Alumni Q&A with Sarah Thermond

The School of Dramatic Arts briefly caught up with alum Sarah Thermond (BA ’11) for our Q&A series highlighting the accomplishments of the alumni of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

About the alum
A 2011 graduate of the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ Bachelor of Arts program (with a double major in comparative literature), Sarah Thermond is an accomplished theatre and English educator. She is the director of Saratoga High School’s drama program, directing two mainstage productions (in the school’s 560-seat theatre) and overseeing three-to-five student-directed honors projects (in their black box theatre) per year. She teaches five different levels of drama and basic stage tech, an english class, and recently developed and taught a new creative writing elective. Additionally, she has been acting semi-professionally in productions including Educating Rita, an all-female cast of Hamlet, and the musical Annie.

SDA: What lessons have you been able to apply from your SDA training to your professional life?

Thermond: A lot of my lessons for my upper level drama classes are derived from the classes I took at USC; my Greek unit was largely inspired by a Greek and Roman Theatre class with Dr. Sharon Carnicke, and I teach my kids to do sound editing that I learned from Phil Allen. A project from John Rubinstein’s musical theatre class inspired a whole audition unit for me.

As a director, the most important lesson I learned came from Stephanie Shroyer. I’m a very literary/verbal person, and one day while I was directing my scene in class, she commented that I wasn’t using the depth of the stage to its fullest potential. She suggested that I try having the actor go behind a set piece to see if it made the scene more dynamic. I wasn’t doing enough to utilize the visual element of the stage. I’ve tried to really push myself in show selection and really make my students look at theatre from both of those perspectives.

But the lesson I use most often in teaching, directing, and acting is probably the philosophy I got from Mary Joan Negro’s acting classes. She really urged us all to be self-aware and self-critical as performers – to actively assess how effective our physical, vocal and emotional choices were as we worked on them. I’ve met a lot of actors who really flounder or get stuck without detailed feedback after each run, whereas her classes made me comfortable finishing a rehearsal and saying to myself, “Hmm, that moment wasn’t working at all. I have a few ideas for changing it – I’ll try them in this next run.” That ability to self-assess and figure out what I can do to better communicate the story has really helped me, and I absolutely try to make sure my students develop that skill too.

SDA: Was there a class or professor that was particularly meaningful or influential during your time at the School?

Thermond: During my time at USC and in the years following graduation, I’d have to say Paul Backer. Paul was the first faculty director to cast me in an SDA show, and it really felt like he opened a door for me. In that production and in his Theory and Practice of World Theatre classes, I learned for the first time about theatre from non-Western cultures and about surrealism and other non-realistic trends in drama. Learning about these topics has deepened my understanding of theatre as an art form, and of the different ways artists have approached storytelling. I try to pass this broader definition of drama on to the students I teach. I also have been inspired by the high amount of energy and enthusiasm Paul brought to every course. Every time I came to visit L.A. after graduation, we’d meet up for coffee and talk about what the next generation of theatre students need at the high school and collegiate level. I really cherish having had that mentor figure and inspiration.

SDA: What do you miss about college and SDA specifically?

Thermond: I miss how many shows – and other events/groups – there were to be a part of. I definitely took that for granted in college, but now that I’m out trying to balance full-time teaching/directing with acting, I’m realizing how rare it is to find an artistic opportunity that can work with all of the other commitments I have. College was a great opportunity to seek out projects and opportunities and go right from one to the next. I still remember how excited I’d be each semester when the Great Audition Memo came out, because there was so much going on that I knew I could possibly be a part of.

SDA: What productions did you work on?

Thermond: Quite a few, actually! I assistant stage managed several independent student productions (ISPs), and my first acting role was in an ISP as well (Agamemnon, performed in Annenberg Amphitheater). From Spring of sophomore year on, I was in SDA shows, including Don Juan Comes Back from the War (dir. Paul Backer, Scene Dock), The Beaux Strategem (Michael Keenan, McClintock), The Alcestiad (Jason Robert Brown, Scene Dock), Is He Dead? (Michael Keenan, McClintock), Anna Karenina (Dan Bonnell, Bing). Getting to do my last show in the Bing was pretty fantastic.

SDA: What was your best USC experience?

Thermond: It’s really hard for me to put my finger on just one experience, because the quality of USC that I rave about to people is the variety of opportunities it allowed me. I was able to take courses across several schools, participate in a lot of once-in-a-lifetime events and workshops, and be surrounded by very motivated people, both on the faculty and in the student body. When I reflect about what made me happiest that I chose SC, it was that I got to do so much at one school.

SDA: Do you remember the moment you found out you got into USC?

Thermond: It was the very first college I got into. I got the news much earlier than I was expecting, so part of my excitement was just knowing that I was going to college for theatre, and that – no matter where else I got in – I had a great theatre school to go to. I found out right before a tech rehearsal for my high school musical, so then I got to go back to school and share with my director and castmates, which was great. I honestly hadn’t been sure what I wanted from a university, and I applied to a wide range of schools in terms of size and location. Hearing from SC first really put it on my radar, and over the next few months, USC – and SDA in particular – really offered me enough information to help me make a confident decision.

SDA: Any advice for current SDA students?

Thermond: I would say that college is a great time to learn about yourself as an artist. That might sound vague, but I mean it in two really concrete ways. First, start learning what kinds of art you like creating. Try out different media, different genres, different styles. Really figure out what kinds of scripts or pieces speak to you, and what kind of a perspective you have on them. Second, learn what you bring to the creative process. What are your strengths as a performer/director/technician, versus what are some of the areas in which you are less confident or interested? You can save yourself a lot of grief by knowing that there are some projects and some roles that you are not the right fit for. Instead of feeling defeated by not getting those, hone yourself into the kind of artist you want to be, and find the opportunities that are going to match your skills. I’ve developed a good sense of when a show or role is right for me – as a director and an actor – and it saves me a lot of grief when I focus on those projects instead of putting myself out there for things that don’t speak to me.