Spotlight On: Stuyvesant’s Veteran Actors

Augie and Travis - Student Actors
Photo by Hayoung Ahn

Two issues ago, The Spectator told the stories of Stuyvesant’s youngest actors; now, we turn the spotlight on their mentors: the upperclassmen actors of Stuyvesant.

 

Augie Murphy: From Small-town Shows to NBC

           Though most people associate junior August Murphy with acting, singing was her first passion. Like many young kids, she thought that she was going to be a rock star when she grew up. Since before she could remember, Murphy has had the tendency to break out into song. Whether she’s sitting in her room doing homework or in the middle of a conversation, there doesn’t seem to be much that can keep her from music. She has also spent her whole life fawning over musicals—a shared love with her father. However, Murphy didn’t know that this would be a defining part of who she is until fourth grade, where she performed in “A Kid’s Life” as the kid who couldn’t fold a paper airplane. Even though she had already tried her hand at acting in musicals when she was four and played a small role in “The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf,” her fourth grade show marked a defining moment in her acting career. “That was when I realized I loved acting,” she explained.

Ever since fourth grade, acting has been an integral part of Murphy’s life. She began to attend a musical theater sleepaway camp the summer following fifth grade and devoted herself to improving her craft. “Finding something you really love and doing it every day just brings so much more energy into your life,” she said.

Her passion for acting is reflected in her extensive resume. From partaking in dozens of musicals, to being cast in “Yes, Virginia” and gracing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to playing a younger version of Téa Leoni’s character in NBC’s hit show “Madam Secretary,” Murphy has done it all, and she’s learned a lot from each experience. “Madam Secretary” was her first time on a network television show, and she saw a flashy side of acting that was unknown to her before.

However, her quick ascent into the acting world was not without its challenges. Theater, especially in the professional realm, is all-consuming by nature, and actors have trouble committing to much else because they may be called on short notice.

        Last spring, Murphy got an agent, and the auditions started rolling in. “I would have to keep missing stuff, and everybody would keep getting mad at me for always being late all the time. But I think of it as less of a sacrifice and more of just choosing what I love,” she explained.          Murphy emphasized that though acting is a huge commitment, it is anything but limiting. She has learned many things to supplement her portrayal of her characters, such as learning how to dance for Broadway. However, the most important things she has learned from acting are less tangible.

Through acting, Murphy has learned to understand people better. “You get the opportunity to play so many roles, and it’s impossible to play a [character] and not love them the way they love themselves. It’s impossible to not see where they came from and try and understand why they’re making the choices they made,” she said. “Once you’ve had the chance to understand so many people, you’re overwhelmed by this amazing sense of empathy.”

 

Emily Ma: A Singer and a SING!-er

Movies and television shows have always fascinated senior Emily Ma, even before she developed a passion for acting. Her favorite actresses were, and still are, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, because of their ability to fully invest themselves in the various characters they play. Though Ma had an interest in theater and a strong background in music, specifically in piano, she never took part in any productions.

SING! changed all of that. On a whim, Ma tried out for cast during her freshman year, and was surprised when she got the lead role, an alien from Pluto named Violet in a story about star-crossed lovers. “It probably was the most definitive moment of my life,” she said.

It was difficult at first—she remembered feeling very self-conscious for the first few weeks of rehearsal—but as she got more comfortable, her experience started to change. Acting felt fresh and addictive, and so different from the highly structured academic lifestyle she was used to. “You feel like you’re a part of something that’s so creative and ever-changing,” she said.

Year after year, Ma kept coming back for SING!. As a sophomore, she played a toy drummer. Unlike Violet, who was lively and spunky, the toy drummer was the opposite; she was rigid and nervous, and whatever she said was “word vomit,” as Ma described it in an e-mail interview.

Even as a junior, she jumped wholeheartedly into the theater; in fact, acting helped relieve some of her stress, and she felt that that year was her best performance so far. Her two years of experience helped her immerse herself into the character she was playing, Billary Linton, based on Hillary Clinton, and despite the difficulty to pull it off successfully, considering that she would be compared to SNL’s renditions, she felt she did very well. “That was the best experience, for other people to see my rendition of Hillary Clinton and to be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s pretty good, that’s pretty funny,’” she said, smiling.

Despite the various changes in the personalities of the characters, one thing that has remained constant is Ma’s approach to learning the role. To fit her role, she often uses aspects of herself to mirror the character’s thoughts and actions. “The magic happens after I have meticulously analyzed my character and familiarized myself with the entire play, when I perform on stage and completely and naturally exist as my character,” she said in an e-mail interview.

Understandably, Ma hasn’t fully explored being an actor because of her other commitments. On top of her schoolwork, she dedicates her time to Young People’s Chorus, and she also practices playing the piano. As a result, she only has time for SING!, and hasn’t had a chance to participate in either the Stuyvesant Theater Community (STC) or outside productions. “Even if I can’t have it complement my education throughout the year, at least I have [SING!] in February,” she said.

