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Wyatt Fenner Balances Acting, Academics

Yorktown senior wraps up role in ‘Silent Woman.’

High-school students have to rush from class to class. Wyatt Fenner gives new meaning to that rush.

Last Tuesday, while most of his classmates were rushing off to third period, Fenner was fielding calls from reporters as he waited for a plane in Los Angeles, after spending Monday in and out of auditions in California.

But he had to be back in the District by 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, so he could take the stage for his latest role onstage — not in his latest school play, but in The Shakespeare Theater’s critically acclaimed production of “The Silent Woman.” Ben Johnson’s 1609 farcical comedy, which closed Sunday, May 9, saw Fenner playing a servant boy to one of the lead characters.

Earning the role was one of the high points in an acting career already more than a decade old. The Yorktown High School senior has been performing in professional theater since the sixth grade, and he is now a veteran of more than two dozen plays.

“I sort of developed a name,” Fenner said. Directors often call the 18-year-old actor, asking him to audition — and auditions have always led to parts.

It’s obvious why directors are eager to work with him, said Sandra Pfaup, who has worked with Fenner in the Arlington Public Schools’ Fine Arts Apprentice Program. Fenner has a combination of natural talent and a willingness to absorb new instruction and new influences, she said. “He certainly is a capable kid, and he’s also open to learning in a new way. ‘Sponge’ comes to mind,” she said.

Theater companies don’t plan rehearsals and performances around high-school schedules, so Fenner spends most of his time onstage. Last week, between auditions and performances at The Shakespeare Theater, Fenner saw more of L.A., New York and D.C. than the inside of a classroom.

“I wouldn’t say [school] gets in the way of my acting, but I’m willing to negotiate the amount of time I spend actually in school,” he said.

Acting doesn’t get in the way of academics, either. “I definitely understand how important my education is,” Fenner said. He earned straight A’s last quarter. But with a full schedule and a few Advanced Placement classes, success in academics takes its toll. “I just spend a lot of time working on my own,” he said.

BALANCING ACADEMICS with extracurricular activities proves difficult for many students, said Pfaup.

“It takes a certain amount of maturity to be in the apprentice program,” she said. The program operates entirely outside of normal school hours and provides internships and other opportunities for students gifted in vocal and instrumental music, visual art, dance and theater. “We try to be sure that they see first-rate theater, music and dance and also that they work with artists,” said Pfaup.

This is Fenner’s first year in the program, but Pfaup said it didn’t take him long to distinguish himself. “He’s clearly outstanding,” she said. In addition to individual tutoring and apprenticeships, the program provides students with free tickets to performances.

At the beginning of the year, Fenner had selected “The Silent Woman” as one of the plays he wanted to attend. Pfaup said it was a pleasant surprise when he called to say he wouldn’t need the tickets. Instead, he would be onstage.

STUDYING AND REHEARSING create a demanding schedule that sometimes takes its toll. Last week Fenner performed 10 shows, auditioned for the California Institute for the Arts in Los Angeles, and still had to find time for schoolwork.

Backstage at rehearsals and even during performances, Fenner can usually be found in his dressing room studying or doing homework. “He’s one of these guys who understands downtime in the theater can be a constructive thing or a not-so-constructive thing,” said Matthew Pendergast, another cast member in “The Silent Woman.”

“For a while it was pretty tough,” said Fenner. “I had to do a lot of stressful work, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep.”

Everything came to a head in January, following an unsuccessful audition for The Juilliard School in New York. It was Fenner’s first unsuccessful audition. “I was pretty upset by that,” he admitted.

But support from other actors at The Shakespeare Theater helped. “Disappointment is just part of being an actor,” he said. “I’m ready and able to deal with that.”

Fenner is confident that the hard work and the disappointments are worthwhile because he is confident this is what he was meant to do. “It got kind of crazy, but I just kept telling myself that eventually it would all work out,” he said.

Some of the stress ended Friday when Fenner received notice that the audition in Los Angeles had gone well and he had been accepted to the California Institute for the Arts.

Ultimately, he hopes to be in Hollywood. “I love theater, and I’ve had a great time doing it,” he said, “But I’m also really eager to do film and television. In theater you can develop moments, but with film you can really capture a real human moment.”