Sam Landstra — Staff Writer
An overeager driving instructor and a cheer coach zealous for victory walked into a theatre festival. Both these people are senior Emi Stewart; and both these characters are in her acting package selected to compete in the semifinal round of the Irene Ryan Scholarship competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. (KCACTF).
Earlier this month, a group of 15 students and faculty members from the Dordt University Theatre Department piled into passenger vans and headed north to Sioux Falls for a weeklong celebration of theatre. Stocked full of invited performances, workshops, and technical design expos, the festival itself centers around the Irene Ryan Scholarship competition. Here, students perform selections of prepared theatre in front of a panel of judges.
Stewart earned her Irene Ryan nomination from last Fall’s production, Known But to God, where she portrayed a female Union solider disguised as a male in the Civil War. Five other Dordt students brought nominations from other shows as well.
“I was really happy,” said Stewart, describing her reaction to the nomination. “Really excited.”
Within days, Stewart picked a two person comedy scene from Driver’s Test, where a driving instructor attempts to befriend everyone who gets behind the wheel. Weeks later, she continued in the humorous tone with a motivational monologue given by a cheer coach from Miss Beth.
“By the end of Known But to God I was sick of drama.” Stewart said. “It was so fun to look up different pieces of comedy that I liked.”
Along with her two minute acting package, Stewart selected a three minute scene for the rarified second round and asked freshman Lindsay Kuiper to partner with her.
In a congested room of theatre buffs, the two waited for their turn. Spectators fiddled with their nametags and respondents scribbled critiques onto clipboards. Nights of memorization came down to the opinions of the two judges.
“[I was] terrified. Completely terrified.” Stewart said. “I usually don’t get too bad of stage fright, but the quick turnaround was scary.”
When the preceding act delivered their final lines, Steward and Kuiper wiggled their way to the front, introduced themselves, (the most difficult part of the package, most say), and performed the scenes to a receptive audience. The Minnesotan accent Stewart added to her Driver’s Test character generated a handful of chuckles.
“Comedy is really tricky because you’re looking for laughs.” Stewart said. “It was really relieving to have people laughing.”
After the preliminaries, the two assumed their road had ended. Of the 368 acts, only 64 edge into the semifinal round. The last Dordt student to enter the exclusive rank did so a few years ago. With a successful performance behind her, Stewart could rest on her laurels and enjoy the rest of the week.
Later that night, Stewart was watching invited scenes with the rest of the department. Her Fitbit buzzed.
“Congrats!” A text from theatre professor Teresa Ter Haar shone across the miniature screen in the darkened theatre. Although she couldn’t be sure, Emi guessed the message meant a semifinal selection.
A rouse of congratulations after the show confirmed her suspicions. High fives and hugs abounded.
“Being an Irene Ryan nominee is a huge honor in itself and every time it goes on that honor just gets tweaked a little bit higher and higher as you do.” Stewart said.
The celebration did not last long, however, as Stewart and Kuiper got busy memorizing their three minute scene that night. With their performance less than 48 hours away, the circumstances warranted dedication, and some giggles too.
“She reads nervous energy and turns it into something funny,” said Stewart about Kuiper.
For every handful of times they ran lines with each other, they also laid on the floor of the practice rooms and laughed to themselves.
“Our running joke is that we’re the poster children for the program.” Kuiper said. “I learned a lot from her.”
On Wednesday morning the two showcased their polished pieces in the semifinal round in front of a full audience- including their fellow theatre department peers. Although Stewart missed the cut for finals, she looks back on her first KCACTF and Irene Ryan nomination positively.
“I think it is so important to do things that aren’t contributing necessarily to your career.” Stewart said. “Do things that are fun and a little outside your wheelhouse.”