December 4, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 33°F


Staging success: Student develops musical TV show

Junior Julie Sullivan clutches her pink binder close to her chest and breathes in deeply. The word “Staged,” typed in boldface cursive on the cover, appears beneath her slender forearm as she adjusts the binder to free up her hands and motions stage directions to her performers.

Sophomore Hailee Murphy, who is slowly unbuttoning the shirt of her seated co-star, sophomore Andrew Wyman, pauses her dance. She looks up from her mock striptease as Sullivan’s ringing voice cuts through the smooth music.

“You need to be all over him when we go through this,” Sullivan says. “But not too much; remember, it’s for ICTV.”

“So no lap dances?” Murphy asks.

Straight brunette strands brush the top of Sullivan’s shoulder as she cocks her head to the left.

“For you,” Sullivan says with a sly smile, “that’s OK.”

After several minutes of explosive, adolescent laughter, Sullivan calls upon her directorial spirit and snaps her wayward cast back to focus.

“All right guys, let’s get back to work.”

Sullivan and her crew are in the throes of rehearsal for an original, three-episode Ithaca College Television show, which she co-created in Spring 2013 with junior Andrew Ronald.

“Staged” follows the story of college senior Bridget Morgan, played by senior Jessica Caracciolo. Bridget is facing expulsion from her school’s theater program and is forced to create a musical in order to maintain her status in the department. It will be a first for the ICTV, which has never aired a show with a musical format.

Ronald said the show officially got its wings when he had lunch with Sullivan in the Terrace Dining Hall during the spring semester of their sophomore year. He pitched his idea for a musical to Sullivan, specifically because he knew she would be up for the challenge after working with her on the set of former ICTV show, “Chained.”

“Knowing she was coming from a theater background, I thought she’d really be on board for a musical,” he said. “Plus, other people would be like, ‘Um, a musical? What?’”

Sullivan, who has been a fan of musical theater all her life, said signing up to help create a musical show felt natural. However, since switching majors to television-radio the second semester of her freshman year, finding her niche in television production did not come easy.

After being rejected in the winter of her senior year of high school from the college’s B.F.A. Acting major — which requires a competitive auditioning process prior to acceptance — Sullivan resolved to continue her involvement in the theater program by majoring in theater studies.

She soon found, however, that there were few opportunities for non-performance majors to get involved with productions within the walls of Dillingham Center. Determined to find an outlet where she could perform, Sullivan said she began to explore the television studios in the Roy H. Park School of Communications.

As a freshman, she found acting opportunities in senior thesis films and began talking with Park School students involved in television production. Through these interactions, Sullivan said, she realized she felt trapped and limited in the theater department.

“The Park kids were like, ‘You should change your major,’ and I was like, ‘No way, I’m a theater person,’” she said. “But then I found the scriptwriting minor and my whole world changed immediately.”

Sullivan said she was so enthralled with her first scriptwriting assignment from the Developing Story Narratives class with Julie Blumberg, assistant professor of media arts, sciences and studies, that she called her mother to tell her she was changing her concentration of study.

“My mom said she had never heard me so excited about school before,” she said. “So I switched my focus to TV and scriptwriting, and theater would be my minor. That class totally changed my idea of what I wanted to do.”

Sullivan’s passion for her three academic pursuits, television-radio, scriptwriting and theater studies, were discovered at different times during her youth. Hailing from Weymouth, Mass., an idyllic suburb just outside of Boston, the bright-eyed junior attended Fontbonne Academy, an all-girl, private Catholic institution. There, Sullivan said, she was the self-described “fine-arts girl.”

“I knew I wanted to be a theater major my freshman year of high school, and everyone kept telling me to change my mind, but I never did while I was applying to schools,” she said. “For a while, I wanted to be performer. It was my goal during my senior year.”

Despite her early determination to become an actress, Sullivan said she has never looked back since switching her major.

“I never once regretted the decision,” she said. “I’m also the most indecisive person ever, so when I make a decision on my own, it’s pretty big stuff. I love being able to say, ‘I’m good with this!’”

In many ways, Sullivan is a fairly typical college female. She unwinds with reruns of “LOST” and the current season of “The Bachelor” — a guilty pleasure, she maintains — indulges in the occasional shopping excursion, finds time for daily dining hall “brunches” with friends and delights in end-of-day chats with her roommate, junior Cassie DenDanto. But these seemingly commonplace activities have a more targeted purpose.

For Sullivan, watching TV is actually “research, to keep up with the trends of the industry” she so loves, shopping trips include costume hunting and curation for “Staged” from local boutiques like Petrune, brunches are management meetings to discuss the particulars of the show and chats with DenDanto, the musical’s director of photography, inevitably turn to discussions about filming.

“We’ll be watching TV, and I’ll constantly hear the ‘woosh’ sound of emails being sent,” DenDanto said. “Even when she’s not doing something, she’s definitely doing something.”

But Sullivan is used to this kind of daily bustle. In fact, she said it provides her the structure that allows her to thrive.

“For me, my days are completely normal,” she said. “I get really weirded out when I’m not doing something; I feel like I don’t have a purpose.”

Since freshman year, Sullivan’s days have been chock-full with obligations and typically leave little time for anything but cereal, mac ‘n’ cheese or eggs for dinner — which is more than OK with her. In fact, she enjoys “breakfast-for-dinner,” and partakes in “pancake catch-up sessions” with Jim Tyler, a resident in Titus Towers, a local senior living community.

Sullivan formed a relationship with Tyler, her “Ithaca grandpa,” during her sophomore year when she directed the first intergenerational play between the college’s Aging Studies students and Titus Towers as part of a new gerontology department service learning initiative. Tyler wrote and composed the musical, and he said Sullivan had plenty of ideas in order to give the script a clear voice.

“A play is nothing more than words on paper, a lifeless thing, until a cast of people gets hold of it — and the director of course — and they bring it to life,” he said. “And she sees that; she’s always on the lookout for ways to bring a play to life.”

Flipping through the color-coded cast sheets in her binder, Sullivan said there are pieces of her in all of those characters: their confidence on stage, their fears of the future and their desire to express their passion for the arts. But she said she can especially relate to Bridget, who essentially represents Sullivan’s own disillusionment of letting go of theater and struggle to rediscover her love for it through new channels.

“What it comes down to is what do you do when people make you hate something you love so much?” she said.

It is a question Sullivan has grappled with since deciding to forgo her pursuit of a career as a performer in exchange for a work as a scriptwriter. But it is a question she said has helped her lay the foundation for a future on the opposite side of the camera.

“It’s a lot about the friends you make in college and figuring out what really makes you happy,” she said. “This is kind of my big college project, and it’s what I’m leaving behind.”