Once a year, performers take center stage at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF), a national competition. An opportunity that brings together actors, directors and designers, KCACTF gives students and faculty the chance for their craft to be nationally recognized.
Of the seven New Paltz students chosen to compete this January, two advanced to the final round — second-year theater performance major Brittany Martel and third-year theater performance major Adam Harrison, who were nominated for their lead roles in “Crimes of the Heart” and “Eugenia,” respectively.
Out of 240 students competing in the Region 1 preliminary round, consisting of schools in New York and the New England area, they were two of 16 left in the finals.
“You don’t realize what the competition is going to be like until you get there,” Martel said. “You’re nominated and you start picking scenes and a partner, and you commit to doing work that you might not get any credit for and it’s really stressful.”
Nominees prepare a three-minute scene with a partner for the preliminary round, two scenes with a partner for the semi-final round and the same scenes plus a one-minute monologue or song for the finals.
Scene partners are chosen based on onstage chemistry and work ethic. According to Harrison, he needed an open-minded partner who would be able to complement his strengths as an actor. Martel said that aside from the technical requirements, her scene partner had to be someone she “looked good with physically.”
“I know it sounds superficial, but I had to take someone taller than me because I’m tall,” she said. “Doing a scene with a shorter man wouldn’t be realistic, and there would have been an overwhelming awkwardness that draws attention away from the scene.”
Students chose a scene based on how it highlighted them as actors. The material needed to show off their range, with a clear beginning, middle and end, according to Nancy Saklad, associate professor of voice, speech and acting.
Saklad has been coaching KCACTF nominees since she began teaching at New Paltz and said the required preparation time for the competition is often difficult for students to grasp.
“For every minute of time you spend performing, you have to spend an hour’s worth of rehearsal time,” she said. “Most actors think that because they’re acting, they can fake it. The truth in acting is that it’s not about faking it, it’s about living it. It’s about being connected to the moment as opposed to pretending you’re in the moment.”
According to Martel and Harrison, being connected to the moment required disconnecting from the scene. Because they performed their scenes repeatedly over the four days, the students took to not rehearsing so much that it became robotic, according to Harrison.
“Even though we’d been performing these scenes over and over, we had to keep listening,” Harrison said. “If you’re always onstage and listening, you can’t go wrong because it’s a reaction. You might have a text to react with but that doesn’t mean your reaction needs to be the same every time. If you’re listening onstage, you’re always living in the moment.”
Although neither Martel nor Harrison were chosen to compete for the Irene Ryan Scholarship on a national level, both students consider it an accomplishment to have made it as far as they did.
“Until the finals, I hadn’t invested a lot in the competition,” Harrison said. “I hadn’t gotten my hopes up or expected to move on, but once I did, my chances of winning were higher. The whole festival was an opportunity for me to realize that the hard work I’ve been doing could be put to use. It helped me gain confidence in the skills I’ve learned here.”