We’ve all heard that life upon the wicked stage is a difficult career, full of rejection, brief highs, and lots of blood, sweat, and tears. Getting into a college bachelor of fine arts (BFA) theatre program is no different. My daughter is a freshman majoring in musical theatre at NYU. During her college application process, I wished for a parent support group. I longed for a primer, like a What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Broadway Baby. No one told me about the extreme competition, additional costs, or the multi-layered audition process. I wish I’d known what I was getting into when I agreed to back my daughter’s Broadway dreams.
First, make sure your child really understands that a BFA program is meant for students who can’t imagine college (or existence) based on anything other than singing, dancing, and/or acting. Performance-based BFAs are pre-professional degrees that average seventy percent of curriculum on theatre. For some, that’s way too much Bernadette Peters.
Competition is intense. It’s not uncommon for schools to have ten slots for females and ten for males in an incoming class, with thousands of uber-talented teens applying. Not only will your child need to prove ability in a five-minute audition, she must be the right fit with the program’s casting pool goals.
“Talent is paramount,” explains Jason Campbell, theater instructor at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (ARGS) in Petersburg, “but understand that schools need diversity to put on a show. You can’t admit only blue-eyed, blonde sopranos. Sometimes a rejection has less to do with talent and more to do with the college’s limited number of spots and production schedule, just like in real life.”
It is helpful to have a thick skin. Like a stint in the Hunger Games, the odds aren’t in anyone’s favor. Dallas-based audition coach Mary Anna Dennard speaks to the law of averages. “If you’re a white female, you may rock every audition and not get in anywhere, simply because there are a lot of white females out there who want to be on Broadway. Guys have a greater chance.”
Local vocal and audition coach Stephen Rudlin agrees. “Know your castability and what makes you stand out over other applicants. If you’re a stout redhead with freckles, you’re most likely to be cast in supporting character roles, so choose your songs and monologues accordingly.” Also, it is in your child’s favor to apply early before audition spots are filled and the chance to fit a particular character role is greatest. Once audition spots are full, no more are offered. So even if the college application is submitted prior to deadline, if your child isn’t able to audition, he will lose the opportunity to be considered for the BFA track.
“Since the audition is paramount, put time and resources there,” encourages Campbell. “At ARGS, we spend the first nine weeks of senior year on audition prep. If your child isn’t in a performing arts high school, he will need to get feedback elsewhere. Solicit the help of people who know the business and aren’t afraid to be honest. This might be a drama teacher, audition coach, or director who has worked with your child.” Richmond is fortunate to have theatre resources for youth like School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC), Studio Performance Academy, CharacterWorks, and HATTheatre. If you are looking for resources and instructors, start there.
Ellen Papa, director and founder of Studio Performance Academy, works seven days a week to help students expand their talents and appreciation of the performing arts. Papa’s program centers on small, meaningful classes to build confidence and a love of theatre in a fun environment. Additionally, she provides one-on-one coaching for voice and auditions. Papa stresses the importance of reviewing each college’s specific audition guidelines and making smart choices to “show the real you.” She explains: “Don’t pick a difficult song to prove yourself; instead pick a song that shows the unique qualities of your voice at its personal best.” The same applies for monologues. “Pick a dialogue that’s age appropriate and rings true. These programs want authentic students who are passionate about performing. They will teach you the different and difficult stuff once you’re admitted.”
Phaedra Hise, a Richmond parent whose daughter is applying to BFA programs for acting, recommends college summerintensives to decide if a BFA program is the way to go. “After six weeks of eating, sleeping, and breathing theater, it will be clear to your child if they want to pursue a BFA. It’s also helpful for your child to be surrounded by other Broadway wannabees. The level of talent is extreme and an important reality check.”
NYU freshman Brian Swinney credits NYU’s pre-college program with giving him an edge. “If you want a specific college, attend a summer camp at that school. Not only do you get a hands-on feel for the university, but the school gets to know you beyond a brief audition. Also, a summer in New York City may lead a student to realize that studying in a noisy city isn’t for him, or that he can’t imagine college in a small town.”
Jessie Jennison, a musical theatre ingénue at Northwestern, attended Emerson University’s summer-intensive session. She reports the biggest advantage – and one she never anticipated – was the student network she formed on Facebook. “We were all applying to the same places and kept each other informed about the unique audition nuances of each school. Since audition requirements vary, these personal experience tips proved invaluable.”
Although some scholarships exist, summer programs are costly and not an option for everyone. If that’s the case, guides like I Got In! The Ultimate College Audition Guide for Acting and Musical Theatre and Admit One: Ten Steps to Choosing Your Acting or Musical Theatre College Program are both straightforward goldmines of information. Each school’s specific website and CollegeConfidential.com are valuable Internet resources.
“Also remember that the school has to audition for you, too,” states Clare Trow, college counselor at St. Catherine’s. “You need to consider faculty resumés, financial aid, the surrounding town, size, and make-up of the student body, dorms, food, and the overall feel of a campus. And don’t forget the importance of grades to prove focus, intelligence, and perseverance.”
When it comes time to audition, Campbell from ARGS encourages his students to start with Virginia Theatre Association’s mass college auditions held every fall. Over twenty state schools send representatives to evaluate candidates and some students get offered admission on the spot. Even if your child plans to go out of state for college, it’s worth the experience simply for the practice of auditioning.
Keep in mind that out-of-state auditions add extra expense. There are the typical costs of additional application fees and the necessary performance outfits, but many expenses are less obvious. For example, since few schools provide a live pianist at auditions, you’ll need to pay an accompanist to pre-record and mark your child’s music, then have a computer or iPhone and a good set of speakers ready to play the music at each audition. Travel costs add to the total. Some families spend thousands to audition at schools around the country. Furthermore, auditions are held during weekends of your child’s busy senior year. While most students are writing college essays and studying, yours will be traveling.
Hise refused to overspend money and time on travel. “My daughter focused on a few schools. If she gets in, great. If not, she’ll get a liberal arts degree at a state school, then pursue acting in graduate school.”
To economize, many colleges take part in The National Unified Auditions held across the country from late January through mid-February. During Unifieds, multiple colleges audition in select cities (New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles) over the same weekend. Unifieds are the best way to participate in multiple college auditions. The downside is if your child’s having an off-weekend due to illness. For that reason, you may not want to schedule every audition during Unifieds. Also, it’s helpful to visit your top schools to get a feel for the campus and geographic location.
The road to a BFA acceptance may seem challenging, but the college audition process is only the beginning of a career full of extreme competition and frequent rejection. Your child needs to be happy and comfortable with this aspect or audition-based performance majors aren’t the right fit. If in the end your child isn’t accepted into a program, the show isn’t over. Various roads lead to the stage. Many successful actors never set foot in a BFA program, citing life as the best training.
My daughter is in a touted BFA program, and I’m not convinced it’s the ultimate prize. She will miss opportunities that a broader education offers including many academic options, relationships with nontheatre people, and the extra time to join clubs or sororities. Her studio days run from nine in the morning until eleven at night, with class until dinner, then show rehearsal in the evenings. Stamina is required. She is, however, truly happy doing what she loves (my main goal as a parent), and definitely feels she will graduate prepared to take on Broadway. Of course, then the competitive, rejection-filled audition process will start again, and I’ll be looking for another stage mom support group.