"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." -Shakespeare
As summer ushers in, students and recent graduates of the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance Master of Fine Arts (MFA) acting program will be entertaining audiences coast to coast - having earned coveted spots in Shakespeare festivals and nationwide tours.
Demetria Thomas embarked on a thousand-mile journey to join the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. She's playing Mistress Ford in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Phebe in "As You Like It" and Anne in "Three Musketeers."
"For the actors, it's a lot of fun to work with meaty characters and really rich language. Shakespeare festivals are fun. People get confused that Shakespeare is hard, but he did write in English," said Thomas, with a laugh.
Actor Chris Egging was one of only 12 actors - out of hundreds - to earn a spot on The National Players Tour. The company originates from the Olney Center in Washington, D.C. Egging will be playing Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on a nationwide tour that runs August 2010 through May 2011.
"We're on a tight schedule to get the show on its feet," said Egging. "You learn how to produce better work, work faster, not wasting time on the unimportant things and getting to the best work I can do as fast as I can get there. UH has helped big time in preparing me to do that."
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" -Shakespeare
Egging and Thomas both have previous experience acting in Shakespeare festivals. Egging worked for the Virginia Shakespeare Company last year and Thomas was instrumental in creating the Upstate Shakespeare Festival in Greenville, S.C. She was also a journeyman at the Warehouse Theatre in South Carolina, where she first worked with Jack Young, then the artistic director of the theater. In 2006, Young joined UH as head of the highly competitive Graduate Acting and Directing program.
It was Young and the other faculty at the UH Graduate Acting program that drew both Egging, a Nebraska native, and Thomas, a Mississippi native, to UH in 2008.
"He (Young) got more out of me as an actor in a 15-minute audition than anyone else had up to that point, ever," said Egging, who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Wyoming. "As I finish up my time here at UH, I have to say I have never been a part of this kind of training. The specificity and drive in the acting training has pushed me to new heights in my craft."
"It's becoming one of America's most-wanted programs. They only take eight actors per year, but they interview and audition upwards of 600 candidates in locations like Houston, New York City and Chicago to those fill spots," said Thomas. "People from all over the country and world are trying to get into the program -because it's a two-year program and because of the outstanding faculty."
The UH MFA acting program is an intense commitment. Thomas said from the first day graduate students arrive, they are reminded of why they're here - the desire to improve their abilities and work at a higher level.
"We work from 8 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., for 60 weeks. There's movement, voice, acting, ensemble training, and outside of class we are producing shows at the School," said Thomas. "With that, I get an opportunity at least twice a day to fix something that's wrong, celebrate what I am doing right and look forward to learning something new."
"Why, then the world's mine oyster" - Shakespeare
According to Egging, networking is as important- if not more important- than talent. At UH, artistic directors from professional companies are invited to campus during the school year to audition graduate students for their upcoming productions, allowing students to network and earn roles.
Thomas said "everything we do as actors is research and networking."
That networking is reaping rewards for both Thomas and Egging. The summer opportunity in Illinois puts Thomas geographically closer to her next destination, Chicago.
"I will continue working as a professional actor, but the intense level of training I've had at UH will help me work at a higher level- there are a lot of storefront theaters in Chicago, but working at large companies that produce work with more of a regional impact is my goal," said Thomas.
As for Egging, Oberon and a yet-to-be determined role in "The Scarlet Letter" will challenge him for the year to come.
"My goal coming to UH was to iron out some of my trepidation and fear of letting go on stage and just go for it. Before training, I would get on stage and make sure the words got out in the right order and maybe make a couple of crazy choices. Now, everything I do internally and externally is worked out in rehearsal or before the show is actually open. It makes the whole process more fun and fulfilling."
Thomas and Egging have both had their final curtain calls at UH- both received their MFAs in May. Having met the rigorous credits of UH Graduate Acting, they can now focus on earning their names in the credits- whether they're printed in a playbill or rolled on the silver screen.