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CSUF Actor Upbeat Despite Losing at College Fest

April 20, 1993|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Two performers from large Midwestern universities won the 1993 national Irene Ryan Awards competition for best college actors Sunday night at the opening of the 25th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

Maria Santucci, a 22-year-old senior from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., won for a scene from "The Author's Voice," a contemporary comedy by Richard Greenberg, and a monologue from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra."

David Bryan Woodside, a 23-year-old graduate student from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, won for a scene from "The Meeting," a contemporary drama about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Jeff Stetson, and a monologue from "Volpone" by Ben Jonson.

The pair of $2,500 prizes, decided at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in a stellar competition before a packed house of more than 400, is the festival's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in college football.

A field of 16 candidates, including Cal State Fullerton graduate student James Gray, vied for the honors. All had been selected as regional winners earlier this year in eight separate competitions from an initial pool of 400 actors on campuses nationwide.

As the jury of 15 or so theater professionals began deliberating, Kennedy Center Chairman James D. Wolfensohn came on stage in apparent surprise for "a departure from the scheduled program," as he termed it. He then read a telegram of best wishes that had just arrived. It was signed "Bill Clinton."

A Kennedy Center official said later that Clinton knew of the festival before he became President, having once attended a regional competition as governor of Arkansas. His telegram spoke at length about the importance of the arts.

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In a backstage dressing room after the competition, CSUF's Gray had a smile on his face even though he did not win the top prize.

"I feel like I've achieved everything I set out to do in college theater," he said. "Now I'm going to the party to hand out my resume to anyone who has a pulse."

Gray, a 27-year-old graduate student, performed scenes from Shakespeare's "Richard III" and "A Quiet End," a contemporary AIDS-themed drama by Robin Swados. He was assisted by acting partner Eric Bishop.

It's not the first time Gray has been to the festival. Ten years ago almost to the day, he said, he appeared at Kennedy Center as a freshman from a small Michigan college in a production of "Tea and Sympathy" by Robert Anderson.

"I only had a few lines," he said. "But we did the whole nine yards. Anderson was even here to see the us. He came backstage, and I was awe-struck by it all. I was so young then; I can remember thinking how old the actors in the principle roles seemed to me."

Today, Gray has fewer illusions. He describes the Irene Ryan competition as "a crapshoot," although he still glows with pride about his effort. Nine times out of 10, he said, "picking the right material" is more important than "being the best the actor."

Having been a regional nominee before, as well as a partner in scenes with previous nominees, he feels he has a certain expertise, and he spoke without a trace of sour grapes.

"If you look at the history of what wins," Gray said, "it's usually something dangerous, something in which you risk it all. It doesn't have to be a classical piece. But if it is, you have to put a pretty good spin on it. You have to give the judges a package .

"The absurd thing, which is what makes the Irene Ryans so chancy, is that you audition for three separate sets of judges in three different rounds. One set may like you in one round and think you're terrific. Another set may not. It's a very personal judgment."

Indeed, according to one Kennedy Center official, this year's panel had difficulty reaching a consensus on the top choices. The voting was so close, festival spokeswoman Patricia Laing said, at least one of the two Irene Ryan Awards might have gone to any of four runners-up.

While Gray is thrilled to have gotten as far as he did, he is also cognizant that his achievement must be parlayed into something more tangible than glory.

"Even winning doesn't mean all that much if you're not taken seriously by the professionals," said Gray, who had bought a red vest on his arrival here and wore it over his white shirt to make it easier for the judges to remember him.

"Now is when you realize the real world is about to hit you in the face. At colleges that are heavily into the festival--like Cal State--the Irene Ryans are a big deal. People think, 'Wow.' I walk around the campus like I'm the king.

"But is anybody going to pay me to act? That's the real question. I get my degree in May, and all this becomes history."

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