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. This weekend, the Prince William County resident is graduating from Sweet Briar College — with a degree in theater. She’s also part of the ensemble in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lynchburg and recently 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 — a boy and Grandma Tzeitel — in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I didn’t really 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 remembers. “But once I got into it, I really enjoyed it. I realized that this is something fun that I could do.”
But it wasn’t until her senior year in the magnet program at Woodside High School in Newport News, where she studied vocal music, that she set foot on the stage again. This time, she was in the ensemble of “Grease.” Again, Wright loved it, but the idea that theater could be more than just a hobby never fully formed — until 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 had never taken a theater class before. We learned about technique, and that was really exciting for me,” she says, adding, “I never got any pleasure like that from my engineering classes.”
Wright dropped out of the engineering program and moved back home for the next year. 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 says. “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, Wright knows that it was the right decision. At Sweet Briar, she says, 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 the upperclass students get the supporting roles, whereas you come here to Sweet Briar, and your first year you could get a lead role. Gaining a lot of experience during your undergraduate years will benefit you.”
Wright performed in a number of plays each year and also had the opportunity to work with professional artists, such as Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, who taught a workshop for Sweet Briar students in February. For her senior project last semester, Wright directed “Doubt,” putting the entire performance together in just one month.
“It was a little stressful, but I’m pleased with the results,” she says. “I ended up being the set designer, too, and I’m not a designer, but I had some really great people working with me that helped bring my vision to fruition.”
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 says. “It’s one of those things that you hope will happen, but you don’t expect it.”
After all, Wright adds: “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.”
The only real giveaway is the “Hello, Dolly” T-shirt she’s wearing — it’s for the spring musical at Lynchburg’s Academy of Fine Arts. The show runs until Saturday. Wright is in the ensemble, so much of her performance relies on singing and dancing. Luckily, the senior took a jazz dance class at Sweet Briar, and she’s good at learning all the technical aspects of dancing, she says.
“But I wish I’d taken more dance classes,” she says. Loretta Wittman, who choreographed “Hello, Dolly!” and teaches theater at Sweet Briar, is offering a tap dance class next semester. “I’m a little disappointed that I’m missing out on that,” Wright admits.
In the end, she’s glad she didn’t spend all of her time in the theater department. Instead, she got involved in tap clubs, worked as a resident advisor for three years and in the Phonathon, a student-run portion of Sweet Briar’s Annual Fund. She also explored a number of classes unrelated to theater and enjoyed making connections between different subjects, and with her professors.
The liberal arts environment, Wright adds, helped her to think for herself and to draw her own conclusions. It also encouraged her to pursue her goals with determination. To get her acting job this summer, she drove to an audition in North Carolina in the middle of the night because 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 says.
For the first time, Wright is signing a contract and getting paid for doing what she loves. Through July and August, she’ll be performing almost every day.
And then? Wright says she doesn’t know yet what will happen after the summer, but is confident something will pan out. She’s applied to an acting apprenticeship in Philadelphia and has an audition there at the end of May, and to a couple of theater-related jobs, as well as a residence life position.
“I’m just trying to not put all my eggs in one basket,” she says. “You never know what’s gonna happen. If worst comes to worst, I’ll stay in Northern Virginia and probably rent out my mother’s basement!”
Wright is practical, but she also has dreams. One of them is working in New York. A Sweet Briar arts management trip during Spring Break made her fall in love with the city.
“One of the girls and I took a train to Brooklyn Heights, and we were looking at Manhattan from over there, and I was like, ‘I could live here,’” she says.
“There was a nice park there, and you could see where they were building the new World Trade Center … it was just a nice spot.”
For now, Wright is focusing on short-term goals. With more than a month to spare before she moves to North Carolina, she’s thinking about returning to her job at the Holiday Inn restaurant in Dumfries to save money for the summer. But even there, 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.
Contact: Janika Carey