Bravo: The best college actors in America
Ethan Leaverton and acting partner Cameron Miller-DeSart capture the nation's top acting competition
It was mid-week, and Ethan Leaverton, like many students at the University of Nevada, Reno, used the warm April weather to run from campus to one of northern Nevada most scenic vantage points - the white "N" that for 100 years has stood sentry over the campus on the flanks of Peavine Peak.
Leaverton, after the final few steep feet of the climb, stopped at the top. He was out breath, not an uncommon feeling for the 21-year-old from Spring Creek, Nev., as the past few days had been breathless in their own way.
Leaverton looked out at the surrounding Truckee Meadows. And, for one of the few times over what has been an increasingly dizzying month of accomplishment, he thought for a moment what it had all meant.
Leaverton was not only at the top of N. He was also at the top of the collegiate acting world. Along with his acting partner Cameron Miller-Desart, Leaverton, on April 20 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was selected by a panel of 13 professional theatre adjudicators to receive the top prize at the Irene Ryan Acting Competition.
More than 2,000 students from across the nation competed to earn a spot in the 45th Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, and Leaverton and Miller-DeSart had topped entrants from schools such as USC, Arizona State and Stanford.
Leaverton received the $3,000 Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship. His three-part performance was also awarded two other wins: the Mark Twain Scholarship for Comic Performance ($2,000) and the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre Scholarship ($6,000).
"I could see all of Reno," Leaverton said of his run this week and the thoughts that accompanied it. "And all I could think about was that Cameron and I were chosen as the winners of the Ryan Acting Competition."
In some ways, the accomplishment is still sinking in.
"It didn't really get into my perspective until I heard someone else say it," said Leaverton, who chooses his words carefully and in person exudes a thoughtful, humble persona. Just as an example: Before a recent interview, he apologized for not being able do the interview promptly. His reason: He had committed to work beforehand. "When I heard someone else say, 'This means Ethan and Cameron are the best college actors in America, I had to take a step back and go, 'Whoa.'"
Leaverton and Miller-DeSart had come into the competition confident in their abilities. Their plan was simple.
"We told ourselves we were just going to leave it all out there," Leaverton, a senior theatre major who will graduate this month. "Leave it all out there ... and then walk away. And that's what we did. We left it all in the Kennedy Center."
The two felt an unusual calm moments before they were to perform, which, in retrospect, seemed to give them an advantage. Other performers seemed to be fussing in their preparation, and during rehearsals with their coaches seemed intent on re-doing rather than fine-tuning their presentations.
Other than a brief, low-key piece of advice from Rob Gander, chair of the University's Department of Theatre and Dance, the two knew exactly what kind of process they needed to follow in the moments before they hit the stage.
Gander's counsel was straightforward, and not overly technical. He told the actors to just project a bit more.
"If you're at the Super Bowl," said Miller-DeSart, 23, a journalism major and theatre minor from Las Vegas, "and you're trying to come up with new plays the day before, you're probably going to be in trouble. Our confidence stemmed from our preparation. We weren't messing around, we were serious, but it wasn't suffocating, either. We didn't want to kill what we were doing by overdoing it."
It was a remarkably subtle preparation, more about the confidence and trust the two had for each other. In many ways, they both agreed, they were in a rare zone as actors where there is no complication or over-thinking, a kind of confident calm where the performer knows, as Leaverton said, "That this is going to happen. So let's go do this."
"Where you're already done before you've even started," Miller-DeSart added.
Miller-DeSart, who was Leaverton's acting partner in the first two pieces of the performance, which included a dramatic scene, "The Pillow Man," plus a humorous scene, "The Almost First Kiss," said he stood stage right during Leaverton's final piece, a Shakespearean monologue delivered in the rarely heard "original pronunciation" style of old English.
He was impressed by the quality of his friend's performance.
"It was the best I'd ever seen Ethan do his monologue," Miller-DeSart said. "It was amazing."
Leaverton agreed that he felt the performance had fired on all cylinders. The comedy was received with the same kind of rollicking enthusiasm that was given during the Ryan regional competition in March in Sacramento. Someone later described it to them as "riotous laughter" in the audience. The dramatic piece also grabbed the audience. Leaverton's monologue, delivered in a performance tongue that is rarely heard and that he had learned as part of a groundbreaking "original pronunciation" production of "Hamlet" at the University in 2011, was simply the icing on a championship cake.
"I was like, 'Honestly, after the performance Ethan just gave, there is absolutely no way we didn't win,'" Miller-DeSart said.
Still, the championship didn't come without its awkward moments. Leaverton said he didn't hear his name called for his first award, the Mark Twain.
"When my name was called," Leaverton said with a sheepish grin, "everybody sort of looked to me."
After receiving the award, Leaverton was talking to Miller-DeSart when it became apparent that his named had been called again as the winner of Dell'Arte scholarship. Leaverton had to ask, "What did I just win?" to make sure he knew exactly what the award was.
