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Spotlight Iowa City: Moving to the next stage

BY DEE FABBRICATORE | DECEMBER 15, 2009 7:30 AM

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In a year or so, Sarah Helt could see herself getting yoga certification in India.

That said, she also envisions herself in the Columbia University theater department, studying under her hero, Anne Bogart. No matter where she is, one thing’s certain: she’ll be moving.

The theater major, who will graduate this month, plans to relocate out of Iowa City next August and launch herself into new highly physical experiences.

“I work so physically that I automatically have to be on my feet,” she said. “I’m constantly engaging my body to get the words into my head.”

The 23-year-old has been involved in big UI Main Stage productions and smaller projects, such as the weeklong New Play Festival every spring. Among these roles, Helt said her favorites have been Olga in last year’s Three Sisters and her more recent part as Rat in Jen Silverman’s Yellow City.

Now in the process of applying to graduate programs at such schools as Columbia and Yale, she said her top-notch dream schools seem like a pipe dream, but after plenty of positive feedback from the UI theater community, she might just have a shot.

One of her many fans is playwright Jen Silverman, who said she learned from Helt’s experimental performance choices when working on Yellow City.

“She has great control over her physicality, and she found a movement vocabulary that really helped define her character,” Silverman said.

Helt has come a long way from her beginnings as an “obnoxious little performer kid” in Des Moines, where she attended the Edmunds Fine Arts Academy. Beginning her first two undergraduate years at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y., Helt transferred to the UI theater program when the then newly independent 18-year-old realized living in the city was too financially taxing, a decision she said was among the smartest she’s ever made.

“I gave up a long time ago thinking that I was going to be rich and famous,” she said. “Making it big for me would just be to know that I’m consistent enough that I’m always in shows and always traveling.”

Another one of Helt’s admirers is and fellow theater student and roommate Molly Schintler.

“If you’re a respectable actor like Sarah, I don’t think it’s about making it big,” Schintler said. “It’s having a career with longevity and doing something where you’re allowed to create your art. It’s not having a big part in ‘Law and Order’ or being an extra in LA.”

Each time Helt is cast, she lets the new character crawl under her skin as she researches tirelessly and develops nervous ticks, like perching instead of sitting on couches for the role of Rat.

“My script becomes a giant scrapbook of music lyrics telling me how I should feel in one scene, and then a yoga routine to get into the physicality of another scene,” she said.

For her most recent role as a character in a postapocalyptic society, Helt abstained from showering for a week before the show, watched countless YouTube videos of crawling rats, and mastered her prop work.

“I came home one day, and she was flipping knives, and I promptly told her to do that in the other room, lest she cut me,” Schintler joked.

As expected, her final days as a UI theater department student is bittersweet.

“I was talking to one of my fellow actors recently,” she said. “And we were like, ‘Why the hell do we do this? I created something beautiful with you, and now it’s like, ‘Bye.’ It’s funny, it’s a very transient lifestyle and though that doesn’t always appeal to me, it’s all I want to do.”


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