Nicole Vanasse '20 leads Big Blue to another impressive showing.
Since that first show, he has performed in (or behind the scenes of) 14 productions, 11 of which have been at Pingry. His freshman year, he won the Drama 1 Monologue Award. He is already plotting his Independent Senior Project (a two-person musical), which is still three years away, and dreams of his culminating, senior-year Drama IV performance.
Aside from the sheer joy he feels when he’s on stage, Josh says Pingry’s tradition of welcoming special needs children to attend dress rehearsal before opening day performances is a real highlight. In fact, he recalls one such performance, after which a young boy asked to meet him in person, as “one of the best moments in my life. . . Here was a small child actually wanting to meet me, even though I was just an eighth grader.”
Off-stage, English is Josh's favorite class. He credits his former teacher, Dr. Reid Cottingham, with fostering his love of reading, writing, articulating, and engaging in healthy debate, like when his freshman-year English class read and acted out parts of Othello. All of these skills, he notices, translate into his acting. “I used to be so shy, but now I’m a lot more confident. People are different when they’re in their happy places.”
“It was just so much fun,” she recalls. “Being part of that play really helped me to adjust to the school and it took me out of my shell—now I’m definitely the loudest in my class! That experience solidified how much I enjoy acting and singing.”
Kat, as her friends call her, went on to play Martha in The Secret Garden in Grade 8, and, by her junior year, she auditioned for—and was accepted into—Pingry’s female a cappella group, the Balladeers. Since her first foray into acting as a Pingry Middle Schooler, she has been involved in two productions a year, and once she hit the Upper School, she began stage managing the Middle School musical as well. “It’s fun to inspire the younger kids,” she says.
Thanks to an Honors Bio class she took her sophomore year, Kat—also science lover—is confident she has identified a fitting career path, as an oncologist. “The same skills I learn through drama—relaxing, connecting with the audience and with my fellow performers—are also so important for doctors. I think I may have found the perfect way to combine the things that I love!”
“I never thought I could be this deeply involved in music, but being part of the Balladeers has shaped every aspect of my life at Pingry,” she says. By her account, the experience has made her more creative, more confident, and less averse to taking risks. Her freshman year, wanting to get comfortable singing in front of large groups of people, she made a pact with a fellow newbie Balladeer to audition for every single solo opportunity. By her sophomore year, she nailed the solo for Bohemian Rhapsody. She also sees her newfound risk-taking playing out in the classroom. Says the science-minded alto, “I’m an analytical paper kind of gal. I don’t take many risks in English class, but now I find myself experimenting more. Now I think: ‘If I can get excited about this song, I can get excited about the other things I’m doing.’”
A member of the Project 80 science club, in which students develop podcasts and videos on a variety of compelling scientific stories, she has further honed her ability to hear carefully, to listen thoughtfully. Last year, she did a Journal Club presentation on how listening to music affects neurons in the brain.
Having never before considered pursuing music in college, now she does. “The Balladeers have been a stronghold for me, a group of people I can fall back on. Even during a solo, I know they’re always there behind me, no matter what.” She laughs as she tells about their annual holiday gift exchange, when one Balladeer asked for a boyfriend. What did she receive? A cardboard cut-out of Zac Ephron, on which the group practices their serenades. “Yeah, we’re all here to do music because we love it,” she says, “but we’re also here to have fun, to be the best versions of ourselves.”
Back at Pingry, when he reached Grade 9, he took a year of Art Fundamentals—a required course for all art students—so that he could pursue Intro to Photography his sophomore year. That was followed by Photo 1, and now, fully immersed in the art form, he is a student in Photo 2, continuing to learn and hone his craft. His teacher, Chair of the Fine Arts Department Mr. Miles Boyd, is instructing him on the use of a 35 mm camera, with film.
“It’s a really interesting process,” says Tyler. “Unlike digital photography, film really makes you slow down and pay attention to what you’re shooting. You have to be more precise and make sure your settings are correct. It gives you a real appreciation for composition.”
