BY CARY GINELL
This is the time of year when high school seniors are getting ready to head off to college, and for those who are looking toward a career in the theater, it’s an exciting, if not nerve-wracking time. Many ask themselves, “Is this the right choice for me?” “Do I love theater that much that I can venture into this competitive world and come out ahead?” “What happens if I don’t make it or if I’m not up to the challenge?” Recently we visited with Kristen Bramson, a senior at Moorpark High School who recently starred as Christine in the school’s production of Phantom of the Opera, a show so daunting, it is rarely tackled below the college level. Kristen turned in a stunning performance, which prompted us to chat with her about her future plans for college.
VCOS: Usually I save the hard question for last, but I’m going to start with it today. What do you think it takes to make it in this business? Now that you’re a senior and graduating from high school, have you thought hard about what you will have to do to achieve your goals in the theater?
KRISTEN: If I had to pick one word, I’d choose “resilience.” Resilience, but also being willing to evolve; being able to come back from any sort of let-down or adversity, being able to grow stronger from disappointment and not to give up.
VCOS: So you’re expecting a roller coaster ride?
KRISTEN: Yes (laughs).
VCOS: When I saw you in Phantom, I thought to myself, “What kind of a girl takes a risk like this? To do a role that is this hard when she’s just in high school?” Tell me what drives you?
KRISTEN: I’m very competitive, not just with other people, but with myself and my past selves. When I first started in high school, I couldn’t sing on pitch. And I was a TERRIBLE actress. But throughout high school, I worked so hard because I love what I do. Being passionate about what I do led me to this point where I can look back on my past performances and feel satisfied that I did my best for that time.
VCOS: So you didn’t start acting until high school?
KRISTEN: I did a few school shows, I did a workshop here and there and in the fourth grade, when I was an ensemble member, but I didn’t do anything in theater until high school. My eighth grade teacher, Miss Adams, at Mesa Verde Middle School, inspired me to take theater when I got into high school.
VCOS: Was there a point where you finally said to yourself, “I think I want to do this”?
KRISTEN: Yes. Actually, there were two socially-driven moments. We have these things called “energy circles,” which we use to warm up before a show. At the end of my first energy circle, for an original show that we wrote called Hollywood Idol, which was quite an interesting show, looking around, all the kids were so excited to be working together, it was a really cool moment for me. That’s when I realized that this was my niche and these were the kind of people who I wanted to be around. Then there was the second time I sang a solo on stage, for choir. It was my first musical theater song that I’d ever sung in public, “Gimme, Gimme,” from Thoroughly Modern Millie. And I realized that it was really what I wanted to do. It’s so far back that I can’t articulate what was running through my head but it was that solo that did it.
VCOS: Tell me about your singing training. How far back does that go?
KRISTEN: Halfway through my freshman year. I started with Nicole Pryor, who was my vocal coach. So at that time, I transferred into Moorpark High School’s choir. Nicole moved to Las Vegas and referred me to Elisabeth Howard. Nicole taught voice as an instructor under the Vocal Power Academy, which Mrs. Howard I believe, created. I’m pretty sure she was one of Nicole’s singing professors briefly at Pepperdine University. Nicole was the first major singing influence on my life and really gave me a strong foundation in technique. Without her, I wouldn’t have continued singing. She was also in Phantom of the Opera in Las Vegas for six years. Mrs. Howard is pretty incredible; she got her BA and MA from Juilliard, she takes trips to Italy to teach opera, and she was Ms. Senior America. I actually started just wanting to take singing lessons for some pop songs, but it slowly transitioned into musical theater, and in the beginning, all I would do were “belt” songs. I didn’t know how to sing anything else and had a lot of trouble; it took me a year-and-a-half to learn how to use vibrato. I really didn’t work on much beside the belt songs and would get frustrated every time I tried to do anything else. But when I got cast in Phantom, I realized that I didn’t have a choice. I had to work on my upper register. Going into senior year, I realized that I needed to start working on my legit range for college auditions, so those factors led me to work more towards operatic singing.
VCOS: Did Phantom intimidate you?
