COLLEGIATE THEATRICS: University of the South's Karissa Wheeler
Karissa Wheeler's senior year at The University of the South/Sewanee has only just started, but already she's caught up in the whirlwind of a typical - for her, especially - packed and rather crazy schedule, immersed in classes while moving into rehearsals for what may be the most demanding role in which she's ever been cast: Sally Bowles in the iconic Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, which is based on John Van Druten's play I Am A Camera, which in turn is inspired Christopher Isherwood's memoir (Goodbye to Berlin) of his years as a struggling young writer in the heady days of Weimar Germany.
It's a hectic schedule, for sure, but it is one to which Wheeler has long been accustomed: a 2015 graduate of Nashville's Hume-Fogg Academic High School (the same inner city secondary school from which Dinah Shore was graduated back in the 1930s), where she was a member of Daron Bruce and Lisa Forbis' acclaimed musical theater program, president of her senior class and a cast member of several productions at the school. In addition, she was a member of the Class of 2015 First Night Most Promising Actors and she has appeared on stages throughout the Nashville area, in shows at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Towne Centre Theatre and The Larry Keeton Theatre, among others.
Since arriving in Sewanee to begin her college career, she jumped headlong into the collegiate cavalcade, becoming as involved in life on The Mountain as she had always been throughout her childhood and young adulthood in her hometown of Nashville.
Now, with university commencement just around the corner (she'll graduate in the spring of 2019), Wheeler has set the wheels in motion for what comes next. If her past accomplishments are any indication, you can rest assured that you'll be hearing more about Karissa Wheeler as she pursues her dreams.
Fortuitously, she found time after a Cabaret rehearsal to answer our questions and to usher in another year of our COLLEGIATE THEATRICS column, thus giving readers a chance to get to know her better before her courseload, workload and, well, life in general, make her too busy - yet again. However, knowing Karissa Wheeler as I do, I fully expect to keep sharing updates about her life as she moves on to an exciting future.
What's your college experience at The University of the South been like so far? The University of the South, affectionately called Sewanee, has given me so much. I am getting a little bit emotional writing this. Our department is structured so that you are really immersed in all aspects of the theatre, and it's very much like a family. My area of concentration has always been acting, and I've been blessed to have the wonderful James Crawford (who we all call "Jim") as my acting professor and director over the past two years. He has really transformed the way I think about acting and bringing a story to life, so I am super grateful to have his mentorship.
My dance professor, Courtney World, has also been an integral part of my college experience making my love of tap even stronger, and introducing me to a more holistic way of thinking about my body and identity as an artist. Kallen Esperian, known as "one of the greatest singers in the world," is my vocal coach this year, which has been another blessing to finish off my time on the Mountain for my senior year.
I've been able to take costume design with our fabulous costume designer and professor, Jennifer Matthews; worked in the costume shop with our awesome shop manager, Vicki Qualls; I've learned about set design with our incredible design professor, Dan Backlund; worked in the scene shop with our talented technical director, John Marshall, and am currently in a Theatre History from antiquity on with the incomparable Dr. Peter (Pete) Smith.
In short, the opportunities that I have been given, and the amount of support and encouragement that has been poured into me by my professors and friends in the department, has made my college experience more than I could have ever hoped for.
Has your Sewanee experience lived up to its advance hype? My college experience the past three years has far surpassed what I thought it would be. Coming out of my freshman year, I was given the opportunity to transfer to Tisch's New Studio on Broadway at NYU, which is a program that focuses on musical theatre. Obviously, I didn't go for a lot of reasons, but the one thing that stuck in my mind was the amazing year I had in the theatre department at Sewanee my freshman year. It was the relationships I had made with the faculty and my peers that I just wasn't ready to leave. In retrospect, I am so thankful I chose to stay, because it's made me the artist, and more importantly, the person I am today. I'm still not ready to leave...
What's your favorite thing about studying at Sewanee? Tennessee Williams's grandfather attended theology school at Sewanee, and as it does for most who enter through the gates, it held a very special place in his heart. Because of that, Williams left his estate to the University as a sort of memorial to his grandfather. The Tennessee Williams Center houses the Theatre and Dance department, so I love that we are surrounded by his legacy every day. I'm given the opportunity to continue to grow as a performing artist and make art because of Tennessee Williams, which has always been really special to me. Last semester one of my finals was playing "Stella" in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams...in the Tennessee Williams Center...big gratitude moment for me.
I also love that Sewanee is a liberal arts school, so if you are a student here, you are learning how to critically think, write and communicate.
Those skills are so important in life - and can only help me as an artist.
What does the future hold for you and have your aspirations changed since you're now an experienced college student? I am planning to move to New York next summer to pursue a career as a performing artist. I was accepted into a program at Michael Howard Studios that begins in less than a year. Nashville Shakespeare Festival favorite and retired professor of theatre at Sewanee, David Landon, first introduced me to the program my senior year of high school. I am super excited to make the move, and continue to hone my skills and make art in the City. I'm always open to grad school for acting, if that's how I'm led in a few years.
What collegiate theatrical moment looms largest in your mind? Wow, that's is a tough one! I've had many memorable experiences throughout my time at Sewanee, occasions that have made me stop and think, "Wow, this is why I do this, and why I want to spend the rest of my life doing this." I was taking a class with Jim last semester about classic American plays, while we were simultaneously rehearsing for The Crucible. I was doing a scene from Anna Christie and Jim said something along the lines of "make him feel the words you're saying." It was such a powerful moment for me as an actor, because I was able to see Anna's vulnerability and raw representation of humanity, and somehow draw in pieces of myself that resonated with her, pieces that were unprotected and ugly. It carried through to my Abigail Williams in The Crucible, too. Just his one statement really jolted me to this knew place of exploring in character work and bringing in some of my own life experiences into my work.
What advice would you offer to high school students considering making the plunge? If you love the theatre, if you love making art, if you can't imagine living without doing it...DO IT! Some people will tell you it's not the realistic thing to do, that you're too sweet for the business or that you're not 'talented' enough (whatever that means), but you really don't have to pay them any mind. Leave negativity at the door. You are given talents for a reason, so USE THEM. The comparison game is something that can really get you down in this business, so just knowing your worth and who you are, that you are loved and created for a purpose, is something that has held me in my lowest places. I will be the first one to tell you, from experience, you don't get everything you audition for, but I will say nine times out of 10, if you are a hard worker and love what you do, no one can put you in a box. Follow that dream!
What's your latest theatrical project and what comes next? Theatre/Sewanee's fall production is Cabaret, the 1998 version. I am playing the "toast of Mayfair, Fraulein Sally Bowles," which is a dream role for me. With many esteemed predecessors in my role, I'm super excited to work to make Sally my own. The cast had our first table-read yesterday. Leaving the room, my heart was so full from the realization that I get to bring this dark, magnificent, timely story to life with such an incredibly talented group of people. We run October 26-28 and November 1-3. Come join us!