Musical Theater Student’s Journey to Stardom

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“I have to go and walk the stupid dog,” musical theater majors sing to the piano articulately as they waltz around the rehearsal room in Forbes at JMU.

Amongst these talented students is Courtney Jamison (’15). Gliding about the rehearsal room in her black and white patterned maxi dress, she cradles a plastic baby in preparation for the scene she is going to run through. One moment she’s mingling with friends, the next she’s sitting on the floor, breaking into a mild southern accent. She and Richard Yingling (‘15) begin singing the duet “Wheels of a Dream” from the musical, Ragtime. The room falls silent.

This is the norm for the promising actress.

“She has this radiance about her that can change the temperature in a room,” says Christine Cote (‘15), a double major in Theater Performance and Media Arts and Design. “She exhibited a vulnerability that I had never seen from her, but thoroughly enjoyed. She has the ability to make people feel at ease around her.”

As her time at JMU comes to a close, Jamison has found a new home in theater arts: She has been accepted into the Yale School of Drama MFA program for acting.

“I know a lot of people don’t [apply to grad school] straight out of undergrad. They want to work first,” Jamison said. “But I feel like I’ve only really started to unlock and develop my technique and uncovering what my process is as an actor. I knew [grad school] was always in the cards for me. It’s just always been a dream to go to the Yale School of Drama.”

The prestigious program has trained fresh faces in the industry like Lupita Nyong’o, to seasoned veterans like Meryl Streep. During the audition weekend, a committee narrows roughly 1200 applicants down to 32 finalists who are invited to return. Only 17 were offered admission into the program. Jamison was humbled by the outcome.

“I went into the whole thing just being like, I’m going to audition this year, not really thinking I’m going to get in, but just kind of put on a good showing, come back next year and just really go for it,” she said. “After that weekend I fell in love with the school, I fell in love with the teachers, the program, and the art that they’re creating there.”

Aside from her undergraduate training and strong support system of family and friends, Jamison also credits her success to the pageant community. As a preteen, she competed in her first pageant through the National American Miss organization.

“I’m forever indebted to what I learned through pageants,” Jamison says. “Mostly being able to articulate my opinions, being able to communicate with other people, and to be empathetic. Especially when I’m going out to communities that are in need of aid or in need of mentors for children.”

The organization holds all natural pageants, discouraging use of makeup in its younger divisions. NAM educates in public speaking, communication skills and confidence building. It was these skills that helped Jamison earn her current title as Miss Arlington. She is now preparing to compete for the Miss Virginia title in June 2015.

“It’s interesting because I never really thought that I’d be doing pageants,” said Jamison. “It’s not to show up and look pretty, sometimes this job can be grueling. I definitely think it’s made me more accessible for the industry that I am trying to pursue, because half of the battle is putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes so that you can understand and so you can tell the story truthfully.”

Jamison has expressed gratitude for opportunities to explore creativity through other mediums at JMU, specifically in taking a playwriting class with professor Ingrid DeSanctis.

“I thought Ingrid’s playwriting class was one of the best experiences I’ve had here at JMU, because she encourages you to just try,” says Jamison. “Sometimes we lose that when we’re young. We lose the willingness to just write things down and just be creative. So reawakening that in myself was really important.”

After casting Jamison as the lead character, DeSanctis worked closely with her in the production, How I Learned to Drive, a play about a sexual abuse victim. Since then, she has followed Jamison’s growth in admiration.

“She’s much more bold,” DeSanctis said. “It’s a big role to carry for that show. She just worked hard and she confronted every artistic fear I think she had. It was such a joy opening night to watch her find herself grounded onstage, carrying that story, because I think it was a big moment in her acting career and for her as an artist.”

To prepare for the play, a sexual abuse survivor came to talk to the cast. Jamison did extensive research on coping with sexual abuse to help get her into character. Through that challenging role, she was able to gain even further confirmation in her decision to be an actress.

“The sexual abuse survivor talked to me after the show and she was like, you completely embodied how I was feeling,” said Jamison. “That was the realization that what we do as actors is so special because we can be storytellers and give light to human experiences and hopefully it leads to change. I’ve never really imagined doing any other job.”

Jamison hopes to take advantage of every opportunity as they come along, and have a long, successful career where she’s constantly doing work that fulfills her as an artist. She hopes to aid in breaking boundaries for minority women in the entertainment industry.

“I tell her, I just can’t wait to see her on the television,” DeSanctis says. “Because she just has a vision. She’s clear on what she wants and I’m sure it’s going to happen.”