A global pandemic may have canceled his opportunity to perform in Scotland in 2020, but Pellissippi State Community College student Ethan Turbyfill didn’t let that stop him from following his dream of musical theatre.
Instead, the Maryville native asked his parents for a tripod and ring light for Christmas, knowing he was likely going to have to record himself for future auditions as COVID-19 raged on.
The Christmas gift paid off, as Turbyfill’s iPhone-recorded audition landed him top prize at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival’s Music Theatre Initiative competition for Region 4, which is comprised of college students from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, southern Virginia, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.
“I didn’t actually hear my name because my mom jumped up and started screaming,” laughs Turbyfill, who watched the regional competition at home with his parents and younger sister because it took place virtually this year.
Turbyfill, who graduated from Alcoa High School in 2019 and will graduate from Pellissippi State in May, had finished in the top five of the regional competition in 2020, before the pandemic hit. Normally students submit three songs, but those who auditioned in 2021 were limited to only one.
Turbyfill decided to go a completely different direction, choosing “I Miss the Mountains” from the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal.” The song is performed by the female lead, who is grappling with worsening bipolar disorder and being medicated for it.
“I wanted to showcase emotion this time because I knew that auditioning on video meant the camera would be close to my face, as opposed to singing on stage, and I wanted to give a more nuanced performance,” Turbyfill explained. “It also was an unexpected song for a musical theatre tenor, and because I’m not a middle-aged woman, I gender-bent it. That took away some of the pressure of sounding like someone else.”
It was a struggle, in a house with his family and four dogs, to get everyone quiet at the same time, and the perfectionist in Turbyfill wanted to perform the song over and over again – but his voice wouldn’t let him.
“I was having a lot of vocal issues that week – I eventually had to go on voice rest – so my third take was the one I chose,” he noted. “That taught me about both stamina and being in the moment.”
The audition piece got Turbyfill through three rounds of virtual competition. It wasn’t until he sat down to watch the competition with his family, however, that he realized he was the only male singer of the six finalists.
“They played everyone’s performances, then they announced third place and then second,” Turbyfill remembered. “When I realized I hadn’t heard my name, I realized, ‘Wait! I did it!’”
In a “normal” year, Turbyfill would be headed to the KCATCF National Festival in April, but this year it’s been postponed until August due to COVID-19.
But that timing could work out for the best for Turbyfill, who underwent a tonsillectomy earlier this month to clear up the issues he was having when he recorded his audition in January.
“Thankfully my vocal cords are healthy, and the doctors said this would help me in the long run, as far as my voice is concerned,” he said.
Turbyfill won’t let a pandemic or a tonsillectomy slow him down. While his voice is recovering from the surgery, he’s serving as assistant director for Pellissippi State’s upcoming production of “Love and Information,” which will stream on the College’s Facebook and YouTube pages April 16-18.
“Ethan is one of those rare students who truly puts in the work to become a stronger performer,” said Associate Professor Grechen Wingerter, who is directing the play next month. “He challenges and pushes himself out of his comfort zone. Plus, he’s quite simply one of the nicest people I know. I’m proud to have been his professor these past two years.”
For Turbyfill, who recently turned 20, putting in the work to become a stronger performer is something he’s been doing his whole life.
“I’ve always known what I wanted to do,” said Turbyfill. “I’ve been singing since I could talk. I used to sing ‘God Bless America’ at Smokies (baseball) games when I was 2 or 3, the precursor for whoever was singing the national anthem. I played Michael in ‘Peter Pan’ at the Oak Ridge Playhouse when I was 7 or 8, and I performed with the Knoxville Children’s Theatre from 12-18. I want to be on Broadway, telling these stories to such a wide audience.”
Weathering a pandemic during college, however, has helped equip Turbyfill with perspective and creativity. For example, after Pellissippi State’s trip to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland was canceled in summer 2020, the Theatre program pivoted to performing radio plays during fall semester.
“I have continued finding ways to make art during COVID, and I want to do anything I can in the realm of art,” Turbyfill said. “I want to move to New York and see where life takes me.”