When Leaverton's name was called a third time, for the competition's top prize, there was no denying what he had heard.
"Cameron picked me up and had to push me out there," Leaverton said. "It was unreal."
The award moved Leaverton to tears. He wasn't alone. In the audience, Gander and his wife, Melodie, who also works at the University in the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, were also caught up in the moment.
"I was emotionally transported; overwhelmed with resounding pride in Ethan's achievement," Gander said of his reaction. "I was also grateful for Cameron's excellent work and excited what Ethan's win would mean to theatre students back in Reno.
"Then my mind turned to my colleagues in Theatre and Dance who all had a hand in this success. I also felt deep gratitude to the School of Arts and the College of Liberal Arts who provided us with support that made the trip possible. It was quite a moment."
There was even a moment of University pride felt. Miller-DeSart's father, Bernie Miller, had surprised his son by traveling to Washington, D.C., to see the competition. When the championship was announced, Miller-DeSart's father yelled, in a clear and well-modulated voice that in its magnitude might've been felt all the way in northern Nevada, the words, "Wolf Pack!"
If Miller-DeSart's father's voice wasn't heard all the way to northern Nevada, the news still spread as quickly as a couple of furiously moving texting fingers. Leaverton texted his girlfriend, Ashley Gong, who was involved that evening with the opening night of the Theatre Department's latest production, "Hot L Baltimore." Gong couldn't contain herself regarding her boyfriend's accomplishment. The news was announced soon thereafter on the intercom of the Redfield Theater.
"My Facebook, and my phone, just blew up after that," Leaverton said.
The two actors were quick to credit Gander, their coach, mentor and friend, for his guidance, which informed their preparation and reminded them, throughout the process, that they were talented and deserving of the spotlight they had received.
"It's a direct reflection of what Rob does and it's confirmation that he's great at what he does," Miller-DeSart said. "He knows what he's doing. He's the one who gave us the tools that we used. And he's just so unassuming about it all. He knows what good is ... and his entire approach is he wants you to be good."
Said Gander: "The recognition Ethan received serves as a symbol of our program's status. Students like Ethan and Cameron come to us with talent and our rigorous training challenges them to expand on those abilities and refine them. When students apply the actor training we offer here, the results turn heads, even in Washington, D.C."
Now that the flurry of competition is over, both actors agreed that it's going to be next to impossible to ever re-create what has made the past month so special. They said they've learned much about each other, and that their partnership has brought forth new depth in their acting.
"It's been almost scorched into us," Miller DeSart said. "It's embedded now. It's an alloy now. Whether or not we'll be able to tap into again doesn't really matter, because all of our performances in the future will be better because of it."
Leaverton agreed: "I've been through some amazing acting experiences while I've been at the University, but nothing has compared to the level of confidence and connection that I shared with Cameron."
Gander said of the young actor's futures: "Their potential is unlimited. If they attack professional auditions or graduate school with the same methodical dedication they applied to this competition, they can't go wrong. They forged a process for success that will serve them well no matter what they pursue."
Leaverton added, too, with a happy shrug of his shoulders, that there was one part of the winning combination where he had actually gone against Gander's reliable advice. Originally, Gander had counseled Leaverton to pick an acting partner who, though skilled, was not so skilled as to outshine Leaverton, the lead actor. Leaverton, though, had been drawn to Miller-DeSart's strong talent. He considered Miller-DeSart's ability to be equal to his own.
To Leaverton, who at 21 is already an astute student of acting and live performance, the choice of his partner made perfect sense. What turned into what he described as "this very nice back-and-forth, this tennis match on stage" between the two actors was exactly why he had gravitated toward theatre in the first place.
"Why do people like to watch theater so much?" he asked. "It's so in the moment. And that's what Cameron and I had on stage."
Added Gander, who said the choice, ultimately, was a clear example of another lesson he tries to impart on his students, namely that as artists they need to trust their own choices: "I was pleased to see them apply the skills I teach. Ultimately, though, they made their own decisions - and not always the choices I'd have made. For me, that independence means I've done my job well."
And then there was the symmetry of the partnership. The two young men had known about each other for a while, but hadn't become friends and collaborators until they had a beer together at the Wolf Den a little more than a year ago.
Even before the competition had begun, the two already felt completely in sync, ready for anything that was yet to happen. The two got off their plane to Washington, D.C., got on the underground and ended up at one of D.C.'s better-known greasy spoons, the "Shake Shack."
In a lot of ways, they had already won the competition at that point.
"Because there's nothing better than getting a beer and burger with your best friend, and you're about to embark on this amazing journey," Miller-DeSart said.
"I keep thinking back to a year ago, and we barely even knew each other and we had a beer at the Wolf Den," Leaverton said. "And now we're here. It's something I'm never going to forget."