Q&A with Jayden Nelson

The first-year musical theater student is the inaugural recipient of the André De Shields Scholarship Award.

May 26, 2022

Jayden Nelson (B.F.A. '25, musical theater) is the inaugural recipient of the André De Shields Scholarship Award, which is given to an outstanding student in the B.F.A. in Theater: Musical Theater program who demonstrates exceptional potential. The scholarship is named for André De Shields, best known for his performances in five legendary Broadway productions: The WizAin’t Misbehavin’, Play On!, The Full Monty, and Hadestown. In a career spanning 50 years, De Shields has distinguished himself as an unparalleled actor, director, and educator, culminating in a Tony Award in 2019 and an honorary doctorate from Boston Conservatory in 2020. Nelson looks back at his first year at the Conservatory and talks about the theater artists who inspire him, including De Shields.

What show made you fall in love with musical theater?

I have loved musical theater for as long as I can remember. At age three, I remember watching The Wiz and Dreamgirls over and over, but the show that made me fall in love with musical theater was Kinky Boots. I can’t express how much that musical has impacted me. I had been in musicals as a child, so I wasn’t really fresh on the scene, but Kinky Boots opened my eyes to many more possibilities for myself. Representation is everything. The main character, Lola, wasn’t like any character I’d ever seen before. She offered me life during a time when I didn’t really feel like I could fully be myself. 

Who are your role models and why?

I have many role models including Billy Porter, Jennifer Holliday, and André De Shields. Those artists paved the way for my generation. I look at them and see change. I’ve experienced firsthand how they affected their community and what they represent for up-and-coming actors like me. They are known to leave it all on the stage, and they are examples of how I want to leave people feeling after I perform. Billy Porter has also branched out into television, film, and music, which is something that I plan on doing as well.  

What do you admire about André De Shields?

His commitment to giving back to his community and to where he started. I feel like I have a huge connection to him because I also love giving back all that I can to my mentors and younger artists. I admire how long De Shields has been in the business, as well as his body of work. He performs like no other. He puts a personal stamp on everything he does!

Why did you choose to attend Boston Conservatory at Berklee?

Boston Conservatory at Berklee became my top choice after taking part in their Musical Theater Dance Intensive the summer after my junior year in high school. Although it was virtual, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the program, faculty, and even about some of the alumni and their experiences. Participating in the summer intensive gave me a sense of comfort when it came to the college audition that I didn’t experience with the other schools.  

What excited you most about your first year at the Conservatory?

Getting to meet and connect with new people, as well as being able to perform during my first year. Coming to a totally new environment after the pandemic was very exciting and refreshing. I was definitely ready to get back to socializing with new friends. I am so grateful that I was cast in the mainstage musical, Rent, this year and got to work with guest director Rickey Tripp and the amazing cast and crew. I learned so much from the experience and about myself that I will carry with me throughout my career. Also, getting to work with students at Berklee and being a back-up dancer for the Katy Perry Ensemble was a major experience for me. It gave me the opportunity to do something outside of musical theater. 

What surprised you most about your first year?

I was most surprised by the workload. My high school, New World School of the Arts, was pretty intense, so I was not unfamiliar with busy school and rehearsal schedules, but the changes that came with the pandemic lessened the intensity. I had to get accustomed to the return of in-person classes and a work ethic that would allow me to be successful in my classes and projects. I love the training and opportunities that I receive at the Conservatory, so learning to navigate that made the experience ten times better for me.

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