For the love of the stage
From the dorm room to the classroom, you meet countless people at university. For one Tiger, an early encounter with a performing arts professor transformed his educational experience and inspired him to follow his passion, creating new opportunities for him on campus and in the community. Now, as an alumnus, he gets ready to face students of his own, and he hopes to inspire the next generation of potential actors, writers, and even English teachers.
A Clemson journey begins
Andrew Whitley had aspirations of teaching, but the native of Anderson, South Carolina, wasn’t set on orange and purple right away. He explored several options, but after touring Clemson he made up his mind.
“My dad moved from New Jersey to attend Clemson in the ‘70s and had a great experience,” said Whitley. “Once I started considering my options, looked at Clemson and learned more about its strong academic rigor matched with incredible student life, my choice became clear. It was easy to find other schools with great academics or great campus life, but it was next to impossible to find both elsewhere.”
In 2013, Whitley came to Clemson with the goal of becoming an English teacher. When he registered for classes, he added a non-major performing arts course. Acting wasn’t unfamiliar to him – he began performing in the sixth grade. His love of the stage and making people laugh inspired him to enroll even though it wasn’t necessary for his double major in English and secondary education.
On the first day of class, Whitley headed to the Brooks Center and entered room 108. A mirrored wall hid behind draped red velvet theater curtains, mimicking the environment performing arts majors would become familiar with. Kerrie Seymour stood at the head of the class, her welcoming and enthusiastic presence drawing in wide-eyed students.
“One thing I loved about Kerrie from the start was that she was determined to see us grow as actors, regardless of our skill level. She genuinely cares about each of her students and their well-being, not just as an actor or a student, but as a person,” said Whitley. “Throughout the course, she also gave us insight into her personal career, allowing us to learn more about professional acting.”
Outside the classroom, Seymour is an established actress and director who regularly works with companies in the area, including Greenville’s Warehouse Theatre.
The Kerrie connection
Seymour never planned on teaching; she had dreams of acting and the Big Apple. As a Washington, D.C., resident Seymour was involved in acting, but began to realize she had a knack for helping other actors hone their craft. Several years later, she’s doing just that and the impact she’s had on the Upstate’s theater community is undeniable.
The Brook’s Center for Performing Arts’ managing director, Thomas Hudgins, ’09, and the director of operations and outreach, Sarah Edison, ’11, took classes with Seymour during their time as students.
“Kerrie was a huge influence. I learned a lot about what it means to be an artist from her class, and that turned out to be invaluable,” said Hudgins. “She is able to get the very best out of you. Kerrie just has an incredible gift.”
Edison’s first professional experience outside of Clemson was at the Warehouse Theatre by Seymour’s side.
“I remember feeling fortunate that someone was looking out for me during both of these experiences,” said Edison. “Acting is not my strength, but it helped me grow as a person and gain confidence throughout my time at Clemson. Much of that growth is due to working with Kerrie.”
While Seymour’s summer has been somewhat quiet – other than having the chance to meet fellow actor Donnie Wahlberg – she’s gearing up for a busy few months. This fall, you’ll be able to find her behind the scenes directing “The Cake” authored by “This is Us” writer Bekah Brustetter. It will be Seymour’s fourth production for the Warehouse Theatre. She’ll also direct “Godspell,” the Clemson Players’ first show of the season, then begin rehearsing for the role of Josie Hogan in the Warehouse Theatre’s upcoming production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”
After hearing about Seymour’s thespian projects beyond Clemson, Whitley was compelled to see a Warehouse production for himself – and his perception of local theater transformed completely.
“I auditioned for the [Warehouse Theatre’s] next season, but wasn’t cast in any shows. So I kept learning – from Kerrie and others – and refining my craft,” Whitley recalled.
Determined to improve, he continued taking performing arts classes and even contemplated adding it as a third major. Knowing the workload wasn’t a viable option he opted to make performing arts his minor and continued pursuing his passion.
“I was afforded opportunities by Clemson and the performing arts department that I thought were impossible as a student, much less a non-major,” he said. “The professional development Clemson provides through professors who work in the field and supporting opportunities to attend conferences, like the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and audition calls has been unreal.”
Whitley’s dedication paid off. Before the start of his senior year he auditioned for the Wharehouse Theatre again. This time, he was cast in both of its musicals for the 2016-17 season: “Urinetown” and “Spring Awakening”.
“We regularly cast students in our productions, and when possible, they design for us, too,” said Jason D. Johnson, Warehouse Theatre’s managing director.
Clemson’s connection to the theater is extensive. “[Faculty members] Shannon Robert, Tony Penna and Kendra Johnson design for us on a regular basis. Shannon, Kerrie Seymour and Rick St. Peter have directed in the past. Our current technical director, Jonathan Bull, and this past season’s master electrician, Wylder Cooper, are both Clemson graduates. The partnership that’s blossomed between us and the university has been beneficial all the way around.”
Just a few days after walking across the commencement stage in May 2016, Whitley reunited with Seymour on stage for the debut of “Spring Awakening.”
“Working with students, either current or former, in a professional setting is truly the biggest thrill,” said Seymour. “It is that moment when I have a front seat to watch one of ‘my kids’ fulfill their dream of being a professional artist. I recognize that even when we become colleagues on a production, students still tend to look to me for how to behave, how to work. So there is that added responsibility that goes beyond the classroom and I cherish and respect it.”
Beyond the stage
Whitley’s experience with the Warehouse Theatre wasn’t limited to the main stage; he also became involved with its Shakespeare Festival where he worked with Sterling School’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to create five-minute versions of “Twelfth Night.”
“The education program is so unique because it’s suited to the individual classroom or school it is serving. It’s not a generic or cookie-cutter and that’s wonderful,” said Whitley. “I love watching the kids and their creativity. As an actor and director, they give me so many great ideas.”
Other volunteers worked with Sterling students to create five-minute versions of “The Tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“For Drew, specifically, as an upcoming school teacher, these programs have been an early opportunity for him to start honing the craft of teaching,” said Johnson. “Moving from school to school or class to class, it gives our teaching artists an opportunity to experience children from all backgrounds, and the more you experience and learn, the better you become at helping others find meaningful experiences and educational opportunities.”
Whitley also taught and directed at several camps, including two this summer: the Anderson Five Arts Consortium in Anderson, South Carolina, and Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia.
This month, Whitley will return to the very same classrooms he sat in as a teenager. Going back to his roots at T.L. Hanna High School, he’ll stand at the head of class to welcome his own group of wide-eyed students.
“I’m excited to get back to Hanna for so many reasons,” said Whitley. “I can’t wait to call some of my favorite high school teachers colleagues. They made such an incredible impression on me and I can’t wait to learn from them, but now in a whole new way. I’m also just super excited to meet my students and learn along with them. I’ll be teaching ninth-graders and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Currently, there is no drama program at the school, even though there is one at the district level. Whitley’s vision is to create a competition theater troupe that will take shows to state, regional and national festivals.
The next generation
While everyone has their own journey, Whitley and Seymour are both a testament to those wanting to pursue performing arts as a career, major or even a minor.
“Don’t be afraid to take advantage of all that Clemson has to offer,” said Whitley. “And talk to your professors outside of class. I have learned so much from English, education and theater professors. They have so much experience – tap into that and soak it in!”
Clemson, like most performing arts programs, requires an audition. However, that’s about the only thing that is similar, said Seymour.
“We are the only one doing this major in this particular way. Regardless of what you want to pursue in the theater world, we can train you to do that while also offering you a broad base of theatrical knowledge that will only make you better at your chosen craft.”