Noah Cornwell, stage name Noah Benjamin, didn't expect his graduation from theater school to take place virtually in his family's Duluth living room. Nor did he plan to graduate in the middle of a global pandemic.
"It's been really tough," Cornwell said. "But we've been making lemonade with the lemons we had."
This spring, he took a trip with his senior class from the Conservatory of Theater Arts at Webster University in St. Louis. They went to New York City to perform in a senior showcase and meet agents and casting directors. It was in early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun to spread in the U.S.
"It hit all of a sudden," Cornwell said. "I had an agent interview the next day after our showcase, and the agent just said, 'Listen I really liked you, I was going to offer to bring you on, but now that this pandemic has hit, I don't think we would be able to do that. In fact, we might be closing our doors."
Because theaters were among the first to close their doors and will likely be among the last to reopen, Cornwell has had to find other ways to use his theater skills.
And then came a dream opportunity: to voice a Yu-Gi-Oh! character.
Cornwell grew up playing the card game. He still has a box of "legendary" cards that he traded on the playground when he was in elementary school. When the first TV show came out, he was inspired to dress up as protagonist Yugi Mutou for Halloween.
"I wanted to be Yugi so badly," Cornwell said. "It's a little crazy how much I was into it."
Cornwell's university set up a virtual showcase for the seniors with casting directors and agents based in Los Angeles. From that showcase, Cornwell set up an interview with a a casting director who had him run through various voices and said he'd be in touch. When he received an email asking if he wanted to audition to voice a character in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links card game app, he jumped at the opportunity.
"I didn't hear from him for weeks. Then suddenly, I had this audition pop up in my email, and it was super exciting," Cornwell said.
He put together a quick audition tape, then had a callback via Zoom. Two hours later, he had the part. Noah provided the voice of Yuma Tsukumo in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal Duel Links expansion. Cornwell describes Yuma as "an energetic 15-year-old who wants to be the best player in the game."
"He's this ball of energy who never gives up," Cornwell said. "His willpower is staggering. It was encouraging to play such a bright and optimistic character in this dark and pessimistic time."
In order to record the over 600 lines of dialogue needed for the game, Cornwell bought a microphone and started downloading various recording programs on his computer in his family home in Duluth.
"I kind of hunkered down under my bed and put blankets up all around me to muffle the outside sound as much as possible," he said. "It was kind of a makeshift adventure, but I think it turned out well in the end."
He sent the lines of dialogue off to the company and waited. A few months later, the Zexal expansion arrived, and he was able to hear how it turned out.
"I was happy with it. It was rewarding to have it be done and ready for people to play," Cornwell said. "It's kind of a crazy, first job coming out of college in this pandemic. I was so scared and uncertain before, but this has provided great assurance that this is what I'm meant to do. It's the right career path for me, and I'm excited to keep pursuing it."
Since the job ended, Cornwell has continued to audition for other voice work and played two roles in a virtual Shakespeare festival in New York. He also has picked up writing as a creative outlet.
"When I'm not working at my day job, I have all this free time to express myself in a new way," Cornwell said. "It's where I've found the most personal growth over this pandemic. I've got a project in the works that I hope to have read soon."