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Spring 2016


"The talent and sheer ability of Penn State alums nearly goes without saying -- you see them audition and watch them online and that much is clear -- but there's an extra something they bring to the room, too. There's a real love of and generosity toward the work and the process. When you're creating something new, you want that in the air, and Penn State actors have it in spades.”

-Adam Gwon, award-winning musical theatre writer


The 2016 Penn State BFA Musical Theatre Showcase will be held Tuesday May 3, 2016 at 3:00 PM and 6:30 PM at the Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater, 405 West 55th Street (at 9th Ave.) in New York. RSVP is required: For more information on this year's class, visit their website.


John SimpkinsIxchel Cuellar (San Francisco, CA)

“If you want something, work for it everyday. You can transform in four years if you put your mind to it.”

Words of wisdom: Take advantage of EVERYTHING this campus has to offer. Penn State is such a special place that has so many incredible things going on everyday. Don't let four years go by without leaving the School of Theatre!

Favorite Penn State memory: Performing at the President's Tailgates with my classmates! It was a tradition that I cherished watching since the beginning of my freshman year and it was so special to finally get to share that Penn State tradition with my class.



John SimpkinsErica Durham (Pittsburgh, PA)

“I have made friends that have been there for me through every step of the past four years and I know that even after I leave Penn State, I always have that amazing support system.”

Favorite memory:  My most treasured memory had to be coming out for my bow on the opening night of 110 in the Shade where I had the great privilege to play Lizzie Curry. This moment means so much because I felt every year of training here at Penn State transform into a performance I was very proud of.

The dream: Honestly, I am just excited to start the journey that is going to be my career in this business. Penn State has given me such wonderful tools that I cannot wait to get out into the "real world" and show em' what I've got!


John SimpkinsCourtney Echols (Scottsdale, AZ)

When I saw my first musical at age 10, I told my parents I wanted to move to New York and perform on Broadway. Thank you Penn State for helping me get one step closer to achieving my dream!”

Advice for future Penn Staters: Take full advantage of Penn State, as this university has so, so much to offer. For example, join a club that interests you, get involved in THON, look into Greek life, maybe even start up your own club!

One thing you'll take away from your time at Penn State:  The last four years I have learned so much about myself, and have grounded myself as an artist and human; I am now confident in myself and in my abilities, and cannot wait for the next chapter of life!


John SimpkinsScott Fuss (Arroyo Grande, CA)

“Be kind, to yourself and others.”

What’s the biggest thing you will take away from your time at Penn State? The ability to find happiness regardless of the circumstances.

Something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Going to France with no plan.




John SimpkinsTommy Hart (Dallas, TX)

“Thank you Penn State! You taught me to play hard, and work harder.”

Valuable lesson learned at Penn State: There isn't one correct way to be an artist. Do what works for you and run with it.

Teachers who had a strong impact on you: Dr. Bev Patton and Raymond Sage have helped me strengthen my voice in incredible ways over the past four years. They've been a constant source of wisdom and support, and they've kicked my butt when I really needed it. I can't thank them enough.



John SimpkinsKatie Johnson (Greenville, NC)

“I think the most important thing I have learned is that with hard work, anything is possible.” 

Big moments at Penn State: Mary Saunders changed my life. I really couldn't sing well when I came to school here and Mary believed in me and helped me improve more than I ever thought I would. 

If you could wake up having gained one skill, what would it be? I would probably want to gain the ability to stay patient because sometimes it's really hard. 




John SimpkinsConnor Jones (Houston, TX)

“Everything is a learning experience, not a test.”

What’s one of your most treasured memories from the last four years? The first day of snow our freshman year. A few of the other southerners in my class and I woke up to snow for the first time, ran out, and played for hours. It was magical.                

What are you dreaming of next? My dream is to visit as much of the world as possible, to experience as many cultures as I can, and gain new insights from every bit of it.



John SimpkinsChristina Kidd (Fairfax Station, VA)

“Whether it is through acting, singing, painting, dancing, writing songs, directing, or any other form of art I may utilize along my journey, I want to use my skills to help my fellow human beings.”

Class that you loved: “Combat for the Stage and Street,” with Erik Raymond Johnson. This class has given me an invaluable sense of ownership of my self, my body, and my actions. It’s an incredible feeling that gives me strength in every aspect of my life, and that’s something I will carry with me no matter where the future takes me.

Words of wisdom: You are the only one who truly knows yourself, and you should never compromise who you are to suit someone else’s vision. Be the very best version of you, with an earnest and open heart.


John SimpkinsJohnny Link (Batavia, IL)

“It is always a joy to go to New York City with the B.F.A. program as a whole. It reminds me how precious it is to have a community like Penn State.”

