Students train in selective program

Students train in selective program

Natalie Sullivan and Katie Shulman

Zoë Newcomb

Standing in a dark room with exposed brick walls and an unfinished ceiling, two CSH students are illuminated only by a single spotlight as they sing along with the 15 other members of American Conservatory Theater’s (ACT) Musical Cabaret Ensemble.

Senior Katie Shulman and junior Natalie Sullivan are members of the highly selective and prestigious ensemble that accepts only six new members each year to train with ACT directors, developing both vocal skill and stage presence.

“Being a member of any ensemble always requires support, cooperation and teamwork, but there is something special about the Musical and Cabaret Ensemble,” Sullivan said. “It really is wonderful to get the chance to learn and develop your own talent with criticism and help from the directors as well as learn from the other members. We all grow together.”

Both Sullivan and Shulman developed a love for music and began performing at a young age — Sullivan in kindergarten through the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Shulman in middle school as the character Willy Wonka in a musical adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at her middle school.

“I started singing before I could talk,” Sullivan laughed. “I started singing in school music classes by the time I was three or four. I just sang because I was happiest when singing and loved it.”

While Sullivan focused primarily on vocal performance, Shulman developed her acting skills through musical theater in roles varying from Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” to Gabriella in “High School Musical.”

The two met in a middle school musical theatre class at ACT, but it wasn’t until several years later that they would begin performing together again in the ensemble.

“I joined the ensemble because I wanted to pursue musical theater in a more professional atmosphere where people would actually care about the quality of my music,” Shulman said.

Auditioning for the Musical Cabaret Ensemble is a competitive process in which singers perform one ballad and one up-tempo song. Shulman did not make it into the program after her first audition.

“It was disappointing, but I kept at it and after a second year made it,” Shulman said.

Members of the program meet every Saturday morning for two and a half hours to train with ACT directors and practice for the quarter-annual performances at which each singer performs a solo song and several ensemble numbers.

“[The directors] are all so extremely talented and it’s very rare to have the personal connection we all do with them,” Sullivan said. “I think that they have all helped me develop my confidence and stage presence to a completely different level.”

The ensemble has provided both Shulman and Sullivan with unexpected musical opportunities that have only furthered their love for music.

“Being apart of the ensemble has opened up a lot of doors for me,” Shulman said. “I’ve had a lot of unique opportunities.”

Both Shulman and Sullivan reference singing with ACT graduate Anika Noni Rose — who provides the voice of Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog” — as a highlight of the ensemble.

“Katie is a really quiet student so hearing her voice at ACT gives me goose bumps, I hear an entirely different side of her,” senior Kristy Harty-Connell, who has attended several performances, said. “I hear Natalie sing a lot at school because she is in Joyful Noise!, but hearing them perform in the ensemble is a different experience. It really showcases her talent and a wider vocal range.”
Sullivan says she plans to major in music in college and pursue singing as a career.

“Music is something that I’ve wanted to have as my career since I was about four or five- years-old and that hasn’t changed one bit,” Sullivan said. “I’d love to devote my life to singing.”

While Shulman does not plan to pursue music as a career, she plans to continue singing.

“I love to sing,” Shulman said. “I don’t want to stop, it is just fun.”

The next performance “Sentimental Journey: Music of WWII” is scheduled for April 11 at 5:30 p.m. at ACT. Tickets are $15.

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