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.