By Emily Freer
DJ Curtis began his theatre career back in preschool. However, it wasn’t until his freshman year of high school when he discovered his passion for theatre after being cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
This was a pivotal moment for Curtis, who is now a Portland-based actor in the theatre community. He was set on attending East Carolina University, but his plans began to shift during his gap year.
That year, Peace College began to transform into William Peace University, complete with a brand new musical theatre program. Mary Katherine Walston, his voice teacher in high school, convinced him to accept the audition invitation from the department director.
Four years after graduation, Curtis returned to WPU’s campus to facilitate a masterclass with current musical theatre students in October.
“I’ll never forget the feeling I had on my audition day,” said Curtis, “Although I had been on that campus a few times prior I had felt in that moment a sense of what home felt like. Everyone was so kind and welcoming.”
The audition was a success, afterwards he was taken directly to the admissions office. They decided that he must attend WPU after watching his audition video.
“They fought for me. I hadn’t experienced that often and I knew that they cared about me,” said Curtis.
Curtis says that his time at WPU was “true preparation.” From learning values that he still treasures today, to friendships he continues to strengthen, he was able to learn how to step into uncertainty with bravery.
Since Curtis’ graduation in 2017, he has been booked and busy. He challenged himself to grow as a person. He has been able to travel to new places and meet many new people, some who are kinder than others. He says that he stretched himself as he learned to move through uncomfortable situations.
“There are obstacles we face in all things that we do, but surmounting those things truly does give you strength and wisdom to be able to embrace more of the ease that you deserve in life,” said Curtis, “My career has been very rewarding and I hope to see even more successes as I continue to tell stories.”
He prepared for the masterclass in a number of ways. He recalled previous masterclasses he attended and what helped him. He wanted to make sure that the information and feedback he gave was necessary for shaping any material, not just what was presented that afternoon.
“I remember one class in particular that gave me a huge breakthrough with Micheal Deleget,” said Curtis, “He talked about how life on stage is like the layers of an onion and how you keep peeling those layers back to get closer to the heart of the characters and the piece overall.”
Above all else, he wanted to make sure that students were comfortable. Ashlynn Charles, a sophomore musical theatre major, was one of four students who performed at the masterclass. They all prepared an audition piece to perform then got to work with Curtis for about 15 minutes.
“I felt really comfortable with DJ there, he didn’t make me nervous at all,” said Charles, “I felt free to make performative choices. I love being able to perform for my peers!”
To prepare, Charles chose a song that resonated with her, suited her voice, and proceeded to practice for an hour every day. She reflected on her experience and found some similarities in her feedback to previous notes given to her.
“I realized a lot of what DJ was saying was things I’ve heard from my voice teacher!” said Charles, “Hearing the same thing from different sources really proves that’s the kind of thing I need to work on!”
Getting to come back and work with current students sparked so much joy for Curtis. He was inspired by their drive and their passion, and was grateful to witness them grow in their art.
“Every student who stepped on that stage arrived with bravery and they were attentive and took risks,” said Curtis, “They all had gorgeous voices and each sparkled in their own unique way. We truly got to go on a journey in each piece.”
As he leaves for New Mexico to pursue his next role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he encourages students to enjoy the moment because where you are now is not the final destination. He also adds not to stress too much about “success”. He said that as long as you’re giving it your all, you are doing the work and that’s all that matters.
“I hope to see them on a stage one day and cheer them on from the audience.” Curtis concluded.