Displaying items by tag: Actor Training Program

By Emeri Fetzer 

Four alumni of the U Department of Theatre, now roommates in Brooklyn, are busy devising a new piece of theatre to be presented digitally.

“In response to the pandemic!” you may be immediately thinking.

But, these four Utah grads turned New York City-based actors, and now known as WHO’S LOUIS?, were actually hard at work on their digital installation piece, “I’m Not Playing” well before COVID-19 changed season programming across the nation.  

Cece Otto, Katryna Williams, Monica Goff, and Dominic Zappala met as undergraduates in the Actor Training Program. When post-graduate fellow Julie Rada brought a group of students together to make a new piece for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), Otto jumped to get involved. Soon, local theatre producer Sackerson announced a 24-hour theatre festival. Eager to keep performance momentum going, Otto recruited classmates and friends to enter a new work in the festival. Little did they know, this would be the first project of their future theatre company. They won first place. The next year they made another piece for KCACTF, with help from special funding from the College of Fine Arts.  

Soon after graduation, the four relocated to NYC. “The work itself is a mix of movement and sometimes poetry, sometimes a story line…” Otto said. “Everything we have done thus far has been really different. And we produce all of it ourselves.”

We started talking about where theatre meets game play, or interaction with the audience. And then as those conversations were happening, we found ourselves quarantined for the pandemic, all four of us in the same apartment. It was the perfect timing.

When 2020 began, Otto was reaching the finish line on her online master’s degree in arts administration from SUU. Her final capstone project was approaching. “I was looking at my resources in NYC as a young artist, and was thinking to myself how few resources we have: money, time — all of us work a number of jobs — space is very limited,” she said. Wanting to do something that would also further WHO’S LOUIS?, she began to think outside the box. “I thought of how Screendance is becoming very popular, and I had seen a lot of it while I was at the U, because I had friends in modern dance. I didn’t think there was any equivalent for theatre, or anything I considered a true equivalent.” When her advisor reacted positively to the idea of a digital piece as her capstone, she couldn’t wait to tell her collaborators.   

“As we were having this conversation about Cece’s capstone project, we were also having conversations about convention and our ideas about how to break theatrical conventions,” Williams said. “We started talking about where theatre meets game play, or interaction with the audience. And then as those conversations were happening, we found ourselves quarantined for the pandemic, all four of us in the same apartment. It was the perfect timing.” Process 2

They started holding two rehearsals every week, right at home. Their walls were covered in notes. They created a huge paper timeline that spanned their common space. Sometimes they would wake each other up in the middle of the night with an idea that couldn’t wait for morning.

Goff explained, “In developing it, we thought about things people might do after thirty days in quarantine. We built from there — thinking of strange and quirky things that might seem normal after a long period of time spent alone. From there, we developed characters: one who is spiritual, one that is a stereotypical stoner, one who is into self-help, and one who is obsessed with her work. Then we figured out the relationships. It is the story of four roommates trying to deal with the breakup of two of them.” 

Filmed and edited in advance, viewers will be able to experience “I’m Not Playing” from many different angles of their own choosing. From several cameras throughout the apartment, audience can select to follow characters or even explore an empty room.

It is a technological undertaking that would be daunting to some. Luckily, Dominic Zappala is the secret weapon every theatre company desperately needs this year. With a background in computer programming in addition to his theatre training, he knew how to build the site that would host the piece. “Basically, we had written the show, we had come up with the concept, and we knew how we were going to film it and then we thought, 'How do we host this? What kind of platform do we put this on? Do we go to Twitch? Do we use YouTube?' Dominic coded our website and he said, ‘You know what? I think I can do it.’ He edited the whole project as well,” Williams explained.  

“I’m Not Playing” has already been picked up by the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival (July 30-August 9), the Minnesota Fringe Festival (July 30 - August 9), and the Rochester Fringe Festival (September 15-26). not playing grid

The group is excited to have theatre engagements on the calendar, especially at a time of such extreme cancellations in the arts. Using this time in quarantine to move forward without hesitation, WHO’S LOUIS? has not only come up with a great final product, but have learned invaluable lessons in the developmental process.

