Pitt Senior Finds His Passion in Theater, Wants to Devote His Life to Acting

Issue Date: 
May 2, 2010
Ruffin Prentiss IIIRuffin Prentiss III

It seemed like a good plan at the time.

Following his acceptance at five universities, Ruffin Prentiss III selected the University of Pittsburgh and moved from his family home in Richmond, Va., to Pitt’s campus in Oakland. His goal: to study dental medicine.

The idea of a dental career was an inspiration that struck him—quite literally—when, as a 10th grader, he was hit in the mouth with a baseball during a game with high school classmates.

“I remember being in the ambulance and asking ‘Why me?’” laughed Prentiss. But three root canals and two dental crowns later, his smile was back, and he found that he liked the idea of a professional using his skills to restore another person’s self-esteem. After researching the dental profession, he made his decision, graduated from high school with an International Baccalaureate diploma, and came to Pitt in the Fall of 2006. He received an Honors College full-tuition scholarship.

Prentiss quickly immersed himself in the prerequisite science courses. He also began working on a certificate in Conceptual Foundations of Medicine, a program offered by Pitt’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

But Prentiss’ desire for a change of scenery altered everything.

He had taken some acting classes “to get a break from all the science,” and toward the end of his freshman year, Prentiss auditioned for—and won—a comedic role in the Pitt Repertory Theatre’s performance of The Real Inspector Hound. And to Prentiss’ delight, the audience laughed at all the right places, and when he took his on-stage bow, Prentiss remembers thinking, “I really love this!”

Over the next several years, Prentiss’ life became a whirlwind of auditions, rehearsals, local acting jobs, national acting festivals, competitions, and serving on the student board of Pitt’s Kuntu Repertory Theatre. The transformation from predental student to young actor is complete, and Prentiss graduates today with honors, a BA in Theatre Arts degree, and his Certificate in Foundations of Medicine.

This fall, Prentiss will enter Rutgers University’s prestigious Mason Gross School of the Arts, where he will work to earn his Master of Fine Arts in acting. Agents and casting directors routinely visit the school, which is a 50-minute train ride from New York City.

Prentiss takes with him some valuable experience—acting roles in Pitt Rep’s The Recruiting Officer and Angels In America: Perestroika; Kuntu’s The Dutchman and The Slave; a part as a featured extra in Warrior, a feature film starring Nick Nolte; and several TV and radio commercials. His next role at Pitt is the character of Roosevelt Hicks in August Wilson’s Radio Golf, which Kuntu presents May 27-June 12.

Working with Vernell Lillie, Kuntu founder and producing artistic director, was an experience Prentiss called “priceless.”

“Doc taught me to look at the characters who are acting opposite you,” he said. “Looking at how they perceive what’s going on gives you a better understanding of what you’re doing.”

Prentiss’ most recent acting experience was undertaking the role of the mouse in Pitt Rep’s Alice, a quirky, off-beat adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that played to sell-out crowds last month. From playing the part as a mouse/circus performer to manipulating huge puppets, the production was Prentiss’ most physically demanding.

Following the afternoon matinees, the Alice cast held tea parties for the children in attendance. When Prentiss felt a small child tugging at his costume and asking, “Mr. Mouse, would you come have a cookie with me?” he knew he had connected with the tiniest audience members.

“It’s when the audience feels something that you know you’re doing your job,” he said.

Pitt Theatre Arts faculty member Holly Thuma, who directed Prentiss in The Recruiting Officer, said Prentiss’ emerging talent can be defined as an openness and generosity of spirit.

“I think the magnitude of his sensitivity was always there inside of him, but now it is expressed,” said Thuma, adding that in the past year, Prentiss “became an actor.”

Pitt MFA student Tom Pacio agreed. He performed alongside Prentiss in Angels in America but later became his instructor and acting coach.

“Ruffin’s strongest suit is that he assumes nothing,” he said. “He brings no ego to his work and is open to trying anything that may help him grow and succeed.”

It was Pacio who helped the young actor prepare for his graduate school audition, a grueling experience in itself. For the screening audition, Prentiss chose monologues from two different roles—Harmond from Radio Golf and Sebastian from Twelfth Night—to perform in less than 3 minutes before representatives from more than 20 schools. From that audition, six representatives asked to interview him, which meant 15-minute slots with each panel and only five minutes between each to run from room to room in a New York hotel.

“It was like a rat race,” Prentiss recalled, smiling and shaking his head. He also auditioned separately for five other schools. In all, five graduate schools offered him a spot in their acting programs.

Rutgers, his final choice, teaches the Sanford Meisner acting technique, something Prentiss is anxious to add to his toolkit, along with the Stanislavsky and Commedia dell’Arte approaches to acting that he learned at Pitt. The late Meisner believed that to be effective, actors had to attain a complete understanding of themselves, their characters, and those around them. The goal of his method is for actors to “remove” themselves from the stage, leaving their characters to exist fully within the moment.

Prentiss rounded out his Pitt experience by serving as vice president of programming in the Order of Omega (National Greek Honor Society) and as president and then chaplain of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, where his volunteer work took him to a homeless shelter in East Liberty to sleep overnight and cook breakfast, and to a Homewood elementary school, where he delivered toys at Christmas time. At home in Richmond over the summers, he worked with children as a recreational instructor.

And how do Mom and Dad feel knowing their son, once destined to become a dentist, now may end up in Hollywood?

“I think they both knew theater had become my passion,” said Prentiss. But he has just four classes to complete to be eligible to enter dental school, and he jokes that that might be his “postbaccalaureate plan.”

For now, Prentiss said he is looking forward to his upcoming role in Radio Golf and then embracing the Rutgers program. He hopes to ultimately act in feature films.

“I’m ready to go further in conservatory training and to become a complete actor,” he said. “Just living, breathing, sleeping, and eating—theater.”