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Theater 24-7A Day with a Powerhouse Apprentice

Rachel Altemose ’19 stands inside a circle of her fellow actors in Vassar’s Kenyon Hall, defending her heritage. As some in the circle question her assertions, Altemose responds with fierce conviction, her voice intensifying as she screams at those who challenge her. “I am Rachel Rebecca Altemose!” she yells, pounding her chest. “Some of my ancestors are Welsh, and I am one of them!”

Rachel Altemose ’19, Powerhouse apprentice, in her acting class

This exercise, performed in turn by all of Altemose’s fellow Powerhouse apprentices, is designed to help them make meaningful connections with the characters they play, explains Powerhouse acting teacher Devin Kawaoka. “All cultures are steeped in pride, and all have endured hardships,” Kawaoka tells the class. “The characters you’ll be playing will have their own histories, and you have to learn to own them, to identify with them instead of just pretending you’re that character.”

For Altemose and the other 43 aspiring actors, directors, and playwrights enrolled in this summer’s Powerhouse Theater Training Program, such moments of raw intensity are commonplace during their 39-day stay on the Vassar campus. The training program has been a component of Vassar and New York Stage and Film’s Powerhouse Theater since its inception in 1985.

For the actors, a typical day begins with an early breakfast, followed by at least four hours of acting, voice, and movement classes. The rest of the day is filled with workshops and other theater-related chores, such as altering costumes in the wardrobe room in the basement of the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film. Evening rehearsals for apprentice performances typically run until 10pm.

It’s a grueling schedule—“A lot of times it just feels like, ‘Go, go, go,’” Altemose says—but she’s thoroughly enjoying it. A drama and English double major from Bethlehem PA, Altemose says her experience as an apprentice is profoundly different from her time as a Vassar student. “During the school year, you’re attending many different classes and engaging in various activities,” she says. “Here, you wake up thinking theater and go to bed thinking theater; you’re constantly learning what the business is about.”

“You wake up thinking theater and go to bed thinking theater…you’re constantly learning what the business is about.”

Altemose has been performing in front of audiences for most of her life. She began taking ballet lessons when she was three years old, was part of public performances of Nutcracker by the time she was seven, and she acted in musicals in high school. She was drawn to Vassar by the drama program but didn’t begin to think about acting as a career until recently. “I didn’t have drama as a profession in my scope when I got here, but it’s beginning to seem like more of a possibility,” she says.

Altemose says the tone set by her Powerhouse instructors has been a key factor in enabling her to gain more self-confidence. “From our first day, Devin gave us all permission to see the class as a safe place,” she says. “Our classes are taught in a non-judgmental atmosphere where we’re allowed to feel vulnerable without feeling threatened, so we all accept each other.”

Enhancing self-awareness is a thread that runs through most of her classes, Altemose says. “Our voice classes are all about learning how our body creates sound, so we’re exercising many parts of it,” she says. “It can be taxing and tiring, like any form of exercise.” 

Powerhouse director Emily Mendelsohn, who oversaw the apprentices’ performance of Hamlet, says she witnessed Altemose’s growth as an actor. “Rachel is fearless, always willing to try new approaches and take chances,” Mendelsohn says.

Altemose agrees her stint as an apprentice enabled her to grow as an actor more than she anticipated. “Powerhouse is teaching me to trust in my abilities as a performer, to make risky choices,” she says. “I’m learning every day not to hold back.”