Daniel Murray, chair of the Department of Drama and teacher of Acting and Movement at the Governor’s School

STAGE COACH

The South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities has a tendency for attracting, fostering, and propelling big-time talent. How big? Just turn on your television. television.

Photography by Paul Mehaffey

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The South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities has a tendency for attracting, fostering, and propelling big-time talent. How big? Just turn on your television. television.

There are numbers and statistics, and glowing praises of the merits and accomplishments of the founders and faculty of the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities at 15 University Drive in Greenville, South Carolina. You can read the mission statement and research the bold-faced names and hear about the millions of dollars raised that made this place possible. You can, sure. All of those factuals and actuals validate the worth and value of why this free, residential, public high school exists and should exist. But it won’t make your heart go “lub dub.” Facts are great, but they’re maybe not as great as the feeling that bookends them.

What you should know, then, is the story of student Brandon Hall. Hall, a then-junior at Pendleton High School, had a single mother who overcame numerous obstacles to raise her children. Hall was “as raw as you could possibly be,” says Daniel Murray, the chair of the Department of Drama at the Governor’s School. “He couldn’t read particularly well, but he had a lot of charisma, and we took him and he just took off.” Hall finished out his two years of high school at the Governor’s School. He had never been on a plane until he took the ride of his life to audition at the elite Juilliard School’s Drama Division in New York City—one of the most prestigious acting programs in the country. Out of 1,500 applicants, nine men and nine women were chosen for the 2011–2012 year. Hall was one of them. He’s now in his senior year at Juilliard and is poised to potentially become the Governor School’s first big male breakthrough (no pressure, Brandon, Murray wants you to know!).

These success stories—as special as Hall’s might be—are not unusual, especially to Murray, who is a founding faculty member and has been with the school since 1996, in its earlier days when it was still located at Furman University, and has served as the director for the Summer Programs in Drama since 1999.

“Brandon spent most of his weekends sitting right there,” Murray says, pointing to the chair at the conference table in his office, “teaching himself to be a student because his reading and writing skills were deficient. He was maybe the hardest-working student we’ve ever had.”

But as one high-powered New York City agent called it, Murray recalls, “this South Carolina magic school” doesn’t run by hard work (by both the students and faculty) alone. The scholarship Juilliard awarded to Hall didn’t cover all of the nearly $53,000 annual cost of attendance, so the Governor’s School Foundation found “a generous and amazing donor,” Murray says, in Aiken, South Carolina, through the partnership program called Juilliard in Aiken, and they covered the difference of the cost of what remained.

HBO star Wrenn Schmidt, Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris, and Danielle Brooks, star of Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black, are graduates of Greenville’s prestigious Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.

 

We have averaged a kid a year at Juilliard for the past 11 years now,” says Murray, “so we’ve had 11 kids in 11 years. That’s more than any high school in the country, and Juilliard has an acceptance rate of about one third of a percent. They see 1,500 applications from around the world—they take 10. And we’ve penetrated that a bunch of times.”

Murray isn’t bragging, though he is extremely proud, but he is almost as surprised as you might be to know that this—at its very core—“free, public high school for the arts” in Greenville, South Carolina, can count a Tony Award winner (Patina Miller, from Pageland, South Carolina, class of 2002), as well as an actor who was in the 2014 Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave and starred on Broadway with Al Pacino (Liza J. Bennett, from Charleston, class of 2006), and an actor who plays the lead on the FOX series Sleepy Hollow (Nicole Beharie, from Orangeburg, South Carolina, class of 2003) among its graduates. But that’s just scratching the surface. There’s Wrenn Schmidt, from Lexington, South Carolina, from the inaugural class of 2001—a class of nine—who is a regular on HBO’s drama series Boardwalk Empire, and Danielle Brooks from the class of 2007, who appears on the smash Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, and Teyonah Parris, from Columbia, from the class of 2005, who is a cast member on the Emmy Award–winning show Mad Men.

Patina Miller, a Pageland, SC, native, won the Tony Award in 2013 for her role in Broadway’s Pippin; Liza J. Bennett shared the stage in The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino and appeared as cold-hearted Mistress Ford in 12 Years a Slave; Nicole Beharie stars in FOX’s hit Sleepy Hollow

 

The conservatory or college-level instruction from passionate instructors like Murray and teachers in his department has largely been responsible for setting off the trajectory to these name-in-lights moments. That the school is residential, the community-building atmosphere, and two-year immersion in classes that include acting, theatre movement, dance, voice and speech, singing, performance, as well as audition preparation, playwriting, and theatre history, is an obvious recipe to help, what Murray calls, “crack the code” and get his kids into the bold-faced realm—or at the very least—into some very prestigious schools including Juilliard, but also Carnegie Mellon and Harvard. In addition to the residential high school, SCGSAH offers the two-week Discovery Program for rising ninth graders and a two-week academy for high school sophomores.

The curriculum, Murray says, is about developing the three things that an actor needs. “You’re developing the physical instrument to be athletic, expressive, and available to impulses. You’re developing the vocals—that includes voice for the stage and speech. You’re teaching them to access their imagination, to think abstractly and to stay open to instinct, and to learn the technique and process of acting.”

That can be taught. But what cannot be taught? That student’s character—meaning their “will,” according to Murray. “They’ve got to be able to take a punch. They’ve got to be able to humble themselves before the process. They’ve got to be the kind of students that make other people better. So there’s got to be a generosity about them, and if those things are in them or can be developed in them, the instinct that attends the talent will be a synergistic effect.”

