Smith to compete in Kennedy Festival

Steven Barnum, Courier Staff

A native of South Holland, Ill., Nissi Smith is preparing to perform in the Kennedy Center’s American Collegiate Theatre Festival.

Smith loves to perform. Currently a junior at Western, she is on track to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in musical theatre.

“I think I’m still in disbelief of this whole situation. It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Smith said.

In mid-January, Smith and over a dozen students in the Theatre and Dance Department competed in an acting competition known as the Irene Ryan Scholarship Competition. She partnered with Drake Pough, a Museum of Fine Arts student who was nominated to compete. While the duo did not win the highest award, their scene together did win the award for “Best Comedy.”

At that same festival, Smith competed in the Musical Theatre Intensive Competition. She sang her way into first place with “I’m Here” from the musical “The Color Purple.”

Over 80 people auditioned to be a finalist. Of that group, 18 were accepted, and of those 18 finalists, Smith was the last one standing.

She understands how impressive it was to win, citing the size of her region (which includes students from Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana) and noting that the finalists were all “insanely talented performers.”

For winning, Smith was awarded a $600 scholarship to attend The Open Jar Institute in New York, N.Y. But It doesn’t stop there; she now has an opportunity to compete on a national scale.

“It’s crazy because I wouldn’t even have been at the festival had Drake not asked me to be his partner, and participating in the Musical Theatre Intensive was sort of a ‘why not’ kind of thing.”

On April 9-14, Smith will once again perform “I’m Here” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She will go up against the seven other regional winners and look to take home the top prize, a full scholarship to The Open Jar Institute.

Should Smith be unable to perform in that competition, Samantha Bonzi will take her place. Bonzi, a senior musical theatre major and a friend of Smith’s, was selected as her alternate.

“I was elated to be a finalist, but to win was crazy.”

Smith feels she is now being rewarded for all the training and hard work.

“Studying Musical Theatre is already seen as odd or impractical so of course I want to prove all the naysayers wrong,” Smith said. “When you’re doing well in something so impractical I’m like ‘Yes! I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.’”

Performing can be exciting, but Smith said it comes with pressure.

“Before I perform, I say a quick prayer to feel confident, try to breathe all the nerves away, and just go do my best.”

Smith credited the people who have helped her get to this point in the competition, and the hard work she has put into performing.

“I rehearse and train so much here at school,” Smith said. “The faculty does such an amazing job with pushing me and working with me. I couldn’t have done any of this without the training I have gained here.”

After college, Smith wants to continue performing regionally, on tours and hopefully on Broadway. She loves theatre and the ability to inspire people.

“I want to spark conversations and put smiles on faces,” Smith said. “The theatre is magical, and I want to share that magic with any and everyone.”

In Broadway, Smith admires Cynthia Erivo, Patina Miller, and Audra McDonald.

“If I could have half or a quarter of the career these women have had I would be more than satisfied and blessed.”