The USC School of Dramatic Arts proudly graduated its latest class of students on May 16 in the Bing Theatre. The ceremony was met with excitement, laughter and cries of joy as around 160 Trojans crossed the theatre stage to receive their diplomas with degrees in Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts.
Addressing the graduates as the event’s keynote speaker, alumna Troian Bellisario, who stars as Spencer Hastings on ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, gave a moving and inspiring speech that encouraged students to remember their experience, studies and ability to nurture their inner artistry while at USC.
“Whether it is through the blue and purple lights that you designed to make us believe that a full moon is shining on a black box stage, or that sequence of fluid movements to transition between scenes that make a piece of theatre breathe as if it were a living thing, even if only for one night … studying at this School has given you the time, space and permission to learn how you want to tell a story,” the actress, writer and producer said.
A Los Angeles native, Bellisario wrote, produced and starred in the short film Exiles, and starred in the title role of Lauren in one of the WIGS’ web series focused on sexual assault in the military. She was seen in the independent film Consent; and on stage, she appeared in Equivocation at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. With The Casitas Group, a theatre company for which she and other USC alumni founded, she appeared in an exclusive engagement of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, as well as a Sam Shepard double feature Fool for Love and True West.
Before graduating from the School in 2009 with a BFA in acting, Bellisario performed in SDA productions of The Crucible, All’s Well that Ends Well, Red Light Winter, Compleat Female Stage Beauty and Cloud 9. As a student, she graduated with honors – earning awards from Phi Beta Kappa, as well as the Jack Nicholson Acting Award and James & Nony Doolittle Award from School of Dramatic Arts.
At the ceremony, Bellisario urged graduates to create their own work outside of the paid projects, citing the fulfillment it would give them as artists. “Once you start creating without anybody’s permission, you own it. And because you learned it here, you know the power of a story. You’ll never feel embarrassed when people ask you, ‘What do you do?’ You will look them in the eye and say, ‘I tell stories.’ And people will line up to work with you,” she said.
Also, sharing post-graduation insight as an alumna, Bellisario concluded with encouragement for the graduates to stay close to their peers and to stay true themselves. “And when you lose your way in the fog or if your heart light dims because you’re unsure or afraid, they have seen you shine here and they will remind you of your wattage. They saw you suck at Shakespeare and then they saw you soar. Stay close to the earth. Remember what you have chosen to do and the time you have taken to prepare for it. Embrace failure and fear as though it was your best friends and dance, don’t walk, to this new beginning.”
Leading up to the keynote speech, three graduating students – BA speaker A.J. Helfet, BFA speaker Emily Rowan and MFA speaker Daniel Rios Jr. – each delivered an encouraging and sentimental message for the audience of family, friends, faculty, staff and graduates. The trio was nominated by their peers to speak on behalf of the class.
Sharing a similar sentiment as Bellisario about the power of a story, Rowan expressed to the class: “The moment we begin to create meaningful work will coincide with the moment we recognize we are not in fact different. Rather, we are a part of something much large than ourselves and we are in the company of thousands upon thousands of people just like us. And we will not all be superstars, some of us might be, but those careers will not be any more legitimate than ones that grow quietly and patiently, if approached with open heart and pure intentions. This will be our hardest task.”
Instead of writing a speech directed to his colleagues, Helfet spoke to “the parents, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the guardians and everyone else who made it possible for us to be here” because, he joked, it “seems silly to tell you [graduates] what you’ve learned because you were there.”
He also explained to the audience of supporters that “Everyone who is sitting in front of me has the ability to succeed” and they should continue to believe in the class because of it.
Acknowledging each degree group within the graduate program, Rios expressed deep gratitude for all of his colleagues and excitement for their accomplishments. He finished his speech with an empowering recital of Elia Kazan’s “The Actor’s Vow” with his MFA Acting classmates. In his speech, he summed up the the representation of graduation: “If we’re lucky in life, we have a handful of moments where we don’t have to wonder if we made our families proud, we don’t have to ask them, they don’t have to say anything, we just know. And today is one of those moments.”
More About the Student Speakers
AJ Helfet, undergraduate (BA) program
Growing up in New York City, Helfet has been acting since age 4 and took acting classes as a hobby until 8 years old, when he realized he wanted to pursue a career in film. He continued his acting lessons after that moment and spent middle and high school participating in plays. While at USC, Helfet participated in 12 theatrical productions, in and outside of school, and performed in the SDA Acting Showcase.
Emily Rowan, undergraduate (BFA) program
Rowan attended the Orange County High School of the Arts in the Music and Theatre Conservatory prior to studying acting at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. As a musical theatre artist, Rowan has performed at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway as a nominee for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, sung under the direction of dame Julie Andrews. She is a recipient of Musical Theatre West’s Footlighters’ Scholarship. While at USC, Rowan was involved in student organizations like Musical Theatre Repertory and Reverse Osmosis A Capella, as well as performed in several plays and musicals, both through SDA and Independent Student Productions. She spent last summer studying Shakespeare at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England. This summer, she will be joining the Tony award-winning summer theatre festival, Williamstown Theatre Festival, as an apprentice.
Daniel Rios Jr., graduate program
Rios is a native of Springfield, Mass., who makes up one-eleventh of the MFA Acting Class of 2014. He is a husband and a first-time father to be this fall.