For the Love of Theatre: SLU Actresses Break a Leg

If D. Vickers Hall was a dormitory, then Shelly Sneed and Shelby Elliot-Layman would be resident assistants. As actresses of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Theatre Department, the best friends spend most of their time either backstage or stage left at the Vonnie Borden Theatre. When they’re not catching up on a few Z’s on the benches outside the dressing rooms, they’re rehearsing for their next big role. For Sneed and Elliot-Layman, theatre is life.

“I want people to understand and know the story that we’re telling on stage,” Sneed says. “I want people to take the craft that we do very seriously because we take it seriously.”

A Minden, Louisiana native, Sneed traveled four hours away from her hometown to pursue her college education at Southeastern. During her freshman year in the fall of 2014, she joined the local chapter of Alpha Psi Omega, the Honorary Theatre Society on campus. From there, she worked her way into the department. Her journey began as an usher during Southeastern’s production of “Rumors” and an assistant stage manager for “Beware the Licorice Vines.” Most recently, she played the role of Borachio in William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

To accompany her acting abilities, Sneed maintains a close-knit group of friends who are fellow students of theatre.

“It always helps to be close with the people you’re on stage with because you’re vulnerable up there and you’re up there with somebody else who is sharing that vulnerability,” she expresses.

One person who understands that vulnerability is Elliot-Layman, another member of APO. Unlike Sneed, Elliot-Layman’s entrance into the department occurred when she auditioned and landed the role of Estelle in “No Exit.” When she received the callback following her audition, she was “surprisingly calm.”

“I didn’t know anyone else in the department so I had no idea the kind of talent I was up against,” she recalls. “I just kind of trusted myself and went with my gut while I was reading for the part.”

Since “No Exit,” Elliot-Layman has starred in “Oedipus.” She has also co-starred with Sneed in “The Dispute” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” The mutual passion for theatre eventually brings the actresses to form a tight friendship. They share strategies for role preparation, such as the art of memorizing lines.

According to Elliot-Layman, the best way to accomplish line memorization is to write down the lines. She also scribes the lines of her scene partners. This way, she knows when to recite her lines, and she memorizes her co-stars’ lines in the process.

“It takes up a lot of paper and ink, and my hand hurts a lot afterwards, but it’s the only thing that’ll really make them stick for me, and it works well,” she explains.

Although the pair of theatre enthusiasts have been involved in numerous productions over the past few semesters, combatting pre-performance jitters remains a challenge. To cope, Sneed and Layman have facilitated a routine before every performance.

Depending on the identity of the character she’s portraying, Sneed consults a specific music playlist. For example, in “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” Sneed played Saint Monica, a character who used a lot of profanity. Thus, Sneed filled her eardrums with the likes of rap artists such as Tupac, Kendrick Lamar and Missy Elliot. To get into character and calm her nerves, Sneed also listens to Alicia Keys’ track “Girl on Fire,” and she never forgets to recite a prayer before going on stage.

Elliot-Layman, on the other hand, employs a different approach.

“It’s a bad habit, but I tend to crack jokes or laugh a lot to get some of my energy out,” she explains. “The nerves are the worst when I’m waiting in the wing, but once I’m onstage I feel fantastic.”

Whether it’s music or laughter that subside their nervousness, the audience rises from their seats in a standing ovation following their performances. Still, no matter how many roles they tackle, Sneed and Elliot-Layman always play the role of young adults and college students. With play preparation eating into a lot of their time, the actresses face another task: time management.

“I set aside designated times for everything. I know when I have work. I know when I have school. I know when I have rehearsal,” Sneed says. “If you love what you do, you make time for it.”

For Elliot-Layman, the key is to ensure that line memorization does not interfere with her studies.

“I try to get all my classwork done during the day and on the weekends so that during the week I don’t feel so stressed once I get to rehearsal in the evenings,” she explains. “Luckily all my friends are involved in theatre as well, or I probably wouldn’t see them much!”

Befriending students who are also heavily involved with Southeastern’s theatre department is a perk for both Sneed and Elliot-Layman, for they spend loads of time with their co-stars and other theatre essentials while at rehearsal and beyond. It’s safe to say that the chemistry between the cast is both apparent on and off stage.

“When we all get cast, we hang out all the time and we make sure there’s a connection between us,” Sneed says.

Sara Cage, a junior music major whose path often crosses with the theatre department, knows all too well about frequent rehearsals, but she notes the experience is rewarding.

“The arts help to bring down barriers and reward those who choose their craft by making constant progress,” she says. “It requires grit.”

If the devotion to auditioning year-round isn’t any indication, one can argue that grit is certainly a part of Sneed and Elliot-Layman’s personalities. To them, acting is more than remembering a line. If beginning actors want to be cast, they must be willing to go the extra mile.

“Yes, it’s artistic and fun, but you should still be studious, focused and professional,” Elliot-Layman says. “Read books about it, take classes, do lots of research, go to as many plays and watch as many films as you can. Audition for everything.”

The love of artistry and the desire to tell a good story motivate Sneed and Elliot-Layman. Together, they continue to work hard to improve their craft.

“I want people to understand and know the story that we’re telling on stage,” Sneed says. “I want to know that you left feeling something because you know we put our all into things.”

Sneed is to star as the Lady in Purple in Southeastern’s upcoming production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

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