“Looking For What’s Unique”: Victoria Huston-Elem, graduate of Syracuse University

In this series of posts, I’m taking a look at musical theater BFA programs: having conversations not only with faculty, but also with graduates of a wide range of schools. I wanted to talk to actors who have stood out to me when we’ve worked together, and find out their thoughts on training for the theater.

Victoria Huston-Elem is an actor that we bring in frequently for the readings at the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU (where I’m on the faculty and also do casting.) She is a dream actor from a writer’s perspective: she has wit, intelligence, innate musicality, emotional nuance in performance, embraces new work, and is always specific in her choices. And her voice is glorious.

She has toured nationally with The Addams Family, has appeared in a number of productions with Prospect Theater Company, and has blown the walls off 54 Below in her cabaret appearances there. She will next be seen as Fantine in Les Misérables at the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma. Ms. Huston-Elem attended Syracuse University.

Rob Hartmann: Looking back, what stands out to you about your experience in college?

Victoria Huston-Elem performs at the 2010 Kleban Awards (Photo: Genevieve Rafter Keddy)

Victoria Huston-Elem performs at the 2010 Kleban Awards (Photo: Genevieve Rafter Keddy)

Victoria Huston-Elem: I wish that I had done fewer shows and taken more classes. If it had been possible, I should have done it. When you’re there, all you want to do is perform. You want to be in the shows. And yes, it’s a good place to do shows if you haven’t had any experience, and yes, it’s a good time to learn about Equity break schedules and how professional shows are run. But the classes are so important, because that’s really where you keep trying, even as you fail. There’s always a safety net in a class.

I took a mask class with Professor Craig MacDonald, who was the Meisner teacher. So of course all of his classes were gut-reaction based. For mask class, he made all these neoprene masks — we’d come in, and they’d all be scattered in front of the mirror. You’d put your back to the mirror, and pick up a mask and put it on. And then you’d jump and face the mirror, and you’d do the first sound and movement that came to you when you were looking at your reflection in that mask. And you’d build a character from the outside in.

I had always been afraid to go first in class. But if there were ever a class to go first in, it was this one. This is the one where you just jump off the ledge. That has informed a lot of my acting choices since then. Just jump off the ledge. Just try it.

RH: Was there a particular guiding philosophy there?

VH: Syracuse prided themselves in giving both their acting and musical theater students the same acting education. Even my dance classes were informed by acting choices. I don’t want to pass judgment on any other school — but there are colleges where you go because you are a certain type. And you know if you go there, you’re going to be primo dancer boy when you come out, or you’re going to be marketable leading lady. They show you how to make yourself marketable.

Whereas I think at Syracuse, looking at the people that they accepted and the training that I got — they’re looking for what’s unique. They take people who have something interesting about them — “Maybe we don’t know how that’s going to be marketed, maybe we don’t know what it is at all, but why not give it a try.”

It was very much based in acting choices. Making strong acting choices in whatever you’re doing. And that sounds a little cliché – strong acting choices! (laughs) In dance class, when we would put together combinations, they would say things like, “When you’re doing that turn, why are you doing that turn? What are you thinking? What is that character doing?” It informs everything you do.

I mean, people forget that when you go to a dance audition. Like, when I go to a movement call, people can get very “deer in the headlights” — especially people like me who are not big dancers. You just want them to like you. You just want them to think that you can do it. And you forget that they’re looking for someone who is real. They can teach you a combination, but can you fill it? Can you make it real? Make it believable? I think that’s the only reason that I booked Addams Family. I was the swing on that tour – can you believe that? Me, with my “moderate dance abilities.” (laughs) I was swinging dancer tracks. Because I showed enough personality that I wouldn’t get out there and be a dancing blob.

There are 18,000 women out there who can sing pretty. Everybody’s got a pretty voice — but when you go see a show, you want somebody to move you. Like, Audra McDonald has a beautiful voice, but that’s not why I think she’s a genius. Because she’s giving you the acting equivalent of the Super Bowl, every time. That’s what I want to strive for.

RH: I think that approach is part of what makes you so valuable to new writers. You bring in such a specific point of view.

VH: Aren’t we lucky that when we sing, you know, it’s never really a “solo” — there’s always music underneath you. It’s a duet — you and the music. There’s always something informing what you’re thinking and doing.

I’ve done readings at NYU with very difficult music. But it’s informative music. There’s a reason that it’s written that way. The writers are taking their risks, just like when I was in acting class and fell on my face. But there’s reason and thought that went into it. It’s our job as an actor to look at the music and say, okay, this is a weird note that I’m having trouble finding, but what is the purpose of it? What about it is intriguing? That’s what’s fun.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Victoria performs “Baltimore” by Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich at 54 Below. 

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