Ma is looking forward to acting in college, where she feels she would have more time to fully explore theater life. She has started improving her acting already; last summer, she convinced her family to let her take lessons from an acting coach. “I had to beg really hard,” she said, laughing.

Emily Ma as Hillary Clinton

by Jensen Foerster

Her coach mostly worked on her monologues. In past years, she found it difficult to fully invest herself in a character because it made her uncomfortable. “It is actually really scary to inhabit a person who is so different from myself, because my natural instinct is to act like myself,” she said in an e-mail interview.

To work through this, her coach taught her to identify with the character by determining their objectives and breaking the monologue into sizable chunks. She was also taught to use her natural instinct to truthfully react to the situations her character would face.

Ma feels that she has become a more powerful actress, closer to the ones who inspired her in the very beginning. With her final SING! approaching, she is looking forward to applying all that she has learned to her next character.

 

Travis Tyson: Finding a Niche in Acting

From his recognizable and much-admired hair to his infectious energy, junior Travis Tyson can easily be picked out from Stuyvesant’s crowded hallways. Tyson consistently appears in SING! and is heavily associated with STC productions, so it may come as a surprise to many that before coming to Stuyvesant, Tyson was minimally involved in theater.

Instead, he was much more invested in dance, first becoming involved through the National Dance Institute (NDI), an organization that travels to schools, teaches students to dance, and recruits talented performers. “They take the best and brightest of each class and bring them to a different [program]. I did that throughout my middle school career. I enjoyed dancing, especially more than all the other kids in my class,” he said.

NDI was not Tyson’s only dance program. Near the end of his time with NDI, he noticed an advertisement for a program called Triple Arts, which he participated in the year before high school. “There’s singing, dancing, and acting, so you have a mix of all of them,” he said.

However, Tyson’s experience with NDI and Triple Arts ended before he came to Stuyvesant. “Coming to high school, I didn’t really have many extracurriculars, because all of my dancing was done. And then I saw an advertisement for the show ‘Rent.’ I was […] interested, so I went to try out a couple of days later,” he said.

Tyson confessed, “I was actually scared because I didn’t know where it was, and me being a little freshman, I was scared to ask anybody, but I ended up finding it. So I tried out. It was very nerve-wracking.” However, apart from this being his first major role in a theatrical production, “Rent” was a valuable experience for Tyson in terms of his transition to Stuyvesant.

“‘Rent’ was where I made my first real friends in Stuyvesant. With STC, since you end up spending a lot of time with [other people] for a [while], you really get to know them pretty well. That’s where I really found myself in Stuyvesant, where I had a place where I belonged, where I met people,” he said.

When asked about his favorite role, Tyson found it difficult to choose between being the Magic-8 Ball in Soph-Frosh SING! and being an ensemble member in the STC production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Tyson’s role in Putnam County gave him an appealing level of autonomy. “Since it’s not actually written into the script that there’s supposed to be a chorus, we really had freedom to do whatever we wanted during the show. We got to make up our characters,” Tyson explained.

However, this by no means compromises his appreciation for SING! “SING! was the next show after “Rent.” [I thought I] may as well try out, especially because the directors for Rent were the same exact ones as the ones for Soph-Frosh SING!,” he said.

Tyson described a goofy experience during callback auditions when he tried to sit down on top of a desk, instead epically missing and winding up on the floor. “It was hilarious. The directors kept on laughing, and they [later] said that was when they knew they wanted to cast me as the Magic-8 Ball.”

Indeed, SING! proved to be a treasured bonding experience for Tyson. “I got to meet a lot of people. [During SING!] you get to hang out, and you have a lot more time than with STC, so you have more time to talk with your castmates. You have a lot more time for theater games rather than being on the show 24/7,” he said. However, the anticipation surrounding SING! doesn’t come without a cost for cast members. “SING!’s a lot bigger and a lot more people care about it, so you feel like you have a bit more pressure on you in cast. You feel like you have to do your best for your grade,” Tyson said.

Despite Tyson’s experience with the stage, there are certain types of roles and productions that Tyson has not yet partaken in. “I’ve never been in a show that didn’t have singing and dancing in it,” he said, noting his interest in playing a dramatic role in a show without singing. With that said, Tyson enjoys the instant gratification from the audience that being onstage gives him. “It’s nice being on stage, because whenever you say something, the audience is there to react to it,” he said. “It just gives me so much satisfaction.”

 

Winston Venderbush: Creating The Theater Scene from Backstage

You’ve probably seen his name on every STC playbill and SING! playbill, and you’ve most likely heard him introduce his grade’s performance on SING! night in the past. Though rarely on the stage himself, senior Winston Venderbush is highly involved in Stuyvesant’s theater scene: not through acting, unlike every other student profiled here, but through production.

