementary school and thought theater was in her past. Her father encouraged her to look for international teaching jobs and put her in touch with Chadwick International in Songdo, South Korea. The school hired her as an elementary teaching intern, later offering her the additional role of technical theater intern. A year later, she launched Chadwick’s elementary drama program.
Today, she is the school’s theater operations and production manager, overseeing every production in the school’s two theaters, managing theater tech clubs for more than 80 students and teaching technical theater units in drama classes.
Hudkins calls her career an “incredible journey of professional growth and self discovery,” and credits her experience at Chadwick with cultivating her desire to always teach drama. “The arts put us in touch with our essential humanity,” said Hudkins, who noted that she’s reminded daily that she’s equipping students with empathy, confidence, integrity, resilience and more.
Gabrielle DeMers ’03
As a freelance opera singer, soprano Gabrielle DeMers continually works to book concerts and shows while promoting herself as a specialist in her field. “My career is a series of gigs, so it’s hard to establish a routine,” she said. “I’m constantly adapting as things come my way.”
Her days are spent practicing, rehearsing or performing shows, and perfecting the language skills needed to sing in Russian, German, Latin, Italian and more. DeMers has performed frequently for Baltimore’s Young Victorian Theatre Company, including as Josephine in “H.M.S. Pinafore” and Gianetta in “The Gondoliers.”
She sang the role of Kate Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” with the former Lyric Opera Baltimore, now known as the Maryland Opera. DeMers is active in community outreach, performing recitals and concerts for schoolchildren and the elderly. She earned a Bachelor of Music degree at USC and a Master of Music at the University of Maryland, where she performed as Tatyana in “Eugene Onegin” and Sandrina in “La Finta Giardiniera.”
“I love the collaborative process of making music with other people,” DeMers said. “It’s satisfying to mold our ideas of what the music should say into a cohesive whole.”
At Harker, DeMers participated in show choir and musical theater, earning Conservatory certification in both music and theater. “I started to get a sense of wanting to be a professional singer while I was in high school,” she said.
While freelancing as a performing artist has its challenges, DeMers ha no regrets. “The best advice I’ve gotten is to ‘create your own opportunities,’” she said. “Get up on stage, perform, try things, make some mistakes because that’s how you learn.”
Kim Wong ’05
Actress Kim Wong has loved Shakespeare ever since attending Shakespeare Camp as an 8-year-old. The Bard was her “gateway drug into acting,” she said. As she’s pursued acting professionally, her experience with performing Shakespeare – combined with being a woman of color – has led to success in a niche market.
“There aren’t a lot of Asian female Shakespearean actresses. As theaters are diversifying casts, that has worked to my advantage,” said Wong, who earned a drama degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Wong’s recent work includes acting in multiple roles in “Henry V” with The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit, a community outreach program that performs 90-minute Shakespeare plays at the theater and at detention facilities, homeless shelters and community centers around New York City.
“We bring theater and Shakespeare in particular to communities that don’t have access to it,” she said. She also has played Helena in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Cordelia in “King Lear” and Ophelia in “Hamlet at regional theaters around the country.
This summer, Wong will be in “Henry VI” at the National Asian American Theatre Company. While at Harker, Wong agonized over whether pursuing an acting career was practical. She eventually decided that she’d rather take the risk than live to regret that she didn’t.
Her mentors at Harker – particularly Jeff Draper – gave her opportunities to play challenging roles that helped her prepare for the college audition process. “I was cast as Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’ and I really wanted to play Ophelia, but Jeff knew that Gertrude would really push me,” she said. Wong’s experiences at Harker also taught her that the performing arts require “constant and consistent work with passion.”
D.J. Blickenstaff ’09
Actor D.J. Blickenstaff loved both baseball and theater when he entered high school at Harker, but their schedules conflicted. The acting bug had bitten him when he was a member of the Harmonics vocal group in middle school, so he decided to say goodbye to baseball and audition for the spring musical. He hasn’t looked back.
“My passion for acting began at Harker, and has just grown from there,” said Blickenstaff, who performed in many productions, including “Urinetown: The Musical” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. “Harker’s teachers gave me a strong core on which to build.”
Blickenstaff went on to earn a B.F.A. from USC, where – while performing as Joey in “The Most Happy Fella” – he was approached by a management agency interested in representing him. “They were scoping for talent, and I got lucky,” he said. “I was able to build a really solid team of six different agents working for me in different areas of the industry.”
Blickenstaff’s first jobs included acting in NBC’s “Diversity Scene Showcase,” a one-night event spotlighting up-and-coming talent, and delivering a one-liner on “Sean Saves the World.” He currently has a recurring role on Netflix’s “Dear White People” and recently shot the pilot of a show called “#Fashionvictim,” which – if picked up – would be his first regular role in a series.
He previously appeared in multiple episodes of “Catching a Break” and “Colony” and is the author of a web series about the Hollywood business industry. When he’s not auditioning, Blickenstaff keeps busy with live theater in Los Angeles and as the voiceover announcer for USC’s public events.
“I enjoy pursuing entertainment for social change – letting art be something that drives people to make changes in their lives or the world,” Blickenstaff said. “It’s a beautiful thing to be on a set with so many people who believe in the story we’re telling.”
A Life in the Arts
Here are a few examples of the many Harker alumni working in music, dance, theater, and arts administration and education. In some cases they have other full-time jobs, which we’ve noted.
Joe Hospodor ’09
- Writer for ClickHole, The Onion, Funny or Die and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
- Writer/performer, Second City Hollywood
- Actor, Livingston Agency
- Past writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase” and BuzzFeed Motion
Shanna Polzin ’10
- Freelance stage manager and production manager for live events in New York City
- Past production stage manager, Dance Theatre of Harlem
- Managed scenic elements of 2017 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show
- Managed 2018 NFL owners dinner during the Super Bowl
- Past associate production manager, New York Summer Music Festival
- Past stage manager for Olympic figure skating shows
Gail Nakano ’06
- Chemist for a manufacturing company
- Founding member, Cappella SF
- Eight-year member, San Francisco Symphony Chorus
- Member, a cappella vocal group Gaude
- Past soloist and section leader, San Francisco’s Swedenborgian Church
Jackie Laine ’04
- Strategy consultant in media/entertainment
- Past TV producer
Vivek Saraswat ’04
- Product manager at Docker, an enterprise tech startup in San Francisco
- Member of mixed a cappella vocal group Halfway to Midnight, winner of 2016 Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Championship regional competition
- Past vocalist and guitar player with rock bands Second Breakfast and Just in Time and acoustic quartet Capo Four
Alexandra Burgess ’04 (Mickey Selbo-Bruns at Harker)
- Assistant professor of psychology, Worcester State University
- Vocalist, Novi Cantori and Illuminati Ensemble
Michelle Holt ’11
- Corporate sales manager at a networking company
- Performing in “Carmen” with West Bay Opera and auditioning for Opera San José
- Engaged with San Francisco Conservatory of Music for further education
- Past section leader and staff singer, Community Church of Vero Beach, Fla.
- Past on-staff artist, nonprofit Artists for a Cause
- Past section leader and staff singer, University of San Francisco’s St. Ignatius Parish
Marla Holt is a freelance writer based in Minnesota.