Get Thee to Julliard! A Conversation with David Corenswet ’11 and Shipley Theater Director Phillip Brown
“That is why the arts are so important, even for people who don’t necessarily want to act or play music,” says Corenswet. “The confidence is not from what you have—it is in knowing what you have and being able to use it.”
When David Corenswet ’11 got “the call” offering him a coveted spot in the Julliard Drama Division, he telephoned Phillip Brown, his Shipley theater teacher and mentor. “My favorite reaction was Mr. Brown’s,” says Corenswet. “He kept saying over and over, ‘YOU WHAT! YOU WHAT!’” Indeed, the news was almost overwhelming for Brown—the culmination of four years of participating in most every aspect of David’s journey from young teenage actor with loads of ability to witnessing what he describes as a true freeing of the mind. “It was the perfect moment,” says Brown, “we had put so much work into it… I know the gravity of what Julliard means.” For David, it means four years in the storied conservatory program that is the training ground for many of America’s most revered actors, with such alumni as Robin Williams, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Kline, Viola Davis, and Patti Lu Pone.
Corenswet had just begun an undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania when he quickly realized he missed the theater—that what he really wanted to do was to study acting full time at the best possible school. He contacted his Shipley theater teacher for help. With an acceptance rate of about 2%, achieving admission into Julliard’s drama program required a serious plan of attack: “We made up a schedule and David would meet out here at Shipley twice a week to work top to bottom on everything, “ says Brown, who gave David exercises and character research to complete between meetings.
Then they took a big risk, selecting audition pieces that would contrast a vulnerable Romeo (in a monolog from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ) with the depraved character Zooman, a brutal and impoverished soul created by playwright Charles Fuller for his play set in Philadelphia, Zooman and the Sign. “The idea,” says Corenswet, “was to make them fall in love with me (as Romeo) and then make them hate me … make them think they know me and then show them that they don’t.” The Julliard faculty was clearly intrigued: David was asked to do Zooman three times.
“It was a risky choice,” says Brown, ”but he nailed it.” Corenswet and Brown texted back and forth throughout the grueling first day of auditions and cuts. “I knew I had done what I needed to do to get called back," says Corenswet. And he did: one of just 46 survivors from the original 1,400 applicants, David was invited for an intensive weekend of classes and auditions. “That weekend I learned enough to make everything worth it even if I didn’t get in,” says Corenswet. But he made it. He was called the next week with an invitation to be one of the next fall’s class of 18 fortunate students.
David Corenswet believes that so much of what he learned from Mr. Brown was confidence: “That is why the arts are so important, even for people who don’t necessarily want to act or play music,” says Corenswet. “The confidence is not from what you have—it is in knowing what you have and being able to use it.” Adds Brown: “The same tools you learn in theater class that can build an actor will transcend these walls… you can’t get away from your body and your mind.”
And when it came to preparing for the Julliard auditions, there was a trust already established between student and teacher: “There was no push back,” says Brown, “it was just, ‘let’s go.’ “Corenswet describes how that trust allowed him to make new breakthroughs: “I knew we had the same goal... It made all the difference in the world. I wouldn’t have auditioned for Julliard, or been successful in those auditions, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Brown. To find somebody before I got into this industry, which is all about money, (someone) with my best interests at heart, is invaluable. (Mr. Brown’s) professional experience and ability to teach… no high school (student) gets that.”
The close relationship these men share is palpable. When they are in a room together they finish each other’s sentences, share anecdotes and express a genuine affection that is truly moving. “There is no magic wand or pill to take when it comes to teaching an actor,” says Brown. “You have to get in and get personal. It is all about truth… I couldn’t be more proud of how David got to where he is. I tip my hat… I know David is going to do well.”