North Central College - Naperville, IL

Connections help students pursue careers in theatre

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Students pursuing degrees in theatre at North Central College have opportunities to gain much more than a typical education in acting, singing and the technical side of a stage career. As a result,  current and former North Central students are making waves in professional theatre.

Will Allan ’09 landed key roles in Chicago productions of “The History Boys” with the TimeLine Theatre Company and “The Goat or, Who is Sylvia?” with Remy Bumppo Theatre. Student Kelli LaValle appears in the Whoopi Goldberg musical “White Noise,” which is playing at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre before heading to Broadway.

“I feel like having North Central College connected to your name gets you a foot in the door,” says Tanner Smale, a junior majoring in musical theatre who played the lead in North Central’s fall 2010 production of “Phantom of the Opera.”

North Central’s theatre program has taken off in recent years, helped by the additions of the 240-seat thrust stage at Meiley-Swallow Hall in 2007 and the versatile, 150-seat state-of-the-art black box Madden Theatre in 2008. The newer spaces lend themselves to more dramatic and experimental productions and complement the grand space of the 1,057-seat Pfeiffer Hall.

The new facilities also have created additional opportunities for theatre students to perform and direct. The 2010-2011 season boasted 10 theatrical productions featuring students. Each of the four full-time theatre faculty directed a show, one production featured a prominent guest director from Chicago and five were student-directed productions. All theatre and musical theatre majors are required to audition for each show.

“First-year students don’t know how to audition, so that becomes part of your training here,” says Carin Silkaitis, assistant professor of theatre and theatre department chair. “We don’t tell students that they’ll be cast in a show every year. You have to earn a part, just like you do in the real world.”

Silkaitis is board president of her own theatre company, XIII Pocket Productions, which was chosen to participate in Steppenwolf’s Visiting Company Initiative. Fine Arts Director Brian Lynch maintains connections with theatre professionals, having appeared in Broadway touring productions of “Cats” and “Les Miserables.” Grant Stokes, an adjunct professor of theatre, is a working actor who appears in film, television and stage roles as well as television commercials.

“Grant Stokes, who teaches the Business of Theatre class, he’s out there doing it—acting in commercials and in film,” Smale says. “Studying theatre here gives you access to the most current information you can get about jobs. People in Chicago theatre know the names of people here.”

Faculty like Deborah Palmes, professor of theatre, make quite an impression on students like Ali Ledbetter, a junior performing the title role in the College’s spring production of the Greek tragedy “Phedre.”

“Working with Deb, Carin and Brian—they’re always talking about the professional world and stress learning all facets of theatre,” Ledbetter says. “They bring in professional directors from Chicago, and we get to work with them.”

Ledbetter enjoyed learning from Chicagoan Matthew Miller, who guest-directed the College’s fall 2010 original production of “The Sleepy Hollow Plays.” Miller is a teacher and casting director whose credits include Chicago casting for such films as “Stranger Than Fiction,” “The Breakup” and “Public Enemies.”

Getting to know professionals like Miller creates benefits for students with aspirations like Harrison Ashley, a junior majoring in musical theatre.

“I want to perform in Chicago,” Ashley says during a rehearsal for “Phedre,” in which he landed the role of the Greek king Theseus. “We’re learning from people who know what they’re talking about. The connections are great. You hear about North Central students who are working with professional companies downtown.”

The weeks leading up to North Central’s production of “Phedre” (April 28-May 1) provided an opportunity to explore how student actors study a role, how a faculty member directs a production and other aspects of North Central’s theatre program.

Auditions and callbacks for “Phedre” were held in early March to cast the eight roles—five women and three men. The same weekend, students prepared different monologues and scenes as auditions were held for 15 roles in another spring show, “Elephant’s Graveyard” (May 12-15). More than 50 students auditioned for both shows.

During “Phedre” auditions, Silkaitis looked for actors with resonant voices who possessed a command of language.

“And they have to be able to use their bodies in a dynamic way,” she said during a break in “Phedre” rehearsals. “Some students are frightened of this show because it’s so classical.”

Smale plays Hippolytus, a central character who is the son of King Theseus and the object of his stepmother Phedre’s obsessive romantic desires. As a freshman, Smale appeared in the College’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the first production staged in Madden Theatre.

“It’s great that as a freshman you can get cast in a show,” he says. “You start learning the day you get here.”