The Illusion of Danger

Adult Learning

The Illusion of Danger

Swashbuckling into an acting career, shielded by a college degree.

By Rebecca Koenig     May 26, 2022

Jackie with a sword
Jackie Kim is training for a career in acting and stunts. Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.


BALTIMORE — The doppelganger swaggers, taunting the party of friends who must pass him to continue their quest. Agnes, the least skilled fighter, desperately swings both her wooden sword and shield in the monster’s direction, trying not to notice that he has shape-shifted into a brawny caricature of her own boyfriend. Agnes slashes at him, then slashes again. She bashes him with her shield. She swings her sword at his head. Then she slices the weapon down through the air—and misses. The handsome monster jumps out of the way.

Their swords clash. Agnes aims again for the doppelganger’s head. She thrusts her shield toward him. He aims for her head. She cuts at his legs. The doppelganger slices her twice, and she recoils from the blows. When she swings her sword again, he counters with his own, managing to throw her weapon aside.

Now Agnes is afraid. She fends off several blows with her shield, barely managing to push the monster away.

“You can’t hurt me,” the doppelganger crows. “I’m wearing armor.”

Agnes, protected only by a crooked Viking helmet, spies a weak spot. She kicks the monster in the crotch. As he crumples, a quest partner tosses Agnes her sword. Summoning her strength, she slashes the blade across the monster’s throat. He falls.

From the second row of the theater, this battle looks terrifying. But the chaos is actually carefully choreographed. Before tonight’s show, the actors met to rehearse their moves, encounters designed to require little actual contact. Each performer consented to every slash, tumble and thrust.

“Safety and protection is always number one, no matter what,” says Jackie Kim, the actor who plays Agnes.

Jackie studies acting at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She specializes in fight scenes and stunts, which she performs throughout the university’s production of “She Kills Monsters.” It’s a play about people—alive, dead and imagined—who feel underestimated and misunderstood. They navigate fantastical physical hazards—killer fairies, succubi, bugbears—hard human emotions—grief, fear, guilt—and classic high school drama.

The hero of the play, an ordinary adult named Agnes, sets off on a Dungeons & Dragons quest that her teenage sister wrote before she died. The journey is not smooth. Agnes falls down—a lot. She cowers as her companions charge ahead. She nearly dies, until a fellow quester revives her with a spell, giving her a second chance.

“In the beginning, she sucks,” Jackie says. “Which is great, ’cuz that literally shows a character-development story of my life.”

Jackie rehearsing for “She Kills Monsters” at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

Like Agnes, Jackie is an adult navigating a world designed for adolescents. The 29-year-old has returned to college after her first attempt didn’t work out. The journey has not been smooth. Having strayed from the prescribed higher education path, she nearly lost her way, until she learned to trust her own abilities and made her own second chance.

Now, Jackie is training for a career in acting and stunts. It’s risky compared to other quests she might have chosen. But she’s equipping herself with martial arts and theater training. She’s gathering a supportive community of creative friends.

And in case all that falls through, she’s forging college credits into chainmail tough enough to withstand blows from life’s many monsters.

“As an actor, I know for sure I’m not gonna get a role every single day,” Jackie says. “I have to sustain myself by protecting myself with a degree.”

Conflict

On a Friday morning in April, light streams through the windows of a big, bare classroom. Half a dozen students quietly stretch, pressing their limbs to the floor or against the walls.

A professor emerges with a bag stuffed with cushions. The students pair off and gently toss pillows back and forth. Jackie bends her knees deep over her combat boots—a compressed coil of energy—then rises quickly, releasing a pillow with her hands thrust above her head.

It’s a warm-up exercise for an upper-level theater course called “Extreme Scenes.” The seminar teaches students how to portray violence, sex and strong emotion with nuance and control, respecting the dignity and boundaries of audiences and fellow actors.

The class meets in a gleaming performing arts center at the top of a hill. From outside the building, Jackie points toward the long flight of steps that descends to the rest of campus. Down there is where, at 19, she had studied to become a nurse.

That was a time of expensive science textbooks and long lectures in big halls. The vibe, Jackie says, was “sit your ass down.”

To a young woman who hated staying still, it hadn’t felt natural. In high school, Jackie had known she wanted to dance, to travel, to act. She had told this to her mother.

“And she was like, very discouraging—in the best Korean mom way possible,” Jackie recalls. “So basically I had this mindset: OK, so I can’t do anything entertaining or in the entertainment industry. I can’t do things that my parents cannot approve, so to speak.”