KRISTEN: Yes! Without a doubt. I’ve always competed with my close friends for the same roles. One of them has a really strong “head voice” – which means she was operatically trained – she had a natural soprano voice, and I didn’t, so that was a really intimidating factor in my tryout. But I just kept working at it until I got there. But it was intimidating, especially at first, going into rehearsals.
VCOS: As a competitive person, are you more likely to take a role that you’re perfect for or one that you realize you’re in for a lot of work to get it done?
KRISTEN: I think it would depend on the role and what the role meant to me. There are some roles that I would love to tackle that I know would fit me well and there are some roles that I would absolutely love to have that are completely opposite what I usually do.
VCOS: OK, let’s start by naming a few that you don’t think you’d fit into easily.
KRISTEN: Because of my size – I’m small – and the sound of my voice, I would never be considered for the more mature roles. I’ve been typecast into young, ingenue roles because of how I look and how my voice sounds, but some of those roles would be Rizzo in Grease, and in Phantom it would be Carlotta, and in Bye, Bye Birdie, it would be Rosie. The tougher characters, I suppose.
VCOS: So you’re more likely to play Maria in West Side Story than Anita.
KRISTEN: Yes, that’s absolutely it.
VCOS: Would you be satisfied with a career where you’d be typecast in the ingenue roles?
KRISTEN: Absolutely! I’m a sucker for the classics and do love to play the ingenue. But I like to challenge myself and do a little bit of everything. If it becomes a career, I would love to be a performer, but I also want to try other things, like directing, film, opera, stage design, anything that’s possible – the whole industry!
VCOS: That’s a good attitude because I’m sure you’re aware that the odds against making it are really high and to avoid waitressing for a living, as many people do, getting to know as many aspects of theater as you can is a plus.
KRISTEN: Just in high school, I’ve had the opportunity to direct an original show. I’ve been head of our musical committee when we write our original shows countless times. I’ve helped write scripts, I’ve been in charge of set design and painting sets, and with Taylor Bradley at 48 Hours Productions, who I work for, I’ve gotten to see the business side of things and how that works. Anything I can do, I want to do.
VCOS: When it came time for college apps, what was your thought process?
KRISTEN: Mostly, it was an overwhelmingly stressful wall that came at me. At first, I tried to ignore it, but with the help of my father, we broke it down, piece by piece, and my dad would help me research things and talk them out to decide what our plan of action was. Then he would give me the requirements of what I needed to do and I would do them. So it was a long, tedious process. We traveled a lot and there was a lot of writing of college essays because I applied to so many places.
VCOS: So did you get your dream school?
KRISTEN: In the end, I did! When I was ten years old, I wanted to go to NYU’s med school to be a doctor, so it’s been a dream school of mine ever since. Now I’m getting to go there for what I love, so it’s exciting!
VCOS: Did you audition?
KRISTEN: Yes. NYU was actually one of my favorite auditions, because instead of fitting into a slot, mixed in with other auditions, I went to NYU on its own day. It wasn’t something where I had three hours for this one and had to rush off to the next one. And I felt like they really took their time in how they conducted the audition. The men who auditioned me really tried to get to know me and the singing auditioneer also tried to direct me as they would in monologs but don’t often do in singing. One of my weak spots is my dancing, and my dancing wasn’t atrocious, so I enjoyed it.
VCOS: What piece did you have prepared?
KRISTEN: I had four songs prepared because each audition required different things. I ended up sticking with two belt songs: “Pulled” from The Addams Family and then “Dear Daddy” from a musical that used to be called Bratt Camp, which is now called Welcome to My Life. Then I have four different monologs. The ones I did were from Nick Zagone’s Ohio and Christopher Durang’s Identity Crisis.
VCOS: So when are you leaving for NYU?
KRISTEN: Registration is on August 28th, so sometime before then.
VCOS: Are you nervous?
KRISTEN: Last year I would have said yes, but this year, I think I’m ready. I’ve been planning for college since the sixth grade. I thought I was going to go to Harvard’s medical school. Then I started high school and realized that was completely not my cup of tea! But I’ve been looking forward to and preparing and thinking ahead to college for a very long time, so I think I’m ready. I like to think I’m ready! (laughs)
VCOS: I think you are, too.