Feminism on stage, an Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship nominee
Since she was a little girl, fourth-year Sydney Summers dreamed of moving to Southern California for the sunshine and the beach. When it came to college applications, she found Whittier College’s theater arts program and the beautiful campus promising. “I just kind of felt like it was the place to be,” said Summers, which is why she moved from Minnesota to Southern California to double major in music and theater.
“My [first year] of high school I was always a music kid,” said Summers. “[Musicals] sparked my love for drama and theater.” During high school, she had the opportunity to be on the team advisory board for one of her favorite community theater companies. It was there that she saw the business and production side of theater, and it proved to her that she belonged within the theater world.
Last semester, the Shannon Center produced the play Stupid F***ng Bird, a contemporary adaptation of Anton Checkhov’s classic play, The Seagulls. This play became a catalyst for Summers when her director Katie Liddicoat informed her she was selected for one of three Whittier College nominees for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship, a competitive scholarship for student performers persuing a higher education.
When asked how she felt about the news of becoming a nominee, Summers said, “[I’m] very excited, but also pretty stressed.” For this scholarship, nominees have three minutes to perform scenes. “It’s a lot of rehearsal and timing,” said Summers. “[I’m like]: ‘Did I pick the right scene? Is this going to show enough of the contrast for me?’ It’s very intense, but it’s so much fun.”
Summers prepares for this scholarship by reading shows, going to plays, and welcoming the “honor to compete,” as well as recognizing the time and work this scholarship comes with.
Summers will be working with first-year Jillian Weber on a scene from Hurricane by Erin Cressida Wilson, a politically-charged play about an interviewer and a former prisoner-of-war (p-o-w). While the former p-o-w wants to talk about the violence she has seen, the interviewer wants to know about the sex scandal she had with the man who captured her.
To contrast that emotional scene, Summers has chosen the musical number “Bad Idea” from Waitress by Sara Bareilles; she will be gender-bending this musical number of a love affair scene. Then, she will perform a comedy drama monologue from Friday Night by Joyce Carol Oates. It is about a college girl trying to get ready to go out, but she is having a back-and-forth conversation with her mother downstairs.
Since November, right after Stupid F***ng Bird closed, Summers started searching for scenes and reached out to Professor of Acting and Directing Gil Gonzalez for help in researching age-appropriate scenes through his library. “One thing [the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship] look[s] for is . . . you playing your age, or playing a believable age,” said Summers. She looked for a “believable realm” of something that also interested her. Summers wanted to play strong female characters, and later on during her research at the library, she came across a book on the best plays written in 1999 by women. “That [sounded] like something I could get behind because no one writes a woman character like a woman,” said Summers.
Summers constantly puts her study of music and performing arts into practice. The Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship is only one of the ways she takes up the challenge of sharpening her skills, including being the vocal coach for Stupid F***ng Bird. “It was so much fun to work so intimately,” said Summers. Since the play had “strangely written music” and only two actors were singing, Summers had a challenging opportunity to use all she learned and step up as a leader to find a way to best bring out her peers’ voices.
Stupid F***ng Bird’s score had notes that would make incredible leaps around the music sheets, since the joke is about a character who enjoys song writing, but is bad at it.
When director Liddicoat approached Summers for her help, Summers gladly took the opportunity. “It was a lot of figuring out how to modify [the music] so that it was believable because it was all over the place,” said Summers.
“A lot of music these days [has] been done a million times,” said Summers. “But, [Stupid F***ng Bird’s score] was one where I really had to use my musical background and theoretician work, because there aren’t many recordings out there.”
Summers got to exercise her degree in this project when she looked into the tempo, rhythm, and even reached out to her roommate, third-year Stephie Bonifacio, to help translate the score — which was all on the ukulele — into guitar, so that it could be recorded for Liddicoat.
“It was really fun to discover that on our own, and really create that sound, instead of going out and copying what someone else has done,” said Summers. “It was a lot of work, but it was very fun.”
Summers also worked with third-year Lauren Estrada in putting together the music for her character. Summers and Estrada have worked together in other productions, so Summers was familiar with how to help Estrada with the music. Togethe they worked on the recordings and how the music would sound. “It felt like creating a song on our own, even though we didn’t write it. It felt like we were playing off each other and writing a song like we were in our own private band,” said Summers.
As the curtain falls on her final year, Summers was asked about how she feels she has changed from her first-year self to the woman she has become as of now. Since first coming to Whittier College, Summers feels she has grown professionally and knows more about the business of the theater arts world. “A lot of what I learned is how everything fits together,” said Summers.
She has grown as a musician, actress, and feels more prepared than ever. “I can’t believe I would ever have thought that I might have been prepared without college,” said Summers. “I don’t know if I thought that, but I feel like I probably did. I feel like we all think that at some point. You’re a high schooler like: ‘Ah, I’m a hot-shot senior. I’m ready for the real world,’ but now I truly feel prepared.”
Summers is grateful for the connections she has made over the years in the performing arts. There is a sense of security for her, as she can come back to Whittier College’s theater arts department for professional connections and to meet new people in the industry.
As it is the beginning of the semester, Summers’ goals for the semester are to bring the best work out of the upcoming production, Pippin, and she aims to excel in her higher-level music and theater classes this semester. She wants to use these classes to grow and learn more as a director and performer. Summers also looks forward to her capstone performance, a lecture recital about feminism on stage. “I’m very excited to learn more and more about . . . how strong and empowered feminine characters on stage have become and how they are portrayed.”
There is much more to come for Sydney Summers.