Alumnae Make Broadway Debut in Ragtime
Actors perform in the dress
Oct. 26, 2009
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Numerous alumni of the Illinois Wesleyan University music and
theatre departments have made the transition from the cozy, quaint McPherson Theatre
and the ornate, chestnut stage of Westbrook Auditorium, to the lights of Broadway
and the red carpet of Hollywood. This year the departments boast two more successful
alumnae, recent graduates Lisa Karlin ’06 and Bryonha Parham ’07.
On Nov. 15, the young women make their Broadway debut in Ragtime revival at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City.
The musical transports its audience back to the early 1900’s and intertwines the lives
of three distinctly different groups of people. In the performance, Karlin plays a
female swing lead, covering multiple female roles and Parham plays the friend of the
Both alumnae graduated with bachelors of fine arts in music theatre and spent their
four years at Illinois Wesleyan immersed in the theatre department. Karlin arrived
at IWU from Overland Park, Kan., and starred in such well-known campus productions
such as Tangible Dreams: Dance Concert; the musicals A New Brain, The Rocky Horror Show, Chicago and the folktale 1001 Arabian Nights.
Karlin says during her first year she quickly learned the value of a private, liberal
Prior to her Broadway debut, Lisa Karlin '05 performed as
Eva Pern in Evita at Denver's Arvada Center.
“IWU gave me a well-rounded education not only as an artist, but as a scholar and
a free thinker,” said Karlin. “The music-theatre curriculum is great in the fact that
everyone had to do everything. I feel like that experience gives each of us a deeper
appreciation for every aspect of getting a show up and running successfully.”
The inclusive curriculum at IWU required Karlin and all its first-year students to
perform a certain number of hours, which allows music theatre majors to experience
all aspects of theatre, not just performing. This means actors are working behind
the scenes and helping on the crew, and crew members are taking acting classes and
A year after Karlin started, Parham entered the IWU community from Kansas City, Mo.,
and was immediately absorbed into the music theatre family. Although Parham says she
struggled initially due to inexperience, IWU gave her the tools she needed to succeed.
“My professors were wonderful and I never hesitated to ask for any help,” said Parham.
“I always felt like my best interests were at hand.”
Utilizing the knowledge and experience she obtained in her classes, Parham secured
roles in the musicals A Man of No Importance, Chicago, Urinetown and the comedy Finding the Sun.
Throughout their four years at Illinois Wesleyan, Karlin and Parham shared the stage
only once, in the musical Chicago in 2005. While working on the production the two women became friends, admiring each
other’s natural abilities and learning from one another.
Due to their heavy involvement in the department, they developed a close-knit group
of friends and faculty upon which they could rely. “Many of my professors and peers
were a support system both during my time at IWU and now,” said Karlin.
When Parham damaged her vocal chords the summer entering her senior year, it was this
make-shift family of faculty and friends that jumped to her aid, helping to bring
her back to health.
After obtaining their degrees, both women set out on different paths to the lights
of Broadway. When Karlin graduated in 2006 she moved to New York City, working in
multiple non-equity regional theaters before touring internationally with Cats for a year. After returning from her stint abroad, Karlin obtained her equity card
and performed in regional theaters across the U.S., until attending an open call for
dancers in Ragtime, in Washington, D.C.
Bryonha Parham '07 starred in a production of the musical
at the Mason Street Warehouse in
Saugatuck, Mich., in 2008.
To her excitement, she received a call back a few days later for her role. Currently,
Karlin appears as the characters Emma Goldman, Kathleen and the Welfare Officer. Auditioning
was a spontaneous decision for Parham, who was living in West Virginia and working
on the production To Kill a Mockingbird. “My friend and I decided to drive the four hours to D.C. and audition,” said Parham.
“I had no real idea that they would cast me at all.”
For faculty and staff who knew these women, their ascent to the big stage wasn’t a
surprise at all. “Both women had the drive to carve out a career,” said Kelly Ullom,
operations coordinator in the Illinois Wesleyan School of Theatre Arts. “That drive
is very difficult to teach, it really has to be something that wells from deep within
a person. They have to be persistent in their training and have the ability to accept
constructive criticism, incorporate it and benefit from it. Lisa and Bry definitely
proved they could do it.”
Jean Kerr, coordinator of the dance program adds that, “These ladies graduated as
good people. They can recognize good work from bad and can appreciate the good work
of others and do what they can to support these people.”
For the past few months, Karlin and Parham have been diligently working to prepare
for the opening day. Their days begin with vocal warm ups before heading to the theater
to start rehearsals. The eight-hour work days are jam packed with music and dance
rehearsals, running the show and fittings for costumes and wigs.
In a few short months all their hard work will pay off when the velvet curtain lifts
and the audience applauds. As the two fulfill their dream of performing on Broadway,
they remain optimistic about how long the dream will last.
“The show has an open-ended run,” said Karlin. “I hope Ragtime runs on Broadway forever, and I have a job until the end of time.”
Contact: Jessica Hinterlong ’11, (309) 556-3181