SU Drama-Syracuse Stage partnership nurtures burgeoning actors

The collaboration between SU's drama program and downtown's theater allows students to graduate ahead of the curve in terms of real-world acting experience.

Jonathan R. Watson, a musical theater senior in Syracuse University’s Department of Drama (SU Drama), never tires of talking about his interesting experience of performing at Syracuse Stage, a professional regional theater downtown.

“Once during a dancing scene of A Christmas Carol, a girl’s shoe fell off,” he said. “A professional actor was in the show with us, and he suddenly shouted, ‘Oh! Her shoe fell off! Get it for her, Tony.’ Actually, there was no one named Tony in the show; he just looked at one of our actors, named him and improvised. So the audience didn’t know anything had gone wrong.”

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Davis/Syracuse Stage
Last year's co-production of 'A Christmas Carol' also featured SU Drama students working alongside professional actors.

Although Watson is a student, he has already performed in A Christmas Carol with professional actors on Syracuse Stage. And he will appear there again this year. 

He has these opportunities because “SU Drama has a very complementary and complex relationship with Syracuse Stage,” said Leslie Noble, an administrator at SU Drama.

SU Drama began its partnership with Syracuse Stage in 1974. Every year, students have opportunities to be cast in a musical co-produced by each organization. A Christmas Carol was the co-production last year; Hairspray, this year’s co-production, has 35 shows from Nov. 28, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015 at Syracuse Stage.

“Both of us benefit from co-productions,” Noble said.

All professional actors at Syracuse Stage are on union salaries, whereas student actors are not paid. However, during the shows that continue after classes have finished, student actors receive a weekly stipend, which is much less than professional actors’ weekly salary. This allows Syracuse Stage to do a larger show.

With students, cast size can be enlarged from 10 actors, the cast size of a regular show at Syracuse Stage, to 20 actors, according to Noble.

The benefit to all this, though, is that students have the chance to work with visiting professional artists hired by Syracuse Stage, Noble said.

“It is so interesting and different,” Watson, the senior, said. “When you’re working with a professional director, his job is to direct the show, not to be your acting coach.”

Conversely, during SU Drama’s shows directed by faculty directors, they tend to coach students and help them a little bit more, according to Watson.

“They will ask you to try this or do it in that way,” he said. “But if you are a director and you hire Al Pacino or Meryl Streep, do you need to tell them how to act? No. They are professionals. So this is how Syracuse Stage trains us.”

Students have to do their homework and explore by themselves, and therefore become more independent and professional during co-productions, Watson said.

According to Raven Gabrielle Perez, a musical theater senior at SU Drama who performed in A Christmas Carol, what she learns from those professionals is not to panic and to have confidence.

Co-productions are also beneficial to students’ future career. 

Watson aims to become a member of Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union of more than 49,000 actors and stage managers in the U.S.. Being an Equity actor is a prerequisite of being a Broadway actor. It also means he is a professional actor and he can be paid much higher, Watson said.

In order to achieve it, he has to earn 50 Equity points by doing five weeks of work for a professional Equity theater -- like Syracuse Stage. Watson has already earned 10 points by performing in A Christmas Carol, and he will earn 11 points more by working in Hairspray.

The biggest difference between him and his friends who study at other universities that are not associated with a professional theater? The amount of Equity points they'll earn.

None,” he said, with a smile. “My friends will graduate with no Equity points. So my school better helped me to become a professional actor.”

Moreover, according to Noble, the administrator in SU Drama, if students take advantage of meeting, learning from and keeping in touch with those professionals, they are more likely to pass along possible job opportunities.

“It’s great networking,” Watson said. “During the show, I got to know someone who knows someone. And sometimes he asked me to go to this or that audition because he knows the director.”

Moreover, students gain a lot of positive exposure to profession and industry by working with professionals. According to Noble, students are curious about how a professional actor’s life is. How did they start their career? What about all the traveling as a freelance artist? How to deal with challenges?

“They are open to talk about anything with you. They don’t treat you as a student, but as a younger version of themselves,” said Perez, the senior. So students have more knowledge before stepping into the real world, she said.

“All of these professional artists are teachers,” Noble said. “Even if they don’t teach any classes, they are influencing what students see, hear and think.

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