For many former Guilderland Players, life’s a stage

— Photo from Linda Sornberger 
Brandon J. Sornberger, left, played Merlin in “Camelot” in 1996; Kristi Biondo was in the play’s chorus. Sornberger went on to act in television shows, commercials, and films, and to do improvisational comedy. 

GUILDERLAND — For decades, the Guilderland Players has provided a home for high-school students wanting to explore the arts, whether onstage, in the orchestra, or behind the scenes. Many of those who were involved with its dramatic plays and its full-scale musicals went on to pursue careers using the talents they had honed in Guilderland. These are just a few:

The comedic actor

Brandon J. Sornberger has made a narrow escape from an angry airport security guard after briefly parking curbside in a Toyota commercial. He had a recurring role on the show “Grandfathered.” He was murdered outside of a bar on CBS’s “Criminal Minds.” He wrangled bees on the children’s television show “Austin and Ally.” He played opposite veteran actor Sally Kirkland in an independent film.

Sornberger was a “goofy” kid, he says, not particularly artistic and not someone who intended to be an actor. He was athletic and played a lot of baseball and then wrestled, through his sophomore year. But he found that, as he got older, he did not put on as much bulk as other boys and was “quickly outmatched” in a lot of the sports he played.

It wasn’t until his friends started joining the Guilderland Players that he realized he didn’t want to wrestle anymore. His first experience with the Guilderland Players was in his junior year: he was Mr. Sowerberry in “Oliver Twist” in 1995. In his senior year, Sornberger played Merlin in “Camelot.”

 

— Photo from Brandon J. Sornberger 
Brandon J. Sornberger has appeared on “Grandfathered,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Austin and Ally,” and was recently featured in a Toyota commercial. 

 

He went to college at Hamilton, intending to continue on to medical school. He finished all the pre-med requirements, but majored in philosophy. It was during college that he began doing improvisational comedy — short-form games, he said, where someone would make a suggestion, and the comedian would riff on that theme for two or three minutes.

“We’d put on shows, and then we’d buy a keg, and people would come and drink,” he recalled. “A raucous time.”

After graduating, he got into long-form improvisational comedy, which he explained is half-hours shows that are “essentially an improvised comedic play with a particular structure.” He continues to do that today, he said.

He started with a group called Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City, then went on to Improv Asylum in Boston, and then to ImprovOlympic in Chicago. He now performs once a week at Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles, where he and his wife live.

Sornberger spends the rest of his time auditioning for commercials and television jobs, he said, and writing and trying to sell scripts and also treatments, which are ideas for television shows. He has a steady job managing a bar connected to the ImprovOlympic Theater in Los Angeles. “Sometimes it’s nice having the consistent income, when I’m not booking. Gives me less stress about a mortgage.”

His wife is a middle-school math teacher, which he said provides another layer of stability. “Several couples I know, both people are actors, and if both people happen to be not working at one time, it can be stressful.” It’s nice to be with someone who has a “little bit different perspective” and is not immersed in acting, he said.

In terms of advice for young people, Sornberger said, “Start creating your own material as soon as you can.” It’s so much easier now, he said, with the camera on, for instance, an iPhone. “So use the potential now to create your own, and don’t wait for other people to do it for you. And the sooner you can learn to edit, the sooner you can do all of that stuff, you’re not dependent on other people, to be able to work.”

Go to college for the life experience, he said, but he doesn’t “see the benefit in getting an advanced degree in theater or anything like that.”

Go to a bigger city, he suggested, “sooner, rather than later.”

The voiceover artist

Susan Saks — whose maiden name was Churchill — grew up performing and always wanted to be an actor. She sang and acted as a child and would perform for her family at home, and for her grandmother’s bridge club. “It was in my blood. It was what I always wanted to do.”

 

— From Fred Heitkamp’s Facebook page 
“Something Wonderful”: Susan Churchill — who went on to a career as a voiceover artist — sings a love song as Lady Thiang in the Guilderland Players’ 1975 production of “The King and
I.” 

 

At Guilderland High School, she was in the chorus of “Damn Yankees” in 1973, in ninth grade; had one singing line in “The Music Man” in her sophomore year; played Lady Thiang in “The King and I” as a junior (“I loved that role”); and was Dolly, opposite Leslie LaGuardia, in “Annie Get Your Gun.”

She wound up making her career as a voiceover artist.

