Summer jobs educate musical theatre students about themselves

By JILL INGRAM MA ’08

On campus, these students already are stars, nabbing roles in lauded theater productions including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “A Chorus Line” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But each spring, students in Western Carolina’s musical theatre program join the masses as they audition for competitive roles working in various forms of seasonal entertainment across the country.

Summer employment is valuable for several reasons, said Bradley Martin, director of the School of Stage and Screen’s Musical Theatre Program. Not only do these positions allow students to meet and evaluate peers, strengthen resumes and put into practice skills they’ve learned at Western Carolina, but the jobs also allow students to develop professionalism and networks with those already established in the field. “They are expected to work as professionals and required to work as they would in the business after college,” Martin said. “This is not a ‘student environment’ but one where you deliver a professional product or can be asked to leave.” Another advantage of summer employment? It gets the word out about Western Carolina. “It shows the strength of our students in the working marketplace, and the strength and caliber of the faculty and our program,” said Martin, who estimates that 80 percent of the program’s approximately 30 students find summer work.

The students who secure employment commonly find themselves in unglamorous positions behind the scenes or as parts of a large ensemble in amusement parks or summer stock. The hours are long, the days are hot, the living conditions crowded. But the students we spoke with invariably found ways to shine, from advancing to an unexpected role to digging deep within themselves to explore their motivation in choosing the stage as a career.

Photo courtesy of Blue Bend Photography

Depending on perspective, Alex Hairston’s (center) summer either dragged on or flew by. “The days went by really slow, but the weeks went by really fast,” said Hairston, a sophomore from St. Pauls, near Fayetteville. Through an apprenticeship at Flat Rock Playhouse, which she secured through an audition video, Hairston spent 13 weeks not only performing in three shows, but also learning to work lights and build, paint and move sets. “One of the greatest things about Flat Rock is that it gives you a greater appreciation for every part of theater, not just performing,” Hairston said. She met actors from Broadway productions of “Wicked,” “Hairspray” and “The Color Purple,” and playhouse master classes helped her sharpen tap, jazz, vocal and acting skills. Her most valuable takeaway? The experience helped her “see what you can get when you work hard for it,” she said.

As the Munchkin coroner in “The Wizard of Oz” this summer, Paul Thiemann (front right) learned the memorable lines that conclude, “She’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” Thiemann also learned something important about himself. A sophomore from Lilburn, Ga., he was a featured dancer in “The Stephen Foster Story,” the outdoor musical of Kentucky about the composer of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” (“The Wizard of Oz” was the company’s secondary offering.) “It definitely wasn’t all easy and fun like I thought it would be,” Thiemann said. “There were some hard times that challenged me.” Thiemann chose the gig based on extras such as free acting, voice and dance training, and they proved a breakthrough for him, affirming that musical theater is where his heart is. “What I learned is that I’m an odd type and a unique type, and that’s something I can use to get jobs in the future,” he said. “I embraced it.”

Last summer, Casey Weems (front center) worked the box office, manned the light board and volunteered in the costume shop at Montana’s Bigfork Summer Playhouse. This year, she starred in its presentation of “The Wedding Singer.” Weems, a senior from Orlando, Fla., was drawn to Bigfork after hearing her boyfriend rave about it. As a repertory theater – members rehearse and stage multiple shows simultaneously, with everyone appearing in each production – Bigfork was demanding. “Each of the shows is a different style. They’re each challenging in their own way, either physically or emotionally or some combination thereof, and you really have to take care of yourself because you don’t have an understudy. If you get hurt, there is no one to fill your spot,” Weems said. In its 52nd season, Bigfork is well-established in the theater world and in its own community. In an annual softball game against “the townies,” Weems’ teammates included Bigfork alumnus and Broadway, television and film star J.K. Simmons.

Jonathan Cobrda rejected a number of other offers to instead perform in the 70-member cast of “Unto These Hills,” a retelling of Cherokee history from the Native perspective. “I thought, let’s just go for something different. I knew absolutely nothing about it,” said Cobrda, a junior from Greensboro and the son of professional actors and directors. For three months in the majestic outdoor Mountainside Theatre, to audiences routinely topping 1,000, Cobrda performed as one of two dancers alternating the prominent role of leader of the Eagle Dance, among the most spiritual and treasured of the Cherokees’ hundreds of dances. “It was very much an honor to be asked to be lead eagle dancer for the whole summer,” said Cobrda, who described the role – a combination of acrobatics, ballet and contemporary and modern dance – as “some of the most intense dancing I had done in my entire life.”

Though she loves her job entertaining visitors at Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Ga., Jessica Humphrey hopes she won’t be back for a third summer there. Humphrey, of Dallas, Texas, plans to graduate in December and has her sights on a career in cruise ship entertainment. At Wild Adventures, Humphrey, who was promoted this year to dance captain, built endurance by learning three shows and performing four times a day in outdoor venues. Toughest of all? Engaging the audience. Many visitors are focused on other attractions and might even leave in the middle of a performance. “On a cruise ship, people want to see the shows,” Humphrey said. While the experience is invaluable, so are the contacts: Her casting director has strong connections in the cruise industry. This fall, Humphrey has auditions for positions on Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian and Celebrity cruise ships. “It’s going to be a busy semester,” she said.