Theatre and Dance

Behind the Curtain

Please join us for Behind the Curtain: A Showcase of Theatre on March 23 at 7:30pm in Hainline Theatre. We will showcase songs and scenes from upcoming WIU performances, including Peter and the Starcatcher, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Avenue Q and Crumbs from the Table of Joy. The evening will conclude with the award winning performance by Jeffrey-Allen Young and Brett Olson, which they will be performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in April.

Video by: Phil Weiss University Television

behind the curtain

Two WIU MFA Students Finalists in Kennedy Center Acting Competition

MACOMB, IL – Two Western Illinois University Master of Fine Arts (MFA) acting students are continuing what is becoming a departmental tradition of being named finalists for the Kennedy Center's Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship.

Jeffrey Young and Brett Olson, both of Macomb, have advanced through several regional rounds of competition to be named one of 16 national finalist teams. Young was chosen as the national nominee and Olson as his acting partner.

The competition will take place during the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, April 16-22 in Washington, DC. The acting team will perform three pieces that showcase the variety of acting techniques they have developed throughout their education.

Irene Ryan was an American actress who is best known for her role as "Granny" in "The Beverly Hillbillies." Her scholarship is considered the biggest acting award at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Both Young and Olson came to Western after finishing their undergraduate degrees elsewhere. Representatives of Western's Department of Theatre and Dance sought Young out during a theatre audition and invited him to visit campus.

"My wife and I came and visited the campus and they just embraced us and were very welcoming," said Young. "That was one of the biggest distinctions from the other universities and places that we had gone to. We had gone to New York City and Virginia and several different places, but because we were so welcomed here it made it easier to want to partake in that kind of department."

Prior to coming to Western, Olson was a graduate student at the University of North Dakota – Grand Forks, where WIU alumnus Emily Cherry, a 2009 MFA graduate, heads the school's directing program.

"I just felt that everything that she had taught me about acting in that two-year program was something that I would really like to learn from the people who taught her," said Olson. "She ended up recommending me, and I came and did an audition at Western."

Young was nominated for the Kennedy Center competition initially because of his performance in WIU's 2016 "Tribes." He then asked Olson to be his acting partner.

During his undergraduate work, Young was nominated for the Irene Ryan scholarship twice and made it to the semi-final round both times. Olson participated in the final round of the regional competition one time during his undergraduate work.

Olson compared the acting team's regional win to a playoff bid.

"For us and for collegiate actors, this is like a bowl game," he said. "This is our final season working together, if you will, because we both graduate in May. We were like 'We're going to the Rose Bowl,' but it's the Kennedy Center for us."

This is the fourth time a WIU student has received the regional Irene Ryan Scholarship. The first nominee was actor Michael Boatman in the 1986 competition, followed by alumni Nick Vienna in 2006 and Kelli Crump in 2007.

Young said he and Olson are proud to be counted among the WIU theatre alumni who have received the Kennedy Center recognition.

"It is nice to receive the understanding that we are part of the legacy here at WIU, " said Young. "It's an extreme honor."

In addition to scholarship recognition, as finalists, Young and Olson will also have their trips to the Washington D.C. competition paid for.

"The people in the audience (at the festival) are kind of movers and shakers within the theatrical industry," said Young. "So you are auditioning for, yes, the scholarship, but if you're a graduating student, you're also auditioning for employment. A lot of graduating students, once they have made it to the national level, often leave employed in a television show, or some theatrical production or being an ongoing member of a theatrical company."

The team said their career plans have changed somewhat since they have achieved acting success. Both said they have a passion for teaching, but as they progressed through the competition they have been approached by television directors with acting possibilities.

"This would never happened to us had we not come here, had we not met each other, had all of those pieces not fallen into place; it really is just a big blessing and really exciting, " said Young. "It has taken my ideas of what I thought I was going to do and it has just kind of opened up other doors. So now I am once again at this place of I am kind of excited to see what I do. At this point, if I was able to be employed as an actor, yes, or go into teaching yes, there is nothing but yes at this point."

The Kennedy Center performance includes the same three pieces that the team has performed at each level of the competition. The first piece is a dramatic scene from "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," about two soldiers fighting in the Iraqi war; the second is a classic comedic piece from "The Illusion," and the final is a monologue by Young from "The Women of Lokerbie. "

All three segments fit into the six-minute timeframe allowed in the competition.

Despite the fact that the two WIU graduate acting students have not been cast in any University production together, Olson said they have transitioned well, and their scenes showcase each other's strengths.

"It's hard to find a play or a script that is a world that Jeff and I both live in a lot of the time, so we're faced with that challenge of how do we find scenes that we both live in," he said

Olson said he and Young had a moment of realization after the final round of competition, when they walked into the theatre's lobby and saw several WIU faculty members there.

"Bill Kincaid, who's the head of acting, and Carolyn Blackinton, who is the head of the voice portion of performance and DC Wright, who is the head of the movement portion, were all standing in the lobby," said Olson. "I walked out and I saw them and I'm like, 'Oh my goodness, each scene lines up with one of the teachers.' It just sort of hit me in that moment that all of the holistic acting training that we received at Western really had paid off. It was a touching moment."

More than 400 students nationwide compete in the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship auditions in just the region made up of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. In addition to Young and Olson moving on to the national competition, WIU senior Justis Drakes, a musical theatre major from Chicago, won the "Best Partner" award in the regional competition this year.

For more information about the national competition, visit For more information about the WIU Department of Theatre and Dance, visit

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (
Office of University Relations