“I am someone that is always worried about the future, always worried about money,” Otto confided. “You know, I want to make something of quality — and how do we do that when we have so few resources? I think we spent $40 total on things we didn’t already have. We filmed it on our phones and our computers. It really proved to me that you don’t need money to make something of quality. You just need the time and the energy to dedicate yourself to your project.”

Beyond the importance of adaptability, this strange time has offered a chance for reflection on the future of theatre at large. Goff explained, “This is the time to rethink theatre and to think about why we are stuck in traditional forms when there are so many ways to make this craft accessible. As we are seeing the world crumble, this is the time to rebuild.”

Stay tuned on more details on upcoming shows by following WHO’S LOUIS? on social media! @whoslouisco

Published in Finer Points Blog

By Marina Gomberg 

When you study at University of Utah College of Fine Arts, you’re not just introduced to some of the finest faculty members on the planet. You oftentimes also get to enjoy the benefits of those faculty members’ vast and esteemed networks, too.   

This was the case with the graduating seniors in the University of Utah Department of Theatre’s Actor Training Program (ATP), who got to have one final guest artist experience with assistant professor, Rob Scott Smith’s graduate school buddy — oh, and Emmy and Golden Globe winner — Jim Parsons

Smith wanted to provide something really special to the ATP students who are graduating during this global pandemic, and a visit with Parsons was his Big Bang Theory (har har), especially because the two of them had their own experience graduating during a particularly challenging time. 


“I think the thickest common thread of our experience to this experience is that it forces you to realize your commitment to what it is you want,” Parsons said, as he reflected on how the world’s uncertainty made him surer of his own drive and passion as an artist. 


“We finished our graduate work from the University of San Diego after 9/11,” Smith noted. “So, I thought the students might uniquely benefit from hearing how he faced life after school in what felt like a pretty uncertain world.” 

In an intimate and invite-only Zoom meeting, Smith and Parsons bantered back and forth about their time together in school, and Smith posed questions to Parsons from the personal to the professional.  

“I think the thickest common thread of our experience to this experience is that it forces you to realize your commitment to what it is you want,” Parsons said, as he reflected on how the world’s uncertainty made him surer of his own drive and passion as an artist. 

The two spoke about life in quarantine, protecting art in the dollar-driven business of artmaking, Parson’s work producing the series “Special,” and his works on Broadway, navigating between playing to a camera versus a live audience, the value of being prepared, and handing life when it all feels like trial by fire. 

He opened up genuinely about his own personal writing practices, the discovery of his aversion to the business side of the work, and how he overcomes his own doubts and fears.  

“I do think that’s a big part of it, is to understand that fear and uncertainty are the companions — they’re always in the side car. And when you quit fighting them — for me at least — they become smaller, for lack of engaging with them as much. But they also offer their own excitement and mystery, and you learn, sometimes, to let that be the joy.” 

After about 45 minutes of what felt like watching two longtime friends catch up in their living room (which even included the recipe for Parsons’ apparently famous Velveeta chip dip), Smith opened the session to student questions, which ranged from the more pragmatic and tactical to philosophical and lofty. Each of the questions, though, was paired with profuse gratitude for the opportunity to hear from Parsons and pick his brain. 

It was a big bang, indeed. 

Parsons sent one final thought after the call for Smith to share with the students: "YOU ARE ENOUGH. I think it’s THE most CRUCIAL information I ever received and it means something new and deeper to me with each passing year but, as an actor, I HIGHLY advise saying it to yourself as often as you can remember to do so and until you believe it!"

Published in Finer Points Blog

Sisters Tilly and Agnes Evans are at the heart of the “She Kills Monsters,” (now open at Kingsbury Hall). While grieving Tilly’s death, Agnes Evans discovers a whole new side of her late sister, anchored in the wild world of Dungeons & Dragons.

We caught up with actors Allison Billmeyer and Piper Salazar, about the challenges and triumphs in the journey to bring the sisters to life.

