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SpeakEasy, Boston Conservatory partner to give students theatrical experience

Stephanie Umoh and Andrew Durand appeared in SpeakEasy's 2007 production of "Zanna, Don't!" while studying at the conservatory.
Stephanie Umoh and Andrew Durand appeared in SpeakEasy's 2007 production of "Zanna, Don't!" while studying at the conservatory.Mike Lovett

When Boston Conservatory graduate student Dwayne P. Mitchell walked into his first rehearsal for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Choir Boy,” he never saw the script or the music for the show. Instead, music director David Coleman had the actors sing songs that spoke to the Black community.

“We just enjoyed what it felt like to sing together as brothers and as people who want to tell this story,” says Mitchell, who played David Heard in the coming-of-age play set at a prep school for boys. “Once we started learning the music, we sang with that same feeling.”

Besides Mitchell, “Choir Boy” featured three other Boston Conservatory students, a recent example of the connection between SpeakEasy and the school in which dozens of students, faculty, and alumni have contributed to its productions over the years. Starting in the spring, the conservatory will officially partner with SpeakEasy to give more students opportunities like Mitchell’s while they also earn academic credit.

Scott Edmiston serves as the dean of theater at Boston Conservatory at Berklee and facilitated the partnership with SpeakEasy, where he has directed 13 shows. He says the mission of SpeakEasy aligned with what the conservatory promotes in its curriculum: an emphasis on musical theater, putting on contemporary plays, and promoting diversity and inclusion in the stories it tells.

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“I thought it would make good sense to solidify that relationship and recognize that we have been working together in a lot of different ways and to enhance the benefits to both institutions,” Edmiston says. “It gives us an official professional partnership and it gives them an official educational partnership.”

SpeakEasy will encourage students to audition for shows and also provide opportunities for them to work behind-the-scenes or in administrative roles. Edmiston also said the partnership will allow for more collaboration between the two institutions to ensure the students are getting the most out of the experience educationally.

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Paul Daigneault is the producing artistic director for SpeakEasy and a professor at Boston Conservatory. He has worked with a number of his own students at the company, and he hopes the partnership will further what they’re being taught in the classroom.

“The opportunity to audition for a role in a professional setting is important because that’s what they’re being trained to do,” Daigneault says. “We have a high level of work ethic and expectations for punctuality and preparation. While we stress that at school, to actually practice it is a whole other thing.”

Students who work with SpeakEasy through the partnership can earn academic credit and will be compensated by the theater. The conservatory also is aiming to establish internship and fellowship programs through SpeakEasy.

Laura Marie Duncan graduated from Boston Conservatory in 1994 and went on to have a career as a casting director and Broadway performer, appearing in shows such as “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Billy Elliot.” After Duncan graduated, she did not feel ready to act professionally without any experience, so she turned to casting first.

“When I graduated, I remember feeling like I knew how to interpret a song and I had a lot of skills but I didn’t really know how to translate them to the real world,” she says. “I really needed a lot of real-world experience before I could go back into performing.”

Contrary to Duncan’s experience, Stephanie Umoh appeared in two SpeakEasy productions while attending Boston Conservatory. The 2008 graduate went on to perform on Broadway within months of leaving the school; she is currently playing Angelica Schuyler in the touring production of “Hamilton.” She says her time spent performing professionally as a student prepared her for those endeavors.

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“There’s certain things you just can’t learn in class,” Umoh says. “The skills I learned during that time are skills I still use today — having to balance all aspects of your life while still giving 100 percent in a performance setting. These students will learn that is how it works as an artist in New York City. Sometimes you’re doing five or 10 things at once, and what I learned is I can do it.”

Duncan returned to the conservatory three years ago to teach budding performers while also appearing in SpeakEasy’s 2018-19 production of “Fun Home” as Helen Bechdel. She compared her experience with the company to her work on off-Broadway shows, where the environment is welcoming to performers.

Laura Marie Duncan, a Boston Conservatory graduate who now teaches at the college, appeared in SpeakEasy's 2018-19 production of "Fun Home."
Laura Marie Duncan, a Boston Conservatory graduate who now teaches at the college, appeared in SpeakEasy's 2018-19 production of "Fun Home." Nile Scott (custom credit)/Nile Scott

The partnership between the school and the theater company will officially launch in May with the opening of SpeakEasy’s “Bright Star,” a musical from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell directed by Daigneault and starring Duncan. Two students from the conservatory will appear alongside Duncan in the show.