By Zachary Klein
FOR junior musical theater major Rylee Carpenter, performing is in her blood.
The Ossining, New York, native grew up in a household where both her parents were involved in the arts, performing in shows and even traveling regionally with companies. Most recently seen at Rider as Cassie in the premiere musical “Clean Slate,” Carpenter has a resumé that rivals someone who has been out of college for several years. And it all started at age four.
As a toddler, Carpenter’s parents enrolled her in dance classes at a local studio, something she continued with through middle and high school. They claimed that dancing would instill discipline in her for years to come. However, Carpenter discovered her true love around first grade: musicals.
“I grew up listening to musicals, but it was around [that time] my mom showed ‘Wicked’ and that was what flipped the switch,” Carpenter said. “That was when I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
Because of her intense dance schedules and yearly performances of “The Nutcracker” at Westchester County Performing Arts Center, Carpenter was unable to star in a musical until she reached high school. She stated that going into her freshman year of high school, she was taking up to 16 different dance classes per week plus rehearsals for upcoming dance recitals.
“There was no free time,” Carpenter said. “I will say, though, I am very thankful for my dance background because throughout the dance, I was performing all the time.”
Throughout her formative years, that high school production of “The Nutcracker” took centerstage, and Carpenter even had the opportunity to play the leading roles of Clara and Snow Queen on several occasions. In describing her intense schedule at the time, she relived the seven-hour, daily rehearsals in addition to a full day of school. She said it was rough, but worth it in the end.
“It was just a lot by the end of it,” she said. “I didn’t have time to hang out with people. … Maybe I would get one day off.”
As Carpenter journeyed through high school, she became more involved in the world of musical theater, starring in the lead roles of Velma Kelly in “Chicago” and Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family” before graduating in June 2020. Like any performer, the pandemic was difficult for Carpenter, going through “dark times” in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had friends come up to me being like, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Carpenter said, recalling the memory of the shutdown. “I thought, ‘What are you apologizing for?’ It was all so surreal.”
However, Carpenter got through these struggles and started at Rider in September of the same year. Although she opted to complete her first year from home amid the difficulties of virtual instruction, she arrived on campus in 2021 and immediately made a splash within the theater program, bringing her credits in acting, singing and dancing to campus.
During her sophomore year, she had the opportunity to choreograph “Pride and Prejudice” and added that credit to an already impressive resumé.
So far in her junior year, Carpenter has exhibited her theatrical range through roles such as Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” and Carrie in “Carrie: The Musical,” both done by the Rider Student Theater Company, as well as in a mainstage role as Cassie in “Clean Slate.” Each of the roles were very different, and a certain amount of skill is required to master all of them, showcasing Carpenter’s versatility as an actor.
“[In playing Cassie], I dove through the script and tried to make a backstory out of what I could get,” Carpenter said about developing the role in its world premiere. “I just fell in love with her as a person and felt like I experienced her pain through family experiences.”
Junior musical theater major Nicole Duffy played Dion in “Clean Slate” and has known Carpenter for about three years. Although the two actors did not share much stage time in the show, Duffy shared how Carpenter assisted in the show’s development process.
“Rylee always brings a positive, fun attitude and is always willing to try something out to see if it works,” Duffy said. “She is great at taking notes and adjustments and is very flexible and patient because working on a new piece can often require lots of time to figure stuff out and things are constantly changing.”
Carpenter hopes that her career as an actor will continue long after she graduates next spring. She already has her foot in the door, booking the role of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” at Pickleville Playhouse in Garden City, Utah, over the summer. Even so, she’ll move through the difficult audition process for departing seniors looking to enter the competitive musical theater market. She maintained her positive attitude and optimism that has gotten her so far.
“We’ll see — maybe I book something and maybe I don’t — and if I don’t I’ll see where I am,” Carpenter said. “[I’ll] figure out what I’m going to do next. Keep auditioning, keep dancing, wherever I can. I am just going to keep it up.”