Leading lady: UB senior Leah Berst juggles academics and acting
Leah Berst grew up watching Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn play the role of Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”
Berst, a senior music theater major, is now fulfilling the same role as two of her biggest inspirations as Doolittle in UB’s spring production of “My Fair Lady.”
“I’ve watched Audrey Hepburn’s performance in the ‘My Fair Lady’ movie since I was a child,” Berst said. “So being able to portray a role I loved so much because of Audrey is really a great way to end my college education and I feel extremely lucky.”
Berst, who started in theater at a young age, realized she wanted to be a performer when she played the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella.”
While suspended mid-air on a crescent moon and looking out into the audience, she had an epiphany that she wanted to “brighten people’s lives” through acting as her career.
She’s continued that mantra going into her performance in “My Fair Lady” – a role she earned after a two-day long audition process last fall.
She is no stranger to the UB stage. Berst has been the witch in “Into the Woods” and Vivian in “Legally Blonde.”
“My Fair Lady” takes place in Victorian era London and follows the trials and tribulations of Doolittle – a young, working-class Cockney girl. Doolittle is taken in by Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who attempts to teach her proper English so that she can pass as a lady.
For Berst, performing in “My Fair Lady” means simultaneously studying for midterms, maintaining a required 3.5 GPA and attending late night rehearsals. The rehearsal process nearly spans the entire semester, from learning the musical pieces to orchestra and dress rehearsals.
The actress has to make sure the material she studies for classes doesn’t mesh with the lines she has to memorize for her performances. Berst keeps one notebook for “My Fair Lady” and another for the scenes she studies in her classes.
Vincent O’Neill, the director of “My Fair Lady,” refers to each actor by his or her character name during rehearsals to help the cast immerse themselves in their characters.
“We are becoming the character we are portraying and we find them within ourselves,” Berst said.
The actors in “My Fair Lady” have spent hours of rehearsal time perfecting their British accents and trying not to fall asleep on top of their music stands. During table readings, the cast practices their body language and chemistry as they look across the room and read scenes together.
Benjamin Antar, a senior music theatre major, is playing Professor Henry Higgins opposite Berst.
“It is really hard being a student and being in a performance major in a show – like having a full-time job along with school,” Antar said. “It just means we have to work a little extra hard to make sure we can do what we love and be the best at it.
Berst said that the rehearsals are exhausting, primarily because they last for so long with few breaks in between.
“It’s pretty tough because, during those times, we’re so demanded on stage in rehearsals and we need to be there all the time,” Berst said. “There’s no calling off. You have to be there because they need you.”
Maria Horne, a theatre and dance professor, has known Berst since she was a freshman and has had her as a student for the past three years.
Horne studied under Lee Strasberg, the father of method acting in America and understands that “not everybody is a Leah Berst.”
“Leah is a product of hard work. She is like a sprite. She’s small but full of bright, bright energy,” Horne said. “It has been my pleasure to witness her growth and development and it fills me with great pride to see Leah succeeding.”
Berst hopes to bring her success to platforms beyond UB and looks to go back to school to get her Master of Fine Arts degree.
After she graduates, she’ll perform in “Light in the Piazza,” staged by Second Generation Theater in Buffalo. She will also be the performing arts co-supervisor in her hometown of Orchard Park and will be working with mostly preschool-aged children.
“My Fair Lady” runs at the Center for the Arts from Friday, April 28 to Sunday, May 7. Tickets are $8 with a student ID, or $18 without, and can be purchased at the CFA box office or online.
Molly Dietz is a staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org