The warm-up changes. Students use body language to silently direct each other around the room.

Jackie locks her gaze on her partner’s outstretched hand. When the hand moves left, Jackie slides left. When the hand dips, Jackie sinks. She tosses herself like a rag doll strung with a piece of wire.

Jackie studied nursing because her mother had suggested it as an acceptable career path. Jackie was good at science, and she liked the idea of taking care of people. She enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County after high school, planning to eventually transfer to the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

In college, Jackie failed some classes and had to retake them. She changed her major again and again, searching for a science track that felt like a good fit. She remembers spending most of those nights in tears.

“As much as I tried, and as much as I pushed through it—kept motivating myself,” Jackie says, “my heart just wasn’t quite right there.”

The students arrange themselves in two rows. The professor speaks eight lines from “The Lover,” a play by Harold Pinter. Students recite the words, tossing them back and forth like pillows.

Richard?

Mmm?

Do you ever think about me at all … when you’re with her?

Oh, a little. Not much. (Pause.) We talk about you.

You talk about me with her?

Occasionally. It amuses her.

How … do you talk about me?

Delicately.

Students pair off to turn those lines into a scene. Each couple’s conversation should be intense, the professor advises—the space between the characters alive with conflict.

“If you don’t get what you want,” the professor says, “you’re going to break up, bust apart.”

In 2017, Jackie took board exams required to become a nurse. She did well on one. She failed the other. After six years of trying—memorizing medical terms, doing clinical work, taking courses at a community college—Jackie took a break from higher education. She walked away with an associate degree and a bruised spirit.

“When something doesn’t match with your soul, with your intention of living, with your heart—it just doesn’t quite work out. And I felt that for a long, long time,” she says. “I struggled a lot with my mental health, thinking, ‘I have to do this. If I don’t do this, I’m not gonna make money. I won’t fit into society, or they won’t accept me, or they won’t take me seriously.’”

Jackie during rehearsal. Photos by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

Jackie takes Richard’s lines. She perches on an invisible couch, watching an invisible television. When her scene partner calls to her, she barely deigns to answer. Each time they run the lines, Jackie’s expression sharpens. She’s more dominant, bored, disdainful. Jackie hurls Richard’s words like razors wrapped in silk.

After leaving college, Jackie spent a few years working. The jobs she could find without a college degree didn’t pay that well. “I was really depressed,” she recalls. “I felt purposeless. I felt useless.”

Then, Jackie met a friend of a friend who performs a style of acrobatics called tricking. It combines moves from gymnastics and taekwondo. The art form caught Jackie’s attention. She didn’t know anything about gymnastics, but she had practiced taekwondo since childhood.

Jackie found a tricking gym near her home in Maryland. She called the owner and discovered they shared several friends. Jackie signed up for private lessons. She met new people devoted to practicing martial arts and stunts, aspiring actors and performing artists who spend their free time creating independent films. Their passion inflated her own.

“It totally drove me forward into being like, OK, I definitely wanna follow my dreams and become a stunt-martial-arts-dancer-whatever-actor,” Jackie says.

Students take turns performing their renditions of “The Lover.” One pair is tender: a young couple realizing they’ve hurt each other for the very first time. Another pair is exasperated: longtime partners rehashing the same argument for the millionth time.

When Jackie and her partner perform, they betray no affection. Whatever love they once shared is lost. There is nothing left to salvage. They need a clean break.

When Jackie found tricking, she saw a way out.

Eff this, life is way too short,” Jackie told herself. “I have to start somewhere.”

Sacrifice

When Jackie was in seventh grade, she asked her mom to buy her a jean skirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. It cost $60.

That was a lot of money for Jackie’s family. The Kims moved from Seoul, South Korea, to the U.S. when Jackie was 11, in 2004. In Maryland, their finances felt tight. Jackie says she has worked since she was in eighth grade, when she started earning a few bucks an hour as a bus girl in a restaurant.

“I don’t think that was legal, but whatever. That’s how much I didn’t wanna ask my parents for money,” Jackie says.

But … that skirt. It was trendy. It was Abercrombie. It might help her fit in at school, where she struggled to make friends—targeted by bullies who picked on her accent and her outfits.

So Jackie asked her mom to buy it.

“She said, ‘Do you really, really, really want this?’” Jackie recalls. “And she asked me as I kept touching it, you know, I kept looking.”

Jackie did want it. Still, she told her mom not to worry. They could leave the store if the skirt was too expensive.

