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Student Blog: Look What Happened to...Emily!

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Reflections on transformation as I start my senior year at Northwestern

Student Blog: Look What Happened to...Emily!
A recent joyful moment on the campus that has seen so many stages of my growth (photo by Binah Schatsky)

Four years ago, I was belting Jerry Herman's "Look What Happened to Mabel" in college auditions. This week, I kicked off my senior year in Northwestern University's musical theatre program. Unsurprisingly, it was a week full of reflection, and as I realize just how much growth and change can - and did - take place since the freshman fall feels that simultaneously like yesterday and like a lifetime ago, that song is feeling perhaps more applicable today than it was the last time I sang it. I used to hear so often from seniors that they felt like a totally different person than they were freshman year. But college seemed to be so short and flying by already - how was there time for that much transformation? However, standing in their shoes this week, I understand: I have changed and matured dramatically as a person - not so much in a radical new direction, but in a sense coming more fully into myself, and finding those people among whom I can be most fully myself.

Perhaps the greatest thing I've found since I first navigated the halls of the theatre building three years ago this week has been a confidence in my right to a place in artistic spaces. As a first-year, meeting new and intimidatingly talented peers every day, it feels constantly necesarry to prove yourself - to prove that you are smart and talented and worthy of being seen and paid attention to and of taking up space in an artistic community. And in the midst of this constant comparison of yourself with everyone around you, imposter syndrome makes a dramatic entrance. The summer after my freshman year, an acting coach and mentor reminded me of something that has become something of a mantra: "you have the right to be where you are." Reminding myself constantly of this has grounded, centered, and relaxed me to great effect in my artistic work (and personal life), but only this fall has it finally begun to feel really consistently true. In my classes, I'm finding myself focused on myself, and my own artistry, growth, and experience, in a much more in-the-moment, open, comparison-free, non-judgmental way.

My goals in my classes - and even my choice of classes -- have evolved as well. As a serious dancer, I often repeat dance classes, and this quarter I am taking a musical theatre dance class focused on rehearsal processes that I last took in my first quarter at northwestern. The first time I took the class, I was primarily a performer and the goals I outlined in an early-quarter assignment were exclusively oriented around performance. As I prepare to write the same paper, I'm realizing that the choreography work that has become central to my artistic identity in the last 3 years has transformed my goals: while some will still be performance-oriented, I will also be aiming to recognize tactics for leading healthy rehearsal rooms and creating movement. This quarter, I'm also taking a directing class for the first time. Freshman Emily did have a tentative interest in choreography, but if you'd asked her if she was a director, she would have answered with a confident "no". But central to my coming into my own as a choreogrpaher over the last three years has been the process of finding my voice in a rehearsal room. After years and years of almost silently doing what I was told in dance and theatre, I've discovered that I am not only capable of having a voice, power, and agency in a rehearsal room, but that that voice can have a positive impact on the other artists in the room I am leading, and on audiences who will watch the work I create. It's an incredible feeling which has become one of my favorite things about the choreographic process, and made me imagine perhaps taking on larger theatrical leadership roles (like directing).

These realizations are connected to a larger transformation that's taken place: a shift from a strictly defined artistic identity (I was an Actress, who perhaps dabbled in choreography, and taught when necesarry) to a confident openness around that identity. Today I consider myself first and foremost a theatre artist - I may specialize in certain disciplines, and I am proud of my trajectory of growth in those aspects of theatre I've trained in for most of my life, but I'm also proud of my work in those disciplines I've only recently taken up, I am still only at the beginning of my journey in theatre, and I know above all that I just love making theatre. Far from making me an unfocused jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, my experience in a flexible B.A. program focused on well-roundedness (consisting for me of a theatre major, musical theatre certificate, and world literature minor) has left me with an incredibly specific sense of who I am as an artist, in combination with this openness about what my journey can be.

This multi-faceted identity has come to a forefront in the Honors Thesis in Theatre that I've recently embarked upon, for which I am serving as combination creator/writer/director/choreographer/dramaturg/deviser and who-knows-what-else. The project also reflects one more major change I've recognized: a move from more general, passionate ideals about the "world-changing power of theatre" to a more concrete, confident sense about the difference I can make in the world, in very specific ways, through theatrical work. In my thesis, I am examining the trope of the "ingenue" and teenage girlhood onstage (a topic I am very passionate about - see my previous blog post). I'm looking at its real impact - on young female-presenting performers like myself whose attempts to market themselves require squeezing into this narrowly prescribed box, and on audience members who are often offered a specific (and perhaps questionable) narrative by the pervasiveness of this type. No longer just waxing poetic about the power of theatre, it's still thrilling to realize that via extensive academic research, discussions, workshops, rehearsals, and sharing, I'll be imagining ways of theatrical practice that might make real actual change on the experiences of those impacted by this topic.

Student Blog: Look What Happened to...Emily!
This little freshman starting her first year three years ago this week had no idea of the journey her college experience had in store.

And in the midst of all the week's realizations of evolution has been a renewed recognition of that constant little fire that theatre sparks in my soul. As I sat in my very first class of senior year (a comedy-focused acting class) at 9am on Tuesday, I suddenly gained a fuller appreciation for the two-year acting sequence program at Northwestern that places you with the same cohort and teacher for every quarter of your sophomore and junior years. But as I found just as much to love in the new teacher and classmates in this Senior Topics class, my overwhelming sensation was simply a ravenous hunger for acting training. That training has been central to my college experience, and it is that hunger for it which has driven me through moments when studying theatre is stressful, difficult, and scary. With that hunger burning brighter in my belly than ever before, I can't wait to embark upon everything this senior year has in store.


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From This Author Student Blogger: Emily Brooks