Voiceover work includes television commercials, and Saks has done many: for Efferdent, Marie Callender frozen foods, Lysol, Kohler, Sprite, New Balance, Days Inn, Fisher Price, Disney, and Hasbro, to name a few.

But it isn’t all TV commercials.

“Any time you hear a voice but you don’t see someone, that’s voiceover,” she said. Sometimes her job will involve supplying the voice that you hear when you call a company, she said, sliding into the soothing and all-too-familiar sound of a telephone recording, saying, “Thank you for calling. Your call is important to us. If you need a prescription, press 1.”

She worked as a disc jockey for 16 years before leaving the radio business in 1999 to pursue voiceover work full-time.

Most of her work now, she said, is in long-form corporate and medical voiceover narration.

For corporate narration, she said, a company might need someone to record the text that will be played together with a PowerPoint presentation shown to employees at a training session, for instance.

Saks has never taken any voiceover classes, although she taught them for many years. She just has a “good ear for imitation,” she says.

 

— From Susan Saks 
Susan Saks — whose maiden name is Churchill — now lives in Connecticut and has a sound studio in her home, where she can record and edit her own voiceover narrations for clients including Microsoft. 

 
 
Often, actors have trouble doing voiceover because they can “go too overboard.” She calls voiceover work “a little more intimate.” You have to temper your voice, she said.

She recommends taking as many classes as possible, until you’re ready to record a demo, which can cost up to several thousand dollars, including studio costs.

There are two recording studios in her house in Connecticut. One is her husband’s and more elaborate — he is a voiceover artist as well, and also a producer; he spent $20,000 to outfit that one. Her needs are simpler: her office is paneled for sound, and she uses an iPad, an Apogee microphone, and an application called Twisted Wave that allows her to edit her own recordings.

She regularly looks for work, she said, by cold-calling production companies around the country, inquiring whether they hire voiceover artists, and asking if she can email her demo. “You have to be patient and persistent but know where to draw the line so you don’t become annoying.”

The working actor

Christina Bennett Lind says that performing in the play “Picnic” with the Guilderland Players — the first time she had a larger role that she could really work on — was the moment it occurred to her that maybe she could work as an actor.

Lind, who graduated from Guilderland in 2001, still flashes back to memories of that role sometimes when she is performing.

 

— Photo from Jane DeRook 
Christina Bennett Lind, right, and her twin sister, Heather, both studied at the Guilderland Ballet during childhood and through high school.
 

 

When she is onstage in a live theater production, she enjoys looking out at the audience, because being able to see them makes the experience feel intimate and personal to her. She can see that “people are not just here looking at us; they’re trying to relate to what we’re saying, they’re going through their own emotional experience.”

Hers was an artistic family. Her mother taught ballet for many years, and Lind studied ballet at the Guilderland Ballet all of her life, including through high school, and says that that gave her a foundation for feeling comfortable onstage. Her father worked in museum education and is a visual artist.

Lind played Bianca Montgomery on ABC’s “All My Children,” which was the first-ever gay contract role on a soap opera; had a recurring role on the Netflix original series “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright; and in 2017 played actress Tallulah Bankhead in the Amazon series “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” starring Christina Ricci as Zelda Fitzgerald.

She has been very lucky, she says, to have had a chance to play interesting roles in her career so far. “All My Children,” she says, “gave me a real insight into what it is to work in television and to work quickly.” She compared soap-opera work to boot camp for acting, because of the pace and the amount of material that needs to get done each day. She did not originate the role of Bianca, she said, but the role was treated as very human. On the show, Bianca gets married and has children, and the role was an opportunity for Lind to try simply to play “a real human being that hopefully representated that group at least to the best of my abilities.”

 

— Photo by Evegenia Eliseeva
Working actor: Christina Bennett Lind has played a number of high-profile roles since graduating from Guilderland in 2001. 

 

Fans of the show would tell her that they regularly watched it with their grandmother, for instance, and she enjoyed being part of something that was important to many people, she said.

Lind said it was “a gift” to be on Season 3 of “House of Cards” —”a show with that kind of writing and that many people watching it.” She did not work with Spacey and Wright, she said; she worked with Michael Kelly, who plays Doug Stamper. Lind played Sharon, his physical therapist, and, while it was “not necessarily the most challenging role I’ve ever played,” it was wonderful to work with Kelly, she said. He plays a “true villain” on the show, but “in real life is very, very kind.” She also liked working with the show’s creator, Beau Willimon, who was always on set. Lind said it’s fun to work with intelligent, complex writers like Willimon.