But Jackie’s mom replied, “OK. If I get this, promise you’ll share it with your sister.”

“And she got it for me, and I am so grateful. I still can’t forget that—that is forever embedded in my brain—how much immigrant parents sacrifice for you,” Jackie says.

Jackie and mom
Jackie starts the morning at home with her mother—rare, because Jackie often rushes out the door.
Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

The first time Jackie tried college, her parents paid for her tuition. When she returned to study acting, she took on that responsibility. She considered applying to famous theater programs, like those at Yale and Juilliard. But it was cheaper and easier to stay local. So she enrolled at Howard Community College.

To pay her bills, she works two office jobs that draw on her nursing training, assisting a chiropractor and an acupuncturist. She’s trying to save up money for when it’s time to make a big move for her career, maybe to New York, maybe to L.A. She researches what it costs in those cities to pay for rent, utilities and groceries.

“People are like, ‘Oh, you can just go with, like, $5,000.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna do that,’ Jackie says with a laugh. “I just would like to have enough savings to the point where I can pay off my loans comfortably, and to live somewhere comfortably for eight months at least.”

When she’s not in class or at work, Jackie acts. In the creative projects she makes with friends, she often blends dry humor with skilled stage combat. In one short film, “Tea Time,” she fistfights a series of bad guys while hunting down a lost buddy, ultimately coming face to face with a surprising nemesis. In another, a “gangster reboot” of a classic legend, called “Mulan: An East Side Story,” she plays the title character, singing, dancing and generally kicking ass.

Study, work, act—repeat. Jackie is always tired. Ambition doesn’t sleep.

“She physically works very hard in the family, always moving around,” says Brian Kim, Jackie’s younger brother, who lives with Jackie and their parents. “Her daily schedule hours, I feel like they’re pretty intense, ’cuz I’m lucky if I see her in the morning, and I’m lucky if I see her at night.”

Jackie reflection
Jackie rests briefly before starting a long day of classes and play rehearsal.
Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

In her daily blur, Jackie paused just long enough to notice a piece of mail. She received a pamphlet from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It encouraged her to return, and to finish earning a bachelor’s degree. The letter promised that if Jackie applied soon, the university would waive the application fee of $50.

“And I was like, ‘Sold,’” Jackie recalls with a laugh. “I was gonna go back anyways, but if you’re waiving the $50? Great.”

That’s exactly the reaction that leaders at the university were hoping for. In summer 2020, they realized that the COVID-19 pandemic had created conditions that might draw back adults who had left college without finishing. During six hectic weeks, administrators created a marketing campaign called Finish Line, dug up records of former students who had earned at least 60 credits and mailed them invitations to return to the institution.

One of those students was Jackie. With freshly earned community college theater credits, she transferred back to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Jackie in class
Jackie in a history of theater class. Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

This time around, instead of living in a dorm, Jackie lives with her mom, dad and brother 20 minutes away. Instead of thumbing through textbooks, she memorizes scripts. She doesn’t cry at night.

The campus feels different. When Jackie first arrived a decade ago, the performing arts building didn’t exist. By the time she returned, there it was, shining at the top of the hill.

Safety

Once a week, Jackie trains to wield a sword. She cuts and parries, learning moves that her instructor refers to as “Hollywood swashbuckling.”

She also practices unarmed combat, skills used to perform fights, shoves and falls on stage and on screen.

“No weapon, just punching, kicking, hitting—which is like natural to me, ’cause I’ve done it so much,” Jackie says.

The class teaches students about partnership, communication and “how to work safely while creating the illusion of danger,” says Jenny Male, an associate professor of theatre at Howard Community College and a certified teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors. When actors take a punch or grab a knife, she explains, their task is to “keep it safe, yet exciting.”

“Safety and protection is always number one, no matter what,” Jackie says. Photos by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

In a few weeks, a fight master will come to class to examine Jackie. If she passes the test, she will become certified to perform with a sword on stage. It’s not a credential she absolutely needs to succeed in acting, Male says—yet it could help.

“If someone were trying to choose between two people to play, let’s say, Hamlet, and both people have equal acting ability, but one person has like five years of fight training and certifications,” Male says, “that person’s going to have, certainly, an advantage in the casting process.”

The single sword and unarmed combat training is already proving useful. Jackie applies it during “She Kills Monsters,” as she portrays Agnes and helps to choreograph fight scenes with other actors.

“I always check in with them,” Jackie says. “‘Is it OK if I do this to you? Is it OK if I slash over your head?’”