Something you’ve dreamed of doing: I think of somehow incorporating my experiences with my hard-of-hearing into the theatrical world.

Inspiring words: You will need to recharge, and I don't mean just by sleeping (which is super important). I mean recharge your soul. Know what makes you happy and go do it. Take time for yourself, and your time here will be incredibly rewarding”



John SimpkinsSammi Sadicario (Coral Springs, FL)

“I’m so proud to become a Lion alum. Thank you for sharing this home with me for the past four years!”

What’s the biggest thing you will take away from your time at Penn State? This year I really learned the importance of having my own voice as an artist.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in how other people see you, but it’s way more exciting when you allow them to see the real you. 

A skill, subject, or place you would like to learn more about: I hope to spend time in Israel and create theatre surrounding culture and ritual.



John SimpkinsRichard Spitaletta (Upper Saddle River, NJ)

“Being a fully fleshed-out individual with unique points of view on the world and how it works is imperative to being a fully fleshed-out performer.”

A skill, subject, or place you would like to learn more about: I would love to get more involved and even work abroad with the environment. If life ever allows it, I would like to join the Peace Corps, and take an environmental position abroad in Africa, Asia, or South America.

Teachers who made a strong impact on you: Three people come to mind instantaneously when I think about influence on my time here at Penn State: Dr. Beverly Patton, my voice teacher for three years; Beth Burrier, my theory teacher; and John Simpkins, the new head of our program.



John SimpkinsBrinie Wallace (Covina, CA)

“There is nothing more helpful or encouraging than when someone from the older classes pays attention to you as a person going through something they've already gone through.”

One of your favorite classes: Susan Russell’s class on musical theatre history during my junior year! It was a discussion-based class that delved into the social issues musicals presented.

Inspiring words: Sometimes you don't want to go to that class that challenges you, because it's not easy to be bad at something, but smile through it and soon you'll be smiling authentically. I GUARANTEE THAT!

Click here to read more about the 2016 graduating class.


John Simpkins

How is it going so far in your first year?

The easy answer is that all is going really well! It was terrific to have a full semester last fall to be able to work with Cary Libkin. Cary leaves behind such a successful, healthy, and thriving program – and I was really able to download his brain on the history, training, systems, students, and faculty. It was invaluable information.

What are you thinking about for the future?

We will remain committed to our focus on world-class training of young artists. We will also be implementing some changes, some new ideas, and some different ways of thinking about musical theatre training. These include...

    We will heavily increase our focus on new musicals.

    We will look to diversify our student body so we represent the latest industry trends regarding casting, styles of musicals, and the things that an evolving musical theatre landscape is requiring.

    We will revamp our “Spotlight” yearly event to modernize the way we are thinking about providing digital material to our graduates as they enter the field.

    We will seek to connect our students to the Broadway and industry community in a more specific way so our students are in the very best position possible to leave Penn State and gain meaningful employment.

    We will seek to realize the creation and formation of an Institute for Musical Theatre – something that would make Penn State a truly unique place where training, research on the American musical theatre, and the creation/development of new musicals can come together in one artistic center.

What has surprised you most about this job?

One of the things that has surprised me so far is the extraordinary number of people that support Penn State Musical Theatre. It is a very unique thing going on here – and nothing like anything I’ve observed elsewhere. The amount of support, generosity, participation, and passion has been surprising and humbling.

Click here to read more insight from John about exciting changes ahead for Penn State Musical Theatre, the biggest trends affecting the industry right now, and how young artists can best prepare for a career in musical theatre.


John Simpkins

“Every year my career has gotten better. I think the journey is everything. I want to work in the business for a long time, whether it be in film, TV, musical theatre, or straight theatre.  I want to work and enjoy the journey.”   

Six years after her graduation in 2009, Lexi Rhoades, 28, from Willingboro, New Jersey, has found a path to many opportunities inside and outside the theatre, including becoming an expert on tea, of all things.

“If you are feeling down, licorice root is your best friend to smooth it out.  Eucalyptus, peppermint, and ginger. I make super concoctions,” says Rhoades.

Lexi is performing in After Midnight on Norwegian Cruise Lines until September, with fellow alum Allie Pizzo ('13). The show was set by Rhoades’ classmate, Jason Sparks (’09).

Click here to read the full interview!


We Are on Broadway

This past January, alumni of the Penn State School of Theatre joined forces with the local State College community for the first ever event of its kind. Current musical theatre majors as well as local middle and high school students performed alongside the Broadway veterans.

“It was pivotal for me to utilize students from the State College area, because giving them experience in collaborating with professional artists may spark some inner desires that they didn’t know they had,” shared producer Mike Karns. For the alumni, having the opportunity to return to State College and perform for the community and school that helped mold them was also pretty special.

