From SUNY To Tonys: How Purchase College Preps Its Students For The Professional World
Inside the local programs that are making stars on Broadway.
Emma Pfaeffle, a graduate of the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance, is currently performing on Broadway in the cast of Finding Neverland.
Photos courtesy of Purchase College, State University of New York
With the Tony Awards this Sunday, June 7, aspiring performing artists across the nation might be wondering just how to make it to Broadway. For one nominee this year, the journey started right here at one of Westchester’s—and the country’s—top performing arts programs.
SUNY Purchase’s performing arts programs have been recognized as some of the most prestigious in the country by publications like The New York Times and US News & World Report, and have produced a number of famous alums like Stanley Tucci, Edie Falco (a 2011 Tony nominee), Jay O. Sanders, and Parker Posey. With intense, conservatory-like training, Purchase’s School of the Arts offers its students a rigorous preparation for the professional world. The Conservatories of Dance, Music, and Theater Arts have some of the most experienced professors in the industry. With these resources, students are eventually prepared for one of the greatest stages in the performing arts world: Broadway.
Currently, Purchase has at least two recent acting alums and three recent dance alums performing on Broadway, including Micah Stock, who has been nominated for a Tony Award this year for his performance in It’s Only a Play. There are also 18 theater design graduates who are working on Broadway shows like Aladdin, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked.
Two other recent graduates, Mary Page Nance and Emma Pfaeffle, who are currently on Broadway’s Finding Neverland, emphasized how crucial their training at Purchase was in the development of their talents and skills as artists. Nance said during the start of her time at Purchase, she felt inferior to her colleagues. But those feelings faded over time as she mastered her talents. And at the end of her time at Purchase, she even won the President’s Award for Dance.
“The structure and intensity of the program made me work harder than I’d ever worked, which, in turn, projected my growth into turbo speed. The immersive approach to our arts education was vital in order to be the best at what we do. Other schools don’t offer that much concentration,” she said.
Pfaeffle explained how she learned an unbelievably important skill at Purchase—patience. “I am mentally and physically prepared for any sort of tedious process. I feel like I can now morph into any choreographer or director’s world of creation, and adapt to their style, their journey, their way. The art of discipline and commitment to a process, on Broadway, is essential,” she said.
The departments’ directors and professors contacted by Westchester Magazine all agreed that the intense training at Purchase resembles what graduates will face in the professional world. The goal is to ensure the student will be able to adapt to any project, any workload, and any director, they said.
Nelly van Bommel, the assistant director of dance at Purchase, said that with such rigorous and intense training, the students “are stylistically versatile and able to pick up any kind of material.” Van Bommel said it was this “ability to adapt quickly and openness to explore any type of professional environment” that would eventually lead to the graduates’ successes. Daniel Hanessian, an associate professor of theater design/technology at Purchase, also said students should be completely fine when beginning new projects post graduation. “We understand reality and prepare our students for it as well, or better, than any program out there. When a student comes out of our program, they are ready for what the professional world is going to throw at them, so they know how to handle it. It’s not the first time for them,” he said.
Purchase also makes an effort to connect its students to groups of professionals. Each department allows graduating seniors to present their talents—whether through showcases, as with the theater and dance departments, or through portfolio showings, as with the technical theater department.
“As important as making those personal connections with agents, cast directors, and others is for our students, equally crucial are the professional presentation skills that also become part of their training,” said Gregory Taylor, director of theater arts at Purchase.