Senior Eric Rygh recently won the ACTF Under­graduate Theatre Scholar Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Fes­tival. | Courtesy

Walking into Theatre History 302, Eric Rygh had little idea that he would begin an intimate friendship with deceased play­wright Richard Wagner — a 14 page friendship.

Senior theatre minor Eric Rygh recently won the ACTF Under­graduate Theatre Scholar Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Fes­tival.

“I saw the noti­fi­cation on my phone, and I was just in shock,” Rygh said. “I was straight up shocked that I could write a paper that was even worthy of an award like this. But I guess it’s a pos­itive shock. A pos­itive sur­prise.”

According to the American College Theatre Fes­tival, stu­dents from across the nation sub­mitted a 10 – 20 page paper “on any area in the art, craft and/or history of theatre, or a cross-dis­ci­plinary topic with the art of theatre fea­turing as a key area of inves­ti­gation.” Rygh’s paper, “‘An Instinctive Dislike’: Staging Wagner’s Implicit Anti-Semitism,” ranked first out of the 27 finalist papers.

“It’s a mark as one of the top under­graduate papers of theatre in the country,” Chairman and Pro­fessor of Theatre James Brandon said. “Three of the last four years it has been a Hillsdale College student who has won that award. Our stu­dents come in with for­mi­dable weapons at their dis­posal. They are engaged in the whole aca­demic process, and I think that has char­ac­terized all of the stu­dents who have won the award.”

Awarded a $1,000 cash prize and an all-expense-paid trip to the National Casey ATCF Fes­tival, Rygh will travel to the Kennedy Center, located in Wash­ington D.C., in May to receive the award. Aside from net­working with other theatre pro­fes­sionals and engaging with work­shops, Rygh says he is eager for the oppor­tunity to expand his horizons at the fes­tival.

“I have been floun­dering around a bit with my career path, so this award is def­i­nitely a blessing to have in my back pocket,” Rygh said.

Though the paper began as a simple class assignment, Brandon sub­mitted four papers from his class to the fes­tival com­pe­tition.

“What might be a B paper in my course might actually win a com­pe­tition,” Brandon said. “Sure, I’m asking you to follow my direc­tions, but some­times these papers find a life outside of the classroom.”

Exploring the anti-Semitic themes within Richard Wagner’s play, “The Ring Cycle,” Rygh con­cluded that one could stage the play in a modern work and still “properly pay tribute to Wagner but also avoid sending offensive mes­sages to audi­ences.”

“It’s not easy to take a work that has com­pletely anti-Semitic stereo­types,” Rygh said. “Getting to engage with the beauty that nonetheless exists in the works, while also real­izing that there are prob­lematic, polit­i­cally-incorrect ele­ments,  has cer­tainly been very chal­lenging to engage with. But a crucial life lesson nonetheless.”

Senior Jessica Mac­Farlane, who is a theatre major and close friend of Rygh, said the paper is a good reflection of Rygh’s out­standing theatre per­for­mance.

“His psy­cho­logical take on char­acters is very pen­e­trating,” Mac­Farlane said. “He can see right into them, right away. And he’s able to do that on a first read, which is not usual. I think that’s what makes him a good actor.”

For Brandon, the paper proved to be a “rev­e­lation” of Rygh’s aca­demic schol­arship within the department.

“For a lot of stu­dents, it’s hard to think of theatre as an aca­demic dis­ci­pline. But I think Eric gets that it is,” Brandon said. “He’s become more con­fident as an actor. And I think he is all around more engaged in the department. He’s been a valuable and important member of the program and I think that that has gone up each moment he’s been here.”