What is the most challenging part of embodying Tilly and Agnes in "She Kills Monsters?"

Allison: Throughout most of the play, Tilly is essentially a figment of Chuck’s imagination (the Dungeon Master that Agnes enlists for help). I think that was tricky to wrap my head around -- how she’s so many different versions of herself. But still playing it straight through.

Piper: The most challenging part of being Agnes is embodying a character who has experienced extreme loss. Agnes has lost both her parents and little sister in a car crash, and it is incredibly hard to channel that kind of trauma and energy into a character.

What is the number one thing this play taught you? 

Allison: This show is massive. Kingsbury Hall is  a huge space to perform in. There’s so many moving pieces that make it all come together. It’s been incredibly challenging and rewarding to get to work on a show that really pushes you to work on and utilize the skills we learn in the Actor Training Program. We get to work on so much in this show from fight choreography, character work, vocal work, puppets & shadow play, intimacy choreography, and text work. 

Piper: The number one thing this play has taught me is that people deserve to be seen for their best. Every person is magical and amazing even if it is not noticeable at first glance or by the way they present themselves.

What’s one thing about Dungeons and Dragons the general public would be surprised about or interested to know?

Allison: I suppose, just how involved & complicated D&D is. It’s not an easy game to wrap your head around or start playing because there’s a lot of information to take in. 

Piper: D & D is more than just a board game. As we learn in the show, it is about having fun, saving the world, and wish fulfillment. You can be anyone you want to be when playing the game.

There are lots of chances to see these women in action this weekend at Kingsbury Hall!

She Kills Monsters
January 16 – 19 at 7:30 pm
Matinees January 18* and 19 at 2:00 pm
*ASL interpretation available

Published in Finer Points Blog

Action-packed adventure, 90's pop culture, and mighty monsters at war with strong female protagonists? Get ready. 

From January 16 through 19, University of Utah’s Department of Theatre will present Qui Nguyen’s "She Kills Monsters" at Kingsbury Hall, by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. Directed by Jamie Rocha Allan, this tale of friendship, loss, and acceptance follows young woman Agnes Evans as she grieves the death of her sister, Tilly. While exploring her sister’s life, Agnes discovers that Tilly was a well-known Dungeons & Dragons player and dives into a fantastical world chock-full of supermodel elves, dominatrix warrior women, and nasty ogres.

As director Jamie Rocha Allan describes, the production is the result of many creative collaborations.  “What most excites me about bringing She Kills Monsters to the stage is the chance to show off all the incredible collaborators I have worked with, from faculty, to students to freelance artists. This really is an ensemble show on and off the stage.”

The talented cast includes members of both the Actor Training Program and Musical Theatre Program including Allison Billmeyer (Tilly Evans), Piper Salazar (Agnes Evans), Ashley Bostrom, Krystal DeCristo, Amona Faatau, Jack Gardner, Connor Nelis Johnson, Aria Klein, Jonathan Onyango, Makena Reynolds, Keira Stogin, and Lexie Thomsen. 

Puppet designer Matt Sorensen collaborated with students to create several original puppets that enhance the imaginary world of monsters and dragons. The production features scenic design by Thomas George, costume design by Peter Terry, lighting design by Rachael Harned, sound design and composition by Gerard Black, dramaturgy by Mason Duncan, choreography by Aria Klein, and fight choreography by Harris Smith. 

Read more about the creation of the production’s stunning original puppetry here

She Kills Monsters
Kingsbury Hall 
January 16 – 19 at 7:30 pm
Matinees January 18* and 19 at 2:00 pm
*ASL interpretation available

Post-production talkback with members of the popular D&D podcast Adventures in Questing immediately following the performance on Friday, January 17.
Post-production talkback with the cast and creative team following the 7:30 p.m. performance on Saturday, January 18.

General Admission tickets are $18, University of Utah faculty and staff are $15.
University of Utah students are free with ArtsPass (UCard)!  

