UA graduate student makes history

By: Heather Beyer

“Think about theatre in the most concentrated form and that’s what you get,” said UA theatre instructor Aubrey Caldwell about the festival.

“I would have to say I was living vicariously through the students because I am still an actress, I still preform,” Caldwell said. “It is not only what I teach; it is what I do and what I love. I was getting so excited watching [the candidates] in their element because it is also an element that I share with them.”

Browning was among seven UA students chosen to audition during the festival for the Irene Ryan Scholarship. The Irene Ryan Foundation awards scholarships to outstanding student performers annually at every regional American College Theatre Festival (ACTF). There were 211 actors nominated for the scholarship from Region II.

Browning’s accomplishment was no small feat. ACTF cut those competing for the scholarship from 211 to 32 actors in the preliminary rounds. Actors had three minutes to perform their scene in front of the judges. The next phase was the semifinals.

“I actually didn’t learn my first scene until the day before we left to go down there because we were rehearsing for ‘Tammy Faye,’” Browning said. “Then I didn’t even memorize or learn the second scene because I didn’t think I was going to go on to semifinals. I didn’t think I would make it.

Sixteen of the 32 actors were selected to advance to finals. Browning was one of them. In the finals, actors were allotted six minutes to perform two scenes and a monologue or song.

“Everyone said that getting into the semifinals was the hardest part,” Browning said.
In the semifinals, the actors had five minutes to perform two scenes for the judges.

Once Browning arrived at ACTF she worked with part time UA theatre instructor Aubrey Caldwell and her acting partner Alex Garrard.

“Jennifer was a breath of fresh air,” Caldwell said. “Her personality is like a beacon of light. Everyone is drawn to her. What is really funny about Jennifer is that she is so wickedly talented that she doesn’t even know it,” she said.

Browning spoke in high regard of Caldwell for her success at ACTF.

“Aubrey was absolutely the reason that I went that far,” Browning said. “She is the greatest gift to that theater program.”

Caldwell coached Browning through the rigorous process of ACTF. She was a constant support to her.

“Those final judges…were like the crème de la crème of directors,” Browning said. “Everything out of their mouth just tasted like brilliance. They were calling out things on other people that Aubrey had picked out of our scene the morning before I did finals.”

Garrard and Browning had the mindset that they had nothing to lose at ACTF and gave it their all when performing for the judges. After performing the semifinal competition, Browning performed in a one-hour version of “The Gospel According to Tammy Faye” directed by UA’s Dr. Susan Speers.

After the conclusion of the performance of “The Gospel According to Tammy Faye,” one of the actors, Caorl Eustey, received a voicemail stating that Browning made it to semifinals.

“I almost didn’t answer but there was a voice in my head saying you know who that is,” explained Browning.

According to Browning, the person on the phone actually asked for Eustey first. When she stated that she wasn’t her, the caller asked her for her name, and said, “Oh no Jennifer, you are who I want. You made it to finals.”

“I found out later when I made it to finals that I said, ‘Shut the front door,’” Browning said. After the shock wore off Browning realized that she had to learn another scene.

The day of semifinals, pressure was on and Browning was under tremendous stress.

“She was taken out of her comfort zone,” Caldwell explained. “This was not something she was familiar with. Right before she was about to go on, I let her have her moment. I told her ‘you can do this for five minutes and then you are done,” Caldwell said

“Whether she wants to believe this or not she is of professional quality and the adjudicators let her know. They told her, ‘Jenny, if you wanted to go out and work in this field tomorrow, you would be working tomorrow,’” she said.

The judges had no idea that Browning was not a theater major. According to Caldwell, it wasn’t until she was adjudicated for the final round that they asked her if she was going to be graduating this spring and going into the workforce.

“And Jenny begins to say, ‘Well actually I am a grad student for counseling,’ It was at this point that I wanted to run and scream and cover her mouth. Then I realize, Jenny always tells the truth, which is why she is such a good actor,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell, along with the other UA faculty and students, was on the edge of her seat. She knew Browning could win the Irene Ryan Scholarship, but was afraid that her being a non-major would be the only deterrent from winning the entire completion.

“If I was going to win, I was going to do it honestly,” Browning said.

Later that evening, Browning won the alternate award at the festival, meaning if one of the two finalists has to drop out for any reason, she will advance to nationals in Washington, D.C.

“When they announced Jenny’s name at ACTF there was a roar of applause and cheering from all the UA students and faculty,” said Kendra Strickland, a UA costume production assistant and head of wardrobe.

“I was ecstatic! I told Jenny if she get the call to go to Nationals, I am going with her,” Alex Funk said, who performed in “The Gospel According to Tammy Faye” and also in “The Great God Brown” at the festival.