By Daniella Ignacio
It’s the first night of the Rutgers Summer Acting Conservatory, known to its students as RSAC, and 16-year-old Keivana Wallace is nervous. She only knows one person – Zahri Jackson, her friend since fourth grade – and she doesn’t know quite what to expect.
Acting teacher Kevin Kittle leads the 40 members of the conservatory in theatre games to break the ice. He has them sit in a circle and do an impulse exercise: one person does an action, then the next person has to immediately do something else.
Slowly but surely, everyone starts getting into it. At one point it turns into a musical, then trash bags become involved. Suddenly, Wallace and the others are having the time of their lives, not caring what they look like, because they’re all doing the same thing, they’re all open to new ideas and putting themselves out there.
“It’s so easy to get a connection,” says Wallace. “I can tell that everybody here [is] so focused and really really loves what they’re doing.”
Such an experience can only happen at RSAC.
What It Is
RSAC is a month-long summer theatre program that is part of the extension division of Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.
An audition-only conservatory that mirrors a program one would experience while working towards a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in acting, it accepts 38 high school students from across the U.S. to study acting with theatre professionals at Rutgers. Established in 2003, it is run by founding director Marshall Jones.
Jones, the head of Rutgers’ theatre program and the artistic director of the Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, said he enjoys working with young people.
“I love watching them grow. They come in and they’re a little shy, they don’t really understand what acting is and what theatre is,” he said. “By the end of the program, they still don’t know, but they have a much better understanding of the opportunities that are out there, they have a better understanding of themselves and who they are and a better understanding of what their next step should be as it relates to college.”
Students take courses in movement, speech, voice, acting, directing, stagecraft, theatre games, classic cinema, careers in theatre and play discussions, as well as special seminars such as stage combat, improvisation and music workshops.
Acting classes are based on the Meisner method, which emphasizes authenticity instead of “acting.” The 14 musical theatre students also study singing and dancing. All RSAC students go to New York every Sunday to attend both a matinee and an evening performance of a Broadway, Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway show.
“Seeing a lot of theatre that a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to see, and coming back and being able to discuss it among people that are as overwhelmed as you are, [has] been the most memorable moment for me,” 16-year-old Zahri Jackson said.
For the Love of Performing
Many students, including 17-year-old Sky Young, said that having a common interest in theatre makes the environment among students more supportive and open for real growth.
“There’s not anyone here who doesn’t want to work and who expected to come in and just chill out,” she said. “Everyone here wants to work and help build the ensemble. It’s not just an ensemble with the acting class or with just the actors or just the musical theatre kids, it’s with everyone.”
One moment in which many say this was prevalent was when the group bonded during a special seminar called “I Am Theatre.” In this seminar, everyone in the conservatory shared their stories about acting, expressing why theatre means so much to them and why they “are” theatre.
“It’s so nice to be around these same kind of like-minded performing, acting individuals because everyone’s stories, while they were different, all had this common theme of ‘this is what I love to do, and this is why I’m here,’” student Moriya Dichter said.
Looking Towards the Future
Alumni say that the program has been instrumental in their decision to pursue theatre.
“RSAC definitely helped me solidify that I am an actress and my calling is the stage. Every class taught me something new about acting and left me wanting more at the end of every day,” said Raven Smith, who will be a freshman B.F.A. Acting student this fall at Montclair State University. Something that helped her was the careers in theatre course that teaches them the differences between B.F.A. and B.A. programs.
Fellow alum Dorian Davis is thankful for RSAC for a different reason. “Before attending RSAC, I wasn’t aware of both the acting track AND the musical theatre track. I love musical theatre just as much as plays,” he said. “Attending for the acting track, I could see how much fun [the musical theatre students] had. Hearing about what they went through during their classes and seeing them perform really opened my eyes as to what I want to pursue in college. Not that I didn’t love the acting track classes, but I wanted to learn and improve more in my craft.”
He will be a B.F.A. Musical Theatre major at Shenandoah Conservatory in the fall.
RSAC alums attend many prestigious B.F.A. Acting, B.F.A. Musical Theatre and B.A. Theatre programs and have gone on to great success as performers. You can find RSAC alums at colleges such as Juilliard, Pace University, New York University, Fordham University, SUNY Purchase, Rutgers University, and more. You may have also seen them working in professional productions and movies, such as Crystal Clarke of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Memories for a Lifetime
More important than preparation for college and professional life are the memories made and lessons learned from RSAC that will stay with students forever. Current students and alumni said that this program has changed their lives for the better.
“I am not necessarily a different person than I was before [RSAC], but I have become a more unique, more honest version of myself,” alum Erin Bogert said. “I went to the conservatory with such a short-sighted idea of what acting was and who I thought I was. I now know that there is so much more to life, myself, and acting.”
Dichter agrees. “Before it was really scary, but this is the kind of stuff that would make grown men cry [and] I’m doing it,” she said, “and if I could get through this month without like having a mental breakdown, maybe I might have what it takes to at least do a B.F.A. program and then one day be an actor.”
Students also say that larger life lessons were learned from this program as well.
“The most important lesson I learned [from RSAC] was to live in the moment and learn to let go,” alum Kenny Bernisky said. “We spend so much time trying to speed through moments in our lives and we miss pivotal life changing experiences. We all carry so much baggage but RSAC helped instill that muscle of being like, ‘Okay, that happened, I’m embarrassed, but I didn’t die, I’m still here, and it’s okay, so let it go.’”
As the 2016 program draws to a close, it is clear that these students have learned much about their craft and will go on to great things. Who knows? One day you may see one of them on Broadway.
This project is sponsored by the 2016 Hugh N. Boyd Journalism Diversity Workshop for New Jersey High School Students at Rutgers University.