“I stumbled into an audition my freshman year of high school after football practice,” Alex Wendel said.
Eight years later, he’s triumphantly exiting the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) with a major award in hand. When Wendel was nominated to enter the Irene Ryan portion of the KCACTF last year, he immediately approached Gerrit Wilford and chose him as his acting partner.
The Irene Ryan contestants, approximately 310 from the region, present three different acting scenes. For Wendel and Wilford, these three pieces were “Cover” by Jeffrey Sweet, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” by William Shakespeare and a monologue called “Anna Christie” by Eugene O’Neill.
In round one, the main contestant and his or her partner perform a three-minute scene of their choice. If the actors proceed to round two, which also involves a partner, they present their original scene along with an additional two minute piece. In the final round, a solo monologue accompanies the first two performances.
From the 310 contestants in the first round, 64 move on to the semi-finals, and 16 proceed to the final round. Two pairs finally advance to the national festival in Washington, D.C.
Theater festivals and awards tend to be subjective, so theater directors and actors choose their pieces carefully. Often actors choose pieces with a large shock factor — racy, drug-related, controversial, etc. Wendel and Wilford, however, simply chose pieces they liked.
“I knew I could do something with integrity without having to sell out to that ideal [of shock value],” Wendel said.
As they rehearsed, he questioned his decision, and wondered if they would even be noticed. But clearly something in his approach clicked with the judges.
Professor Karen Barker, Wendel’s coach, attributes their success not only to their acting abilities and choice of performances but also to their ease on stage together. Wendel and Wilford have a similar acting style and are comfortable in their friendship. They never fear failing around each other. In theater, performing with another individual requires a huge amount of trust. If one person misses a line, he or she needs to trust the other to pick it up without missing a beat. The pair have developed an ease that comes from being confident in their performance and abilities despite the opinions of others.
“I’m not going to necessarily please everyone,” Wendel said. “I may not be specifically what they’re looking for. Every casting director or judge is looking for something, and if you don’t have that, you won’t get the role.”
However, the opinions of others can be very useful when looking at graduate schools. Both actors were approached by various graduate-school recruiters and said they are open to the idea of attending. Wendel said he hopes to continue his theater involvement, whether that is through professional acting, teaching at a collegiate level or directing at high schools. For Wendel, “working with other people and giving them ideas” makes theater enjoyable. He would like others to have the same positive acting experience he has found here at NW.
The duo returned from the week at KCACTF with three of the four top acting awards in hand. Wendel won both the overall Irene Ryan and the Classical Acting Award, and Wilford received Best Partner. Both said they felt the awards they received were affirmations of their abilities, but throughout the week, they chose to remember that this festival wouldn’t make or break their careers. In the end, they followed the wise words of Karen Barker: “Love each other, love the script, and have fun.”