Fresno State theater students compete on big stage -- Kennedy Center

WASHINGTON -- For now, on this pleasantly warm Thursday evening in the nation's capital, the stage is Room 718 at the Marriott Courtyard Embassy Road hotel.

Friday night, the venue will be a little grander: the cavernous stage of the Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center.

Ryan Woods, a Fresno State theater major, looks at Taylor Abels, a recent graduate, with disdain. His character is in prison on murder charges. She plays his lawyer. She's brought him food. He doesn't like the menu.

"You didn't bring no deviled eggs?" Woods grunts sarcastically.

The scene is from a show titled "Jesus Hopped the A Train" by Stephen Guirgis, and it's part of Woods' "package" that he will perform in Friday night's Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

The festival culminates in the finals of the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships, which pit 16 finalists, two each from the nation's eight regions, against each other for two top prizes.

Fresno State's theater department has been well represented over the years at the national finals. Before this year, with theater professor Brad Myers as acting coach, six students in the past 25 years have attended.

But this year is special. Out of 300 students in the western region competing, Fresno State nabbed both top awards, with the honors going to Woods and Myles Bullock. It's quite rare for one university to send two students to the Kennedy Center. (Theater powerhouse Cal State Fullerton managed the feat a few years ago.) But Fresno State went the unprecedented step of winning the two finalist positions, plus the alternate spot, which went to Daniel Rodriguez, who also won the region' s top classical acting award. It was a clean sweep of all four of the region's acting awards.

Myers is obviously doing something right.

Now Woods and Bullock, along with their scene partners, Abels and Molly Kelly, will face the judges Friday night in an exercise that feels like part audition, part opening night. The two winners each will receive a $3,000 scholarship. A number of other prizes will be awarded as well, with both the Irene Ryan finalists and their scene partners eligible.

There's yet another Fresno face in the mix: Mohammad Shehata, a Fresno City College student who won a place in the criticism workshop. He's been attending plays and workshops, writing reviews and getting very little sleep as he competes against other regional finalists.

Woods, a junior who first started acting at Clovis West High School, and Bullock, a senior from Los Angeles who didn't get bitten by the acting bug until he got to Fresno, have been friends since they met while in the cast of the Fresno State production of "A Soldier's Play."

Before the February regional finals in Los Angeles, the pair knew there was a chance they could both go to the Kennedy Center, but it seemed pretty small given the numbers.

"We talked about it," Bullock says, "and I said, 'Look, man, we're friends. Why can't we both do it?' "

Friendly competition

When Fresno State competes in an intercollegiate athletic event, one thing matters at the end of the day: the final score. Go Bulldogs and all that. Whether you get cerebral about it and trace the frenzy of fandom to the age-old tribalism of geography and heritage -- or just grunt about how great it feels to stomp an opponent -- the very nature of sports pumps up people's passions.

But can acting -- or any other art form -- really be turned into a contest complete with cheering fans and school spirit?

Gregg Henry, the artistic director of the festival, is adamant that the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarships are not a competition. The finals of the nation's most prestigious adjudicated acting exercise are more a collegial encounter -- a celebration of talent -- in which the 16 finalists come together in camaraderie-building exercises, he says.

Matthew McGee, a Fresno State graduate who competed in 2011 at the Kennedy Center, is in this camp.

"To be honest, I recall nothing but camaraderie and support from the other finalists," he says. "I think the workshops and classes helped build that up between everyone."

But two people will win the Irene Ryans. And 14 won't.

"Of course it's a competition," Myers says. (If one were to include stage directions describing the way he delivers the line, they would specify a degree of obviousness that falls into sun-rises-in-the-east territory.)

After the regional finals, when Fresno State swept such schools as USC, Stanford, Arizona State, Fullerton and Brigham Young, Myers returned to his hotel that night to hear rival students on a nearby balcony expressing loud and explicit anti-Fresno sentiments.

"I was going to go outside and introduce myself, but I decided against it," he says wryly.

The atmosphere will likely be much more upscale and polite at the Kennedy Center finals than at the tension-filled regionals, but even with all the goodwill going around, there still will be a crisp competitive undercurrent.

"I don't like to be disappointed," says Bullock, whose elation at the regionals when he won a trip to the finals was matched by his relief at not being named the alternate for the second year in a row. ("Definitely not alternate," he says with a shudder. "I would rather have had zero.")

Woods might not seem as bluntly competitive as Bullock, but he can power-on the confidence as well.

For Myers, whose prowess as an acting coach has only grown as he has prepped students over the years, acting and athletics do share some similarities. In team sports, players have to compete against each other to make a team. Once they do, however, they have to pull together with the other players for the greater good of the team. Likewise, actors often face bruising competition to get a role. Once they're in a show, they have to think of the good of the overall production.

