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The Sopranos of Theatre

Amy Slingerland • School Spotlight • January 4, 2008

SUNY Purchase Prepares Students for a Lifetime of Collaboration.

Set on 500 acres of former farmland 35 minutes north of New York City, SUNY Purchase was founded in 1967 by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller to bring together conservatory arts training and liberal arts studies on one campus. Purchase College is home to four arts academies: the Conservatory of Music, Conservatory of Dance, Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film, and the School of Art and Design. The Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film offers programs in acting, film, dramatic writing and design/technology. Within design/technology are concentrations in scenic, costume and lighting design, costume technology, stage management and technical direction.

What sets Purchase apart from other theatre and arts schools is its faculty of award-winning working professionals and its selectivity and intensive professional training combined with af-fordability. Associate Professor of Film and Interim Dean of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film Gregory Taylor says, “We offer similar training and quality to Juilliard, but we’re a state school. Our mission has always been to provide a high-quality, top-notch conservatory education and professional training in these fields to the public — something that is usually only available at elite private institutions.” The tuition may not be elite, but competition for accep-tance is.

The arts programs at Purchase are highly selective, rigorous and demanding. For instance, the program has a total enrollment of around 70 students. From as many as 1,400 applicants, only approximately 35 are accepted each year, and that number dwindles as students decide to leave or are not invited back for the following year. In addition to at least 90 program credits, a student must also complete 30 liberal arts credits in order to graduate. A typical day starts with classes at 8:30 a.m., and rehearsals or performances can last until 11:00 p.m. Students are treated like professionals from the beginning.

“Which, when you’re 18 years old, for some people can be really daunting,” says Mike Zaleski, a 2006 stage management graduate. “But if you want to step out into the world and start working immediately on an Off-Broadway, Broadway or professional event level, that’s what the program trains you for.”

Getting In
In addition to submitting the usual high school transcripts and SAT scores, prospective design/technology students must undergo an interview and portfolio review. David Bassuk, a 1981 Purchase graduate and current professor of theatre arts, says he looks for acting students who “can talk intelligently about their choices and the scripts they’re presenting, can talk about the theatre, what they’ve seen and what they like; they’ve got some degree of a developed aesthetic, an interest in the best that culture has to offer.” For design students, David Grill, an Emmy Award-winner, and cochair of the design/technology program, emphasizes verbal skills and vis-ual skills. “They have to come in with some knowledge of composition, whether it’s learned or subconscious.” says Grill. “I look at someone who has some experience, and who has a drive and a desire and an energy about themselves.”

When Zaleski discussed colleges with the sound and lighting designers he knew, they mentioned Purchase as the first place to look. Zaleski says, “I went down there, and I remember basically deciding on the spot that it was the perfect place because it was so close to the city, the facilities were amazing, and everyone whom I met was great.”

The Work’s the Thing
In addition to classwork, students can work on Purchase Repertory Theatre productions in the Performing Arts Center, which are acted, designed, stage managed and technical directed by students, “Freshmen act as general crew members, and they go through a rotation,” explains Grill. “They spend half a semester in the lighting shop, half in the carpentry shop, half in paint and half in costumes. As they advance into the sophomore year, they generally become crew heads. In your junior year, you become the assistant-level person, and senior year is basically the design position.”

Although this hierarchy is followed, everyone shares the grunt work of load-ins, load-outs, hanging and focusing lights, and the like. The Performing Arts Center comprises four theatres, providing students with state-of-the-art “laboratories” in which to experiment and perfect their crafts. “We try to expose students to every situation they would get into via regional theatre or commercial theatre,” Grill says. The 500-seat black-box Repertory Theatre provides great flexi-bility in configuration with portable platform units, movable catwalks and a hydraulic lift. The 600-seat Recital Hall, engineered for chamber music and dance, has a sprung floor, rear-screen projection bay, portable acoustic orchestra shell and a downstage hydraulic lift. The PepsiCo Theatre, designed by Ming Cho Lee, holds over 700 and has a rear-screen projection bay, ha-namichi platforms along the sides and two downstage hydraulic lifts. The three-tiered Concert Hall, which has a capacity of over 1,300, has two downstage hydraulic lifts and a portable acoustic orchestra shell.

Also invaluable is the professional experience brought to the classroom by award-winning graduates of Purchase who now teach there, including Brian MacDevitt, 2007 Tony Award winner for lighting The Coast of Utopia (with Kenneth Posner, another Purchase alum), and Grill himself, a 1986 alumnus.

“Folks like Jason Lyons, Brian and me continually come back and circulate through the college to keep the education at its high level, as well as to afford the people who are in school the opportunity to solicit comments from that level of professional, plus potential internships and jobs after they get out of college,” Grill says.  Students learn practical, situational knowledge from current working professionals — not just from textbook examples.

“Narda Alcorn, my stage management teacher, was on The Lion King and A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, Zaleski recalls. “So she was telling us stories from the night before that were immediately relevant to what we were discussing in class.”

Working’s the Thing
If a school can be judged by its graduates, the Purchase results speak for themselves: Over 85% of design/technology grads are working in their field, many are members of the major theatrical unions, and alumni include Tony, Emmy, Obie and Drama Desk award winners. Acting graduates include Stanley Tucci, Edie Falco and Parker Posey.

Although the standards are extremely high and the programs can be grueling, “It was a wonderful school for me, and it really was a perfect fit,” Zaleski says. “What was great was the faculty and the one-on-one learning experience, plus a group of alumni who keep in touch.”

At the time of this interview, Zaleski was stage managing the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation gala. “I showed up at this gig, and the lighting designer graduated from Purchase, this other stage manager is from Purchase. Almost every gig I do, there’s somebody from Purchase.” Grill agrees. “The best student is the student who feels at home. If you can identify those people and get those people in so that in their four years of college they form a bond, you’re going to see those people until the day you die. I still work with people I graduated with. It’s the Sopranos of theatre.”  

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