Anissa Felix ’13 knew New York. Her parents had grown up there. Her grandmother still lived there. She was 9 the first time she watched a Broadway show. A few years later, she was learning to navigate the city.
But it was not until she traveled there as a UMW student for a 10-day marathon of theatre and interviews with actors that she believed she’d someday end up on a Broadway stage. She did – as a swing in Motown: The Musical – less than two years later.
As a college student, Felix had traveled to the city as part of an extraordinary UMW course that has connected theatre students with New York theatre professionals since 1994. It was during that class’s 2012 spring break trip that Felix met Natalie Joy Johnson ’00, who’d climbed her way from Klein Theatre to Broadway.
“Some kids dream of being astronauts and the president. My dream was to be an actor,” said Felix, who grew up in Manassas, Virginia. That ambition was as old as her memory; before she was performing in her kindergarten talent show, she was dancing on her family’s hearth.
Johnson was proof that it was possible. “Somebody who went to my school, who walked on the same campus – that to me was amazing.”
Now Felix is among the UMW theatre alumni on Broadway. After Motown came Sunset Boulevard. She was deep in rehearsals for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical when she sat down with the latest Ideas in Performance class visiting New York in March. Summer opened in April.
Felix moved to the city two days after she collected her theatre degree from UMW. She’d gotten into every university she’d applied to, but she chose Mary Washington for its inclusive and comprehensive theatre program.
“I felt so welcome. I felt like the program was small enough so I’d be able to get a lot of individualized attention.
It was intimate enough where the professors knew your name,” she said.
And she didn’t have to wait until her junior year to act in a theatre production. That wasn’t the case at other universities. “I wanted to do it now.”
Which also is why she moved to New York nearly as soon as commencement was over. She got a job to pay the bills – working as a personal assistant to an actor.
“She introduced me to a ton of directors when she found out I was an actor. I ended up booking my first jobs from working for them as baby sitters and assistants,” Felix said. Then she got a job as a receptionist at an editing company. Her boss’s wife would call and talk theatre.
“Later on, I found out she was the associate director of Motown. They had lost a swing. They were looking for an immediate replacement to cover all the female parts. She called me in to audition.”
And just like that, Felix landed on a Broadway stage that had once seemed so remote. During a Washington, D.C., stop on the national tour, she stepped into the role of Diana Ross. In the audience was Gregg Stull ’82, the theatre professor who’d created the capstone course and who more than two decades later is still bringing students to New York as part of it.
As Felix shared her story with the latest class, she thought about how recently she’d been in their shoes. And how one day, they might be in hers.