This would be in the school’s DNA, as founder and first president, Virginia Uldrick, whom Murray describes as a “field general of a leader,” wouldn’t stop or take no for an answer until this idea—formalized in 1980 as summer program by order of then-governor Dick Riley on the campus of Furman University—came into its illustrious own, in the heart of downtown Greenville. From the lump of red clay to the Tuscan-village inspired campus it is now, the Governor’s School—like the students who come in “green” or “raw,” yet blossom in film, television, and on Broadway—shines brightly at 15 University Drive.

“We set the bar high with that first class in 2001,” says Murray, “and I would have felt very good just to achieve those things—to get kids into some good schools. But to see Nicole in Sleepy Hollow and then a Colgate commercial with Teyonah in it, that’s something I hadn’t quite imagined fully.”

But beyond the “we knew them when” moments, Murray knows there’s a greater good and mutual goal this now nationally-renowned school is working toward. “For the whole school—and what feels best—is that you might be making a contribution to the betterment of the next generation—a generation that is more sensitive, more tolerant, more compassionate, these are all the traits of an artist,” says Murray.

And, if you just happen to get thanked in someone’s Oscar/Tony/Emmy award speech because of it? That’s some drama you might just want.

Diagonal

Empire State   Lexington’s Wrenn Schmidt, star of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, found her footing at SCGSAH

The best acting comes from an authentic place. If actress Wrenn Schmidt’s interview with TOWN is any indication, she’s got the right technique down. Also great for honing that skill? Graduating from the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, as Schmidt did—part of the inaugural class of 2001 when, as her former drama department chair Dan Murray says, “You had to be a real risk taker in those days. There was no physical school yet, save for the dormitory. We rehearsed in empty dormitory rooms and a not-yet-finished library space. The theatre and studios for drama were not fully functional until her senior year.”
Schmidt calls from the Bombay Sandwich Company at 27th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, around the corner from where she takes acting classes “to hit the reset button from any bad habits.” Like her fellow classmates, she greatly credits SCGSAH for getting her instincts honed before she arrived at college (she, like Murray, attended the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.) If you’re a fan of HBO’s Prohibition-era series Boardwalk Empire, you’ve likely seen the willowy, strawberry-blonde playing Julia Sagorsky, the love interest of Jack Huston’s character Richard Harrow. But before that, nearly nine years ago when she first arrived in New York, Schmidt slugged it out the hard way holding three jobs: at Starbuck’s, a theater that worked on international conflict resolution through clowning, and a nutritionist’s office.
“I was working 60–70 hours a week, working all three jobs and I broke a bone in my foot,” says the effusive actress. “I had that moment of asking myself, ‘Why are you here? What do you really want to do? Why don’t you do what you’ve wanted to do since you were five and be an actor and try that out?’ So I just started auditioning on my crutches.”
Soon, she would be cast in a play at Lincoln Center, which earned her a review in the New York Times, an agent, and an appearance on Law & Order, then subsequent roles in theater and television. Her spot on FX’s The Americans with Keri Russell recently aired, and she’s shooting a short film directed by Steven Soderbergh. The young actress from Lexington, South Carolina, who once worried about getting an A at the Governor’s School—“I was kind of uptight and tense,” she says. “It wasn’t, ‘What did I learn from that?’ It was, ‘Was that good? Did I do it good?’—soon might find she’s made the grade on a whole new A-list.—JV

DiagonalFlipStage and Screen  Charleston native Liza J. Bennett stuns in 12 Years a Slave

2006 Governor’s School graduate Liza J. Bennett’s first audition—her very first—landed her in a play with Al Pacino. Now, she has an Oscar-winning movie on her growing resume: 12 Years a Slave.From chilling our spines as the character of Mistress Ford in 12 Years to an upcoming comedic film with Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton called Life Itself, Bennett’s seemingly steady road to stardom started here. Bennett took time during a week of auditions to talk to TOWN:

Q: Where are you in New York—Brooklyn or the city?
A: My wife [a casting director] and I bought a house two years ago in Brooklyn, but I’ve been here for eight years when I moved here for Julliard.

Q: At what point did you start answering people ‘I’m an actor,’ when they would ask what you did?
A: I was incredibly lucky. I booked my first job before I graduated from Juilliard. My deal with myself is that I could say I was an actor if I were making money working as an actor. I was able to work at the Public Theater with Shakespeare in the Park for three months and then the play we were doing—The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino—went to Broadway, so I did the Broadway contract with them.

Q: What’s happened since 12 Years a Slave?
A: I’ve stayed about as busy as I was before, but it’s certainly given me a little more clout. People take me more seriously. The real job of a working actor is auditioning most of the day because it’s up and down. You can be in the Oscar-winning movie of the year one second and then next you’re going from job to job trying to figure it out.

Q: Dan Murray from the Governor’s School says that you are “so loyal to the school.”
A: I love them. I would say it’s among the best pre-professional training programs in the country. They take kids from all over and different walks of life and different cultures and backgrounds, and you all start in the same place as artists. I’m still close friends with a lot of my classmates, and we get together and talk about how crazy it was that we were treated like adults at that age and expected to behave like adults. It didn’t take me any time to realize how great it was.

Q: Can you imagine if you hadn’t gone to the Governor’s School?
A: I don’t think I would have attempted this kind of crazy life as an artist. It’s very volatile; there’s no stability whatsoever. I had talented, focused adults telling me from a young age, “This is a hard life. It’s a very fulfilling one, but prepare yourself,” and that started at Governor’s School.—JV

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