BROWSE THROUGH the bios for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's "The Radiant Abyss" and you'll notice that fully two-thirds of the cast graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. Odd coincidence? Not so much. First of all, it's only a three-person show. Secondly, NCSA has been showing up in more and more Washington theater credits of late.
Indeed, it's fitting that "Abyss" is being performed at the Kennedy Center because that is ground zero for the Washington-NCSA connection. For the past four years, the Kenan Fund for the Arts, a major NCSA supporter, has endowed a fellowship that brings new graduates to the Kennedy Center for year-long apprenticeships. Several of these artists have chosen to stay in the District; alums Aubrey Deeker and Daniel Frith appeared in Woolly Mammoth shows earlier this season. "It's a great introduction to this really wonderful theater community where there's an opportunity to work and make a living," explains "Abyss" assistant director Andrew Wassenich, a 2002 NCSA grad and past Kenan apprentice.
Wassenich was the linchpin that brought New York-based NCSA alums Dana Acheson and Jeremy Beazlie to the production. The comedy of fear and loathing among three losers in a Winston-Salem strip mall (written by Angus MacLachlan, 1980 graduate of you-guess-where) proved hard to cast locally. "The roles in the show are really physical and demanding and specific," he says. "When they decided they were gonna go to New York to audition people, I was like, 'Well, I can get you a good dozen people to come in for these roles, and I'm pretty sure you're gonna find somebody that you like.' "
That collegial enthusiasm appears to be a hallmark of NCSA alumni. (On any given Thursday, you can find at least three or four of the D.C. contingent hanging out for karaoke night at 1409 Playbill Cafe.) "A lot of people warned me about conservatories," Acheson says. "They said, 'It's horribly competitive, and you'll probably get an eating disorder.' [But] I found [NCSA] to be one of the most nurturing, supportive environments I've ever been in. Coming out of the program and being in New York, I don't know what I would have done without the friends I'd made there."
For Wassenich, who spent a few post-collegiate years in the Big Apple, it was the cohesiveness of the NCSA grads he met there that led him to Winston-Salem in the first place. "I became friends with a whole slew of NCSA people, and they were working nonstop," he recalls. "And, on top of that, they were nice people. I knew groups of people from a bunch of different schools in New York, and NCSA people sort of welcomed me as one of their own -- if I was friends with one, I was friends with them all."
Wassenich suggests the educational philosophy of Gerald Freedman, dean of NCSA's School of Drama and a widely respected Broadway director, has a lot to do with it. "In the directing program, I got the chance to know what his philosophy was in terms of training actors," Wassenich says. "What he was really looking for was not just training an actor but helping human beings develop into the people that they are."
Acheson, for her part, thinks the school's location in a sleepy Southern city is also a factor. Big-city programs like Juilliard and New York University have a glamour factor that simply doesn't exist in Winston-Salem. Students' attention is focused on one another and their shared passion for the arts. "It's like you cloister yourself away at this monastery and there's nothing to distract you," she says. "There's no New York City to distract you; there's no Chicago. And I think that's the difference."