When Sarah Lewis was five years old, she picked up an old DVD of The Phantom of the Opera from her parents’ movie collection. “I was absolutely fixated on it,” Lewis recalled. “I would sit in the living room and watch it and sing along, and thought, ‘Yes! That!’”

This early fascination with the opera was just one of many inspirations that led Lewis to a prolific theater career. She’s performed on stages big and small, across the country, and in minor and leading roles.

During a college tour, a professor advised her that if she was serious about the arts, Stanford was where she should go. “I was really annoyed because I hadn’t applied to Stanford,” she said.

After initially enrolling at a college closer to her hometown in the Northeast, she soon became dissatisfied with her creative prospects and transferred to Stanford. Since then, she has immersed herself in the Farm’s rich artistic opportunities, captivating audiences in numerous live performances.

“The arts community at Stanford is really robust,” she said. “There’s so much to do here.”

Committing to the arts

Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, Lewis participated in school plays, choir, and talent shows. Her parents often ushered at a local theater and would nab her free tickets to shows. “I was brought up on theater, and I think I watched so much of it that, by osmosis, it became part of me,” Lewis said.

She performed in shows like How to Eat Like a Child, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and Legally Blonde, and even tried her hand at Shakespeare. In high school, she studied classical music, focused her academic interests on writing and biology, and toured Germany and Spain with a jazz revue. “For a week and a half, I got to live like a person who does this for a living, and it was awesome,” she said. “Tiring – but awesome!”

Lewis initially enrolled at Brown University as a pre-med major. Although she enjoyed her classes, she realized a career in medicine or research wasn’t a good fit for her. She committed to studying the arts and humanities, but found that opportunities were limited.

“I wanted to try new things, but, for example, I couldn't find any operas to be in on campus. And how would I know if that’s the kind of music I wanted to do if that’s not something I could be in?” she said.

During winter break, she read Stanford’s course catalog. “I looked up the music, creative writing, and English classes, and I cried because Stanford offered classes on literally everything I had ever dreamed of studying,” Lewis said.

Show business, baby!

In 2020, after her first year at Brown, Lewis transferred to Stanford, deferring for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When she arrived on campus in 2021, her first performance was in Gaieties, the student-produced musical comedy about Stanford’s rivalry with Cal. 

“I auditioned and got the role of Lena, an evil Berkeley professor who wants to be a comedian, so she kidnaps all of Stanford and forces them to listen to her stand-up routine,” she said.

Most people think of Stanford as a STEM school, but there are loads of arts faculty who are really talented, accomplished, and well resourced. And I had access to them because things are more open at Stanford. There’s just a different ethos here. ”

The next few years at Stanford were an artistic deep dive for Lewis. She portrayed Mrs. Lovett, a serial killer who bakes her victims into meat pies, in Sweeney Todd and starred as the titular character in Mary Poppins, the British nanny who flies via umbrella. To achieve the effect on stage, Lewis was spotlighted while standing on a tall, black platform, pushed by the production crew. Lewis recalled one live dress rehearsal when the stunt was nearly ruined.

“When they drew the curtain back to triumphantly reveal me, I got smacked by the curtain and was holding on for dear life, trying not to fall,” Lewis said. “That’s show business, baby!”

Although she’s been performing her entire life, she said she still gets stage fright. “For the 20 minutes before a show, I’ll hide in the bathroom and think I’m dying,” she said. “But once I’m on stage and embedded in the character, I’m not thinking about myself.”

A different ethos

Besides theater, Lewis has seized as many artistic opportunities at Stanford as possible. Through Stanford Global Studies, she landed a summer internship at the Gaiety School of Acting at the National Theatre School of Ireland in Dublin. She joined Stanford’s Chamber Chorale, performed with a country bluegrass band and a klezmer band, and wrote a one-woman show she hopes to perform someday.

In the Stanford Arts Intensive, a project-based class focusing on intense artistic exploration, Lewis co-produced and acted in several short films. She’s taken classes on writing young-adult novels and television scripts, and one on film scoring.

“Most people think of Stanford as a STEM school, but there are loads of arts faculty who are really talented, accomplished, and well resourced,” she said. “And I had a lot of access to them because things are more open at Stanford. There’s just a different ethos here.”

The big dream

Lewis was initially unsure about transferring and whether she would find her place at Stanford. But the arts community on campus, as well as Gaieties, helped her acclimate to campus life.

“I’ve met so many incredibly talented people here who are very warm and friendly and a little silly,” she said. “Transferring can be intimidating, but my advice to anyone considering it is to just go for it.”

After graduating, Lewis will return to Stanford in the fall to begin her coterminal studies, aiming for a Master of Arts in English. Reflecting on her decision to uproot her life in the middle of college, she said she’s confident it was the right choice and that Stanford has set her on the right path.

“In terms of a career, I can see myself performing sometimes and writing sometimes,” she said. “That’s the big dream.”