Actor Winston Venderbush

by Hayoung Ahn

Though being closely associated with producing as an STC Slate member and a two-time SING! coordinator, Venderbush’s interest in theater first emerged through a few minor acting roles in middle school. Venderbush played the role of King Henry V during eighth grade, which fueled his passion for theater. “I had a lot of fun [in that role], so when I came here, I wanted to continue doing theater,” he said. “I realized I didn’t love being on stage as much, so I ended up getting into producing for “West Side Story,” [and] here I am.”

Venderbush considers Emily Ruby (‘15) the person who originally taught him the ropes of producing. “She in many ways was a mentor to me during that first production,” he explained. Venderbush regards “West Side Story,” the fall musical during his freshman year, as a valuable learning experience. “I was new at Stuyvesant, so it was a Stuyvesant learning experience, but it was also a producing [type of] learning experience: learning how the STC itself functions.” The year of West Side Story also ushered in some notable changes, such as being the first year the STC began creating playbills to accompany each show.

Venderbush views a balance between artistic and technical aspects of a show as essential to its success. “I am an artist in many ways, and a singer and an actor as well, so I do love that side of [production], and I have a deep appreciation of it. There’s an important balance to find between just focusing on business and just focusing on the art. If you just focus on one, the other collapses,” he said. Venderbush emphasized the concept of trial-and-error as the key to creating an engaging show. “You never know until it goes on stage. My whole time here has been a learning experience: trial and error, balancing it out to find an equal shot [of both],” he said.

Venderbush noted that his show management and style of producing have changed over the years, but perhaps not in the direction one would expect. “I’ve become a lot more relaxed in my ways. I used to be very uptight,” he said. “Some people would disagree and think that I’m still uptight. I have to be, sort of, but I used to be more so.”

However, this more relaxed take on production and management is vital to the free exchange of ideas that can be utilized during production, and which Venderbush is known for; highlights of Junior SING! 2016, which he coordinated, include bubbles on the set to cast wintry overtones and a rap battle. Venderbush emphasized that these ideas were in fact not his own, but originated from other SING! participants. “Of course I’m a creative person. I have creative ideas, but a lot of ideas come from the people that I work with, who are all really amazing, creative people,” he said.

Venderbush recognized that part of the job is to accept these ideas. However, in something as large as SING!, a lot of people have creative input, and everyone wants the show to be just what they want it to be. “There’s a big aspect of taking ideas from every individual and making sure the ones that are really, really the best make it through,” Venderbush noted.

Venderbush cited his struggles with the bubbles on the set of Junior SING! 2016 as an example of an idea that had to be reworked and tried out multiple times before becoming effective. “Originally, we didn’t want to do the bubbles. We had a number of ideas. We wanted to at first drop snow powder from the catwalks. We made the powder and tried it, [and] it just clumped up and fell in a big mass. Didn’t really work,” he said. “So there was a lot of trial and error involved too, and generating good ideas.” Rather than find it frustrating, Venderbush has a deep appreciation of the work and experimentation that goes into a show. “But that’s the magic of it, right? There’s all this production that goes on in the back, and then the audience gets to see just the good part, which is sort of the fun of it,” he said.

A three-time SING! coordinator for the Class of 2017, Venderbush is extremely invested in SING! and begins planning long before SING! season officially starts. “It’s definitely an exciting time of the year. I enjoy working with all the crews. There’s a certain level of energy with being cast. Putting all that on the line, you really have to put your spirit into it,” he said.

When asked if he plans to pursue a career in production, Venderbush said, “It’s possible. It’s something I’ve always thought about. Maybe theater production, maybe film production. It’s like a dream of mine. I would love to be a producer. It would be a pleasure, because it’s something I love to do, so if I could do it, I would never work a day in my life.” In the meantime, Venderbush has to satisfy himself with attending Broadway shows (when asked which his favorite was, he immediately replied, “Hamilton, of course! I’ve seen it twice,”) and hopes to act again someday, despite admitting that he feels he is often typecast.

“I always get typecast into a sort of sinister, stern, logical, calculating [character]. That was Henry V, and also Juror 4,” he said. Juror 4 from Stuyvesant’s production of “Twelve Angry Men” is Venderbush’s favorite acting role to have had as of yet.

However, Venderbush does not try out for cast frequently—perhaps due to a surprising fear of auditions. “I’m really afraid of auditioning; actually, it’s one of my biggest fears. Oh my goodness, I hate it,” Venderbush confessed. His reluctance to audition may be depriving us all of the chance to witness another great talent on the stage, but fortunately, his producing experience has been put to good use over his time at Stuyvesant. He will almost certainly outdo himself when SING! 2017 rolls around again in March.

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