A Tale of Two Acting Students
Next up in my blog series featuring brave and brilliant young people are Stepheny Hunter and Peter Sarty, both Halifax based actors and recent graduates from the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University.
I was curious about how each of them found their way to acting, a career choice that may appear glamorous but is actually a ton of work and not for those who are only looking for “the best of times.” It takes courage and in the case of these two, resilience, creativity and being open to anything.
Stepheny says it was that moment in high school when she realized, “Wow, I’m actually good at this!” She was getting a response from her work in Improv and performing arts. “If I didn’t have that, I don’t know if I would have followed that path.” Her obsession with acting started when she was very young with a standby “act” in which she’d pretend to be a waiter but would also be the daughter going to dinner with her parents, playing multiple roles during the meal. This passion continued throughout school where she often knew everybody’s lines in a production because as she says, “I was always willing to put in the time to get really good at this.”
Peter’s path was similar. “Growing up my parents could leave me in a room with a candy wrapper and I’d entertain myself for hours, creating a whole fantasy world. Like Stepheny, he often entertained his family “audience”. On family car trips, he was regularly called upon to re-enact a scene from Ace Ventura Pet Detective (the dolphin trainer) where he’d recite the lines of all the characters word for word. Another favourite was the Doonesbury character, Uncle Duke, which he discovered when he was in elementary school. “I would sit in my room and pretend to smoke cigarettes, drink apple juice fantasizing it was scotch, and pop vitamins that were whatever pills Uncle Duke was taking,” he laughs. “Those were the games I would play.”
Both were fully supported to go into acting by their parents who had front row seats for all of their theatrical antics. “I think it’s because they saw something in us,” Peter says. His parents’ belief that this was something he had to do, made all the difference.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth
While Stepheny appreciates what she learned at Dalhousie and the connections she made, it’s taken her a few years to fully realize what parts of her education actually helped and what wasn’t as useful.
“Some of it was about putting you in a box for what had always been known to work.”
This, she said, had the opposite effect of potentially killing people’s instincts.
“It was interesting to see who they believed in,” Stepheny says. While she knows this can happen in any school program, preferential treatment is especially concerning in theatre school because it means that certain students always get cast in the best roles. For Stepheny, who wasn’t on the A list, a wakeup call occurred when an outside director came in and did the casting for one the theatre school’s productions. None of those they chose for the leading roles, including Stepheny, were the usual ones selected. “When this happened there was a big ruckus and the instructors then said, ‘this is all wrong’, which basically made the whole exercise pointless,” Stepheny says.
Peter’s experience was different. “The first meeting I had with one of the instructors, she sat me down in this room and she said, ‘You’re a tall drink of water and we’re going to make you into the leading man you know you can be’.” Peter says this “vision” was definitely reflected in the parts he got. “While I needed that boost for my ego and I was getting all of these great parts, I was also battling with wanting to do it right.” For him that meant earning the roles because of his talent and not just his appearance.
He adds that need for approval in an acting program can be poisonous.
“You’re put in a situation where you need to have somebody saying ‘Yes! You’re a good actor, you’re meant to be doing this’ so you can believe it too.”
This validation is especially important come graduation. While Peter got a commercial contract straight off, both he and Stepheny felt unprepared on how to actually share their artistic voices. “Sure, they’d sent you out there ready to audition but unless you really are something special, you’re not going to be booking tons of parts and you can become demoralized pretty quickly,” Peter says. Many of their classmates have dropped out of acting because of this.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Stepheny is hell bent on creating enough work for herself so she doesn’t have to rely entirely on auditions. “Someone very wise, who I really admire, once said, you still have to audition but when you don’t get the part you can say ‘oh that’s fine because I’m too busy with all these other things anyway’.”
One of those “things” is a play she’s currently writing, that she and Peter will star in next spring. Fat Juliet is a contemporary retelling of Romeo & Juliet that’s entirely from Juliet’s point of view. “It explores themes like fatphobia and power abusive relationships, while merging both modern and classical text,” says Stepheny. “The play reframes the character of Juliet as strong and powerful, rather than small and weak as she is consistently played.”
She says, “It’s been gratifying to see that this is an idea that people are into and I’m getting help to produce the play at a level I hadn’t expected.” She’s especially thrilled that an established company, Shakespeare by the Sea, will premiere the play. “It can make all the difference when a company of that caliber will throw their support behind emerging artists and help them in their careers.” This is an example of how she’s made room for herself to gain work in a way she wasn’t taught in school.
