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City's Young Actors Juggle Schoolwork and the Spotlight

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

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.

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."

Fuchs speaks admiringly of some professors, but he's had frustrations with others, like the music professor who wouldn't allow him to reschedule an exam or the film professor who treated him with hauteur until "he found out I'd had some good meetings. Suddenly he became very nice to me and asked me if I could get a script of his to DreamWorks." (Columbia University administrators did not respond to Voice queries concerning policies regarding students with professional commitments.)

It wasn't entirely easy for Steele, Glick, and Fuchs to transition back to the semi-independence of student life after living as self-supporting adults. Fuchs still chafes at the college's requirements—like having to explain missed classes or write essays on topics that don't interest him. Glick realized he couldn't face living in the dorms. He has a 24-year-old boyfriend, a fellow actor, and couldn't imagine having to sign him in and out of his building. But Steele admits she likes giving up a few freedoms in return for security—and not having to cook for herself. "I find all that stuff like having an RA on my floor, having a security guard at the desk, kind of comforting," she says. "I like having that community."

But not even Steele believes she's having a typical undergraduate experience. It just isn't possible with eight shows a week. But if their time in the theater does rob them of some aspects of their social lives, it also has benefits, in addition to the weekly paycheck. Glick says it's helped him learn to focus: "I don't want to have homework looming in my head while I'm doing the show, so I force myself to do it when I come home from class." Steele agrees: "My concentration's gotten so much better." Fuchs adds archly that he is doing better this semester despite putting in less effort, saying, "I think it proves an inverse relationship between effort and success in academia." But when Steele suggests that perhaps the dual pressures of classes and the show have honed his work ethic, Fuchs grudgingly agrees.

Stage as School

For three current cast members of the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, which in its Off-Broadway incarnation launched Glick's nascent career, the decision on whether to mix stage and studies has been more difficult. The show's male lead, Jonathan Groff, now 22, turned down a spot at Carnegie Mellon's prestigious acting program for a non-equity tour of The Sound of Music. Another actor, Jesse Swenson, 21, left Boston Conservatory before his senior year to join the show. Remy Zaken, 19, deferred her admission to Columbia to stay with Spring Awakening, though she plans to begin university next fall. "I can't miss another year," says Zaken. "I can't put another year of distance between me and my friends. I have chosen a career over relationships for a very long time."

Zaken nearly didn't apply to college at all. "Columbia was literally the only application I did," she says. "Junior year, when everybody I knew traveled all over the country to look at schools, I did two shows. I knew Columbia was in the city, I knew it was convenient, I knew it was an Ivy." She never even toured the school before applying, she says, but visited recently, and says, "It's an absolutely gorgeous campus, so I'm so excited that I got in."

While Zaken plans to continue auditioning while in college, she's promised her parents to try Columbia for at least a year. "In my family," she says, "it was like, 'You go to school, you go to college, you meet lifelong friends there, and then you get a job." It was never, 'Oh, you get a Broadway show and then suddenly you live on your own.' " She doesn't feel ready to buck that familial trend, especially after her father issued a semi-serious ultimatum. "He told me, 'If you don't go to college, you don't come home,' " she says, laughing.

Zaken's castmate Swenson left college and home (albeit with parental approval) to take a role in Spring Awakening. Just before what would have been his senior year at Boston Conservatory, Swenson and some friends drove to New York for an open audition. Joining the Broadway cast didn't take much thought. "I'd love to have a degree," he admits, "and I am far from a perfect performer, so I'd love to learn more. But I was in a program that was gearing students toward lives as professional actors. And when an opportunity arose to do that . . . "

 

Swenson has settled into city life easily, subletting a room from a friend who went to join the Dirty Dancing cast in Toronto. And he doesn't rue his three years at conservatory. "I feel that my school really did prepare me for what I'm doing now," he says. "I'm still learning new stuff every day, but it hasn't been too scary."

Similarly undaunted is Jonathan Groff. With a Tony nomination for Spring Awakening and the starring role in this summer's revival of Hair, Groff doesn't seem to have suffered for skipping out on his actor training. At first he thought that, like Steele, Glick, and Zaken, he'd merely defer for a year and then enroll. But New York surprised him. "I found a sublet on 43rd and Broadway," he remembers, "and I was living there and I was running in Central Park and I was taking dance classes and I was seeing shows and I was so inspired and moved by New York. . . . I just want[ed] to stay here."

While his peers took classes and navigated dorm life, Groff did summer stock and waited tables. He sometimes wondered if he'd made the right call. "When I first moved here I was really intimidated by people who have gone to college," he says. "I thought, They've spent four years preparing for this. They probably know so much more than I do. But I found an acting teacher here and a voice teacher. I was able to make my own education here in New York." He still mulls attending college, though now he thinks he would do something other than theater —"maybe history," he says. In the meantime, he describes the backstage atmosphere for Spring Awakening as "singing in the hallways and laughing. At intermission, my dressing room fills up with the cast; we're talking and we're eating Gummi Bears." Overcrowded rooms, too much chatter, junk food—Groff may not earn a degree, but it sounds like he's having bright college days after all.


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