By: Dale King Contributing Writer
For student actors at Florida Atlantic University, the stage is their most significant classroom.
Young learners take part in dramas, comedies and occasional musicals during the school year. But summertime is special. The university brings in professionals – holders of Actors Equity cards – to help students hone their abilities as they work toward eventual graduation.
The current class just completed its Summer Repertory shows, a pair of productions from differing ends of the dramatic spectrum. The plays, Sabrina Fair in June and the musical comedy, Sister Act, which kept the Studio One Theatre on the Boca campus rocking during July, included Equity actors Jeanne Bennett and Philip Chaffin as cast members and Christina Baroniel as production stage manager.
Also on hand for Sister Act was Kathryn Lee Johnston, an associate professor at FAU, frequent show director and Equity actress.
The summer of 2019 marked the 21st year that FAU opened its stage doors to theatrical pros. And the combine worked out well for students and mavens.
“I’ve worked on quite a few Summer Reps, and it’s a joy to work with the same people I teach, especially the current group,” said Johnston, who portrayed the Mother Superior. “Sister Act was a real challenge to put together, and the student actors, designers and crew approached it with a great deal of persistence, professionalism, and patience.”
Taking the stage with students “is a chance for me to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ and experience what they experience,” Johnston added. “It also helps me work with them when I cast them in a production I’m directing.”
Chaffin, a staple of New York and regional theater for more than 20 years, said he “saw that the theatre was doing Sabrina Fair and thought Linus Larrabee Sr. was a wonderful role, and one that I’d love to play, so I went in and auditioned.”
Bennett arrived the same way. “There was a notice in the online equity audition post. I was looking for a job and I auditioned. I didn’t know the particulars, that is, working with grad students as well as undergrads or even the length of the contract. Frankly, I was just happy to have an acting job with a contract that lasted for nine weeks. Most of the theatre jobs in South Florida are six-week contracts.”
Baroniel, a Miami native, is production coordinator for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. She has appeared in many shows at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in West Virginia and Slow Burn Theatre in Fort Lauderdale.
Commenting on her experience this year, Bennett advised acting hopefuls: “Always find a way to keep studying. Actors are works in progress. It’s important to keep growing and developing as an artist. In this market (South Florida) an actor can go many months between auditions. Being in a class keeps you on your toes.”
Chaffin’s advice: “Study. Take classes. Keep working on your craft, especially when you’re not doing a show. As an actor, you should always be learning. And trust your gut. That’s so important.”
Johnston said she fields many questions while working in the Summer Rep program. “Most questions are related to my work with them as their voice and speech professor, but I know they ask the others about their own career experiences. They’re in school to learn technique, so they want to get as much information as they can about how to get work once they graduate.”
Bennett said she was impressed by the students’ diversity. ”I would have assumed they wanted NYC with their eyes on Broadway, but that only describes a small number of students. Others want to try a different market in Texas or Boston or want to do non-commercial theatre or stay in Florida and work (as actors) and teach. Their plans are extremely varied.”