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Onstage and backstage, Trojans find success on L.A. stages

Dramatic Arts alumni land a lead role, workshop with Al Pacino and work on a musical with 600 sound cues

USC actor Colin Woodell
Alfred Molina and Colin Woodell in Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Geffen Playhouse (Photo/Chris Whitaker)

At any given time, alumni of the USC School of Dramatic Arts can be found in key roles onstage and backstage at major Equity theaters across the country.

These skilled actors, stage managers and technical artists demonstrate a wealth of Trojan talent. This spring, for example, three well-received productions took place at top theaters — Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Geffen Playhouse, God Looked Away at the Pasadena Playhouse and Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum.

Colin Woodell BFA ’14 landed a lead role in Long Day’s Journey opposite veterans Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek, and was rewarded with a rave for his performance in the Los Angeles Times. Reviewer Charles McNulty wrote about Woodell’s “natural ease” on stage, ending with this: “The frail, almost sacrificial beauty of Woodell’s Edmund elicits a delicacy of feeling from his scene partners. All the principal actors seem to do their best work either with him or when arguing about his character’s condition.”

Woodell, who has worked steadily in films and television since graduating, auditioned for Journey as a favor to his mother, who had seen a production of the show with the legendary Laurence Olivier. It was the first professional theater he has done in Los Angeles, and he relished the role, which required him to show illness, master an epic cough, get drunk and play “a young dissolute” who is “the fragile observer of the inferno engulfing his family,” as McNulty described him. It was a marathon of seven performances a week, with Woodell being so hyped up after a performance that he was often not able to get to sleep until 3 a.m. He was exhausted during the run, he admitted, but artistically fulfilled.

Woodell credits USC professors Laura Flanagan and Mary-Joan Negro for helping him understand texts and be fully prepared for auditions, and he praised David Warshofsky for giving students a realistic outlook on the industry.

In Pasadena with Pacino

At the Pasadena Playhouse, Andrew Dits MFA ’10 had the stellar experience of workshopping a new play opposite Al Pacino and Judith Light. He was part of a seven-person cast that created new characters and had to react quickly to frequent rewrites and reblocks by playwright Dotson Rader and director Robert Allan Ackerman.

“I’ve never had more fun on stage,” Dits said.

Zoot Suit at Taper

Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (Photo/Craig Schwartz)

At the Taper, Philip Allen BFA ’95, who created and oversees the school’s BFA program in sound design, created the complex sound design for Zoot Suit, a musical with 600 sound cues — far more than a typical production.

Allen, who has designed sound on Broadway, at the Hollywood Bowl and the Taper, among other credits, designed the show while teaching a full load of classes.

He and other USC Dramatic Arts faculty members said their professional work enhances their teaching and is a plus for students. Set designer and faculty member Sibyl Wickersheimer, for example, noted that students didn’t really understand the process that a set designer goes through until she walked them through the historical research, text study and even the Google mapping inquiries she used while designing a recent production of Richard II for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Other alumni also were represented in Zoot Suit. The stage manager who oversaw a 25-person cast, 20 songs, numerous costume changes and nonstop activity onstage and off was Michelle Blair ’99, a veteran of more than 30 productions at Center Theatre Group (CTG). The show’s production assistant was Kelly Merritt ’16, working in her first CTG show.

Stumbling into acting

Dits credits a Dramatic Arts professor with helping him when he was starting out.

Natsuko Ohama, who teaches voice training, paired him with a mentor, Richard Fancy of Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, and Fancy later arranged for Dits to audition for the company. He was selected to join the repertory group, which has been an incredible experience, he said.

“I really stumbled into acting,” Dits said.

He had been thinking of enrolling in the playwriting program when he visited USC Dramatic Arts, but after sitting in a class taught by David Bridel (now dean of the school), he “had a white light experience. I fell in love.”

Dits said that instructors such as Ohama, Bridel, Andrew Robinson and former instructor Charlotte Cornwell “changed my life. I got my foundation from their training.”

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Onstage and backstage, Trojans find success on L.A. stages

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