Photography in general, he says, gives him an opportunity to rest his mind from traditional academic classes, refocus, and challenge it in a different way. He finds it rejuvenating. People are his favorite subject, especially crowds, where he can capture one or two unsuspecting individuals in the midst of many, going about their day. Back in the classroom, English and Spanish are his favorite subjects. “I enjoy being able to explore the limits of my creativity and my ability to illustrate what I am thinking,” he adds.
Tyler, a student government representative and three-year member of Pingry’s track & field team (a sprinter, he races the 100, 200, and 400 meters), doesn’t think that he will pursue photography exclusively when he gets to college. That said, he doesn’t envision abandoning a hobby about which he’s so passionate anytime soon.
A comment that Mr. Boyd made to him rings true. “He told me that once you discover photography, you will never see the world the same way again. Now, whenever I look around and see something interesting or pretty, like a sunset, I see it as if I’m looking through a frame.”
Shortly, the junior will join his fellow fine arts classmates on a field trip to the Whitney Museum to view a photography exhibit. His camera will be close by.
The following year, he landed the role of television-obsessed Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (“I enjoy video games, so it was a natural part for me,” Ram jokes). Last year, as a sixth grader, he played Francis Flute in Midsummer Night’s Dream, a role that required him to also portray Thisbe, a female, in the play within the play that takes place. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, do I really have to do this? But everyone was very supportive, and it was really fun.”
Now, a seventh grader, he is transforming himself into The Tempest’s Caliban, “a misunderstood demon child,” as Ram characterizes him. Indeed, every year since his first show in the third grade, he has performed in a Pingry musical or play. Not a bad repertoire for a soon-to-be 13-year-old, whose self-drive and work ethic are evident. “You really have to work for something if you want to get it,” he says.
Ram also sings in the Middle School boys’ chorus and credits his teacher, Pingry’s Music Department Chair, Dr. Andrew Moore, with teaching him a lot—and with allowing him and his fellow choir members to have a good deal of fun. He hopes to become a Buttondown himself when he reaches the Upper School (he will be a freshman when his brother is a senior, making the prospect of performing together exciting).
For now, he is focused on his upcoming performance in The Tempest. What does he love most about acting? “The fact that you can do it with others. I love that you’re on stage with so many other people, combining your talents, and making friends along the way.”
Ajuné has been drawing since preschool, and fully intends to continue to pursue visual arts through the Upper School. Like many Pingry students, she is multi-faceted, however. Her other main interest: chemistry.
Middle School art teacher Jane Kunzman is one of Ajuné’s greatest admirers and promoters, agreeing to her creative mandala project even though it didn’t meet the assignment’s exact requirements. In turn, Ajuné often shares even her private sketches with her teacher. “Mrs. Kunzman always keeps an open mind about our ideas and lets us bend the rules a bit,” she says. “She encourages me to follow my ideas, suggesting that maybe the result will turn out to be better than what I originally imagined.”
Ask him to compare his Juilliard experience to his life at Pingry, and he will respond: “Juilliard is an extraordinary place to go. However, I feel right at home at Pingry, and home is where you belong.” As he sees it, one day a week he experiences the Juilliard community, and five days a week he is able to pursue his music in a different way, among many other interests, in the Pingry community. “It’s such a great community, and I am so proud of it.”A member of the Pingry’s Glee Club and the Buttondowns a cappella group, his singing complements his playing, he says. He gives special thanks to Dr. Andrew Moore, Music Department Chair and Director of the Buttondowns, for supporting his interests, both vocal and instrumental. (When he needs a quiet place to do homework, Dr. Moore’s office is always open to him.) Jon has even arranged popular renditions of Ed Sherran’s Photograph and Boys II Men songs for the group. Although he doesn’t envision becoming a professional singer or musician, wanting instead to explore different options, his experiences at Pingry and beyond have equipped him well. “Practice time with the Buttondowns is the class I most look forward to,” he says. “It’s chaos, and it’s pure fun.”