Most people would not leave a teenage boy alone with his cell phone in a chemical closet. But in the case of Hunter Graves, he was just looking for some privacy before making a very important phone call.
On March 21, the Cape Henlopen High School senior was sitting in physics when he realized he had a voicemail from someone at The Juilliard School in New York City. When he called back, he was congratulated by the voice on the other end – he had been accepted into the school’s actor training program.
“I screamed for a little bit,” Graves said.
Graves will join 8 undergraduate and 10 graduate students in the acting program at The Juilliard School this fall. “It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said.
Graves traveled to the famous art conservatory in New York City to audition Feb. 4, along with 140 other young actors. The school held similar auditions in San Francisco and Chicago.
About 20 students from each location received a callback, and Graves was among them. He said the second audition process lasted 15 hours. Nine actors were asked to stay for interviews at the end of the day. “Then you have the long, terrifying wait for the final 40,” Graves said.
But again, Graves made the cut. He and 39 other actors went to Juilliard for the weekend to compete for one of 18 spots in the program.
Graves was told to have six monologues prepared for his audition. He was asked to perform only two, but the one he said won his acceptance was a piece from the play, “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.”
Graves said he was not sure whether to perform the monologue. “The character is in his mid-40s,” he said. Graves said he had been told many times to perform monologues from characters closer to his own age.
Graves said he asked one of the Juilliard professors for whom he was auditioning about the age-appropriateness of the character. Sinking into a low, aristocratic accent, Graves does a spot-on impression of exactly how a Juilliard acting professor would presumably sound. “If it speaks to your soul as an actor,” the professor said, "then do it."
Graves said he went for it. “I don’t know if I would’ve gotten in without doing it,” he said.
“He went with his gut,” said Cape High theater instructor Martha Pfeiffer. “He’s got really good instincts.”
Pfeiffer said she has had students achieve success in the past. “But Juilliard is huge,” she said. “Hunter is exceptional.”
Pfeiffer’s husband, Paul Pfeiffer, is artistic director for the Salisbury University Theater program. When they first met Graves, Pfeiffer said she and her husband knew he could achieve great things as an actor. Graves said the Pfeiffers facilitated his passion for the craft.
Pfeiffer is completing her second year of teaching theater full-time at Cape High. During her first year, she entered the class in the English Speaking Union’s Sunday with Shakespeare competition. Graves won first place in the contest, and Pfeiffer was invited to study Shakespeare at The Globe in England for five weeks.
Graves said Pfeiffer’s training at The Globe was helpful for the entire theater department at Cape. “It’s changed the way we’ve all been exposed to theater as a whole,” he said. “I feel like I’ve improved because of it.”
But Pfeiffer is quick to refuse credit for Graves’ acceptance into the prestigious conservatory. “He got himself into Juilliard,” she said. “It’s something that he loves,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s in his soul.”
First base to first performance
When Graves was in fourth grade, he said, he spent much of his time outside of school on the baseball field; his dream was to play for the Philadelphia Phillies.
It was his mother, Cheryl Graves, a singer in the church choir, who pushed Graves to audition for a spot with her in the Possum Point Players’ Christmas performance. Graves said he agreed, and both he and his mother snagged a spot in the play.
After that, he said the hobby snowballed; soon he was performing in six shows a year for local theater groups, including Possum Point and Clear Space Theatre Company.
In retrospect, Graves said, his performances with Clear Space were one of biggest influences in his decision to become an actor. “They gave me the technical tools and the skill set I needed to succeed,” he said.
Four years after his first performance, Graves said he saw his abilities in theater surpass his abilities on the field. “I had to make the choice between baseball and theater, and now I’m here,” he said. “First, I started doing theater; then, I fell in love with it.”
Sitting on the floor of the dimly lit auditorium as if it were his living room, Graves said he will miss mentoring his younger classmates, and watching them progress as actors.
“I think they all look up to him,” Pfeiffer said.
Graves’ final performance at Cape Henlopen High School will be a two-act Broadway cabaret. He will play the part of rebel cat Rum Tum Tugger in Act One, which will be comprised solely of scenes from the musical Cats.
But Graves said he is not interested in pursuing a career on Broadway, where he thinks the shows are too heavy on spectacle and too light on craft. “I’d do musicals if they meant something,” he said, even though he has had years of training as a singer.
All Saints’ Church Director of Music Alex Helsabeck doubles as Graves’ vocal coach. A native of Winston-Salem, N.C., Helsabeck encouraged Graves to audition for the opera program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Graves was accepted and the school offered him a scholarship to attend.
Graves said Helsabeck gave him confidence in his abilities as a performer.
After college, Graves said, he hopes to be able to make a living as a stage actor. “I’m a big fan of smaller theaters,” he said. “I would love to do a lot of Shakespeare.”
Although the Cape Region does not lend itself to an acting career like New York or London, Graves said he is glad to have grown up in Rehoboth Beach. “A lot of teenagers are really angsty about living in Delaware, but I love Delaware,” he said.
Graves said he enjoys experiencing all four seasons, and he loves the familiarity of people in the area. “I really like the whole small town thing,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything about it that I don’t like.”
“I would always like to have somewhere I could come back to here,” Graves said. But, he said, try explaining Punkin Chunkin to a Juilliard professor.
For more information on Cape Henlopen High School’s spring production, visit capehenlopenschools.com.