She also does a lot of experimental and independent work.

Lind and her husband, Gene Gallerano, started the Neboya Collective, a home for the independent films they write, produce, and direct. In addition to their own movies — three films are currently in post-production — they hope in the future to help produce and direct other people’s work.

It will take a while to get there, Lind said. “There’s a big infrasture that you have to kind of build in order to get financing and all that. But that would be the goal. Eventually.”

She has a twin sister, Heather Lind, who was also in the Guilderland Players. The sisters both grew up studying ballet at the Guilderland Ballet, where their mother taught young children. Heather Lind has also gone on to a successful acting career; she plays the role of Anna Strong on AMC’s “TURN: Washington’s Spies” and had a recurring role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

The twins also both appeared in one of the Neboya Collective’s films, “Fireworkers.” “Fireworkers” was written, produced, edited, and directed by Christina Bennett Lind. It will be released for rent on Flix Premiere later this year.

There is a stereotype about the industry, that people can be “really callous and petty,” Lind said, but she tries to surround herself with people, including her management and agent team, who are positive and uplifting. She tries to be “deliberate” about who she spends her time with.

Lind doesn’t measure success in any one particular role or accomplishment.

She has always aspired, she said, to having a long career with lots of big jobs.

The sound and lighting guy

As a child, Michael Cusick would often go with his father, who worked as an electrician for General Electric, on outdoor jobs. Later he went on to apprentice with his father. In high school, meanwhile, he studied courses in electricity.

Cusick had played the piano since he was 10 and, in high school, started playing the organ and electric piano in a rock band. When the band could not afford a public-address system, Cusick built one from components.

 

— From Michael Cusick 
Lights and sound: Michael Cusick got involved with a Guilderland musical in his senior year, working on the technical aspects, behind the scenes. The following year, he began working for the Guilderland Players and for Specialized Audio, as the head of sound at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, working with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York City Ballet, the Newport/Kool Jazz Fest, and all the other headliners who appeared there. 

 

Cusick saw his first Guilderland Players show, “Guys and Dolls,” in 1972, when he was a junior, and saw that it combined his interests in music, lighting, electrical, and sound. He “got hooked and dove in head-first,” he wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor this spring.

He wrote the letter in response to a decision — which was later reversed — by high-school administrators to stop a decades-long tradition of bringing the entire eighth-grade class on a field trip each year to see a free performance of the Guilderland Players’ musical.

In his senior year, Cusick worked with the musical, doing electrical, lighting, and sound. The year after he graduated, he took a job working with the Guilderland Players as its lighting designer.

That same year, he also took a job at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, working for Specialized Audio, the company that had provided the sound system for Guilderland’s musicals and that did the same work for SPAC. Cusick then spent the next 18 years as the head of sound for SPAC, while continuing for several years to work on Guilderland Players’ musicals as well.

At age 30, Cusick bought out the company, renamed it SAVI for Specialized Audio-Visual Inc., and expanded its scope and reach, to include venues in other parts of the country and overseas.

“I can trace back all of this success to the exposure, influence, and inspiration provided by my exposure to the arts as a result of my experience with the Guilderland Players,” Cusick wrote.

Cusick said that any kind of involvement with the musical, whether onstage or behind the scenes, involves working as part of a team, and he told The Enterprise he thought that was “one of the most valuable skills learned from working on the musical.”


Clarified on July 14, 2017: The section on Susan Saks was clarified to say "Efferdent" instead of "Efferdent dentures," to call her workplace a "recording" rather than a "sound" studio, and to specify that she now emails demo recordings rather than sending tapes.

More Guilderland News

  • “Pyramid Management strongly disagrees with the decision,” Pyramid told The Enterprise in a statement. “We are very confident that we will have success in our appeal. We intend to take all appropriate actions to complete and finalize the governmental approval process for each project.​”

  • The now-1,200 square-foot Pakistani restaurant will be housed in the former Subway sandwich shop. The space has been under construction for some time, but now, with a permit in hand, it can open for business. Nadia Raza, Curry Patta’s owner, told The Enterprise she anticipates opening the weekend of Dec. 4.

  • So far this school year, the Guilderland school district has had 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The district enrolls close to 5,000 students.

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