Jumping Headfirst: My First Week as an AADA Summer Student

Adriana Nocco

In 1966, a young hopeful by the name of Daniel DeVito graduated from the American Academy of the Arts’ Conservatory program. At the time, he had a full head of hair, and was probably unaware that although he would lose his hair later in life, he would gain a fantastic career as a performer, director, and producer. This past Monday was my first day as a summer student at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the surreal nature of seeing countless celebrities’ (Adam Scott, Lauren Bacall, Robert Redford, Kirk Douglas, Grace Kelly, to name a few of the many) graduation portraits covering the walls of this prestigious institution hasn’t worn off yet.

Every day, I pass by Danny DeVito’s portrait on my way to the LM Theatre for class, and it never ceases to amaze me that I’m breathing the same air that he once did, let alone attending the school that gave him the training that helped him attain his celebrity status. I have become a part of something that is larger than life. 

Back in January, I received a call from Jon-Michael Hernandez, AADA’s summer Admissions manager and coordinator, informing me that I had been accepted to study at AADA for seven weeks during the summer of 2015 (for two weeks as part of the musical theatre intensive program, and for five weeks after that as part of the Academy’s all-encompassing drama program). I’ve barely been able to think of anything else since I received that life-changing phone call, and without warning, June 8, my first day of classes, arrived. As I approached the entrance to the Academy on that fateful first day, my heart was pounding so furiously that I thought it would pop out of my chest. I was entering very new, very intimidating territory, and would be meeting many phenomenally talented people. I was nervous. I was excited. I had no idea what to expect. However, once all the similarly anxious summer students had gathered in the LM Theatre to hear each other sing 16 bars of a musical theatre song we had prepared, Jenn Smolos, our amazing, insightful Vocal Technique teacher, led us in a meditative relaxation exercise that allowed us to control our breathing, calm down, and prepare ourselves to sing our material for everyone in the room. (I sang a section from “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” from Grease, which is a staple in my audition book.) Each student received a massive amount of support and positive energy from all the others, and gasped and gushed about every song that was sung. I realized I was in a room full of passionate theatre nerds who were just like me, and I felt as if I had become part of a new community, a new family.

My very first class day went from 8:30 am-6:00 pm, but it flew by in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and my experience at AADA this first week has simultaneously been incredibly intense and incredibly rewarding. I have never felt as engaged or immersed in a classroom setting as I do when I’m absorbing the words of wisdom bestowed upon me by my endlessly brilliant voice, dance, and acting teachers. The class schedule varies on a day-to-day basis, but for the two weeks that comprise AADA’s musical theatre intensive, I am soaking up as much as I possibly can in Vocal Technique, Acting, Song Interpretation, Jazz/Ballet/Tap Dance, and Performance classes. On that very first day, my Song Interpretation teacher, the hilarious Christopher McGovern (who wrote the show Cagney, currently playing Off-Broadway) said this concerning what AADA’s faculty wishes for students to take out of our experience here: “There are a lot of factors that you will not be able to control when you are auditioning, and they might prevent you from booking a role. You might look like the Casting Director’s ex-girlfriend, for example, whom he hates. You might be an inch too tall. Or an inch too short. Or have brown hair instead of blonde. However, our job is to provide you with the tools you can, and need, to be able to control in order to succeed within the world of show business, and to provide you with a good work ethic.” Those words have truly resonated with me. I have so much passion and love for the performing arts, but that is simply not enough when it comes to pursuing them as a professional career. I must continue to hone my craft so that when I walk into an audition room, I am able to successfully present the best possible version of myself to a creative team. 

As the week progressed, I was able to befriend many of my friendly, gifted classmates, who have come from all over the world to study at the Academy this summer, and it is fascinating to hear about the different perspectives they possess. Ellen Gray, who just finished her senior year of college and has come from England, is excited by the prospect of doing practical work after having “done a lot of theory and learned about drama practitioners.” She loves that at AADA, we get involved and attack our work right away, learning through the process of doing even though it can be scary at times, and adores the fact that the school is located in New York, which is such an active, “theatre-driven” city. 

Cherry Calanoc, who has come from Manila in the Philippines, is here because theatre has always been her passion, but she had taken time off from performing for a few years and missed it so much that she decided to take a chance and return to it by studying at the Academy. She performed in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2011, but the rehearsal process was so rushed that she was never able to devote any time to learning more about performing techniques. Cherry had been to New York once prior in 2008, and was “itching to go back.” She believes New York is “a city that motivates you,” and knew she wanted to come and study theatre here.

It was also very interesting to hear the perspective of Bradley McKelvey-Askin, who is actually pursuing a BFA in Theatre at Ohio University (and is also originally from Ohio), spending at least six hours a day sharpening her performing skills. Ever since she saw the original Broadway cast of Wicked in 2003, she has known that she would someday live and perform in New York. Bradley felt terrified by the intimidating nature of New York, but also inspired and overcome by a sense of wonder. She also felt scared to study and pursue theatre in college at first, and actually spent two years as a Communications Major as a result, but was utterly unhappy and last fall, decided to make the courageous decision to study theatre instead. She wanted to have a taste of what it would be like to live and study performing in New York City, and even though she felt nervous due to the fact that she has been readjusting to performing after two years away from it, she decided to come and study at AADA. While Bradley and I were chatting, we realized that every Academy summer student feels that exact same way. We all felt terrified about coming to AADA for various reasons. However, we each decided to take a risk and immerse ourselves in a program that would challenge, exhaust, and stretch us physically, mentally, and emotionally anyway, all to pursue what we love to do more than anything. Bradley then said to me, “If you don’t have anything at stake, then what are you doing? Then you’re not living; you aren’t doing things to the full extent. If you’re not fighting for something, and if there isn’t something you’re risking losing, you’re not living on the edge.” That’s what we’ve all done, and what now-famous actors such as young Daniel DeVito did all those years ago, by choosing to study at AADA and pursue a highly competitive, sometimes perceived as insane, field of work. We are living on the edge. Jumping headfirst.