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Alumni Profile: Claire Karpen

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(Drama Group 41)

How would you describe your Juilliard experience?
Essential, formative, demanding, empowering and fun.

What do you feel was your biggest challenge while you were a student?
I wrestled a lot with this question. Every day was full of challenges and it's hard to identify the biggest. I guess one of the biggest challenges was keeping a healthy perspective about everything. It's so easy to get mired down in the intensity of school and how much you want to do well and grow, but at the end of the day, it's just theater. I don't mean to trivialize what we do — I think that it's essential and I could write a whole book on why — but at school, it's so easy to take it all too seriously and you can risk forgetting the joy or inspiration that brought you to the art in the first place. What I learned is that in order to achieve that perspective you need three things: 1) distance — it's important to get out of those walls every now and then, or at least out of your division; 2) a support system of people who remind you who you are and that there is a bigger world out there; and, 3) perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor.

What is your favorite memory as a student at Juilliard?
Yikes, there are so many. One of them includes watching the final performance of A Little Night Music my senior year. I did something crazy, which was ask the school to allow me to direct and produce a student-initiated production of A Little Night Music, using students from all three divisions which we could only rehearse in our very limited free time. To this day, I still don't know quite how we pulled it off, but we did, and watching the audience witness the fruits of that collaboration was overwhelming. There was also an infamous clown class when we played "stone-cold face off" (a silly dance game in which if you crack a smile, you're out) where my groupmate Grantham Coleman and I, as the last two standing, uncovered a whole new level of antics — but that's another story for another time.

What was your first impression of Juilliard when you first arrived?
My first journey into the walls of Juilliard was when I auditioned, and I feared it would be intimidating, cold, and judgmental. I was surprised to find it the exact opposite. Everyone was so inviting, warm and encouraging, even in the audition room itself. And the real testament to the school, is that while the students and faculty made me feel at home, they also made me raise myself to a higher standard. It both asked and allowed my talent to show up that day. And it's how I knew it was the right place for me.

Did your impression change once you approached graduation?
Not really, though I did see how everyone has their own experience of the school. It can be radically different, and that's a good thing because everyone grows at their own pace and needs different challenges at different times. But the main impression that I had — that Juilliard was a supportive and challenging place that was going to ask all of me to show up — stayed true through all my four years.

Have you kept in touch with classmates from Juilliard?
Yes! Though because we're now scattered around the country all doing exciting things, so it's harder to see each other. However, one of our classmates set up a private Facebook group for our class where we post everything from show info to inspirational quotes to ridiculous inside jokes, memes and YouTube videos.

Did you feel prepared to leave Juilliard once you graduated?
Yes. I will admit that after four years, I was also very ready to leave, in a good way.

Do you feel your education and training at Juilliard set you apart from your industry peers?
There's no question that the name Juilliard holds a kind of clout that gets me a certain advantage — maybe I get into an audition more quickly, maybe I'm afforded a longer look, maybe I have more connections through the artists I worked with at school, etc. But it also did something important for me, in that it equipped me to work with all my industry peers no matter their training or experience.

This past year, I've been fortunate enough to work in a variety of different mediums (film, television, regional theater, musicals, improvisation, etc.) with people who come from different schools of training, and I've been excited to discover that my training is flexible enough to complement theirs.

What does being a part of the Juilliard alumni community mean to you?
It is such a ridiculous privilege to be a part of a community of so many talented artists. I have to pinch myself sometimes. And while the connections and networking and support system of alumni helps, the thing I find the most powerful about the Juilliard alumni community is how inspired I am by everyone.

What are some words of advice you’d like to share with our current students?
Work hard. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Take advantage of your time at school — it goes fast. Try to work with people outside your division. Challenge yourself, school is a safe place to do it and it's good to make it a habit. Keep a sense of humor. Build a good support system of friends and colleagues. You are surrounded by some of the most talented people in the country, so enjoy them as much as you can.

What are some current projects you’ve been working on?
I've been very fortunate to have been busy this past year doing a short film, some commercials, a few plays, and most recently, I played Cinderella in Fiasco's Into the Woods at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., (www.mccarter.org). I also managed to do some more directing and am writing a musical with my husband Mike Pettry. More at www.clairekarpen.com.

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