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Autumn Zangrilli Autumn Zangrilli out of costume. She prefers jeans and t-shirts over ballgowns. (BAP photo)

UC Berkeley theater major Autumn Zangrilli to audition for Miss California

"There She Is, Miss America"
... There she is, your ideal
With so many beauties
She'll take the town by storm
With her all-American face
    and form
And there she is
Walking on air she is
Fairest of the fair she is
Miss America

—Bernie Wayne

- On Wednesday, June 25, UC Berkeley theater/performance studies major Autumn Zangrilli will be in Fresno trying out for her most difficult role yet: Miss California. The part comes with a hefty paycheck - $10,000 in scholarship money. The winner also has a 1 in 50 shot at the "fairest of the fair" Miss America showdown in Atlantic City.

But Zangrilli, who is Miss Contra Costa County 2003, says she's not really after the big purse. She would be content even with a bit part as fourth runner-up, who receives $2,000. Because despite all the time she's spent on stage in make-believe land, this student has a firm grasp on reality. She is not modeling her evening gown (a strapless, brown tulle Michael Casey design that she calls her "Disney dress") and swimsuit (a plunge-necked, blue and black one-piece) for thrills and glory, but for practical reasons.

Zangrilli is on her own financially, and has put herself through her first four years at UC Berkeley with a combination of scholarships and part-time work. Now that she's decided to continue her studies for a fifth year, she's on the hunt for a way to pay for it. If she wins, there's a bonus - she gets to publicize an issue that's near and dear to her heart. For the past two years, through the UC arts education outreach program ArtsBridge, Zangrilli has taught theater classes to Oakland third graders for whom English is a second language. Last year, funding for the program was slashed by 80 percent, and ArtsBridge likely won't survive this year's budget wrangling. Zangrilli is making Arts in Education her "platform," the message she'll get to deliver at all her public appearances as Miss California -if she wins.

Scholarship campaign

Zangrilli was raised in a town so small she usually just says she's from Amador County, California. Her parents have never had much money, but as theater lovers, they took her to see plays in nearby Sacramento and enrolled her in dance classes at an early age. "In sixth grade I took a class from the Sacramento Theater Company and fell in love," she recalls. At Amador High School, Zangrilli threw herself into the theater program. She spent summers at theater schools, and as a sophomore was named a California Arts Scholar by Governor Pete Wilson. By her senior year, she was teaching a drama class to seventh and eight graders. She was also working, starting with her first job at the age of 14, as a cashier/stocker for the Bucksmart dollar store in Martel, California, where she worked all through high school. "If I wanted money, I had to work," she shrugs. When it came time to apply to colleges, Zangrilli was also on her own financially. Her quest for scholarships led her to her first pageant.

She entered Miss Amador County in pursuit of the $2,000 scholarship attached to the tiara. "There was no beauty part," she says - the judging was based 25 percent on grades, 25 percent on community service, 25 percent for "on-stage presentation," and 25 percent on the interview portion. She won it, along with a lengthy list of other community scholarships, including from the Sierra Club, the California Alliance for Arts in Education, the Lions Club, Elks Club, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and others.

"Martha Graham is a cracker"

At Cal, she's held several jobs, including working part-time in a law office since 1999 and raising money for the Cal Annual Fund. But by far her favorite extracurricular activity remains the theater. For the last three years Zangrilli has run Barestage, UC Berkeley's original student production company. She's produced, directed, and even written numerous plays and musicals, and drew on that experience to teach a De-Cal course on "Making Student Theater at Cal." She cites with particular pride the All-Female Women's Festival, a celebration of women in theater, that she's put together two years in a row. "The festival gives any girl who wants to write, direct, or act a chance to do so," she explains. For the most recent festival, Zangrilli had all the participants write about what it meant to be female, then melded them together as a performance piece called "In the Beginning" that was put on to benefit a women's shelter.

Meanwhile, in addition to also majoring in English and writing an honors thesis about the sociopolitical history of student theater on campus, Zangrilli has also somehow found the time to work as a tutor at Berkeley High School, act as the student representative on UC Berkeley's Consortium for the Arts board, and as an ArtsBridge outreach instructor. At Jefferson Elementary in Oakland, she teaches drama classes to around 50 third-grade students. Although she has a lot of experience teaching theater, these students present a particular challenge. Few speak English as their first language, and "they think a theater is where you go to see movies," she says. "It's been trial and error, just learning how to warm them up," she says. "I've learned to focus on doing improvisation with them, because it teaches them to act on their intuition without using violence, which they're saturated with from cartoons and action films. With improv, you can't say no - you have to go along with what people shout out - and that's a good lesson in self-control for them."

