Acting dreams? Talk to Hartt’s Alan Rust
Hundreds of teenagers — dancers, actors, singers — fill the hallways of Pearl Studios in midtown Manhattan. With nervous smiles, anxious looks and a sense their future is on the line, they are here to audition for undergraduate college theater programs.
“It’s overwhelming for them,” says Alan Rust, who has led the theater division at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford for more than 20 years.
“They’ve got this huge passion to make this their life,” Rust says during a break in the three-day series of auditions. “It’s like the kid on a high school basketball team who wants to get a scholarship to one of the big schools because that leads to the NBA. Now less than 1 percent get there, but you’ve got to start somewhere, and that’s what this is.”
Rust, 71, has been there himself, in another era, seeking college theater training and auditioning as an actor.
“I was raised in the Connecticut part of Ohio,” Rust jokes of his roots. Following grad school at the University of Ohio, he worked in summer stock productions of musicals with Anita Gillette, Robert Morse and Gisele MacKenzie. But in the mid-'70s he became more involved in theater education — while keeping a toe in the acting pool. (Rust has played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Hartford Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” for 21 seasons and 900 performances. )
For nearly 50 years he also was associated with Monomoy Theater in Chatham, Massachusetts, first as an actor and associate artistic director and then for nearly 40 years as its artistic director. The Cape Cod theater is where students from University of Ohio and, later, the University of Hartford, immerse themselves in weekly productions every summer. The program ended two years ago when the theater was sold.
As a theater educator, Rust worked at universities in Seattle, SUNY at Purchase, Detroit, Wisconsin and the North Carolina School of Arts, where he met and became lifelong friends with Malcolm Morrison, dean of the school, and his wife, actor-teacher Johanna Morrison.
When Morrison left for a new position in Denver in 1987, Rust succeeded him as dean. But the men reconnected when Morrison was wooed in the mid-'90s to create a theater division for the Hartt School, long a music conservatory. Morrison brought Rust with him to help create a theater division, based on their work in North Carolina, and for Rust to head the acting program. When Morrison became dean of the Hartt School in 1998, Rust became head of the theater division — which soon included not only an acting program but one for musical theater.
Alums on Broadway
In that first graduating class in 2002 were Tony Award-nominee Marin Ireland and Maxwell Williams, artistic director of New Orleans’ Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré in the French Quarter. Others grads who have moved on to perform on Broadway include Jessica Vosk (Elphaba in “Wicked) and Juwan Crawley (Genie in “Aladdin”), with other alumni in shows such as “The Book of Mormon,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Prom,” “Mean Girls,” “Harry Potter” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“I was a sophomore the night James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony Award in ‘Aladdin’ in 2014,” says Crawley, “Alan called me up and said, ‘Did you see the Tonys? I promise one day you will play that part.’ After that he cast me in roles in shows to prep me for Genie, such as Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and other shows with mystical elements.”
Little did Rust realize how soon his prophecy would come true. Just months after graduating in 2016, Crawley was cast in off-Broadway’s “Spamilton,” then in a new musical in Philadelphia, and exactly one year after he left Hartt, Crawley was playing the Genie on Broadway as one of the standbys for the role. “It was magical,” he says.
Beyond its strong faculty, Rust says Hartt can boast professional partnerships with Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks and Goodspeed Musicals. “Our kids do the Goodspeed New Musical Festival every year. The first time audiences heard ‘Come From Away’ was with our students.”
‘This nation’s second-biggest export’
College theater programs have multiplied in the last few decades like kudzu, fed by young people’s hunger for stardom. But are there enough jobs out there?
“Next to arms, entertainment is this nation’s second-biggest export,” says Rust. “I know it’s competitive and I know it’s hard, but let’s face it, it’s a major commodity in our nation, so why shouldn’t you prepare as well as you can for it?
Rust does lament how narrow an understanding students entering Hartt have of the history of the profession.
“Laurence Olivier? Half of kids coming in don’t know who Russell Crowe is. They know about what’s going right now, this very minute. But they will know Olivier — and Gielgud and all of theater history when they leave here. I talk to them about the heritage of the theater all the time and about the life they’ve chosen — and it’s a great one. But you have to know where it all came from and how it was built. The really hungry, smart ones get it.”
What does he look for in auditioning young actors?
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“I don’t mean to sound glib but I look to see if they can act. I look to see if it appears that they have the capacity to learn the craft. It’s easy to discover if they probably don’t. It’s more difficult to determine if they do.”
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Rust advises young wannabes to look at the top acting schools — “and I’ll give them a list. I tell them to look at what they teach. Look at their curriculum, their connections, where their students go.”
Does he know when a young student has the right stuff?
“Oh, sure. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to hit it right off the bat. But someone like Marin I knew immediately she’s got it. I knew someone like Max Williams was extremely bright but wasn’t going to be an actor, but he was going to be in the theater. That’s when I called up [then-Hartford Stage artistic director] Michael Wilson and I said, ‘I got a guy who is going to graduate, he’s very smart but I don’t think he’s going into acting, but that he belongs in the biz. Would you take him as a free intern?’ And that’s how that association happened.”
This year Hartt School is celebrating its 100th anniversary and Rust is gearing up activities at his theater division. Rust is also expanding the division to include stage management and technical theater — not design — “but I won’t be running it.” As for his own future, “I just don’t know yet. Let me get through the 100th anniversary first.”