Syracuse Stage and Drama Program’s Unique Story

Stage Presence

Syracuse Stage and the Department of Drama are working together to build a vibrant and creative community of artists.

Two students in stage costumes overlaid on a series of play posters
Jenaha McLearn ’12 (Lucy) and Maclain W. Dassatti ‘13 (Tumnus) take a stroll through the forest in Act I of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Photo by Michael Davis.

Two weeks into the run of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, understudy Aisling Halpin ’12 was called into action when a lead actor twisted her ankle and couldn’t perform. Halpin was fully prepared to step up and step in at a moment’s notice, thanks to a unique partnership between Syracuse Stage and the Department of Drama that brings together world-class faculty, highly skilled staff, and visiting artists from around the nation to offer pre-professional training in a university setting. “Last year Aisling had to have her appendix taken out when she was in Rent, and her understudy had to go on in her place,” says Stuart Plymesser, production stage manager at Syracuse Stage. “I told her this was her comeuppance.”

A scene from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with a group of people in stage costumes
Charlo Kirk ’12 (left) as Edmund Pevensie; Father Christmas (James Judy) gives Lucy (Jenaha McLearn ’12) a gift as Peter (Amos VanderPoel ’12) and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (Eric Leviton and Jayne Muirhead) look on.

The opportunity to perform alongside professional actors in main stage productions is just one of the many ways drama students benefit from sharing a theater complex with Syracuse Stage, a professional theater in residence at Syracuse University. Students also put theory into practice by assisting in building sets and costumes, and serving as interns in stage management, marketing, and public relations. “Our students can earn a bachelor of fine arts degree and participate in a conservatory-style program without having to deal with the day-to-day craziness of living in New York City,” says Ralph Zito, chair of the Department of Drama in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Among undergraduate pre-professional training programs at major American universities, we offer an unequaled level of integration with a professional theater company.” 

Creative Collaboration

Undergraduates majoring in acting, musical theater, stage management, and theater design and technology have many points of contact with Syracuse Stage staff. For instance, several staff members serve as adjunct faculty in stage management, costume and scenic design, and technical theater. “A drama student who takes a course in scenic painting is taught by the scenic painter for Syracuse Stage, students in our stage management program are taught by the production stage manager, and our technical courses are taught by the tech director and props master,” Zito says. “It’s like the medieval guild model where you work with the master to develop your craft.” 

Students have opportunities to network with actors and directors involved in Syracuse Stage productions, as well as those in town on tour. And when possible, such notable drama alumni as actors Frank Langella ’59 and Taye Diggs ’93, and SU Trustee and Broadway producer Arielle Tepper Madover ’94, are invited back to campus to hold workshops and share insights about their film, theater, and television careers. “We’ve been exposing students to each of our main stage productions by bringing in designers, directors, and cast members to speak with them in class or participate in workshops when more than 200 drama students gather for their weekly Theatre Lab course,” Bond says. “Even a casual conversation with an actor or director over a cup of coffee can have a profound impact on a student’s future job prospects in a highly competitive field.” 

Taye Diggs lecturing a group of students
Taye Diggs ’93 conducts a workshop with Syracuse drama students. Photo by Steve Sartori.

Each year, Syracuse Stage and the drama department team up to produce a children’s tour with student actors, professional directors and designers, and a student stage manager who learns how to conduct a tour. The student actors also serve as classroom facilitators to guide post-play discussions. This year, New Kid, a story about a boy who is a recent immigrant to America, was seen by nearly 10,000 elementary school students in the community. “The children’s tour offers our students a major Scholarship in Action experience,” Bond says.

Stage management intern Joseph Trevino ’14 was looking forward to the day when he could manage the children’s tour—an assignment reserved for seniors. Meanwhile, he worked on three Syracuse Stage productions doing everything from setting up rehearsals to prompting lines to running spotlight. “What could be better than having a teacher, advisor, and mentor doing the job I hope to do one day?” Trevino asked. “I chose to come here specifically because SU offers the best learning environment anyone could ask for. I’m able to work on real professional shows, then walk down the hall and take top-notch theater classes most conservatory students would envy. I’m halfway through my college career and already working in the business. I have no doubt I’ll have multiple jobs lined up before graduation.”

Christine Yackel

This story was first published on December 14, 2017 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Stage Presence” in the Spring 2012 issue of Syracuse University Magazine.


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