“It’s one of those things, they’re helping me but even if they weren’t, I’d have to find my own space.” All of this helps take the sting out of unsuccessful auditions.
“If I can do my own thing like I’m doing with Fat Juliet then people can’t tell me no!” She is also part of a playwriters group where she connects with others who are also making their own work.
Both Stepheny and Peter are currently finding the most success in improvisational theatre, which they perform at Halifax’s Bus Stop Theatre. “People are always willing to pay to laugh – and it’s a lot less expensive than regular theatre,” says Peter. Another reason may be because there’s an overabundance of mediocre theatre, which isn’t good for anyone, says Stepheny.
“You see this production that a company has taken a chance on and it doesn’t turn out well and you think, ‘This isn’t good for the rest of us who are trying to get a break!’”
Like the majority of actors, Stepheny and Peter also do “Joe Jobs” to help pay the bills when projects are few and far between. This includes working front of house at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, which keeps them connected to the arts community with the added bonus of free tickets. They also do simulated patient work for medical students at Dalhousie University.
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
In acting school, students are told to take every chance they can to gain experience – even when some of the productions or roles frankly stink. With this in mind, Stepheny and Peter try to find the silver lining by following the rule of the three P’s – Project, People, Pay – shooting to get at least two out of the three. “You might not like the piece but if it’s with people you like and the pay is good, oh well,” says Stepheny. A goal they share is to always continue to improve their craft.
Peter hopes to write a lot more and is working on a musical. He says it’s always a struggle to have confidence in all the ideas in his head for shows he wants to create. “Just to achieve that yes! If I put in the work, people will want to come and see this!” He adds, “The dream is to be established enough to have the clout and resources available to take that contract to do a play you really love but to know you can also take a piece you’ve written and get that out into the world as well.”
Stepheny has found balance in teaching workshops and securing a grant that gives her some breathing room to focus on writing Fat Juliet. She’s open to just about anything that comes her way, and not attached to any single outcome. “It’s nice because there isn’t one final set goal. As long as you’re continuing to grow, you’ll start getting those more established jobs.”
The fact that they’re in this together helps. “We believe in each other,” says Peter and Stepheny laughs, “I wouldn’t be with him if he wasn’t really good at this!” Joking aside, she says, “Even if things aren’t great right now, you have to stick with it because things will get better.”
“We’re only here for a limited amount of time,” Peter observes. “There’s so many people that want to be actors and there’s only so much work. You really have to take the time to do work that’s meaningful to you and hopefully to a larger audience as well.”
So, when these two hit it big, which I have no doubt they will, you can say you read it here first! In the meantime, I wonder what can we learn about our own story from these fearless young artists? I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts in the comments below!
NOTE: You may have noticed that the page URL is not available in the address bar (dang!). Here it is if you’d like to share it: http://www.mightywrite.ca/index.php/a-tale-of-two-acting-students/
Stepheny Hunter is an actor and improviser living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a member of Hello City, a monthly improv show that takes place at the Bus Stop Theatre (Silver for Best Comedy Night – The Coast 2018, Best Ensemble Halifax Fringe 2018). She was also in the Winnipeg Improv Festival’s 2017 International Ensemble. Past Theatre Credits include: Forest in my Room/Fall Out (Neptune Theatre), FOX (The Villains Theatre), Macbeth (Steady Theatre Co.), This is Nowhere (Zuppa Theatre Company), Slut the Play (Lunasea Theatre Company), The Peace Project (Transitus Theatre), King Arthur (Zuppa Theatre and Opera Nova Scotia). TV: Diggstown (CBC)
Peter Sarty is an actor and improviser based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Select theatre credits include: No Man Is an Island (Atlantic Repertory Company), Macbeth (Steady Theatre Co.), This Is Nowhere (Zuppa Theatre Co.), Twelfth Night, Othello, Alice in Wonderland, Julius Caesar, All’s Well that Ends Well, Peter Pan, As You Like It, King Lear, Pinocchio (Shakespeare by the Sea), Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes (Matchstick Theatre), Miracle on 34th Street (Neptune Theatre) and HELLO CITY Presents: The Book Club (Halifax Fringe Festival). Film credits include: Let’s Get Physical (Pop TV), Terror in the Woods (Discover America), and Cavendish (CBC).