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Setting the stage for a career in theater

For some students, summer break includes blocking out any thoughts about education. Those three months are a safe haven away from the stress of school.

Others take advantage of summer vacation to learn about topics they’re interested in. Some students go to universities to take classes, some go away on an educational retreat, and others enroll themselves in summer conservatories.

NYSSSA, the New York State Summer School of the Arts, offers a small number of students from New York the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of the arts.

NYSSSA is not an easy program to get into. Hundreds of artistically gifted students from across the state audition every year to get accepted.

There are seven schools that form the entirety of NYSSSA, and anywhere from 30 to 70 students are accepted to each school.

Ethan Coniglio, a senior at Kenmore East High School, was only one of 31 students accepted into the prestigious NYSSSA School of Theatre at SUNY Delhi. Ethan was one of only three students from the Buffalo area who were accepted in to the theater program; Jacob Rodriguez, from Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts and Cameron Farrell from Orchard Park High School also attended.

The thought of going away from home for four weeks to study can be daunting, especially when you don’t know the people you’ll be with.

But the NYSSSA associates made sure to clear up any first-day jitters, Ethan said.

“They established that we were there to learn, not to be competitive,” Ethan said. “We were an ensemble; success came from working with each other.”

Right away, the students were whisked into a flurry of work, Ethan said. Every day the thespians had six hours of classes.

The program’s main instructors had all worked at a college at some point in their lives. Jess Otterbine taught movement in the morning; following her was Danton Stone with acting lessons; then the students were brought to Neill Hartley for voice lessons; and “T” Valada-Viars rounded out the day with improvisation, Ethan said.

But the students’ days were far from over at that point. After their rigorous classes ended, the students had about two or three hours of homework every night, he said.

In addition to classes and homework, there were 35 hours of workshops, field trips and bonding activities, as well.

The workshops were led by seven individuals who each had their own talent to bring to the table. Instructors were screenwriters, dancers, actors and other professionals within the theater universe.

One notable teacher was John Astin, the man who originated the role of Gomez in “The Addams Family.” He taught the students improvisation within a set of lines; to think of inflection and facial expression; and to keep in mind “How many different ways can I say this sentence?”

The workshop that made perhaps the biggest impression on Ethan was the screenwriting class. The woman who taught it, Kaelan Kelly-Sordelet, is a writer herself. In addition, three other playwrights, Cori Thomas, Ellen Kaplan and Randy Noojin, aided with the process.

“After the workshop, we each wrote our own two-person scenes,” Ethan said. “Then, we’d cast our scenes using our peers, and gain a little directing experience. A few nights later we had a showing of our scenes.

“We gained so much respect for each other,” he said.

At the end of their experience, the students organized a four-part showcase.

“The first three parts of the showcase displayed the specific skills learned in each class,” Ethan said. “The final part of the showcase was comprised of scenes taken from both classical and contemporary plays. Two of the students would present their scene, and another pair would come on after its finish,” he said. The students had to utilize different aspects of stage movement, develop characters from their improv homework of people-watching, project their voice, and act to create a believable scene.

But, more importantly, the students learned exactly what it means to be an actor; to make the simplicity of words on a page come alive with emotion and humanity; to be inclusive with all of the little people to make a vivid, realistic performance.

“Theater is tangible art. Done right, it will affect you in a way nothing else can,” Ethan said. “I had no idea what I wanted to study before NYSSSA, now I’m pursuing a BFA in acting.”

Theater involves the marriage of many things, including talent, hard work, ambition, teamwork and dedication. The people at NYSSSA wanted the students to remember that every single person matters.

After their morning lesson in movement, the students were invited to hold hands and say, “I am here in this room, with all of you.” And that quote is the true embodiment of what theater should be. Not a petty feud for a larger role, but an amalgamation of talents to create art.

Nicole Miller is a senior at West Seneca West High School.