June 27, 2008

Every Friday this summer, SIOC will feature a college-aged kid who's spending his or her time away from school at a cool, coveted internship. While Ayla Brown's stint in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat isn't technically an internship, it's cool enough that we're bending the rules and making her our Intern of the Week.

In fifth grade, Ayla Brown wrote a story about her dream job. She wanted to fly her own plane to a WNBA game, sing the national anthem, then slip into her No. 1 jersey and score 40 points.

"I used to laugh at her," says Gail Brown, Ayla's mother. "Now I'm waiting for her to come home with a pilot's license."

Brown isn't flying yet, but the Boston College women's basketball starter and former American Idol finalist has added another talent to her repertoire this summer: starring in a professional production of the musical, Josephand the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. With workouts in the morning and rehearsals at night, this summer is yet another battle in Brown's struggle to balance her playing and performing lives -- a struggle that wouldn't exist if Simon Cowell had had his way.

"I would absolutely say no," Cowell, Idol's prickly judge, told a national television audience after hearing Brown's rendition of Ain't No Mountain High Enough at the Idol auditions.

But after telling the judges about her basketball career -- and her ability to take constructive criticism from coaches -- they sent her through.

"We didn't realize what she had until American Idol," said Gail, who waited in line for 18 hours at the Gillette Stadium audition. "She kept making it through the rounds and we were like, 'Geez, you think she can really sing?' Because she was such a good athlete, we never looked for other talents."

The Browns could be forgiven for seeing Ayla and thinking athlete. Six-feet tall in sixth grade, the two-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year racked up 2,358 career points and 1,152 rebounds and at age 15 became the youngest women's basketball player to commit to BC. A three-sport athlete like her father Scott, a former college basketball player at Tufts, Brown even captained the boy's football team in middle school.

"She would kick their butts all over the field," says Scott, a Massachusetts state congressman. "After the games she'd take off her helmet and her long, brown hair would come flying out. The other boys would literally start crying."

Ayla's singing talent wasn't quite as obvious. Her parents noticed a three-year old Ayla's ability to memorize songs from the Disney movies they showed, but thought nothing of it. The Browns received notes from teachers saying "We love Ayla, but she won't stop singing." It was only at the urging of Ayla's aunt that Gail even agreed to take her daughter to the Idol tryout at Gillette Stadium at all.

After finishing 13th on American Idol at just 17-years-old, Brown had earned enough national air time go from earning $25 dollars to sing the national anthem at high school basketball games to singing for Tom Brady and 68,756 of her fellow New Englanders. She sang at Fenway Park and with the Boston Pops on the July 4, and was the Boston Celtics lucky charm for two Game Seven wins (she was on call should the Finals go the distance). Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese even asked Brown to sing before a game at Maryland after being "blown away" when Brown sang the anthem at a BC v. Maryland game in Boston.

But her mother, a local TV reporter, had been a performer once, starring in Auntie Mame at Waltham High School, so Ayla understood the allure. Gail's director in that play, Robert Eagle, saw Ayla on Idol and twice asked her to play the role of the narrator in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for his theater company. But it took a third request this year for Ayla to rent a copy of the Donny Osmond production (which she had never seen) and agree to do the show.

"I was nervous about having an untrained actress, but I wasn't nervous once I met her," said the show's director and choreographer, Susan Chebookjian. "I saw how eager she was for this opportunity, and she was so receptive for direction and feedback. That's a director's dream."

Though Brown's voical ability was never a question, she was an acting rookie in a role where facial expressions and mannerisms would convey as much as the lyrics in the 17 songs she had to memorize. Brown woke up each morning, five days a week, to join her teammates at BC for weights and pickup games, then arrived in Waltham at 2 p.m. -- at least once bringing a basketball and prompting a pickup game with a few male cast members -- and would stay "until they let us go." Sometimes that meant after 11 p.m.

Fitting into a cast or a team has never been a problem for Brown, who picked BC in large part because of then-head coach Cathy Inglese, whose hard-nosed style meshed with Brown's own attitude toward playing. Brown was the team's second-leading rebounder as a freshman despite starting just 16 games, and she started all but two games after moving to guard as a sophomore.

"So far in my experience with her, she is always in the moment," says Sylvia Crawley, who replaced Inglese as BC's head coach last month. "When she's on stage, she is on stage. If she's in the weight room, she is in the weight room."

Crawley has experience with off-court starlets, having coached former Miss Teen USA Allie LaForce, who had her own full-page spread in the Women's Final Four program wearing her basketball jersey and a tiara (The Bobcats had not even made the NCAA Tournament). But where some coaches prohibit scholarship players from getting involved off the court, Crawley encourages them.

"I have a lot of former opponents and teammates who played AAU ball, worked summer camps, graduated from college and went to the pros, but now basketball's over for them and they really struggle," Crawley says. "As long as you're putting in your time on the court, I want you to get involved in other things."

Along with battling the balance between singing and playing, Ayla has faced a parallel battle with the NCAA compliance rules. Scott, who is also Ayla's manager, says he lives "with a daily fear that I've made a mistake and she's going to lose her eligibility." He estimates that he spends up to four or five hours some days making sure all the rules are understood and paperwork is properly filed.

With two years of college still remaining, the multi-talented star's potential paths abound. The WNBA might be a stretch -- but three years ago, so was Idol. There's always coaching, or the broadcast booth, which the communications major says she would love to try. And then there's singing, with the ongoing Idol concert tours and Ayla's solo albums.

Or, thanks to Joseph, maybe Broadway.

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