In our first ever "College Week," The Ensemblist is celebrating the myriad of ways aspiring theatre artists receive an education in the arts. Today, we hear from Brandon Ivie (A Christmas Story, Next to Normal) about his experience at the University of Washington.
Unlike most people I assume are writing these blogs, I did not go to a conservatory and did not get a BFA. I had a panic attack the night before I was to fly out for my combined generals and instead went to my safety school in my hometown of Seattle. I wasn’t expecting to be there long and I also wasn’t expecting to get the experience or education I received.
I went to the fantastic University of Washington to pursue a BA in Drama, meaning it was a non-competitive, non-specialized, generalized theatre degree at a school with no musical theatre programming where the other half of the degree was in general studies – all the things I was hoping to escape at a BFA program. For an 18-year old musical theatre nerd like myself this felt like the worst place for me to be. The undergraduate program, highly influenced by the renowned graduate school’s Professional Actor Training Program, was focused on straight theatre, and much of the acting technique was based in Viewpoints, Suzuki, and other methods that feel like a black turtleneck is required attire. That first year I was miserable: sitting in acting class with people that had zero interest in what I wanted to do, half of whom were serious Actors and the other half who were doing this just for fun. But after getting some really great experience and internships outside of school I decided Seattle was where I should stay to cultivate those professional relationships. What I didn’t expect was what happened when I stayed.
The “aha!” moment was when I attended a required end-of-the-year performance of the grad acting student’s final project, which was a mainstage production of an ensemble-generated piece based on the actors interviews with people about their fears; it was called Panaphobia. Just the description alone made me roll my eyes. The lights went down and I sat there for what could have been five minutes or five hours, I can’t remember. I experienced this world of theatre I had no idea about – a plotless, non-linear piece about human nature explored through one peephole of the human experience: fear. Somehow this thing I thought I had no connection to impacted me deeply in many, many ways that still to this day impact my creative process and have inspired me – simplicity of design, specificity and depth of character, heightened movement, a show that can be both highly serious and high silly, blatant theatricality. From that moment on I saw the worth of being in this particular program, surrounded by these people, at this school.
I immersed myself in the undergraduate program, got myself on the executive board of the Undergraduate Theater Society, started directing new work, took a month-long summer intensive focusing on all the woo-woo acting techniques I used to make fun of, leaned in to my studies outside of theatre, and made myself an education I never thought I wanted but realized I desperately needed. When my friends would come home from college on holiday breaks they would talk about how high they could belt now, or what roles they played, and how they needed to book a summerstock gig, where I was more interested in politics, queer history, and experimental theatre. Believe me, I still geeked out over the Tony Awards (I went to a 2004 Tony Awards party dressed as Avenue Q in a room full of Elphabas and Glindas) and loved hearing how close to the stratosphere my friends could belt, but I had an entirely different outlook on theatre from immersing myself in the unknown. I came back to my work refreshed, inspired, and with a new unique perspective that made my work stand out next to my peers. I don’t think I’ll be creating a non-linear ensemble-generated piece about fear any time soon, but this interest in the unknown has deeply impacted the work I’m interested and the work I do. It also introduced me to new work in a way I never expected, which is now the area of theatre I work in.
To this day, I try to get myself out of my comfort zone and see and do things outside of my musical theatre world – Shakespeare, experimental theatre in garages, art exhibits, political protests, jazz concerts, multidisciplinary installations, football games. My time in college taught me that the world is only as small as you let it be and expanding it can only deepen your little corner of it.
Listen to our episodes on college theatre programs here.