Out of the shadows ... and into the spotlight

University actors Ethan Leaverton and Cameron Miller-DeSart to compete in the country's most prestigious acting competition at the Kennedy Center

4/12/2013 - By: John Trent
Actors Ethan Leaverton, left, and Cameron Miller-DeSart.

Actors, almost by definition of the craft, are always craving the spotlight, and the golden glow that accompanies the affirmation of a satisfied audience.

Or so you'd think until you meet two actors from the University of Nevada, Reno, who accomplished something memorable recently.

Yes, they performed at a notably high level - an individual acting level that had never been accomplished before in the history of the University - when they stepped into the spotlight of a regional acting festival.

But really, their success happened in the quiet of a corner, where the two would rush after drawing a tidal wave of roars and laughter and applause from their audience.

While other actors might want to bask in the adulation of an audience that was quickly falling in love with them, Ethan Leaverton and Cameron Miller-DeSart were more concerned with decompressing in the relative quiet of a corner somewhere.

"There's no denying it," Leaverton, 21, a senior theatre major from Spring Creek, Nev., said. "We were the kids in the corner."

"After each round," added Miller-DeSart, 23, a senior journalism major and theatre minor from Las Vegas, added, "we'd just slink off to the corner, thinking, 'We have no chance of advancing.' And then ... we would advance."

That they did. Leaverton and Miller-DeSart advanced farther than any duo of actors from the University ever had in the regional Irene Ryan Acting Competition, making it to the final round. Leaverton, as male actor, and Miller-DeSart, as his scene partner, were then chosen to participate in next week's national final at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The event will be April 16-20.

Their competition at the regional festival, which was held in March in Sacramento, included 255 other actors from universities in Alaska, northern California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.  The team of Leaverton and Miller-DeSart will join just seven other male actors and their scene partners for the national competition.

"We enter students every year, but we've never had (an acting duo) get this far," said Rob Gander, chair of the Theatre and Dance Department, and Leaverton and Miller-DeSart's mentor. Gander has taught at the University since 2007. Gander said each year students who choose to enter the Ryan Acting Competition give up an opportunity to appear in one of the department's major productions. "They have to give up a show here and a miss a great opportunity on our campus," Gander said. "I tell them very honestly. There are 255 people who are entered in the competition, and 253 won't be able to go on.

"It can be really hard to thread that needle."

Just getting beyond the first round was a stellar accomplishment, Gander said. Hearing that his students then made it past the second round was even better, he said. When Gander heard via email that Leaverton and Miller-DeSart had advanced all the way to the Kennedy Center final, the veteran theater professor said his reaction was, well, one of wonder.

"I was flabbergasted," Gander said with a smile, adding quickly that given Leaverton and Miller-DeSart's talent, intelligence, ability to stage effective scenes and work ethic, the accomplishment on second glance wasn't as surprising as it appeared.

"They showed people this amazing spectrum of abilities that they have," Gander said of the performance which included a dark, dramatic piece, a farcical piece and a Shakespearean sonnet that Leaverton delivered in an "original pronunciation" wording style that Leaverton had learned while working on a University-produced original pronunciation production of Hamlet in fall 2011.

Leaverton, during his performance as the lead in last year's production of "Dr. Faustus," had received some unexpected but key exposure. A Kennedy Center respondent had attended "Faustus" and invited Leaverton to compete in the Ryan Competition. Leaverton needed a scene partner, and without the slightest bit of hesitation chose Miller-DeSart.

The two had been in acting classes together at the University for nearly four years, and knew and respected each other's abilities.

"You'll see kids in some of the classes who don't seem to care about acting," said Miller-DeSart, who has been involved with acting since the sixth grade. "They perform, but you can tell it's not what they want to do. Whenever Ethan would get up there, it was clear that he took acting seriously, and that being a good actor was his goal. You could tell he had a lot of ambition. We sort of shared the same ambition."

Leaverton, who began acting during his junior year at Spring Creek High School near Elko, said he has always been "an outgoing kid." When he became involved with his high school productions, he said with a good-natured laugh, it gave him a chance "to be the center of attention."

That's why, given that he been at the front of several important productions on campus over the past few years, it was interesting that Leaverton actually found it comforting to rush off to a quiet corner with his friend to get away from the attention last month.

