Florham theater students have a flair for the dramatic

Larissa Hughes in Spring Awakening 3
Junior Larissa Hughes kicks up her heels and performs in the 2012 FDU production of "Spring Awakening."

By Kenna Caprio

FLORHAM (August 18, 2014) — The auditions. The costumes. The sets. The lights. The music. The choreography. The rehearsals.

Opening night.

The drama of it all.

“Putting on a production can be stressful, but ultimately, it’s a blast,” says Larissa Hughes, a junior and theater arts major with a concentration in musical theater at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus.

This summer, Hughes and fellow theater arts majors Jeorgi Smith and Danielle DiPietro performed in New York and New Jersey productions of “Sweeney Todd,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Hairspray.”

All three have been involved with productions, as actresses and behind-the-scenes, on FDU’s Main Stage, too. In the 2013-14 season, they worked on and performed in “Romeo and Juliet,” “Urinetown,” “Oklahoma!” and “The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later.”

“Our rehearsals at FDU are typically 6-10 p.m. each weekday for about one-and-a-half to two months, with many all-day Saturdays thrown in,” says Hughes. “Call time is usually two hours before (a performance). And in that time we do our makeup, hair, get microphones, do a microphone-check, fight call, prop check, vocal and diction warm-ups and, of course, get into costumes.”

The intimate but growing theater program at Florham drew all three women to FDU. “There’s such a close bond with our teachers,” says DiPietro, a junior. “I look up to our professors so much. They’re all supportive and successful, having accomplished so much.”

Devoted to their craft year-round, Hughes, Smith and DiPietro each chose to spend the summer working with children, teaching theater arts and, of course, acting on stage.

“This summer, I’ve tried my hand at choreography and directing, which is something I had never done before,” says Hughes. She says she used “tools and techniques” that FDU professors taught her. “I’ve also been very hands-on with the technical aspects of theater this summer. Being able to do multiple jobs in the theater industry is a covetable ability.”

At Springville Center for the Arts in Springville, N.Y. — about an hour from her hometown of Lockport, N.Y. — she conducted summer camp theater workshops for children, choreographed “The Jungle Book,” directed “Alice @ Wonderland” and performed in “Cinderella or It’s Okay to Be Different.” Hughes also played the Beggar Woman in Springville Center’s high school- and college-student production of “Sweeney Todd.”

Meanwhile, Smith stayed in her hometown of Green Township, N.J., to work at the municipality’s summer camp, teaching kids to sing and dance. The sophomore also returned to the Growing Stage in nearby Netcong, N.J., for “Young Frankenstein.”

Jeorgi Smith in Young Frankenstein
FDU sophomore Jeorgi Smith stars as the flirtateous Inga in "Young Frankenstein" at the Growing Stage in Netcong, N.J. (Photo courtesy of The Growing Stage)

Growing Stage edited out some of the more suggestive lines and scenes of “Young Frankenstein” to make it appropriate for younger children. “The children that came in were in awe,” says Smith, who played Inga, the blonde bombshell and laboratory assistant. “One thing that hit me is I like being up on stage to make kids laugh and to make them feel like they’re in a crazy, imaginary world.”

At the beginning of the show, Smith felt unsure of where to go with Inga’s character. “I never played a role like Inga before. She’s so flirty and spunky,” says Smith.

Ultimately, she found her way to the character by combining the direction she received from the Growing Stage with the lessons she’d already learned from her FDU professors.

“Professor (Stacie) Lents makes you think outside of the box. You don’t just go on stage and read lines. You have to act truthfully,” says Smith. “I’ve always known that acting is about how characters feel during a certain moment, time or scene in their life, but this really stood out to me.

“I definitely created a history for the character and reasons why she’s so bubbly and animated,” Smith continues. “I wanted to do the show three times a day. I was just so into it.”

For DiPietro, the highlight of her summer came in the form of a lead role, playing Tracy Turnblad in the Main Street Theatre Company production of “Hairspray.”

“I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to play a role that means so much to me again. ‘Hairspray’ is the best theatrical experience I’ve had,” says DiPietro, who saw the show for the first time at age 7. She remembers thinking, “Not only does Tracy look like me, but she gets the boy, too. This is great!”

Danielle Di Pietro in Hairspray
Danielle DiPietro, a junior, taps into the perky and grounded characteristics of Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray" at Main Street Theatre Company in Sayreville, N.J. (Photo by Gregory D. V. Holmes)

After finals ended last spring, DiPietro headed down to sing, dance and read for her dream part at the company in Sayreville, N.J. — not far from her hometown of Morganville. She cried when a friend called to tell her she got the role.

Her pre-performance rituals — vocal warm-ups, ballet bar exercises and a cup of Throat Coat or mint tea — and work as a counselor at Middlesex County College Theater camp, helped her tap into the grounded but perky sensibilities of Tracy.

“This summer, I’ve noticed a big change in how I acted,” says DiPietro. “Before, I was always scared to just act — I didn’t mind it through singing and dancing, but with acting itself, I was scared it wouldn’t believable.” She cultivated her confidence and put into practice the training she received at FDU. “Professor Lents talks about acting ‘moment to moment,’ depending on the delivery (of another actor). It’s about working off of your partner.”

During the show’s run, DiPietro received a message from a fan in the audience. The girl expressed how much DiPietro’s performance meant to her and how DiPietro inspired her. At a later performance the two took a photograph together. “Her day was made,” says DiPietro. “I’ve felt that way with Broadway actors before, but she felt that way from watching my performance. There are just no words to describe that.”

After a summer filled with dramatic moments, Smith is looking ahead to her fall classes, especially Acting Shakespeare with director of the Theater Arts Program Stephen Hollis, with excitement. Hughes and DiPietro are both eagerly anticipating a semester at FDU’s Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, England.

“Theater is an opportunity to make others feel something, and that is an incredible power to have,” Hughes says.