Student spotlight: actress and singer Zahra Ruffin ’17

by Elise Higgins | 10/13/16 12:00am

Although Zahra Ruffin ’17 is now an actress, she was introduced to the world of theater through dance. In middle school Ruffin’s homeroom teacher asked her to be a background dancer in the school’s performance of “Guys and Dolls”. Ruffin said that she thought her theater career would be over after that show, but the next year, the same teacher gave her the script for the fall production.

“I loved the script and I auditioned,” Ruffin said. “That was basically the end of any free time I had outside the theater.”

Ruffin continued to pursue acting and music throughout high school, and dance eventually began to take a back seat. Although Ruffin said she knew she was passionate about theater, she was unsure if she would continue along that path once she started at Dartmouth.

“I didn’t necessarily come in knowing it was something I wanted to pursue,” Ruffin said. “I came in knowing it was something I really loved.”

Ruffin’s plan for her first term at Dartmouth was to take one class for her major, potentially one class for her language requirement and one class she loved. Ruffin originally planned on majoring in sociology, but she took so many theater classes that she eventually decided to switch.

“I thought to my myself, ‘Zahra, if you love it this much, just do it',” Ruffin said.

Theater department chair and professor Laura Edmondson, who is also Ruffin’s major advisor, said that Ruffin’s infectious love for theater can be felt in the classroom.

“She’s one of the students who is a joy to have in the classroom because they just care about the material so much,” Edmondson said. “That just sets the tone for all the other students in the class”

As Ruffin’s major advisor, Edmondson is in charge of keeping track of Ruffin’s courses. Edmondson said that the theater major is very complex because students have to complete both class and production requirements. Edmondson said that as advisors, professors try to help students follow their passions and have positive experiences but also step outside of their comfort zones.

As a theater major, Ruffin has performed in shows every term at Dartmouth. Although she has done some mainstage performances, Ruffin said she really enjoys student shows because she likes to work with her peers.

In addition to theater, Ruffin is also extremely passionate about music. She discovered music earlier than theater because it was more accessible to her.

“You can always turn on a radio, but you can’t necessarily turn on a theater,” Ruffin said.

Driven by her interest in music, Ruffin knew she wanted to join an a cappella group at Dartmouth. Ruffin said she had a friend who was in the Subtleties who wanted her to join, so she auditioned and eventually made the group.

Liza Couser ’17, a member of the Subtleties, commented that Ruffin is quick to learn music and has a great soloist voice, making her a great addition to the group.

In addition to performing with the Subtleties, Ruffin also performs at open mic nights at Bar Hop. She originally began working at Bar Hop as an usher, but a friend who also worked there convinced her to perform during one of her shifts. Eventually Ruffin began to take a larger role in the planning of Bar Hop, and now she is the live events manager. The events manager reaches out to bands and a cappella groups to perform.

Ruffin appreciates the details and the melodies in musicals, but she said that she actually prefers performing in plays because she feels that she does better.

Now a senior, Ruffin says that she feels more confident in her acting abilities than she did when she first came to Dartmouth.

“You become relatively seasoned,” Ruffin said. “You kind of know what you’re doing at this point.”

Couser said that although Ruffin has always been confident and competent on stage, she has grown as a performer over the years.

“We watch each other get better every show we do,” Couser said.

The opportunity to take on larger roles throughout her years as a theater major has been one of Ruffin’s favorite parts of her experience. This fall, she will performing as the lead in “Intimate Apparel,” directed by Tazewell Thompson. Ruffin plays Esther, a black woman living alone in New York City in the 1950s. She is a seamstress but has a dream of eventually opening up her own beauty parlor. Ruffin said that her favorite part about Esther is her optimism and resilience.

“She’s not a victim at all,” Ruffin said.

Ruffin is somewhat unsure of what her plans will be after college. She wants to pursue acting and perhaps go to graduate school. Ruffin said that her experience on the Theater FSP to London this past summer helped her realize that theater was something she wanted to pursue.

“I have an idea of where I want to end up in maybe four years,” Ruffin said, “It’s figuring out that four year gap perchance that is super important.”

While future plans are definitely on Ruffin’s mind, she still has some time to figure things out. As she finishes her final year at Dartmouth, Ruffin will continue to perform on stage and pursue her passion. “Intimate Apparel” will be performed at the Moore Theater from Nov. 4 to Nov. 13.