*Content warning: Children under four years of age, including babes in arms, will not be admitted. Contains simulated violence, sexual content, adult language, references to suicide. 

Published in Finer Points Blog

MAKING ART WORK is a series that taps into the knowledge and experience of seasoned creatives from our community and beyond for the benefit of our students.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Broadway actor and CFA Department of Theatre Alum Claybourne Elder for this episode of MAKING ART WORK.

What skills or mentors from your time at the U have had lasting impact as you built your career? 

I learned so many valuable things from my time at the U. Definitely the most important class I took was theatre history. Not only because that's where I met my now mentor, Sydney Cheek-O'Donnell, but because that class taught me how to respond in my own voice to theatre. Not only did I learn about the most important plays and playwrights in history, but I learned to talk about them and have opinions. This has proved an invaluable skill to me in my life as an artist. 

Any unexpected twists in your path as an artist? 
Part of the fun of being an actor is that your life is full of unexpected twists. One day you're sitting around your apartment and the next day you have an audition that changes your life. The hard part is the in-between times. Times when you are waiting to book your next job or waiting for rehearsal to start on your next project. Those are the times you have to be extra mindful and use the time to learn new skills or hone your craft. When I first auditioned for "Bonnie and Clyde," which was the first show I did on Broadway, they called me in for a different role than the one I ended up playing. In fact, they had already cast someone in the role I ended up doing. But I went in to the audition having worked hard to be prepared. After I auditioned they asked if I could step out and wait in the lobby for a minute. I waited in the lobby for a few minutes and the casting director came out and said, "So, there's another role in the show that we'd like you to read for. We've already cast someone but they'd like you to read for it anyway." He handed me a bunch of pages from the script and gave me about 10 minutes to learn them. I went back in the room and gave my audition for the other character. Two days later they called and said they wanted to give me the job instead of the original person they were going to cast. You just never know how it's going to happen!  

If you could talk to undergraduate you, what would you say or advise?

Never underestimate people and always be kind. Kindness and generosity of spirit are what will keep you afloat in your career as an artist. 

Where do you look to fill your well when inspiration runs low?

Everywhere! One of my favorite things about living in New York City is there is art everywhere. Some days when I have a bad audition I take myself to a museum to get myself out of my head. But you can do that anywhere! Read a book, go see a great film, listen to someone tell their story. Get outside your head and into the world. 

About Claybourne Elder: 

Claybourne Elder is a Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel nominee. Originally from Springville, Utah, he earned his Bachelor's degree in dramaturgy and directing from the University of Utah. He starred on Broadway in “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Sunday in the Park with George” (with Jake Gyllenhaal) “Torch Song” and “Sondheim on Sondheim” at the Hollywood Bowl. He can be heard on the cast recordings of “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Road Show,” “Venice” and “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Off-Broadway, Elder appeared in the original companies of Stephen Sondheim's “Road Show,” Tennessee Williams' “One Arm” (Drama Desk Nomination Best Actor), and in the revivals of “Allegro” (Lucille Lortel Nomination Best Actor), “Two by Two” (with Jason Alexander), and “Do I Hear a Waltz?” He has premiered works by Stephen Sondheim, Frank Wildhorn, Bill Finn, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

His regional credits include George in the Helen Hayes award winning Signature Theatre revival of “Sunday in the Park with George” (Arlington, VA), Wolf/Prince in Moises Kaufman’s “Into the Woods,” “Angels in America” (KC Rep, dir. David Cromer), “Oklahoma” (Curly), “West Side Story” (Tony), “Cinderella” (Prince), “Passion” (Giorgio), and “Pippin” (Pippin).Elder was a series regular, Pete O'Malley, on the WB's “The Carrie Diaries.” Film credits include “Flatbush Luck,” and “It Could Be Worse.” He made his cabaret debut at 54 Below in NYC and his solo show “You and Me and Sondheim” has played to sold out houses around the country and in London.

He lives in New York with his husband Eric Rosen who is a playwright and director. They have one son, Bo, who is two years old.

Published in Finer Points Blog