Zangrilli worries that funding for programs like ArtsBridge will be excised from the state budget. "With budget cuts, the arts are always the first to go," she laments. "It's a struggle to try and keep arts education going. It reminds me of a poster I saw once that said, 'There's not enough art in our schools - no wonder kids think Martha Graham is a cracker.'"

A lesson in every port

As busy as she is, no one could fault Zangrilli for wanting to take an extra year to complete her studies. For her last few months, she has her heart set on doing a Semester at Sea program administered by the University of Pittsburgh, a kind of learning cruise for credit that will dock for days at a time in Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan. Despite a late start - her first trip abroad was in college, when she visited a student she'd been tutoring in Japan - Zangrilli ranks travel as equally important to her as theater.

"I feel like I can't understand who I am in the world without seeing more of the world first," she says. "And with the Semester at Sea, I will get to visit more places in a few months than I ever thought I would in my lifetime."

The catch: most of Zangrilli's scholarships stop at four years of tuition, and the Semester at Sea program costs $14,000. So she dusted off the scholarship-hunting skills that had served her so well in high school, and entered the Miss San Francisco contest on a whim. Unlike Miss Amador County, this pageant most definitely has a beauty component - "on-stage personality in evening wear" and "physical fitness in swimsuit" each count for 10 percent of the overall score.

Autumn Zangrilli
...and as Miss Contra Costa County, a contender for Miss California.

With her big green eyes, tawny hair, Julia Roberts-wattage smile, and yoga-toned build, Zangrilli seems like someone who's at ease with her looks. However, "my whole life has NOT been about focusing on my body," she says emphatically. For most people, that would make sashaying around in a bathing suit before an audience a little scary, but Zangrilli claims it's no big deal. "I'm an actor - it doesn't bother me. I've worn more compromising costumes on stage before," she laughs, declining to describe those costumes.

Although she went into it "very skeptically," much to her surprise, Zangrilli won first runner-up and a couple hundred dollars in the Miss San Francisco pageant (see photos). Emboldened, she decided to try for the Miss Contra Costa County crown. (Contestants can enter any pageant in the general area where they live or work in California.) This time, she strode off in her high heels with the $1,000 top-prize scholarship, plus a $1,000 clothing allowance and professional guidance (shopping, interviewing, hair & makeup) to prepare for Miss California.

Zangrilli has been avoiding pizza, amping up her gym time, and taking dance classes to be able to follow the choreography of the opening number. While most of the Miss California contestants will be belting out show tunes or pirouetting in pointe shoes for the talent section of the pageant, Zangrilli is relying on her well-honed stage skills. In a costume borrowed from the American Conservatory Theater, she'll perform the "Love Struck Jailer's Daughter" monologue from Shakespeare's "Two Noble Kinsman," a monologue she's been performing (and won prizes with) since high school. "It's a crowd pleaser," she explains. "I'm not doing this so I can be cast in a Broadway show; I'm doing it to entertain the audience."

All the court's a stage

Zangrilli admits that she gets quite a few double-takes about her pageant participation. "Putting UC Berkeley and beauty pageants together makes for interesting conversation. The pageant people are always really interested that I go to Berkeley, and I think they have definitely grilled me harder in the interview portions about current events," she says. "And Berkeley people are surprised, but they're supportive - nobody has acted appalled at what I'm doing."

To Zangrilli, the pageant is not about being named the "fairest of the fair" in California, it's just a matter of figuring out how to achieve her goals. Surprisingly, she does not plan to pursue a career on the stage, but instead is applying to Teach for America and to a program for teaching English in Japan. She wants to gain some formal teaching experience before either going on to graduate school in education, or to law school.

"I can't justify taking the career path of becoming a performer. I've realized that having stability is very important to me," she explains. "I want to own a home someday and be able to put my kids through college. Having worked in a law office, I know that law is something I'll enjoy and be good at, and I'll probably continue to be involved with theater. I just never want to have money stand in the way of what I want to do."