From Waterloo to Broadway, high school graduate heads to Big Apple with dreams of acting

Jennah Smith is forgoing a more “traditional” college experience to chase her dreams of performing
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 5:30 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 26, 2021 at 6:05 PM CDT
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WATERLOO, Wis. (WMTV) - A young woman from Waterloo is chasing her dreams and charting her own path, forgoing a traditional college experience to attend an elite acting conservatory in New York City.

Jennah Smith smiles when she thinks about her first experience up on stage, playing a munchkin in a fifth grade production of The Wizard of Oz. She didn’t know it then, but years later, performing would become her biggest passion.

Like many teens, Smith tried out different activities before discovering what she was interested in. She participated in sports and band before finding her voice in show choir. It was at a community event where Smith remembers taking the microphone and singing a solo, a moment that sparked a real love for performing.

“I was nervous for her,” said Shannon Smith, Jennah’s mom. “I was like, I’ve never heard her sing like this before. Even with a microphone. I asked her, did you practice with a microphone? It’s different.”

“I was like ‘Oh my God, this is so amazing to be up here and performing for everybody,’” Jennah Smith said.

Smith continued to perform through show choir and school musicals. But when she’d tell people of her dreams to perform professionally one day, she said she was met with negativity and discouragement.

“I’ve had a really hard struggle though high school just finding out what I want to do. I’ve been told I can’t do this for the rest of my life. Why can’t I do this for the rest of my life?” she said. “She said, ‘you need to go to college, you’re not going to get a good job.’”

While her parents supported her, Smith said she didn’t always have support from those around her.

“It’s been hard growing up knowing that you want to do something different form everybody else,” she said.

When it came time to consider steps after high school, Smith applied to college and was accepted, even receiving some scholarship money. But she said, despite the initial excitement, the opportunity didn’t feel right. It was a crossroads Smith’s mom remembers.

“She came to me one day she’s like, “I just don’t feel happy when I think about [college]. It’s a great thing, but it doesn’t make me feel happy when I think about going there,’ and she was going to be doing a theater program there,” Shannon Smith said. “I said, ‘then don’t do it.’”

Deciding to take a different path, Smith applied to the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, an elite acting conservatory in New York City. The school has famous alumni the likes of Robert De Niro, Salma Hayek, and Diana Ross, to name a few.

“I know that many many professionals have gone through Stella Adler and the level of the conservatory is very high,” said Smith’s voice teacher Cat Richmond. “I know it can be hard to understand how competitive these programs are, and this one is extremely competitive for her to get into.”

With Richmond’s help recording audition tapes, and with the support of her choir director Charlene Ulichny, Smith sent in her submission.

“That natural love and passion for music that I see in Jennah, that drive to always want to become better - that is the piece that I just saw in her eyes, that drive to really want to do it,” Ulichny said. “That love and passion for music to never give up.”

A few weeks later, she got the news. She was accepted into a two-year program.

“It’s definitely a big moment of relief for me, definitely a big exhale,” she said. “Oh my God, I did this by myself. Definitely a big accomplishment I think for me, and it made me feel so confident in my abilities.”

NBC15 called the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. An employee said in the past, classes are usually only around 16 people. The school was described as “extremely reputable” and “well known” in the creative talents community.

“I’m just looking forward to growing,” she said. “I want to learn. I love learning. I just love anything that I can soak up there.”

Now, Smith is leaving Waterloo to begin classes at the conservatory in the fall, hoping to one day find her way to Broadway. No matter how far away she goes, she’ll always have the support of her mom and dad back home.

“I’m going to love hearing her stories, watching her grow, moving on to that next stage of her life, seeing where she can go,” Shannon Smith said. “I think it’s going to be a great journey for her, we’ll just come along for the ride. That’s all you can do - it has to be her story, it has to be her journey. I just want to watch it.”

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