Learning From the People Who Surround You

by Austin Smith, 4th-year actor

Anytime someone asks me to capture the breadth of my Juilliard experience in a few words, my brain (daunted by the task) almost comes to a halt. For the rest of my life I will be embroiled in an attempt to understand what has happened to me over the course of these four years.  At this particular moment, however, I do have a few experiences resonating with me, such as the opportunity to meet the incredible Frances McDormand earlier this week and my very first experience acting in a Juilliard play.

One of my teachers was the vocal coach on an HBO Miniseries that Frances (yeah that’s right, first name basis) recently finished shooting, and asked if she would be willing to come speak to the Drama Division.  From her discussions about reconstructive surgery and paganism, to a story about hysterically hiding under a table while shooting her first film, she had us all in stitches.  Yet, she made sure to  leave us with some kernels of wisdom that only someone with her level of experience, passion and zaniness could come by.

As I near the end of my time at Juilliard, I’ve thought a lot about the work that my classmates and I have done together.  The first play we ever did as a group was Romeo & Juliet.  I think about where we were then, and the growth I’ve witnessed in each of the seventeen people I’ve had the pleasure of working with EVERY SINGLE DAY for four years.  I remember how hard we worked to figure out a dance for the party scene, how my partner for the fight at the beginning of the play and I could not get through it without chuckling for some reason, and how relieved all of us were to make it through our first play at Juilliard.

Oh, how things have changed since then.  Though you don’t notice the change in yourself at first, you see it in your colleagues: how they are growing, going to deeper places in their work, making bolder choices; and you pray to God that, gradually, those changes are manifesting in your own work.  In the meantime , you continue to learn from the incredible people who surround you, which I think is at the heart of anyone’s Juilliard experience.  You have so many opportunities to work with exceptional classmates and guest artists. As Jim Houghton, the artistic director of the Drama Division, says, “Juilliard is not a building, it’s the people”.  And as I prepare to leave this building, those words could not ring any more true.

Giving Juilliard a Try

by Ryan Spahn, 4th-year actor

To be frank, the thought of going to school for four years scared the &$@! out of me. I was in my late 20s, had a job, an apartment, a partner, a dog/cat, and a career. All that being said, I was frustrated that I wasn’t getting the kind of acting work I felt I deserved, and I was considering walking away from it all. This broke my heart, cause it’s what I loved most. But I couldn’t put my finger on what was in my way. Someone close to me encouraged me to give Juilliard a try. I figured… “Hey, it’s Juilliard, the greatest drama school on Earth, and if I am privileged enough to be accepted, then I should take that as my path toward figuring out why I’m not happy and grateful.”

In the Drama Division, there is a final callback weekend when 40 or so applicants come to NYC and take classes in front of the faculty. It’s a chance for the teachers to see us in action, and for us to determine if the rigor of the program is what’s best. In one of the classes, Richard Feldman moderates the students through a series of naturalistic improvisations. I was paired with Sam Lilja, who later became my classmate, and I remember the moment when I realized Juilliard was what I needed to be doing for the next four years. The improv: Sam and I had to pretend we were in a small row boat. That was all the information we were given, and we developed a scene that would support this location. Sam and I had an immediate connection as actors and people. Within a few moments of us starting the improv, which was simply Sam (a boy from Iowa) teaching me (a big city boy) how to properly prep a fishing rod, Mr. Feldman ended our improv and moved onto the next couple. It was then that I realized a few valuable lessons: a) I wanted to attend this school; b) I knew naturalistic acting was what I was drawn to; c) I had a long way to go before I was able to do the kind of work I yearned to do with the ease of this simple improv.

Prior to that moment, I had always been pushing and “muscling” my way through acting moments, and I needed to stop…as it was preventing me from getting work. Through my years at school, I was stretched and pushed beyond my comfort zone, and played bold, brassy characters (Herod in “Salome” and Toby Belch in “Twelfth Night”). Yet…lurking in the back of my mind… was a desire to step back into the “naturalistic.” But it wasn’t happening. I was frustrated. This is where the brilliance of the school comes in. Because they didn’t give me what I wanted and challenged me with what I needed, I was able to actually grow. And now, in my fourth year, Sam and I were paired up in a very naturalistic play called “The Great God Pan” by Amy Herzog. While in rehearsals, I couldn’t help but remember my first moments with Sam in the audition weekend and now here we were — sharing the stage, with ease and grace. I was doing the kind of work I always loved and admired — but with the backbone and confidence of a man who had the instrument to handle the most intense of circumstances, as this play required. Juilliard single-handedly gave me this depth of understanding, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The Juilliard Community

by Corey Dorris, 3rd-year actor

Before I came to Juilliard I heard so many things about the school. Many of them were myths and rumors, but many of them were true and made up what contributes to the school’s reputation. I heard that it’s really tough with a really busy schedule. I heard that it’s really hard to get into. I heard that the students are all great and talented and competitive. All of this is true. But what I didn’t hear about (and was genuinely surprised by) was the amazing student life. There are departments, programs, and staff here solely for the purpose of the student life outside of classes. And they help create a community and an actual college experience that are often overlooked when people talk Juilliard’s great reputation.

One department that probably over half the student body participates in is Educational Outreach. They have a ton of programs, from teaching to performing, that encourage students to participate and engage with New York City. Some students teach to middle schoolers on Saturday mornings. Some students take summer trips to Detroit and Utah to teach master classes or do community service. One thing I’ve done over the last two years is participate in the Gluck Community Service Fellowship. It’s a program for students to form performance groups and perform all over the city in places such as nursing homes, hospitals, and teen shelters. Sometimes after the performance, we stay to talk with the audience members and they tell us about a favorite song, or a grandchild who sings and dances, or things they do in the arts. One time a lady came up to us crying because we had performed a song from her favorite musical.

Another program I’ve participated in is The New Orleans Project, which is led by the Office of Student Affairs. Every year, a group of 20-30 students raise money to go to New Orleans over Spring Break and teach master classes, help build houses with Habitat for Humanity, and teach creative arts classes to students at the local YMCA. The program started 7 years ago because a Juilliard dancer wanted to help her hometown, New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Juilliard has been back to New Orleans every year! I went two years in a row and was surprised at how many of the students from the YMCA remembered my name! Even though we were only there for one week, it proved that we really do make a difference, and that every bit helps. Evey year we hear from the person who runs our Habitat for Humanity site that we put them ahead of schedule on the house we help to build!

Not only are Gluck and The New Orleans Project outreach opportunities that help Juilliard give back to the community, but they help make a community at Juilliard. I’ve met some of my best friends through them! My performance group for Gluck hangs out before and after our performances; and through all the meetings and preparations for the trip, I met some of my best friends during The New Orleans Project that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to meet. Juilliard has a reputation because of all the things you hear about it: the classes, the rehearsal schedule, the competitiveness. But what I never heard about was its amazing community and student life. Those are qualities that should definitely make students want to come and study here!