Jared Kaufman is no stranger to the limelight, but landing the leading role in a Saginaw Valley State University production during his freshman year still managed to rattle his nerves leading up to opening night.
“It was a bit terrifying for a while there,” the Bay City native said of the Wednesday, Feb. 20 showing of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” “I just wanted to get it right.”
It appears he did, at least by the high standards of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival representative in the audience that evening. Based on that first performance, Kaufman was invited to the festival's Region III conference January 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. There, he will compete against the top college actors in the Midwest for the prestigious Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship.
He will be among familiar faces. One of his co-stars, Megan Mitchell, an art major from Saginaw, also will compete for the scholarship. And four crew members working the technical aspects of “Curious Incident” received individual certificates of merit from the festival representative. The honor means the students will be invited to participate in competitions and workshops at the conference along with the entire cast, which received a group certificate of merit.
“I'm so proud of the work and artistry of our students,” said Tommy Wedge, the SVSU assistant professor of theatre who directed” "Curious Incident.” “It's thrilling that we are being recognized by this national organization.”
Kaufman and Mitchell, who played multiple roles, initially will compete for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship's regional award, worth up to $500. If one of them earns that distinction, the recipient will be invited to the festival's April 2020 national conference in Washington, D.C. to compete for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship's top $5,000 scholarship.
Kaufman is familiar with the national conference. His brother, Jacob Kaufman, an SVSU alumnus who was a member of the technical crews in campus productions, earned a trip there in April 2017 after receiving the festival's first-ever Region III Arts Management Fellowship.
“Neither of us are in this for the awards - we love what we do - but he was proud of me,” Jared Kaufman said of his older brother, who received a bachelor's degree in theatre from SVSU last May.
The younger Kaufman's love for the stage began when he was a sixth grader at Handy Middle School in Bay City and blossomed during his time at Bay City Central High School. During those formative years, he participated both in technical aspects of stage production as well as acting.
During his first semester as a communication and theatre education major at SVSU, Kaufman saw the casting call for the February production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." He gravitated toward the lead character, Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who is accused of killing a neighborhood dog and quickly goes on a quest to find the true culprit.
Kaufman, 19, was attracted to the challenge of the role. While it is never stated in the dialogue, the play's narrative suggests Christopher falls within the spectrum of autism. The obscurity of the character's disorder meant Kaufman would need to perform with a measure of subtlety when portraying the autistic behaviors. In other words, Kaufman would need to walk a thin line to make sure he did not over-act the part.
“I wanted to give an honest performance for the audience, to give them an idea of what it is like to see someone within the spectrum,” he said.
Kaufman said he felt his nerves heightening as opening night approached, but the support of his fellow cast and crew members helped him perform with grace. When the curtains closed and the cast curtsied, the audience applauded.
“I was really pleased to see how they appreciated my performance,” he said. “And we received a lot of kind reviews from critics. I've never been in a show where I had a review written about me before this. That was very nice.”
Learning later that a Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival representative praised his performance was the cherry on top, he said. Kaufman said he understands recognition from such an organization can be an indicator of promising days ahead in the performing arts industry. He has witnessed that effect, as he recently helped his Kennedy Center-honored brother move to Connecticut to begin work as production manager for The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center.
Jared Kaufman, meanwhile, already is preparing for his next role as the son of one of the main characters in SVSU's April musical about female empowerment, “9 to 5.” So far, he feels more confident his nerves won't affect him as much during this production.
“It's not as big of a role as Christopher, which is OK,” he said. “I'm more than happy to take it more easy this time.”