This article originally appeared in the winter 2013 Harker Quarterly.
Graduates of The Harker Conservatory’s certificate program have spread out across the United States to pursue the arts. 2013 alumni are dancing, singing, playing music and making theater at top universities. For some, that means indulging in their art as an extracurricular activity as they pursue academic disciplines. For others, it means a major or a minor as they make art a part of their college studies. A select few are building on their solid foundation from The Harker Conservatory as they train to pursue their work professionally. Here are the stories of three such alumnae, who headed off to the East Coast to pursue their dreams of acting.
Cristina Jerney headed to Northeastern University in Boston for intimate theater training and an interdisciplinary curriculum. “Northeastern’s lots of fun,” Jerney says. “[The program’s] small, but it’s growing.” The program’s small size means the teachers can work very closely with their students, offering “a lot of individual attention.”
This semester, Jerney acted in Calderón de la Barca’s “The Phantom Lady.” She played a variety of ensemble roles in the 1629 Spanish piece, which featured heavy doses of romance and sword-fighting. In classes, the actors work to release themselves from attitudes of judgment, engaging in exercises that test their ability to commit and to withstand stress. Her curriculum is all theater classes with the exception of a writing class. In her next semester, Jerney will begin to incorporate her multidisciplinary interests, branching out into film and media. She calls Northeastern a “great opportunity to study what I love.”
When a friend from Harker visited her, the two discussed just how well Harker had prepared them. Jerney recalls traveling to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where the Harker Conservatory instituted a rule that if students were even a minute late for their call, they would not be allowed to perform in the show that night. That level of discipline instilled a professionalism in Jerney that has served her well at Northeastern, where she has been able to build on skills from Harker in an environment where all of the students around her are pursuing arts for their education. “I like understanding people, and I like understanding what they do and why they do it,” she says. That sentiment is the basis for her love of performing, and why she wants to be a professional actress.
Apurva Tandon is at Williams College in Massachusetts, and so far, she has been bowled over. “Oh, my gosh, they have everything,” she raves. “It’s so professional, it’s crazy. They have a scene shop. They have a costume shop. They have people working there all the time. There are three different theaters in one building. And they’re beautiful. To someone who does theater, it’s a goldmine.”
Tandon has been expanding her horizons and taking on exciting and inventive projects. A highlight of her first semester has been a production she acted in of “Fefu and Her Friends,” an experimental play by Maria Irene Fornés that takes place in multiple rooms of a house, all at once, with the audience divided into groups and watching different scenes in different locations. Tandon’s production took place in a real house on Williams’ campus, making for a wholly intimate performance. “I had a scene where I was sitting on a couch in a living room, and the audience was literally told to sit on the couch next to me and my scene partner.” The experience was a revelation for Tandon, one that taught her more about feminism and gave her the most modern show she had ever been in. “They’re so open to trying new things” at Williams. “It’s very, very open. Very experimental.”
Tandon credits Harker for having prepared her extraordinarily well for her theater classes. At the moment, her theater course load builds on the Study of Theater class she took with Jeffrey Draper. “I remember all of this from my freshman year at Harker!” she sometimes finds herself thinking.
For Tandon, the university experience has been all about getting involved. “I’ve literally tried out for everything,” she boasts. “If you’re not afraid to try out for everything and put yourself out there, something will come to you. Honestly, I just want to be involved with everything I can.” So far, that’s meant working with both the department and a studentrun group. She even performed an improv show in a storefront window on one of Williamstown’s main streets. Says Tandon, “I’m definitely getting to know the wonders of sitespecific work!”
You can find Hannah Prutton ’13 on Broadway these days – that’s 890 Broadway, at the tip of Union Square in New York City, where she trains with The Meisner Extension at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It’s an intensive program devoted to the teachings of acting guru Sanford Meisner, who divined a series of exercises and philosophies to aid actors in living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. “It’s very stressful,” says Prutton, “but really rewarding.”
Classes begin for Prutton in the early morning with two hours of Suzuki training, where a teacher she calls an “absolute genius” leads the actors in a physical theater technique inspired by Greek theater and martial arts. The technique, which takes an enormous amount of energy and features copious amounts of stomping, is designed to increase an actor’s natural awareness of his or her body. From there, she is off to voice and speech class, where the young lady with British parents hopes to finally “learn a proper American accent!” That brings her to three hours of acting training, where the students engage in a series of repetition-based exercises. These “allow our scene partner to influence our emotions, and to have that result in truth on the stage,” says Prutton. Because people develop “habits to avoid being hurt or being honest with other people,” the actors use the practices to lean into being truthful with partners and let go of the barriers to honest emotion. “When you actually get to the moment where you really, truly feel what they’re saying to you, it’s horrible,” says Prutton of the painful breakthroughs the technique inspires. “But amazing afterwards.”
Freshmen actors at New York University are forbidden from doing plays in their first year to prevent them from falling back on old habits. In this way, the students are given a full year to immerse themselves in their new training, letting go of how they used to act in high school and rebuilding their processes in the image of their professional training. According to Prutton, the actors leave behind “older habits that we’ve accumulated over the years” in favor of finding their “most truthful selves.” Her second year, she will begin character work in her studio and begin testing out what she has learned in productions.
For Prutton, “Harker is the reason I’m so passionate about theater.” Her sophomore year, Prutton traveled to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with the Harker Conservatory to perform the musical “Pippin.” Now, she can leave her studio after a full day of classes, walk across the street to board the subway, and hop uptown to Times Square to catch “Pippin” on Broadway. Overall, she is learning a lot in her freshman year. “The technique that we’re learning is very compatible with my style as an actor,” she says. “I really love it.”