How three actors and roommates navigate one of the nation’s top acting programs.
Many see Azusa Pacific University’s nursing program as the main draw for prospective students and as the program which earns the school national acclaim. However, students like Kristin Olinger, Maddy Meade and Ashley O’Connor came to Azusa for APU’s acclaimed acting program.
It’s no surprise as the campus is located just 20 miles from Los Angeles and has been ranked among the nation’s top institutions for training actors. For Meade and O’Connor, APU was relatively close as both are Southern California residents. However, for Olinger, a Philadelphia native, the move was much larger.
“I grew up in a really small circle and a really small school, so I wanted to go somewhere where I could meet lots of new people with different experiences than mine,” Olinger said. “I thought the school was really pretty and that LA would be a good place for acting, and I really liked the program.”
As a California resident, O’Connor found APU through a college fair in high school and was impressed with the program and opportunities provided for on-stage and on-screen experience.
When asked what made APU stand out among other schools and programs, Olinger mentioned the senior showcase put on at the end of the spring semester every year. At the showcase, seniors in the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) stage and screen program give monologues, film short sketches and network with agents and industry professionals. Last year’s showcase was held at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank.
From an early age, it was apparent that the three actresses were meant for the stage. Olinger cited American Idol as her earliest inspiration for performing on stage while O’Connor fell in love with children’s theater.
“When I found out that it could be a profession and not just a hobby, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” O’Connor said.
Despite only being juniors in the stage and screen curriculum, all three actresses have scored professional experience outside of APU. Last summer, O’Connor landed a job as the special effects production assistant on the reboot of FX’s “Justified: City Primeval.”
“It was a great opportunity for me to be on a professional set, watch actors work on camera and learn about the industry from successful individuals who I admire. It was a dream job, and it reminded me that I am in love with this industry and am determined to follow my passion,” O’Connor said. “It has been really interesting learning about acting for the camera after spending the summer shadowing actors and watching the process live.”
Meanwhile, Meade was credited for her performance as a nurse in “Paul’s Promise,” a Christian film about racial tensions in the 1960s that premiered at APU in January. As a member of the cast, Meade was also invited to take part in the cast panel afterward. The film was shot during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic which was Meade’s freshman year at APU.
“It was an awesome experience. It was so fun to kick off my college career on a set because it was a huge reminder of why I was here and pursuing this art,” Meade said.
Back in Philadelphia, Olinger spent this past summer as the head choreographer for Theater & Kids Co. where she choreographed shows like “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Oliver.” She also has experience as a prop master for Theater on the Verge, a theater company in Philadelphia.
Not only do these three get to navigate the acting curriculum together but also everyday home life as college roommates. Living with a house of actors can sometimes feel like the “Boho Days” scene from “Tick Tick…Boom” — chaotic but creative.
“It’s nice sometimes because actors are really social, and they like the same things as me. We can do a lot of things I think other people would be embarrassed to do,” Olinger said.
However, she added, “I think sometimes it makes it hard because we have the same class schedule, so it can be a lot to see the same people all day every day, and then you also live with them, and you never get alone time.”
In what can sometimes be a competitive, cutthroat industry, Meade says the other members of the program are supportive and want to see each other succeed.
“I feel like our cohort is really supportive and encouraging of each other, especially during casting time. I feel like we all do a great job of celebrating each other’s achievements,” she said.
Meade also noted how supportive some of the faculty have been throughout her time in the program. Specifically, she mentioned the efforts of Kirsten Hummer, an associate professor in the BFA program.
“Kirsten has really helped me grow as an actor through [not] just classes but also a ton through the process of [the play] “The Wolves.” She made it such a safe environment to try things and explore the parts and grow not only as actors but also as people. I learned a lot about myself as a person and as an actor throughout that process,” Meade said.
After graduating next spring, O’Connor and Meade would like to pursue careers in screen acting while Olinger would prefer to turn her focus toward the stage. O’Connor and Meade have dreams of playing roles in comedic films and shows like “Easy A” or “Community.” On the stage, Olinger dreams of playing Roxie or Velma in the Broadway hit “Chicago.”