By Kristin Davis
They had just watched Wayne Brady sing his heart out in a pair of blazing-red, thigh-high boots on Broadway. Now, somehow, they were unfurling themselves from the seats and the spell of the century-old Al Hirschfeld Theatre and sidling onto a sidewalk where patrons and frosty breaths lingered.
But the night wasn’t over for 15 University of Mary Washington students who months ago had signed up for a one-of-a-kind class that culminated in a spring break trip to the theatre capital of the world.
While fans pressed themselves against a barricade, hoping one of the red-booted cast members might peek out and speak to them, the backstage door opened and the students were swept in.
Kinky Boots, five years running, had lived up its Tony Award-winning hype – especially with Brady in the role of Lola, the indomitable, show-stealing drag queen who helps save a family’s shoe business.
The students had watched the stage from the faraway darkness. But now they stood on it, in arm’s length of Brady, still dolled up in a sequined dress that scattered light. Here came Natalie Joy Johnson ’00, who since 2013 had played Pat in Kinky Boots, performing alongside Brady.
Two decades before, Johnson had been part of this very class, clutching a Playbill and dreaming that she would one day see her name in one.
“This,” she told them, “is an amazing trip that you have.” And it was – this marathon of interviews and voice lessons and shows at every curtain for 10 days straight – Johnson was proof of that.
The students gathered around her for a photo. Under the Broadway lights with one of their own, they had the sense that anything was possible.
That was by design.
In 1994, when the internet was newfangled and travelers navigated New York City’s subway system with a folding map, Gregg Stull ’82 created a senior workshop called Ideas in Performance.
The professor, department chair, and producing director of UMW Theatre thought something was missing between students’ college careers and professional lives.
“They sit in the audience,” he said, “and they can’t imagine taking that leap.”
Stull would build them a bridge. In a class that met once a week for nearly four hours, the students would read – and discuss – all the theatre news they could get their hands on. They’d choose a vocational topic and ask themselves how they could get there from here. They’d hear about the importance of connections. Then they’d go to New York and make them.
“My goal is to help them see that these are real people who wake up every day, they do a job, and they go home,” Stull said. “It’s transformational. They see themselves in a different way.”
It was costly, stressful, and full of logistical challenges. The students paid a hefty class fee, but a generous UMW undergraduate research grant made the trip possible. In the early days, students tracked down mailing addresses of actors, directors, stage managers, playwrights, and set designers. They wrote letters, asking for a meeting.
Sometimes the requests went unanswered. But sometimes the pros got back in touch, and students found themselves sitting in a New York coffee shop, face to face with proof that there were jobs to be had in theatre. And the pros shared tips on how to get them.
Two dozen years later, the world is a different place. Everything is at the students’ fingertips, on the smartphones they carry in purses and pockets. Could all this convenience actually make some things harder? Stull and his class talked about that at length in a Wednesday night session before the spring break trip.
But his charge to them was the same as it had always been: Decide who you really want to meet in this business, then go find them. Time could change a lot of things. But it couldn’t change the value of human connection.
They were ready to cross the bridge.
There was Cindy Wang ’18, an aspiring actor from Texas who had never seen a Broadway show. There was Jessica Hagy ’18, who’d grown up in Warrenton, Virginia, going to dozens of community theatre performances. She’d danced as far back as she could remember, and she’d dabbled in acting, but recently she’d found her real passion: stage management.
There was Abe Shaikh ’19 of Stafford County, who’d tried out for his first play in high school because that’s where his friends were, then discovered it was what he’d been missing. Now he was a theatre major who’d recently been cast in his first lead role in a full UMW Theatre production. He’d planned to transfer out after a year at Mary Washington, but he soon realized it was where he belonged.
“Gregg,” Shaikh said, “got a hold of me.”
On the students’ evolving list of people to interview were a host of UMW alumni who’d made their livelihoods in New York, from working in a theatre call center to stage managing an off-Broadway show to performing alongside Wayne Brady at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Success, Stull taught his students, was finding your place in the world, even if it wasn’t under the lights of Times Square. But that was a good place to start looking.
On their second afternoon in New York, a dozen students gathered in Stull’s hotel room high up in the Marriott Marquis for a meeting with Anissa Felix ’13, who would soon open her third Broadway show. It was a Sunday, her only day off, and she was devoting it to her alma mater because she’d once been a student in this class.
Felix answered question after question – how she got her first break, how she stayed healthy, how she handled the disappointment of landing a part smaller than she’d hoped.
“If you can be OK with yourself,” she told them, “you’ll be able to handle all the craziness that New York is, that this industry is, that life is.”
When she stood up to leave, Wang walked up to her. Could Felix offer any advice for a woman of color in this business?
“You have to take risks. You have to stand up for yourself,” Felix said. “You have to find your sisterhood.”
A few hours later, the students slipped into the Davenport Theatre for the off-Broadway production of Afterglow, where Will Chaloner ’13 works as a stage manager. The following afternoon, Chaloner met Hagy in the nearly empty theatre. She asked about his path from UMW, the challenges he’d faced, and where he planned to go next.
He told how he’d moved to Washington, D.C., after graduation, and when that didn’t work out, he called Stull. Two weeks later, Chaloner was on a plane to New York. Calling on the connections he’d made – and kept – from his own time in Ideas in Performance, he got a job as an assistant stage manager within 48 hours of his arrival.
“Keep up with people,” Chaloner advised. “Instead of finding a temp job, become friends with production managers. Offer to be their personal assistants.”
A few blocks away, in the vast lobby of the Marriott Marquis where the students were bunking four to a room, Shaikh and Patrick Regal ’18 sat across a table from married couple Lara Hayhurst, a performer, and Trey Compton, a director. Though neither was affiliated with UMW, they sat with the students for more than an hour.
Compton shared how he’d made the transition from acting to directing – “the best directors are listeners,” he said, “and the best way to do that is not be the one talking.” Hayhurst pulled a three-ring binder from her backpack and shared her audition repertoire – a list of songs she could sing at a moment’s notice.
Together, the couple demystified the auditioning process for Shaikh, which until now had always seemed so intimidating.
“Barbaric,” Compton said of auditioning, except that it doesn’t have to be. “It’s just a human interaction.”
Shaikh would think about that later in the evening, as he and his classmates stood backstage at Kinky Boots. He would think about it the following night when they watched Hamilton – a show in such demand the students hadn’t even bothered to put it on their wish list of shows to see with the class.
And he would think about it when, after the curtains closed, they met some of the Hamilton cast, thanks to Brandon Prendergast ’95. Prendergast is a stage manager at Ford’s, Shakespeare, and the Kennedy Center theatres, and he is also a consultant for UMW Theatre.
All of it – the interviews, the shows, the connections, the auditions that would come later – was nothing more than human interaction.
The future was wide open.