City's Young Actors Juggle Schoolwork and the Spotlight

During finals week at Columbia University, students eat little and sleep less. They trudge to and from exams attiredin hoodies and sweatpants. They consume unprecedented amounts of Red Bull and Diet Coke. Some even give up IM-ing. Until the completion of that final problem set or essay, students' health, social lives, and sartorial habits will suffer. And sometimes, Off-Broadway theater will suffer, too.

"Finals were hell," recalls Columbia junior Jason Fuchs, 21, who recently completed a run starring in the Roundabout Theatre comedy Speech & Debate. "I had three papersdue on a Monday and we had four-show weekends. I got very little sleep, not more than two or three hours a night. I got very loopy."

"You were like a walking zombie," says his co-star Sarah Steele, 19, a first-year Columbia student. A third Speech & Debate cast member, NYU freshman Gideon Glick, 19, nods in agreement. All three admit that they didn't give their best performances in December.

Graff, Zaken, and Swenson backstage at Spring Awakening (top).
Cary Conover
Graff, Zaken, and Swenson backstage at Spring Awakening (top).
Joan Marcus

Really, it's remarkable that they gave any performances at all. Yes, many students balance a university curriculum with a work-study job or a time-consuming extracurricular activity such as football or the college newspaper. But at least those are likely to wind down toward the end of the semester. Just imagine trying to study for five exams while acting in eight shows per week, plus extra time spent at rehearsals or fending off one's admiring (and frequently crushed-out) public.

For most bright teenagers, deciding whether to attend college isn't much of a decision—it's simply a matter of which school will have them and what they can afford. But for young actors, that choice isn't so simple. Why pay nearly $50,000 for tuition, room, and board when instead you could earn that amount, and rack up the adoring fan letters besides? Who would choose a dorm room over an East Village apartment? Cafeteria food over cafés? The responses of six young performers the Voice spoke to suggest that there's no one right choice for the college-age actor.

Juggling School and Stage

One Saturday in February, a week or so before their final performance, the actors of Speech & Debate, a critically acclaimed play about three high-school students in Salem, Oregon, gather in their dressing room during the break between afternoon and evening shows. Sprawled out on the dressing room's bed, they initially seem fairly childish. (It's an impression aided when Glick's mom appears, bearing a belated bag of Valentine's Day chocolates.) Yet as soon as they begin to discuss their coursework and their performing, they all assume a startling air of professionalism.

Steele and Glick, who grew up near each other in the Philadelphia suburbs, deferred college admission for one year in order to act Off-Broadway—Steele in the New Group's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Glick in the Atlantic Theater Company's Spring Awakening. With the strong reviews they earned, it's somewhat surprising that they opted for university at all. But as Steele explains, after missing so much of high school acting in plays and such films as Spanglish, "I wanted to go to college. I missed being a normal kid."

Glick has fewer regrets about what he missed. "I had to go to prom," he says, "because my prom date was going to kick my ass if I didn't. But I got to skip graduation, which I was so happy about." But Glick always knew he wanted to attend college, and now says of NYU: "I love college. I told my Mom I had to be ready to want to learn." He isn't sure what he'll major in—"maybe history, art history, lit, religion, philosophy. I have a couple years to decide." Steele thinks she may opt for English or creative writing.

Though Glick and Steele find college inspiring, they both seem grateful for their year off, which Glick spent living with his brother in the East Village while Steele rented a studio in Hell's Kitchen. Steele confesses to some loneliness and to "set[ting] the fire alarm off a few times with my chicken fingers"; Glick complains of the East Village grime. But both say the year off gave them a greater confidence in themselves.

In contrast, Fuchs, the oldest of this triumvirate, admits that he attends Columbia out of a sense of obligation. "I would leave in a heartbeat," he says. "I would not be going to school were it not for the fact that my mom really, really wants me to." A consummate city stage kid, he's had an agent since age seven (he'd begged for one from the time he could talk) and has amassed an impressive string of theater and film credits. Though he went directly to Columbia after graduating from Manhattan's famed Professional Children's School, he took a leave of absence following his first year to write and star in Pitch, a short film that made the rounds of the festivals and won several prizes.

Fuchs seems determined to attend college on his own terms. "I cut a lot of classes," he admits. "I don't turn in all the assignments. If there's anything optional, I'm not doing it." Steele and Glick look shocked. "My teachers know," says Fuchs. He gestures toward his castmates. "They enjoy school. I dislike school."

Next Page »