Vassar Stories

Powerhouse Theater Training Program: Freedom to Fail

Part of the thrill of being a Powerhouse Theater apprentice is rubbing shoulders with acclaimed actors, directors and playwrights. This summer, the 35 young apprentices had the chance to meet – and, in some cases, shadow -- Emmy award winning actress Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”), television actor Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) and Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck).

Vassar Powerhouse apprentices Belle Shea, Malinda Reese, and Sam Rebelein / Photo by Buck Lewis

But while Vassar students Sam Rebelein ‘16, of Poughkeepsie, Belle Shea ’16 of Jupiter FL, and Malinda Reese ’16 of Washington D.C. say they enjoyed their up-close encounters with such successful artists, what they valued most about their six-week stint on the Vassar campus this summer was being given the freedom to fail. “There are times,” Reese says, “when I need the director to tell me, ‘That was really bad.’ I need a harsh note to get past that scene and get it right.”

Rebelein, an aspiring playwright, agreed. “It was nice to be around other theater people who feel free to criticize each other,” he says. “People who aren’t in theater don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they’ll tell you your work is great when it’s not. We all need people to tell us, ‘No, this is all wrong.’”

Shea, also a playwright, says she too enjoyed the give-and-take among the instructors, 25 actors, five directors, and five playwrights in the apprentice program. It began on the first day of the session when the playwrights were shown specific sites on campus and were given 24 hours to write a short play with that site in mind. “We were told, ‘The first stuff you write will be bad – that’s the starting point.’ And what we learned was we’re all in this together. John Patrick Shanley told us he had bad days too.”

During their stint as apprentices, each playwright wrote two short plays, and the actors performed in three productions, Chekov’s The Seagull, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a new play by Ugandan playwright Margaret Namulyanga called The Privileged Life of Cats. The actors also performed in a production called Figures, testing their improvisational skills while taking spontaneous, random cues from a director just off-stage.

Reese says one of her toughest, and most rewarding, challenges was finishing a performance of Figures and then moving directly into a rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “They were two totally different performances, and having to adjust like that was a real exercise,” she says. “’But learning how to shift gears quickly is a big part of acting.”

All three students say they left Powerhouse with renewed energy and confidence about pursuing a career in the performing arts. “Josh Radnor told us one of the most useful things he ever did was writing and performing in an improvisational group,” Rebelein says. “That’s something I do at Vassar, so that was encouraging.”

Shea says she learned she could absorb a lot of instruction about her writing in a short time. “A lot was thrown at us at once, and that was something I really enjoyed,” she says, adding she would always remember something Shanley had told the apprentices. “He told us anything we do in life that’s worthwhile will be really hard, so you might as well do something that’s really hard that you love.”

Reese said her stint as a Powerhouse apprentice had given her renewed self-confidence. “One of my instructors told me, ‘Don’t wait for permission,’ and that resonated with me,” she says. “She was telling me, ‘Don’t doubt your instincts, don’t always wait for the director to tell you what to do.’ That advice advanced my approach to acting. I will take that with me forever.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Wednesday, August 6, 2014

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