Alyssa James bids farewell to the School of Drama with confidence for the future

There’s an air of excitement when School of Drama undergraduate student Alyssa James sits down four days ahead of Commencement to reflect on her time at UNCSA. “I never thought this is where my life would have taken me,” she says, beaming. “I’m just so endlessly grateful.”

The 2023 grad fell in love with theater at an early age and recalls a meaningful elementary school performance that opened her eyes to the magic of storytelling: “We had a little audition process, and I landed one of two speaking roles,” recalls James. “I had a few lines, and I was so excited to tell the story and to become someone else.” Her extra-curricular interests expanded throughout elementary school, but she returned to the stage in middle school. In high school, she cemented her career trajectory by performing in musicals and participating in a Junior Thespians program.

Alyssa James

Graduating School of Drama student Alyssa James at the UNCSA sign. / Photo courtesy of James

Her childhood passion led her to UNCSA, where she spent the next four years honing her creativity and craft, facing her fears and learning to believe in herself.

Below, James shares what she describes as a surreal experience studying and growing at UNCSA:

What brought you to UNCSA? Why did you choose the undergraduate Drama program over other schools’ offerings?

I did a lot of musicals and sang in the chorus in high school, so I was interested in musical theater. I was researching programs that didn’t take out the acting training to supplement with music and dance. A lot of them did. UNCSA turned up in some of my searches, but it wasn’t front and center.

Then I had the opportunity to see “Once On this Island” on Broadway, which starred Drama alumnus Isaac Powell (B.F.A. Drama ’17). I felt so moved and connected to the material. Seeing Isaac and knowing he came from UNCSA… I thought it must be a pretty good place. I looked into the curriculum and found that the program checked all the boxes for me. I auditioned in New York and got in! On top of that, I ended up getting a full ride. 

You’re a recipient of the William R. Kenan, Jr. Excellence Scholarship, which covers tuition, fees, room and board for four years. How did being a recipient of this award affect you?

It feels unbelievable that I was given this opportunity. My mom wanted me to play basketball because she thought I’d have a better chance of getting a college scholarship if I was an athlete. So, having the support to  do what I love with my whole heart has been a huge honor. Graduating debt-free also eliminates a huge financial burden as I begin looking for work.

Alyssa James

James performing at the 2023 Scholarship Luncheon / Photo: Wayne Reich

What is a favorite performance from the last four years? Why was it meaningful?

I played the role of Mother Courage in “Mother Courage and Her Children” this spring. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life thus far. When [director] Carl Forsman shared the casting news, I had this feeling of, “Are you sure? Are you positive?” This inner critic told me I wasn’t the person for this job. It’s a fear I’ve harbored for a long time, and I’ve chipped away at it during my time at UNCSA. But embracing this role taught me that I am capable and that I am the person for this job. I can do it, and I can do it well. It was incredible to believe in myself for what felt like the first time in a real way. I gained such a great sense of trust in myself.

What have your experiences at UNCSA taught you about failure?

“Mother Courage” changed a lot through its run, and I’m really grateful for that because I also have had to [change]. I sometimes want things to be perfect and right as soon as I have them in my hands. And I’ve been learning that usually there is no perfect, and it’s usually not right. There’s just making choices and trying things, and sometimes you fail. That’s ok! And being comfortable in that and the learning and growing of it all is something that I learned in my four years here and really culminated in that particular show.

Alyssa James

James in the School of Drama devised production of "Mother Tongue" in Spring 2022 / Photo: Wayne Reich

What is an opportunity you had at UNCSA that’s different from other universities?

The ability to do so much student-produced work is so encouraging. We can create our own work during Intensive Arts, which was the first place I was able to share my own work that I wrote. We also have Keys to the Kingdom, which is a student-produced senior play season. I was in three of those this year; it was some of my favorite work ever. 

If you could say “thank you” to one person at UNCSA, who would it be?

I have to thank Dean Scott Zigler and [Director of Recruitment] Quin Gordon because they admitted me and saw something in me when I was hopeful, but not sure if I saw it in myself. And Carl Forsman as well. He has always been on my team and has believed in me; it was evident from the moment he started teaching me. He has pushed me in the ways I needed to be pushed.

Alyssa James

James (left) behind the scenes of Drama's Fall 2022 production of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" / Photo courtesy of James

What are your plans after Commencement?

I plan on going to New York or maybe Chicago. It’s scary without a net beneath me now, but I’m going to hit the ground running. I’m also part of a continuous workshop of a play, “mother / land,” with a group of Drama alumni from the past few years. I started working with them last summer, and we’re picking it back up again in August to develop a full script.

What is something you wish someone would have told you as an incoming student?

Take every opportunity you can to create, even if you’re afraid. I can be very fear-driven person, leading me to live in the past or future instead of being present. But I tossed my hat in lots of rings here; creatively, I’ve done a lot. There are times when I’ve had ideas and wanted to try something new. I stopped myself from fear of not being good enough or being afraid nobody would want to engage. I wish I had taken more initiative to attack them sooner without caring if anyone thought they would be good.

I’ve learned that I have everything I need within me, and I don’t need anybody to tell me if it’s good or not because…it’s there. It’s there, so it’s inherently good. I know that I’m capable of whatever I need to do.

by Hannah Callaway

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May 04, 2023