"It takes a special skill set to be able to navigate the two -- to know when you need to have the competitive claws out and when you have to put that aside," Myers says.

One of his former students, Jennifer Hasty, turned her 1993 experience as an Irene Ryan finalist into a key building block of an impressive acting career.

"I still have it on my résumé, and I don't plan on taking it off," says the Los Angeles-based actress, known for recurring roles on the TV series "True Blood," "Bunheads" and "Raising Hope." (She also played the "creepy doll lady" on an episode of "Criminal Minds," a role that fans of the series seemed to relish.) "It opened doors for me."

She still remembers Myers teaching her to "plant yourself" as if she owned a stage, no matter how large or small. ("Pretty much everything I know as an actor started with him.") That helped when she walked out onto the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre stage to perform a scene from Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls." She also remembers a wardrobe malfunction -- her skirt flew open as she moved across the stage -- that was horrific at the time but now makes a good story.

Hasty (known to Fresno State classmates by her maiden name, McGoldrick) went to the Kennedy Center as a sophomore. The next year, she was disqualified at the regionals for going over the allotted time for her package, earning her the nickname "9 Seconds." But though she didn't get to go back to D.C., the lessons learned there stuck with her -- especially when it comes to auditions.

"The name of the game is competition, but there's never any reason or excuse to be catty," she says. "I compete against my friends all the time for roles. That's what the business is all about. But you also end up rooting for each other."

Art of acting

How do you fit more than 30 actors into a small rehearsal hall at the Kennedy Center? Very carefully. It's Thursday afternoon, and renowned acting teacher Kari Margolis, known for her dynamic physical approach to theater, is leading a workshop for the Irene Ryan finalists and their scene partners.

Acting isn't about putting a cardboard cut-out of a character on stage, she tells the students. Acting has volume. There's an outside to any character, but there's also an inside. That's how you can play someone who's laughing on the outside and crying on the inside.

Bullock, Woods, Abels and Kelly stand, their feet planted apart, arms thrust toward the ceiling, and join in a breathing exercise. The idea is to take in a breath and trace its path through the body, then follow it on its return journey. They repeat in sing-song:

"My head has it, now my chest has it, now my waist has it, now my pelvis has it, now I've lost it. My pelvis has it, now my waist has it, now my chest has it, now my head has it, now it's gone."

The interesting thing is that even crammed as they are in this square room adorned with boring white sound tiles, the actors -- dressed in the sweaty, nondescript T-shirts, shorts, halter tops and tights that make up the universal uniform of rehearsal -- somehow seem to fill the room in a way they weren't just a few minutes before. They have increased in stature, it seems. They've added volume.

Both Woods and Bullock have worked or months on their "packages" for Friday night's competition. Deciding what scenes and monologue to perform, and how to position them with meaningful transitions, is key to a successful showing.

That's where Myers' experience as acting coach comes in. He knows what goes over well with judges.

"Pretty much everything I know as an actor started with him," says Hasty, the "True Blood" actor. "I've worked with a lot of great directors in my time, and I still consider Brad to be in the top five."

Bullock will start with a monologue from Phillip Hayes Dean's "The Sty of the Blind Pig," which Fresno State presented in November. (In a cunning move, Myers is bucking standard convention at the festival by having Bullock present his monologue at the beginning instead of at the end of his package.) He follows that with two scenes with Kelly, one from Shakespeare's "Othello," the other from Stephen Guergis' "The Mother... with the Hat."

Woods will follow a more traditional order: scenes with Abels from Guergis' "Jesus Hopped the A Train" and N. Richard Nash's "The Rainmaker," followed by an "Othello" monologue.

Meanwhile, Shehata's critical writing event involves not one crucial public performance, but rather a series of late-night encounters with his laptop in his hotel room. After seeing a new play titled "Andy and the Shadows" Wednesday night, he stayed up until 2:30 a.m. cranking out his review. (He didn't much care for the show, which went against the general consensus of the other six regional finalists.) Then he bolted upright at 6 to tweak it.

"Not a lot of sleep," he says.

But Shehata, who caught the acting bug in the fifth grade and went on to pursue theater at Clovis West High, won't miss the Irene Ryan finals Friday night, no matter how tired he is.

Neither will Myers, of course, who will be in the audience cheering on Woods and Bullock.

He thinks Fresno State has a good chance.

"I think these are two of the strongest packages we've ever had come from the department," he says.

After Woods and Bullock learned at the regional competition they were both going to D.C., another happy realization sunk in: Two Irene Ryan scholarship winners will be named. Conceivably, the two friends could repeat the same results. As Bullock scoots out of his hotel room to let Woods and Abels rehearse their scene about the deviled eggs, he dares raise the possibility of a Fresno State sweep.

"I don't see why that couldn't happen," Bullock says. "That would be pretty tight."