Flickering on the silver screen
NYSCAS professor brings her teaching background to major motion picture
Gena Bardwell had just about given up on acting when what she thought was impossible happened.
She was cast in a major motion picture.
Bardwell, an assistant professor at Touro College’s New York School of Career and Applied Studies (NYSCAS) is appearing in “Gimme Shelter,” a film by Ron Krauss, starring Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson and James Earl Jones that opened on Friday, Jan. 24. Bardwell plays, Afra, a house mother in a group home where Hudgens’ character stays while she pulls her life together.
“I’d made up my mind I was going to quit the business,” Bardwell says of the odyssey that led to her being cast. “I’m a college professor and I really enjoy it.”
So what did she need this crazy tryout in Newark, N.J. for? She went, even though the role was written for a Hispanic woman. After she was done, she felt she had shown too much attitude in her interpretation and wasn’t that hopeful. But she got a callback and trekked to Ramsey, N.J. to do a reading for the director. After she was done, she felt she had given a lackluster and uninteresting interpretation of the character. She wasn’t hopeful.
“I said, ‘I’m done. I quit.’ And then a week later, the casting director called. ‘They love you!’”
She had little idea who was going to be in the film, so to be on the set the first day with James Earl Jones, Brendan Fraser and Rosario Dawson was exciting and made the experience, which took place a little more than two years ago, “a pure joy.”
Bardwell has been teaching at NYSCAS in the Communication and Speech Department, for more than ten years. And she has made a definite impression with her work.
“Professor Bardwell is an excellent teacher who goes beyond the classroom, reaching out to her students as a tutor and a mentor,” says Eva Spinelli-Sexter, executive administrative dean and vice president of community education. “She works closely with the faculty on development and is admired by her colleagues for her professional demeanor and her dedication to teaching. I am proud to have Gena Bardwell on staff at NYSCAS – she is a ‘class act’!”
For Bardwell, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Rutgers University, the film was an extension of a long list of credits in soap operas and New York and regional theater. “The Most Dangerous Animal,” a project in which she participated about the plight of the Sudanese people, was performed at the United Nations and one of her favorite roles was playing Amanda Wingfield, in an all-black production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” in Kansas City, Mo.
The amount of preparation that goes into an acting role helps in the classroom, she says. “Actors have to be great storytellers, and I use storytelling techniques in the classroom and try to get students to bring life to the words on the page,” says Bardwell who exudes a sense of both fun and confidence. “The preparations that you use in voice and diction, articulation and projection, it all contributes.”
And likewise, her teaching added nuance to her understanding of the house mother, Afra, who she played in “Gimme Shelter.”
“I teach a diverse population of students in an urban setting, and it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. ‘I meet these students where they are and elevate them to where they are learning.”
Her students agree. Rivkah Katz, an education major who graduates from NYSCAS in June, calls Bardwell her, “ideal professor,” and has taken two classes with her. “She’s very knowledgeable and engages everyone. What she teaches, it’s something I relate to every day.”
Annette Pagan, a former student took public speaking with Bardwell, and was a “nervous wreck” prior to having to make a presentation in front of a crowd recently. But she followed Bardwell’s advice, showed up early and chatted with members of her audience.
“By the time I was ready for my presentation I was relaxed,” wrote Pagan in an email. “I must say I did an excellent job and did you proud.”
So with all her teaching success, is Bardwell really done with acting?
“Here’s my caveat,” says the professor. “I have to work on interesting projects that can have an impact.” It’s not so different than what she does day-to-day at Touro.