The show, directed by John Simpkins, is writing a new chapter for the Penn State School of Theatre and Centre County. Stay tuned for upcoming events!

Click here to watch a clip of the performance!



One of the exciting changes ahead as we chart a course for the future of Penn State Musical Theatre is a commitment to helping develop the next generation of musicals from idea to production. Penn State already has a rich history with assisting new musicals in readings and workshops.  This new initiative will build on that success – and expand to commission a writing team every year. 

The team will visit campus in the fall semester to meet the B.F.A. Musical Theatre junior class.  Our juniors will sing for the writers, get to know them artistically, and the writers will then depart and write a musical over the following year.  They will return when the class begins their senior fall semester – and deliver a first draft of their show that has been written toward the strengths and personalities of that specific group of young artists.  The fall “Senior Studio” class will then focus on rehearsing and developing that musical with the writers and creative team.

Musical theatre writer Joe Iconis has been commissioned to write the first of these musicals.  Joe has authored the musicals Be More Chill, Bloodsong of Love, The Black Suits, and ReWrite, among others. His songs were featured on season 2 of NBC’s Smash.  He has been nominated for two Drama Desk Awards and a Lucille Lortel Award – and is the recipient of the Ed Kleban Award, the Jonathan Larson Award, and a Doris Duke Grant.

If you have any questions–or would like to support this program–pelase don't hesitate to be in touch at






Sunday, May 1, 8 p.m.-Midnight

It's time to mingle with old friends! Come meet the graduating seniors as they prepare for showcase!

Refreshments provided by Chef Creations, thanks to Musical Theatre alum Alyssa Gagarin.

RSVP to Lauren Weinberg for the NYC location.


Ryan Watkinson"I initially auditioned for Aladdin in March of 2013. I made it through a few rounds, but didn’t get it. I knew the show was a good fit for me, and I hoped I would get the chance to audition again. I got called in a year-and-a-half later to audition for future replacements. Then a month later was asked to go in for a principal replacement. I didn't get called back. They called me again six months later, and I went through the whole thing again, but they said, “Sorry, Nathan, not this time around.” Over two years after I first auditioned, I finally got the job.

Moral of the story: just keep showing up. What I’ve learned through all this is that you never really know where you fit.  Casting is always like a big puzzle. Throughout the process, I never got upset. I knew that when the right track opened up, I’d be ready.”

Read the full interview | Watch an amazing performance by Nathan here!




Opening Night Reception Sponsored by the College of Arts and Architecture, Post-performance on April 23

"What you create has the power to move, to inspire, to spread, and to change."
-Christian Thompson, 2014 alum

We Are on BroadwayWe Are on Broadway

The international award-winning Blood at the Root, which the School of Theatre commissioned for its M.F.A. Acting class of 2014, will have its New York City premiere at the National Black Theatre, April 20–May 15. This exciting new piece by Kennedy Prize winner Dominique Morisseau examines issues of race, class, sexuality and discrimination in a way that only live theatre can. The production features 2014 Penn State Musical Theatre alum Christian Thompson.

What has it been like to share this story with communities all over the world?

Traveling the world with this piece has been an eye opening experience. We have seen just how widespread inequality is in this world. More importantly, we have seen the hunger from individuals across the globe to fight that inequality. That fight is what makes me love bringing this show to a new audience, all around the world.

If you get the chance, come and check us out. It’s unlike any theatre experience you’ve had before, I promise!

Read more | Check out the 2014 Penn State feature story about the production's history.

The New York City premiere of Blood at the Root is co-presented by the National Black Theatre and Hi-ARTS.
Click here for show info and tickets.


Faculty Member Rob Schneider Brings Light to Stories of Broadway Legends in New Podcast

Director Robert W Schneider (Memphis) and actor Kevin David Thomas (A Little Night Music) have launched a new podcast on iTunes entitled Behind The Curtain: Broadway’s Living Legends.

The podcast is dedicated to preserving the memories, wisdom, and anecdotes of Broadway’s greatest artists. From actors to directors, designers to producers, this podcast gives listeners the rare chance to hear Broadway's most intimate stories from the legends who were in the room where it happened.

“As educators, we felt it was important for the next generation of storytellers to hear how the road ahead of them was paved, and altered, by the incredible artists who are interviewed on our podcast,” shared Schneider and Thomas. Read more.

Click here to listen to a hilarious and heartwarming podcast with Penn State’s own Spence Ford.


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Please send any inquiries, comments, or suggestions regarding the newsletter to Addi McDaniel and/or John Simpkins.