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Case Western Reserve University Students Enter Spotlight At CPH

For close to a quarter of a century, Case Western Reserve University has partnered with Cleveland Play House on a Master of Fine Arts degree in acting. 

Each season, graduate students produce their own shows at Playhouse Square, but they also get the opportunity to be cast in a professional play with CPH.

One former student, Ohio-native Rich Sommer, is best known for his role as Harry Crane on the television hit show "Mad Men."

But a few years before being cast as the smarmy ad man, Sommer attended Case Western Reserve University pursuing his MFA in acting.

ideastream's Dee Perry and Rich Sommer in 2012 [ideastream]

"You know it's a conservatory basically. You really live and breathe acting for those three years.  It was the smartest choice I could've made," Sommer said in a 2012 ideastream interview.

While Sommer is the highest-profile grad of the program, eight MFA students graduate biannually with the hopes of becoming a professional actor.

Elisabeth Yancey, an MFA student who came to Cleveland from the east coast after getting her bachelor's degree in theater at Wellesley College, is currently performing with CPH in Playhouse Square in the mystery-comedy "Clue," based on the board game and subsequent film from 1985.

Elisabeth Yancey [ideastream]

"I was just so excited about grad school. Talk about spending three years really honing your craft and doing what you love," Yancey said.

The program also attracts local talent from Northeast Ohio, like recent MFA graduate Mariah Burks, who began at Cleveland's Near West Theatre then got her bachelor's degree in musical theater at Bowling Green State University.

Burks said CWRU's master's program took her acting to another level.

Mariah Burks [ideastream]

"I have so many different tools and techniques that I did not have for years prior to this program. It's also really just fine tuned my own artist instinct and intuition as far as approaching the stage, approaching text," Burks said.

Mariah Burks (center standing) in Cleveland Play House's 2018 production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." [Roger Mastroianni / Cleveland Play House]

Yancey agrees.

"It hones your sense of your own individual artistic artistry and identity as an artist and also allows you to find your own confidence in a room with other professionals," she said.

Both Yancey and Burks, cast in supporting roles in "Clue," are relishing the opportunity.

Yancey plays the maid, Yvette.

Mark Price and Elisabeth Yancey in the Cleveland Play House production of "Clue" [Ken Blaze / Cleveland Play House]

"It's incredibly fruitful to make connections with these people, to work with them and to learn in the room in real time in a rehearsal setting and to work with directors who have worked all over the world," Yancey said.

Burks plays the cook in "Clue."

"Our director, Casey Hushion, made it very clear. She was like, 'I want you to be formidable, very about your business, but like very dead inside.' So to see the contradiction of like, 'Oh, you know it's a cook, warm, inviting, open kitchen' but it's the complete opposite. This show, and I've been saying this often, it is like an Olympic feat put under a circus tent," Burks said.

Yancey, who graduates this year, feels prepared to make the next step as a professional actor.

"We've worked very closely with Laura Kepley, the artistic director of the Cleveland Play House over the years. To be able to share the stage with these artists, to contribute to the storytelling at the Cleveland Play House feels like an incredible gift," Yancey said.

Mariah Burks and Elisabeth Yancey [ideastream]

Elisabeth Yancey plans to move to New York City following graduation in May with her new equity card in hand.

Mariah Burks meanwhile is staying in Northeast Ohio and stars in the Cleveland Play House production of "Antigone" this spring.

"Clue" is onstage at the Cleveland Play House through February 23.




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