Safety isn’t only physical. During the second half of the “Extreme Scenes” seminar, Jackie and her classmates gather on couches in the green room—the walls in this one happen to be burgundy—to discuss plays they’ve selected for an assignment in directing a difficult scene. Each story has the potential to shock, offend or distress.

The students converse about the consequences of portraying murder, sexual assault and racism. They wonder how to warn audiences about what they will witness on stage. They think about their own boundaries as performers, what risks they’re willing to take and what lines they won’t cross.

A student describes “The Pillowman,” a play depicting torture, suicide and a police execution. Classmates toss out questions. What kinds of weapons are used? Is the torture shown, or heard from off stage? Can the violence be stylized?

Another student describes “Sagittarius Ponderosa,” a play about illness, sex and a transgender character whose family doesn’t understand his transition. Is the intimacy consensual, or forced? Should a transgender actor play the main role? Can students find or make a critical prop mentioned in the script—a puppet?

Jackie in the green room
Cast members of “She Kills Monsters” in the green room. Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

This learning experience isn’t strictly required to pursue an acting career. Neither is a bachelor’s degree—as Jackie’s friends sometimes remind her. But it couldn’t hurt, Male says.

“The wonderful thing about doing college classes is you get that well-rounded education,” she explains. “You get training in acting and voice and movement. It’s all at your fingertips.”

Jackie craves a creative career. Yet she knows the risks that come with living outside of the 9-to-5 norm. Once she moves to New York or L.A., what if it takes her months to find an acting gig? What if each opportunity only lasts for a week or two? How will she pay her bills in between?

“That fact that I just have a backup bachelor’s degree in something—I can get a better-paying job,” Jackie says. “I just somehow feel safer, in a way.”

In the green room, Jackie rests her boots on the coffee table and describes the play she’s picked, “M. Butterfly.” The story, about a Chinese opera star and spy, depicts war, imprisonment and homophobia, she says, as well as the fetishization of Asian women.

Jackie wants to direct a romantic scene from the script. Should the performance include nudity? How sexualized should it be? Would she prefer an Asian actor to play the lead?

As class ends, Jackie closes her flower-covered notebook and heads out into the hallway, pondering how far to push her limits.

Leveling Up

Toppling the doppelganger marks a turning point for Agnes. She’s getting the hang of this hero thing.

So when she and her friends encounter a pair of demons disguised as cheerleaders, Agnes knows what to do. She challenges them to a dance battle—set, of course, to “Everybody Dance Now”—and as the monsters pop and lock and wave their pom poms, Agnes and her crew sneak up and slay the dancing duo.

By the time Agnes finally faces her ultimate foe—a five-headed dragon—she’s a fierce fighter, wielding her weapon and landing flips with flair. She bests the beast, hoisting her sword to the sky.

Jacke in battle
A battle with demon cheerleaders during “She Kills Monsters.” Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

Jackie is leveling up, too. If she were a Dungeons & Dragons character, her “dexterity” score would be around 18—that is to say, high.

“Jackie is just a fantastic actor, with or without weapons, and I think that is such a wonderful base to build upon,” Male says. “I have sent clips of Jackie's work to some of my fight friends, and they say that she will be able to go straight to stunt work, if that's what she wants, in the film industry, because of the high quality of her work.”

Jackie’s “constitution” score would be approaching 18, too.

“I don’t know if it’s confidence or just perseverance, but Jackie really shows up for it,” her brother says. “Not every day do I get to see someone as dedicated like that for their own success.”

Her “charisma” score has improved—and her parents have noticed. They’re coming around to her acting aspirations.

“Once I finally told them that I’m pursuing something that I absolutely desire and love,” Jackie says, “and them seeing my grades go up, up, up, up, up—my GPA is just going up ’cause I’m constantly getting straight As—they finally accept it.”

She is choreographing her next moves carefully. By the end of this year, Jackie plans to graduate from college. When she saves enough money, she may move to a bigger city and reconnect with acting friends. Five years from now, she hopes to work in movies.

“I’m turning 30 this year,” Jackie says, “and I’m not gonna be young forever.”

Agnes completes her quest. The cast of “She Kills Monsters” takes their bows.

Jackie rewrites her script, waiting for the curtain to rise. ⚡

Jacke in spotlight
Jackie Kim, backstage at rehearsal. Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.

Rebecca Koenig is an editor at EdSurge covering higher education.

Reach her at rebecca [at] edsurge [dot] com.


Photojournalism by Shuran Huang.

Second Acts Facts data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

This story was supported by the Lumina Foundation.

  

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