"It's not like anything I've ever experienced before," says Erica Traylor with a trace of disbelief. As an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this past summer, the Dallas-bred actress nurtured her dreams of a life in the theater in the heart of one of the summer season's most vibrant theatrical communities.
"This is the farthest I've ever been away from home for any length of time," she says. "It's very exciting, quite different from any place I've ever been, just being around different people, the opportunity to see the craft actually applied in productions and even see my own work develop in monologues and scenes."
Traylor hadn't even heard of the Williamstown Theatre Festival until she met Michael Ritchie, the festival's producer, at the Kennedy Center last April. Ritchie was one of the judges for the 28th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, and Traylor was one of 16 students from around the country participating in the prestigious competition. Ritchie was so impressed by Traylor's ability and potential that he invited the Spelman College (Atlanta) senior to apprentice at Williamstown for the summer, and Traylor became the first recipient of a full Everett Scholarship. Named after the festival's board chairman, William H. Everett, the scholarship is designed to provide aid to minority participants.
Traylor's initial expectations were fairly simple. "All I had was this little pamphlet that said I'd be taking classes," she recalls. "I thought it would be a small group of about 15 apprentices working on little acting projects, with intensive attention in acting, movement, and voice."
What she got was an entree into a heady theatrical community informed by the likes of Arthur Miller, Joanne Woodward, and Olympia Dukakis, to name just a few of the stellar participants in this year's festival. For interns not coming from active theater towns, the exposure to an entire summer full of theater is one of the most valuable aspects of the program.
"I just saw 'All My Sons,' and it was absolutely wonderful," Traylor raves. "I'm very excited to see the new Miller works." ("The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" was given its American premire at the festival.)
The program, which ran June 2 through Aug. 19, is part of the festival's mission to provide training for the next generation of theater professionals. Apprentices can follow the program over a five-year course.
After apprenticing, they are eligible for Act I, a more exclusive and intensive training program. The following year, they can become members of the festival's non-equity company, which supplements the professional company. "After three years of that, they may have earned enough points to be awarded an equity card and become part of the professional community here," Ritchie explains. "That's what I hope for Erica."
The reserved, soft-spoken Traylor blossoms onstage. "Erica is a beautiful, unbelievable actress for any age," Ritchie claims. "I was really impressed with her acting ability and poise. There was just something about her talent that really grabbed me, and I thought Williamstown would be a great place for her at the beginning of her career."
Traylor would agree that Williamstown has given her a good start, but the program was not without its disappointments. The group of 55 apprentices was more than three times the size Traylor expected, resulting in less time for individual attention than she had anticipated.
"Classes are good, but they're not as intensive as I'd hoped," she said midway through the program. "Even though the groups are split into two, it's still a large class. And we only go to classes every other day. When we're not taking classes, we're working in the box office or scene shop.
"I've been everywhere a little bit, but we don't have as much opportunity to learn because the season is so fast, and people there don't have time to really teach the process. But it does give some insight into other parts of the theater that we probably wouldn't get any other way and gives me a greater appreciation for everybody who works in theater."
Traylor's favorite class was called "Viewpoints." "It's a little spice of life," she explains, "because there are always new exercises for us to take more risks and learn about new things. It breaks the routine of going to movement, voice, and acting, where we work on specific scenes."
Traylor has also had fewer opportunities to perform than she'd hoped, though she was cast in two public productions. In June, she auditioned and won the central role of Princess Ninetta in an original production of "The Love of Three Oranges" for the Theatre for a Young Audience. She was also part of the ensemble cast for The Free Theatre world-premire production of Steve Lawson's adaptation of Dickens's "Hard Times." There were additional chances to perform during presentations by her acting class, which studied Tennessee Williams, and her voice class, which studied Shakespeare.
The daughter of a health-insurance saleswoman and a computer engineer, Traylor was drawn to acting in the eighth grade, when she went to a presentation of "The Boys Next Door" at the Dallas Theatre Center. "After the play, I just sat in the theater for about half an hour and cried. The performance of one actor, Akin Babatunde, was so powerful. I felt like there might be something inside of me that could create that kind of response in others." And an aspiring actress was born.
Traylor, who graduates next year, had initially planned to attend graduate school. But after the Williamstown experience, she has decided she may work for a year to see if she wants to focus more on theater or film as a possible career.
"I'd like to see her continue in professional theater," Ritchie says. "I think she has the talent to spend the rest of her life in this business."
*For more information on apprenticeships at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, call Anne Lowrie at (212) 228-2286.