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February 21, 2020
Nearly every actor, professional or amateur, will tell you that theatre is a cutthroat environment. Every acting choice is subject to scrutiny, and the competition is fierce. Despite the challenges and the pressure, many Whitman alumni have thrived in the cruel world of professional theater. They’ve built upon the skills that Whitman Drama has given them to become excellent performers. Here are a few of Whitman Drama alumni working in professional theatre.
Shanta Parasuraman (‘08) grew up loving theatre. She obsessively listened to the Original Broadway Cast Recordings of musicals like “Rent” and “Wicked,” and she idolized Broadway actresses like Sutton Foster, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Mendzel. But, because she didn’t have the confidence to take the stage, she never auditioned for any plays or musicals growing up; instead, Parasuraman played varsity soccer and ran track.
Then, during her senior year of high school, injuries from the soccer field guided her away from the sport and led her to try out for Whitman’s musical, “Aida.”
“I always had wanted to pursue theater, but I never had confidence,” Parasuraman said. “The realist in me told me ‘this is such a difficult career, you’re probably going to struggle, you’re not going to make a lot of money,’ but the regret of never trying was going to be too much for me, so I decided to go for it.”
Parasurman was cast as a member of the ensemble in “Aida,” playing a belly dancer. One of her favorite memories from the show was singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with her friends backstage during rehearsals.
“I was spending time with people I went to school with, but I had never interacted with before,” Parasuraman said. “I wouldn’t have pursued a theater degree in college if it wasn’t for that show.”
Parasuraman then went on to Indiana University, where she double-majored in theater and telecommunications. She leapt at every opportunity to participate in a musical or play at Indiana, she said.
Now, she’s been a professional actress in the D.C. area and New York City for seven years. Recently, Parasuraman performed in the musicals “Wiley and the Hairy Man” and “The Jungle Book” at Adventure Theatre in D.C., and she’s currently writing and producing her own TV show called “DTF” which she plans to enter in film festivals. One of her biggest accomplishments, she said, was starring in the U.S. debut of the play “The White Pearl” at the Studio Theater in D.C., a story that centers around the backlash a cosmetics company receives for creating a skin bleaching cream. She played Priya Singh, the C.E.O. of the cosmetics company.
“I was so thankful to be cast in ‘The White Pearl,’” Parasuraman said. “Not only did I get a chance to show that I could be star material, but I also got to play a character that I really related to. I feel like my playing my character in this musical really showed that it is okay to embrace your ‘dark side.’”
During Sara Wright’s (‘06) freshman and sophomore years at Whitman, she was a part of the tech crew for each drama performance. In her junior and senior years, she earned a part in the ensemble for Whitman’s productions of “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story.”
“I tried out for the musicals each year, but if I didn’t make it, I wanted to be a part of the shows, so I joined the tech teams,” Wright said.
Her work behind the scenes at Whitman taught her what it’s like to work in the theatre industry in a professional capacity, she said. Ultimately, Wright decided to major in theatre administration at the University of Maryland and pursue her current job, Director of the Box Office at the University of Maryland Theater.
“My experiences on and off the stage with Whitman Drama gave me the experience and ‘know-how’ to relate to anyone in the theater industry,” Wright said. “I know what it’s like to be an actress and what it’s like to be behind the stage.”
Through high school, Bryan Eng (‘16) starred in multiple productions, including the role of Billy Crocker in “Anything Goes” his freshman year. He’s extremely thankful for the opportunities Whitman Drama provided for him to do what he loves, he said.
“Singing and performing is what makes me feel more comfortable,” Eng said. “I feel better sitting at a piano than sitting on the beach.”
His love for singing, dancing and theatre have made him dedicated and diligent, he said. Eng distinctly remembers that when he was cast in “Anything Goes,” he couldn’t do most of the dance moves and was behind most of the other members in terms of skill and experience. Everyday, he would spend two to three hours singing or dancing in front of a large mirror in his brother’s room, he said.
“I wouldn’t be the hardworking, ambitious person I am today without Whitman Drama,” Eng said.
After high school, Eng attended Northwestern University. At Northwestern, his voice teacher and one of his professors inspired him to pursue acting and jazz rather than musical theater.
This year, Eng achieved what he said was one of his lifelong dreams: producing his own album. He collaborated with several of his classmates at Northwestern to create a jazzy, soulful album entitled “20.” He and his classmates raised $20,000 through Kickstarter and recorded their album in a professional studio. Eng describes the album as “a jazz/pop album featuring a 27 piece jazz orchestra.”
Eng arranged the album himself and picked songs that were influential to him while he was growing up. On the album, he sings “Like Someone In Love” by Bjork, which was the first song he learned how to play on the piano; he also added “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Paul Simon because it’s his mom’s favorite song. Overall, Eng is excited about the fact that he has the opportunity to personalize these meaningful songs, he said.
“The difference between getting to arrange my own music and playing music that someone else arranged is that it’s much more personal,” Eng said. “I get to have my hands on all elements of the artistic process, so I get to decide what is going to happen at any part of the song.”
Without Whitman Drama, these three individuals wouldn’t have gotten their starts in theatre and music so early.
“Whitman Drama not only give me an appreciation for music and theatre, but a small ability to understand what it would mean to pursue music or theatre full time,” Eng said.