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Artist's Journey

Musical theatre student takes talent for composing to the next level.

Junior musical theatre major Stephen Coakley has an innate talent for both performing and composing, but it wasn’t until he came to Ohio Northern University that he realized he could channel both of these passions into a career in theatre.

Growing up in Leesburg, Va., Coakley had never even heard of Ohio Northern University when he began his college search. He’d always seen himself attending a big-city college, but when a good friend who had auditioned at ONU recommended he check it out, he figured it couldn’t hurt. Little did he know it was going to change everything.

Coakley auditioned for ONU’s musical theatre program with Kirsten Osbun-Manley, resident artist and lecturer in music and musical theatre. He could tell she picked up on his love for composing right away.

When I auditioned for Kirsten, I just got this vibe that she was listening to my interests and what I wanted to do,” he says. “She told me I could do a lot of composing here, and my big attraction to Northern was that I could do theatre and compose. I visited ONU and saw a show here, and I just fell in love with it. I’ve been in love with it ever since.

Coakley found several ways to sharpen his composition skills both inside and outside the theatre program. In addition to taking composition classes through the Department of Music, he composed for two musical theatre productions and music-directed three productions in the Department of Theatre Arts. Still, he wasn’t exactly sure what kind of role his knack for composing could play in his future career in theatre, if any. At the conclusion of his sophomore year, a unique opportunity to showcase his work became a tipping point.

During spring semester 2017, the theatre department put on Elysium, a new musical written and composed by Yianni Papadimos and Ben Chavez, two rising artists in the theatre world. Coakley was assistant music director for the production, and thus, he developed a working relationship with the two when they visited ONU as guest artists. In passing, Chavez mentioned an event that helps many young theatre artists get noticed – the New York Musical Festival. This annual musical theatre festival presents fresh new productions, concerts, readings and special events, including a concert entirely written, directed and performed by college students.

The student-managed portion of the 2017 New York Musical Festival called for submissions of original songs matching the theme “United We Stand.” Coakley decided to send in an application with three songs he’d previously written. He applied just to see what would happen, but when he didn’t hear back for more than three weeks, he barely gave it another thought.

Then, about a month after applying, Coakley was surprised to find out that one of his songs had been chosen to be performed at the festival. The song, “By Your Side,” is a deeply personal piece he composed with fellow students in his class to honor a friend they lost their freshman year. Although he wouldn’t be singing it himself, he decided to attend the festival in New York City to see the performance. He was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

“I’ve heard my music sung by other people, but it was always under my direction and my guidance,” he says. “It was really neat to hear just how different someone can interpret something that I think of one way, and someone else completely thinks of a different way.”

But to Coakley, it was more than just a neat experience; it helped him turn a corner. It opened his eyes to the feasibility of composing for theatre productions as a career path.

To see these young artists who are out there performing, but who are also writing and composing, was perfect for me,” he says. “I am a performance major, and I still have a love for performing, but I don’t prioritize it more than composing. I love them both equally. Not really until college did I think of it as a career that you can actually pursue, and then bringing in Ben and Yianni just solidified that this is an option. It allowed me to find my niche.

ONU as a whole is known for fostering interdisciplinary study. The Department of Musical Theatre is no exception. Students are required and encouraged to take classes outside their major because anything that enriches them as a person will also enrich them as an artist.

“It is our belief that an actor with a diverse set of knowledge and skills is a more successful performer,” says Osbun-Manley. “We are here to give our students the tools to become creative, well-rounded artists, but it is their job to work with those tools and to be open to things that challenge them. Our students leave ONU with a toolbox full of rich experiences and personal skills that will aid in their journey as artists.”

Coakley’s artist journey has encouraged him to dream big. His hope is to move to New York City and collaborate with creative teams to compose for new musicals. Thanks to ONU, he’s got a good head start. He’s been given not only the tools to sharpen his craft, but also the high-impact opportunities to do so alongside seasoned professionals. If it wasn’t for ONU, he might have never realized his full potential.

Sometimes, Coakley is able interact with prospective students who are trying to get a feel for campus life at ONU. Every time he does, he makes sure to pass along perhaps the greatest piece of advice he’s learned from being a Polar Bear: “If you have another interest in something, pursue it. You don’t have to put yourself in this box where you can’t be doing this because your major is that. Whatever you do, just don’t limit yourself.”