Each morning on her way to her summer classes at New York’s renowned Stella Adler Studio of Acting, Gina Berceau passed a corridor of portraits of some of her theatre heroes.
There was Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore and Elaine Stritch. All are alumni of the studio, as are such luminaries as Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro and Martin Sheen.
For Berceau, a senior theatre major at Elmhurst, those portraits were a reminder of why she had come to study in New York City in the first place.
“All those faces were so inspiring to me,” Berceau said. “It just motivated me to want to do my best. That’s why we’re all there, to get better as actors.”
Berceau spent 10 weeks studying at the Stella Adler Studio as part of its annual Summer Conservatory. Her curriculum included classes in voice and speech, improvisation, movement and Shakespeare. She also received an introduction to the Stella Adler “technique,” with its emphasis on the actor’s imagination. Adler’s teaching philosophy is that growth as an actor is based on personal growth. The approach resonated with Berceau.
“I know I learned a lot about myself this summer because of this experience,” she said. “But even more importantly, I know I have a lot more still to figure out.”
She recalled one classroom exercise that had a student standing in silence for an extended time in front of a room full of onlooking classmates. The idea, Berceau explained, was that the student’s response to such uncomfortable situations might produce personal insights.
“You end up asking, ‘What is it about this situation that makes me so uncomfortable?’” she said. “And you see all the nervous tics and habits that are your way of dealing with the situation.”
Berceau, who grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, said that simply living in America’s biggest city for three months was a kind of education. She enjoyed exploring the city, discovering new favorite spots in Central Park, learning about New York’s theatre tradition. “I fell in love with New York in my first week,” she said. Berceau even enthused over her daily subway ride from her dormitory apartment in Brooklyn Heights to the studio in Lower Manhattan—a sure sign that she has not yet adopted the jaded pose of the native New Yorker.
“You never know what you’re going to see each day, and that’s so exciting to me,” she said. “Just walking around can get to be an adventure.”
Berceau had been considering applying to the Stella Adler Studio since early in her time at Elmhurst, when she noticed a poster for the school on a bulletin board. But it wasn’t until she began considering theatre graduate programs, especially the one at New York University, that she decided she wanted to try a summer studying in the city. After applying to the Adler Studio, she interviewed with officials from the school when they visited Chicago, and was offered admission to the summer conservatory.
Berceau credited her Elmhurst theatre experience with readying her for the demanding standards at the Adler Studio.
“They expect a real level of professionalism and they expect you to respect the other actors by being thoroughly prepared each day. I mean, everyone knows when you’ve just read your scene coming in on the subway that morning,” she said. “I have to commend Elmhurst because of all the experiences I had there. I learned to focus on the job and prepare myself, so that part of it was nothing new for me.”
So will Berceau return to Elmhurst for the fall semester a changed person? Will she bring with her some New York attitude?
“I hope I’ve changed in some ways, but not in others,” she laughed. “I hope I’ve become more self-aware.”
Although she spent just under three months in New York, Berceau found herself missing the Elmhurst campus, which—unlike New York, she said—is so clean, so quiet, so free of omnipresent piles of garbage.
“It’s such a peaceful place, I’m looking forward to being back,” she said. And with a full program of productions ahead at the Mill Theatre, Berceau should have ample chance to use her newly honed acting chops. Next spring, she directs No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 existentialist one-act, at the Mill.
Berceau said that after her graduation from Elmhurst next spring, she hopes to return to New York City to continue growing as an actor.
“I just love theatre and I want to be able to say that I’m doing what I love,” she said.