If an outline of my college career was written on a sheet of paper before this semester, you would read that I hail from the suburbs of Chicago, that I am a junior, that I am in a sorority, that I am an English major at Cornell. Maybe in a footnote you would learn that my time is split between theatre, Olin Library and its caffeine supply, and the friends who have become a patchwork family.
I had figured the next page of my life, studying abroad, would follow a similar suit. It was a shock, and a relief, to be so absolutely wrong.
A Twist of Fate
Initially, I was going to study English at University College of London. It certainly would have fulfilled my graduation requirements, and I would have had plenty of time in my schedule to prance around Europe on weekends. In a last-minute decision, I auditioned for the little-known London Dramatic Academy, an acting conservatory program through Fordham University. To my surprise, I was accepted.
I was among 21 students from across the states—in class Monday through Friday, varying from eight- to nine-hour school days—who studied all aspects of theatre in the heart of Shakespeare’s stomping grounds.
My classrooms lacked desks. I traded my graphing calculator for dance shoes, scripts, and corsets. Many of my professors had been or were in shows on the West End, which is like the Broadway of London.
Classes I had never dreamed of taking—private audition sessions with an opera director, Alexander technique, dialect, period dance, and stage combat—suddenly consumed my schedule. In addition to the heavy course load, our two main classes, Acting and Shakespeare, we put on showcases at the end of the semester.
Shakespeare, Acting, Masterclasses, and Shows
For Acting, a scene study class, we performed the last two acts of Summerfolk by the late nineteenth-century Russian playwright Maxim Gorky. For Shakespeare, my class was divided into segments from Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well, in which we delved into hefty monologues and were cast in scenes.
Even as an English major, I can say that I have never learned more about Shakespeare than at the London Dramatic Academy. There is no way one can say a line from his work without truly knowing the context and purpose behind each word. We poured over speeches for hours, dissecting layers of subtle context. I never realized how brilliant his language was until I had to become one of his characters in the program.
I traded my graphing calculator for dance shoes, scripts, and corsets.
In addition to classes, each week we saw a professional show, whether it was a traditional ballet like Giselle on the West End, experimental modernist theatre on the fringes of London, or a six-hour performance (in Dutch) of all three of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies. Going to shows each week gave me an understanding of the culture in London, as we traveled all over the city to see each show and as each performance drew a different audience.
Master classes were also held periodically throughout the semester, where professionals such as agents, writers, and working actors talked to us about their experiences in show business.
A Humanities Lab Experience
I like to think of my time studying abroad as my own version of lab research. In the same way my friends in the sciences work with professors, I was able to glean hands-on experience by working on the craft with professional actors. Also, I was able to enrich my knowledge of the theatre business through hearing about their career paths.
I am not saying that students in the humanities need to study abroad in order to conduct research—an English major could work with a Cornell professor who is writing a book, for example. I am suggesting that it is an academically fulfilling alternative.
One of the most important aspects of my study abroad experience was the bond that I made with my fellow students. I figured that spending every day with the same people would become boring—or worse, tense—given the emotional environment that is theatre life.
I experienced the opposite. Whether we were in the rehearsal room at our shared courtyard in West Kensington or flying across Europe for a spontaneous weekend trip, I could not have asked for a better group of actors and friends to learn from and look up to.
Studying abroad, oddly enough, also made me appreciate the life I had built at Cornell. While I didn’t miss the bleary-eyed delirium of prelim season, I felt nostalgic about things such as CTB with friends after class, sunsets at Libe Slope, and walking around the gorges.
Being in London helped me realize that Cornellians share a unique understanding with each other. I would never have come to this realization about my connection to Cornell, before graduation, if I had not studied abroad. I am grateful that I will be able to spend my senior year with this newfound appreciation.