Arts » Theater + Dance

Ball State grad stars in 'Beauty and the Beast'

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Joan Marcus
  • Emily Behny and Dane Agostinis star in 'Beauty and the Beast.'

A recent headline in The Onion aptly, if satirically, summed up the employment situation facing millennials who recently received their undergrad degrees: "New College Graduates To Be Cryogenically Frozen Until Job Market Improves."

And yet, in spite of these challenging economic times, there are young grads who — through pure talent, strong will and, yes, a measure of good luck — have managed to pull off great professional achievements.

As an example, look no further than 2010 Ball State graduate Emily Behny.

Mere months after receiving a bachelor's degree in musical theatre, Behny secured the part of Belle in Disney's big-budget touring production of Beauty and the Beast. How plum of a role is Belle? After the show's opening night performance in Los Angeles, she was met in her dressing room by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who were eager to introduce her to their daughter, Suri. Since that March night, Behny has played Belle in countless North American cities, singing and dancing before rapt audiences often numbering in the thousands.

And oh, by the way, in between graduation day and the launch of the tour, she got married.

Indeed, it's been a remarkably successful and busy first year out of college for the native of Silver Lake, Indiana.

Performing for the home crowd

I catch up with Behny while she's in Cincinnati for a two-week run of shows. She soon will be heading to her home state, where Beauty and the Beast will be staged at Butler's Clowes Hall from Oct. 11-16. She'll return to Indiana for single-night shows at Ball State on Nov. 1 and Purdue on Nov. 2.

Performing in a major theatrical production on her home turf, with friends and family seated before her, will be yet another noteworthy milestone for Behny.

"I'm so excited about the opportunity to come back to Indiana," she says. "I love the message of this show, and I love the role of Belle. It makes it that much more special sharing the experience with my friends and family in the Indianapolis area."

Behny speaks with the poise of a seasoned performer while remaining approachable thanks to her ample charm and humility.

"It will have more personal meaning" she says of her shows in Indiana, before confessing, "I might be more nervous."

Audition first, then get hitched

Behny's to-do list on Jan. 14, 2011, must have looked something like this:

1. Get the part.
2. Get married.

You see, she was asked to do her final audition for the role of Belle on Jan. 14. Trouble was, she and her fiance had been planning to get married that day.

Not one to let life's complexities slow her down, Behny aced the audition as well as the wedding -- the latter being a low-key ceremony at a courthouse in New York City.

"I was actually on the plane coming back from my honeymoon when I got the call from my agent telling me that I'd gotten the part," she says.

In securing the part, Behny had to overcome long odds, as hundreds of young actresses had sought the high-profile role of Belle.

"I went to an open call for the show in October 2010, and there were over 300 girls there," she says of the audition experience. "I was number 191, I believe, so I waited a long time. I finally sang and got a call back to dance, and the next day was called back to sing and read for Belle. But it wasn't until two months later, in January, that I heard from them again asking me to come back to do another callback."

Playing Belle is not much of a stretch for Behny, who sees much of herself, and whom she aspires to be, in her alter ego's persona.

"I'm like Belle in that I'm feisty," she says. "Belle's not the stereotypical damsel in distress, Disney princess. And I really identify with her quirkiness. She's who I want to be when I grow up. Somebody who cares about people and is kind and compassionate but holds her own."

Touring demands

Life on the road is not without its challenges.

"It's quite a physically demanding job, as we're doing eight shows a week," Behny says. "And we're also traveling in the midst of those shows, so it often can be tough on your body and on your voice."

Behny strives to stay healthy and fit to ensure that she's able to deliver a great performance night in and night out.

"I want every city to receive the same show. I feel like that's what audiences deserve," she says, before admitting, "Keeping that consistency level can be difficult."

Prepping for success

Behny credits the musical theater program at Ball State for preparing her early on in her career.

"The department does a great job of having professors that have acted themselves in the real world, so they understand the business side of acting and they understand the difficulties of it," she says. "They have this great personal experience that they can share with you. I owe a lot of my success to my teachers for the mentorship they provided, for the faith they had in me and for challenging me to go for something like this."

The young performer lauds Ball State for offering students real-world experience far from the Muncie campus.

"They have a showcase program in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles," she says. "I auditioned for those and got into all three my senior year. It was a great platform where I could meet people in the industry and perform for them and get a head start on my career. As a result of that program, I now have an agent in New York City that I work with."

About her Nov. 1 show at Ball State, Behny says, "I'm going to be performing for my professors, who taught me all that I know. And I hope that I do them proud."

Life after Belle

Behny is under contract to tour with Beauty and the Beast until May 2012. It's possible her contract will be extended, but she's already sizing up her options to make sure she has a Plan B in place if her time as Belle ends next spring.

About the uncertainty, Behny says, "That's the nature of the beast," then quickly adds with a laugh, "no pun intended."

"I'm going to continue to look for auditions even while I'm in this role just to look ahead," she says. "And if I'm able, I'll go back to New York to audition for those. But we'll see what happens. Hopefully it will be a stepping-stone. But I may end up serving tables when I get back to New York and the audition scene. So I'm just going to have to stay very open-minded and flexible with my career."

Behny's long-term focus is not fixed exclusively on the theatre; she'd eventually like to work in either TV or film. She's even planning on submitting a video application for the next season of Glee.

But in the near term, she's savoring her time as Belle and looking forward to performances in the coming weeks for the home crowd. She'll spend time with friends and family when she's back in Indiana, and she also plans on relaxing outside and enjoying some Midwestern autumnal glory. "I'm really looking forward to going to an orchard and doing fall-like activities when I'm in Indianapolis," she says.

So don't be surprised this month if you see a young woman break into pitch-perfect song while strolling through Holcomb Gardens. It very well may be Emily Behny, unwinding before her next show.

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