Story by Janika Carey | Photos by Meridith De Avila Khan
When Sierra Wright ’12 graduated from high school, her career path was clear — at least as far as her parents were concerned. They urged her to study science, so Wright enrolled in the engineering school at the University of Virginia. In May, the Prince William County resident graduated from Sweet Briar College — with a degree in theater.
She also starred in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lynchburg and landed her first paid gig as the lead actress in a North Carolina theater production this summer.
Wright first discovered acting the summer after eighth grade, when she auditioned for a community play. She was cast for two roles in “Fiddler on the Roof” — a boy and Grandma Tzeitel.
“I didn’t realize what I was getting into because I’d never done theater before, and a lot of the kids there had done so much,” she remembered. “But once I got into it, I really enjoyed it. I realized that this is something fun that I could do.”
But she didn’t act again until her senior year, when she studied vocal music in a magnet program. Again, Wright loved it, but the idea of theater as more than a hobby never fully formed. Then she took a theater class at UVa. “This was like a turning point for me. It was the most fun I had ever had. I never got any pleasure like that from my engineering classes.”
Wright quit the engineering program and moved back home. After several months of working and thinking about her future, she applied to Sweet Briar.
“I said, ‘Theater is what I’m going to do,’ ” she recalled. “It was kind of scary because up until that point, I had never made major decisions for myself. But by that point, my mother was like ‘Well, you’ve got to figure out what makes you happy, because I don’t want you to be in college for six years trying to figure out what I want you to do.’ ”
Today, she’s happy with the decision. At Sweet Briar she was able to gain more practical theater experience than she would have at a larger college or university.
“If you know nothing about theater, you can come in and work on sets or be a stage manager … you can do things that you wouldn’t expect to be able to do right off the bat. When you audition for a show at UVa, a lot of times the graduate students get the lead roles and upperclass students get the supporting roles, whereas you come here to Sweet Briar, and your first year you could get a lead role.”
Wright performed in plays every year and had opportunities to work with professionals when companies such as Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre performed and held workshops on campus. For her senior project last fall, she directed “Doubt,” putting the entire performance — including designing the set — together in just one month. “It was a little stressful, but I’m pleased with the results,” she said.
When she was awarded Sweet Briar’s Jessica Steinbrenner Molloy Theater Arts award in April, it was icing on the cake.
“I was really excited. I even started crying,” she said. “It’s one of those things that you hope will happen, but you don’t expect it. … I’m not your typical ‘loud’ theater student. When people meet me, they don’t think I’m involved in theater at all. I guess you could say I have a quiet passion for theater.”
Wright didn’t spend all of her time at Sweet Briar in the theater department, and she’s glad she didn’t. She was involved in tap clubs, worked as a resident advisor for three years and in the Annual Fund’s Phonathon. She also explored classes unrelated to theater and enjoyed making connections between different subjects, and with her professors.
More determined than ever to pursue acting, Wright drove through the night for the North Carolina audition. It was during the week and she didn’t want to miss any classes.
It was worth it. Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, one of more than 75 companies scouting for actors at the Institute of Outdoor Drama, liked her immediately and offered her the lead role of Esse in “Pathway to Freedom.”
“It was exciting for me because I’ve never had a job offer for a role before,” she said.
For the first time, Wright signed a contract and was getting paid for doing what she loves. Through July and August, she performed almost every day.
What’s next? Wright is practical, but she has dreams. One of them is working in New York. Graduate school is an option and in the short term — well, she has restaurant experience to help pay the bills and save money. But even then, theater isn’t far from her mind.
“It’s funny, but last time I worked there I kept thinking of the restaurant as a theater, and anytime I had to go in the kitchen, I’d accidentally say, ‘I’m just gonna go backstage.’ People thought, ‘What is wrong with her?’ ”
It’s that quiet passion coming through.