Gander said the "kids in the corner" moments were yet another example of the independence, intelligence and dramaturgical skill that both actors possess. Other schools had sent a gaggle of coaches and advisors along with their actors, who would then gather in serious huddles to evaluate the performance and suggest strategic improvements for the next round.

Leaverton and Miller-DeSart didn't have a similar luxury, which, Gander said, played to their strengths. He said that Leaverton and Miller-DeSart not only possess acting talent, but have several other intangibles that work to their advantage as actors. Leaverton, Gander said, "is smart, and is like a sponge in the classroom. Every time someone teaches Ethan something, he's eager to employ it. With Ethan, when you mention a theory to him, you can see the wheels turning and then he goes out and employs it on his feet." Miller-DeSart, Gander added, has many of the same attributes, and, perhaps just as importantly, has shown an unquestioned love of acting by agreeing to appear in a national production while minoring in the discipline. "We sent a kid with a minor in acting and here he is, on a national stage, doing this memorably great work," Gander said. "I'm really delighted for Cameron. He's an extraordinarily talented actor."

"I'm all the more proud of them because they did this on their own," Gander added. "What could be more perfect than to be an actor and to be independently making all those key decisions that they made with each succeeding round of the competition? They learned some very important things about themselves, because once they graduate from the University, they're going to have to go on their own to audition after audition after audition.

"It really was the perfect kind of preparation for both of them. They were on their own, yet they handled it all so well."

Both Leaverton and Miller-DeSart, though, were quick to credit Gander for his guidance and encouragement.

"Everything that Rob says," Miller-DeSart said, "is gold. Rob has done an amazing job of giving us the best foundational essentials you need to be an actor. He'll deny it, but it's true: Rob's been hugely influential."

Added Leaverton: "The festival rally showed all of us in the theater department that Rob is teaching all of us what it takes to be an actor on a fundamental basis. He even mentioned that our success has kind of showed him that what he's teaching is actually sticking. This whole experience has helped make me feel so much more confident. I feel I know now what it takes to act."

As they looked back on last March's festival, the two actors said that with the passing of each round, it was becoming more obvious that they were stealing the show.

"I don't remember a lot of the stuff that happened," Leaverton admitted. "We'd perform, and I would sort of black out until we had finished."

One judge, they found out later, was so caught up in their performance she had forgotten to take any meaningful notes. Timing also became a problem, as the audience began to laugh so hard during the farcical piece, the two actors would have to pause longer than they had planned before delivering key punch lines.

"To have to wait 45 seconds to say something while the audience continues to laugh ... that's the best problem an actor can ever have," Miller-DeSart said. "You could really feel the sense of anticipation, of electricity, that was in the audience when we were up there. It was like static shock from an electric balloon."

The three pieces consisted of a dramatic scene, "The Pillow Man," plus a humorous scene, "The Almost First Kiss," that Leaverton developed from Mocksides.com, where a boy-girl dating scene was modified by the actors to become a hilarious boy-boy dating debacle, as well as the Shakespearean monologue. Leaverton surprised the entire audience with the rarely heard 16th century "original pronunciation" dialect. OP is so rare in modern acting circles that only five OP Shakespeare productions have been held in the world since the 1950s, including the University's 2011 production of Hamlet.

"Probably the most difficult thing in the world when I talked to Rob originally about all this was that he said the competition's judges like to see something different ... something out left field," Leaverton explained. "So that's what we tried to do."

Both actors are looking at their upcoming trip to the Kennedy Center with excitement, with the hope that it will be a key career springboard. Both want to continue to pursue acting once they graduate (Leaverton will graduate in May; Miller-DeSart will graduate in December 2013).

"This is a competition that goes on your resume," Miller-DeSart said. "It sounds so naïve, and maybe call me starry-eyed about all this, but this is something that we are going to be talking about in 20 or 30 years and feeling very proud of what we've done."

Leaverton, who said he will always love theater, said he hopes to first pursue work in film. The same goes for Miller-DeSart.

But before then, two talented young actors will be heading off to Washington, D.C., to perform next week in one of the country's most venerable venues.

If the Kennedy Center has a few quiet corners at its disposal, the University's "kids in the corner" have a great chance of emerging, yet again, from the shadows into the national spotlight.


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