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Theatre grad aims high with solo show: ‘A Diva’s Bedroom’

Sydney Michelle Nelson earns BFA from The Theatre School at DePaul University

​​CHICAGO — Since childhood, Sydney Michelle Nelson found solace in heading to her bedroom, closing the door and turning on music. She would transport herself to the imaginary space of the stage while listening to legendary performers Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston or Beyoncé.

“I’ve always loved pretending I’m on stage and singing, dancing or acting,” said Nelson. “That feeling hasn’t gone away. I’m 21 years old, but if I’m home alone I’ll still turn on music and act like I’m performing a concert.”

This June, Nelson will celebrate graduation from The Theatre School at DePaul University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre arts. She’ll serve as the student commencement speaker at The Theatre School’s online ceremony June 13. More information is available at​.

Sydney Michelle Nelson
Sydney Michelle Nelson performing in her solo show "A Diva's Bedroom." (Jonathan Burns)
For Nelson, those five black female performers inspired her so much in her childhood, that she put together a one-woman show — “A Diva’s Bedroom” — for her senior thesis at DePaul. In the show, she lip-synched and danced to Franklin, Ross, Jackson and Beyoncé before singing Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.”

The use of the term “diva” in the show title was important for Nelson. “The term diva should not be used as a negative word towards women,” she said. “We have a right to be tired, to be angry, vulnerable, happy or sad. In other words, we have a right to be human without being criticized for a small mistake and being called a diva when we try to defend ourselves. To me, a diva is someone that works hard and wants to do their job and be accepted for who they are.”

A childhood filled with music
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Nelson and her sister were influenced by their parents’ music of choice from an early age. She remembers watching a TV special with her father called “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” with performers like Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross. “It really moved me and ignited a feeling that I wanted to work in the entertainment industry someday,” she said.

Nelson also found inspiration from the women in her family.

“My mother started her own consulting company, and my grandmother got her start as a waitress in a night club before working her way up to owning the club,” she said.

The DePaul experience
Nelson landed a spot in DePaul’s highly-competitive Theatre School after auditioning with a monologue from the character Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“Beneatha is explaining why she wants to be a doctor, and you can hear the passion and the longing in her voice. That’s me, but with acting. I love being an artist, and I love entertaining and inspiring people,” said Nelson.

However, early on in her studies, Nelson wasn’t so sure acting was for her and turned to her faculty advisor Barry Brunetti for advice. She decided to transfer to the Theatre Arts program.

“For actors who make this decision, there’s a significant adjustment in how these students approach theatre,” said Brunetti, a Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Theatre Studies department. “Actors approach dramatic texts for purposes of creating characters. Theatre Arts students approach text from a non-acting point of view. In Sydney's case, she was driven to do the best work possible and to succeed.”

Sydney Michelle Nelson
This June, Sydney Michelle Nelson will celebrate graduation from The Theatre School at DePaul University. (Michael Esteban Villanueva)
Her first hands-on experience with a big production at DePaul was as a sophomore when she served as an assistant director on The Theatre School’s winter 2018 production of “Native Son,” an adaption by DePaul alumna Nambi E. Kelley of Richard Wright’s novel of the same name.

“She’s dynamic, a person that others want to be around, and a talented young woman. I have no doubt that she’ll be successful in whatever path she takes in the arts industry,” noted Brunetti.

Another lasting memory for Nelson was volunteering at The Goodman Theatre’s “I AM Fest,” which uplifts and showcases women artists of color and their work through writing, acting or directing.

“It was such a wonderful experience,” she said. “Getting to meet other women of color who are in the arts community was inspiring. It was great to be in a room full of women who have similar dreams as me.”

Finding her path during a pandemic
Post-graduation, Nelson hopes to continue performing “A Diva’s Bedroom.” She’s working with a DePaul faculty member to edit the script and is sending it around to theatre companies for consideration after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I love being on stage and feel most comfortable there,” said Nelson. “I really want to keep inspiring people by either acting on stage or directing behind the scenes. I want to uplift women of color. I want to keep making art. It's an energy that hasn't left yet and is hard to explain.”


Media contact:
Russell Dorn
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