Studying and understudying: How five SUU undergraduates got the opportunity of a lifetime with the Utah Shakespeare Festival

The average college student doesn’t get the chance to work and perform with world-class professionals and Tony Award Nominees before they even graduate, but the Southern Utah University acting program is far from typical.

Every year, the Utah Shakespeare Festival selects a group of SUU students to perform as part of the festival’s fellowship program. This year, students Spencer Watson, Elise Thayn, Brandon Zicker, Whitney Black and Nicholas Denhalter were selected.

Auditions to rehearsals to performances

The process of becoming a USF fellow is much like it is for any other actor wishing to join the festival. Hopeful students send in video auditions, then wait months to find out if they have been accepted into the program. Because the experience is so exclusive, most student actors spend the waiting time looking for other acting opportunities to fulfill their internship requirements.

After being cast, the fellows first finish their spring semester, then start a hectic rehearsal schedule culminating in the start of preview performances at the end of June.

“It was a very speedy [rehearsal] process,” said Watson, who performed in the classic USF Greenshow and understudied roles in “Clue,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Sound of Music.” “I had to rehearse three shows within a month’s time with pretty intense choreography.”

During that month, Watson would attend rehearsals for the Greenshow, a set of three original works, in the mornings. Each week would focus on a different Greenshow, meaning that Watson got some free time when the company was rehearsing the Greenshow he was not a part of. In the rest of the allotted rehearsal time, he rehearsed for the other shows he had been cast in. 

“Because it’s a regional theatre, there are a lot of actors in multiple shows,” said Denhalter. “We would typically have a rehearsal block in the morning, afternoon and evening.”

Depending on the shows an actor was involved in, they could potentially be in rehearsals all day while other actors had full days off due to the inconsistent rehearsal schedule.

“I would get home from rehearsals at five and then have a two-hour break, try to make some dinner and be exhausted,” said Black, who performed in the Greenshow and “All’s Well That Ends Well” and understudied roles in “Sweeney Todd.”

The importance of being flexible

One of the many roles performed by the 2022 fellows was working as understudies during a season at USF that needed them more than many past seasons. There was a COVID-19 outbreak throughout the festival cast, prompting many of the fellows to go on in their ensemble roles, something that hadn’t happened often in previously.

Denhalter went on for understudy roles on opening night for both “King Lear” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,” which then prompted festival administration to cast him in “The Sound of Music.” 

“Nowadays when it comes to theatre, understudies and swings are getting a lot more attention than they used to,” said Watson. “It’s a thankless job. You don’t get a lot of praise or attention for it, but it’s so important because it keeps the business going.”

On multiple occasions, Watson would have to combine ensemble tracks in “Sweeney Todd,” covering for two missing actors within one performance. He went on in his “Clue” ensemble role just ten days after receiving the email asking him to be an understudy for the show.

Students who participate in the USF Fellowship Program get more than just the salary they earn working there. They also have the opportunity to work with experts in the industry and put real professional experience on their resumes.

“Some see the fellowship program as a way for the festival to dump a lot of work on someone they don’t have to pay a lot of money to, but I disagree with that,” said Denhalter. “It is a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of opportunity.” 

Transitioning back to student life

Now, with the festival coming to an end, the USF fellows are facing a new challenge: transitioning back into being full-time college students. 

“The two worlds feel very compartmentalized for me, so it’s been hard going from one to the other,” said Watson. “I kind of had to move past USF to dive into the school stuff, but I still peek at my understudy scripts in case I do need to go on.”

For some students, the transition has been difficult, especially during the weeks they were performing at the festival while attending classes. 

“It’s weird because you do school all day and then you go be with your castmates and do a show,” said Watson. “It felt very alien, like a Marvel movie, being in two different dimensions.”

Attending classes in tandem with performing at the festival also served as a transitional period for the fellows to phase into both no longer performing and being back in classes.

“When I first stepped into classes those first couple days, the pressure and the social anxiety of school was like a tsunami wave that kind of crashed all over me,” said Black.

Luckily, being part of the fellowship program grants the students a bit of grace from their professors within the department when it comes to missing classes.

“Working in a profession that’s in the same category as your major is something that’s very justifiable when it comes to missing class,” said Denhalter. “I’ve had to miss a lot of class because I have two matinees a week, so [my professors] have been very understanding, even though it’s been quite stressful.”

With the festival coming to an end, a new group of SUU students are preparing to audition for the fellowship program’s next season, allowing a new group of young performers to work alongside professionals with a passion for theatre.

“Genuinely one of my favorite parts of the entire process was being surrounded by people who chose this as their life,” said Black. “You have to do that with the arts. You have to choose it.”

Article by: Tessa Cheshire
Photos courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival

This article was originally published in the October 2022 edition of the University Journal. Pick up a free copy at any of the stands on SUU campus.