Before the Audition: A look at choosing the right school
The following post is written by Chelsea Cipolla for NerdScholar. Chelsea is a New York-based actress, acting coach, and career consultant. She is the author of Admit One: Ten Steps to Choosing your Acting or Musical Theatre College Program and founder of My College Audition, a college audition preparation coaching service for high school students pursuing a degree in theater, film, or performing arts.
When you think of a college campus, you might picture one that you can see from your favorite movie: a campus filled with over-flowing frat houses, packed dorms, and a quad scattered with an array of students—all on college grounds that provide every- thing you could possibly need. Or you may picture yourself in a big city where your campus is literally the entire metropolitan area. How large of a campus do you want? Would you prefer a college big enough that you rarely see the same person twice? Or an intimate setting where you feel particularly connected with the entire community?
Deciding on what you need in a campus goes beyond what you want in a theatre or musical theatre program. When you leave your acting class for the day, you want to make sure you are happy with the rest of your college experience. If walking around a city and exploring all it has to offer is
appealing, a New York City or Chicago college might be best. If these seem a bit daunting but you still imagine yourself in an urban setting, somewhere like Emerson College in Boston, could be a good fit. Emerson borders the Boston Commons (a sort of large garden in the middle of downtown Boston) with its campus but is set in a significantly smaller city than New York or Los Angeles. Or do you want a more typical college experience with a classic campus? Would you rather fall asleep to the sound of honking taxis or the partying sorority next door? If activities such as shopping, going to concerts, and visiting museums excite you, it may be wise to look for a college in or near a major city. If having to drive is not up your alley, attending school in a city eliminates that factor with public transportation. Also, if an internship is in your future, an urban area may present many more opportunities. On the downside, cities can be unpleasant (and sometimes scary) places. Your late-night options may become limited due to safety concerns. Also on the downside (or upside, depending on how
you look at it), there are more distractions in a city as opposed to a secluded campus. Many colleges with drama programs are located in urban areas for a simple reason: the professional theatres. From fringe companies to major touring shows (and everything in between), cities tend to have an abundance of theatrical performances and opportunities. Colleges closer to these opportunities can encourage their students to watch, learn from, and work with professional actors.
If you are a nature person and enjoy outdoor recreational activities, considering a rural campus is a good idea. Also, rural campuses tend to have a stronger sense of community and a less frenetic pace. Just make sure a less populated setting has
enough amenities to fit your basic needs. If you’re not bringing a car, how will you get around? Where’s the nearest airport? How far away is the mall? Are there opportunities in the surrounding community for internships? Deciding on what makes you happy as a human, along with your theatrical needs, will inform your decision greatly.
Ultimately, how many people would you like to be surrounded with for four (or possibly more) years? 60,000 or 1,000? When it comes to choosing a school, one size certainly doesn’t fit all. Colleges that have a rural campus can be limiting when it
comes to meeting people outside of your college community. Programs that are based in urban settings allow for students to be surrounded by not only their classmates but everyone who happens to live and work in that city as well. Large schools may have larger class sizes, though, and the sheer number of people can be overwhelming.
The only real way to make an educated decision on what school is right for you is to check out the campus. Yes, visits to campuses can be costly for you and your family (traveling, lodging, and so on), but in the long run it is worth it. Besides being able to check out the actual campus, you get the opportunity to check out what campus life is like. While you walk around, scan the bulletin boards to see what student productions are holding auditions. Maybe there is a cool fundraiser happening that you could totally picture yourself being a part of in the future. Check out the dorms. Maybe there is a residence hall that offers a “quiet” floor that you could definitely see yourself living there. How about the cafeteria? Since you just decided you are a vegan, make sure they offer something that you can happily eat. There is no better way to truly get the inside scoop unless you chat with current students. If possible, arrange to have an overnight visit with a student—one in the musical theatre or
theatre department would obviously be ideal. Students will be able to honestly share what gripes they have with the school and what they love and adore about their college. Friend the students on Facebook and follow up with them after your visit. Even if you can’t afford to visit a school, you probably have a friend of a friend or a distant relative that you know at the particular school. Friend them to get the juicy gossip and insight.
While you are there, make sure to do the following:
- Meet and chat with at least a couple of professors in the acting department. Be prepared with some substantial questions that you truly want answers for.
- Get business cards and email addresses of any faculty you meet with. Follow up when you return home to thank them for their time.
- Grab those financial aid forms.
- Sit in on an acting class if the school allows. What better way to see if this is an environment that you can see yourself in?
- Participate in a group information session. Listening to other potential students’ questions can eliminate some lingering questions you may also have.
Having a passion for the performing arts is fantastic, but when looking at a school, it’s important to consider your interests outside of theatre as well. Are you an avid chess player? Find a school that has a chess team. Do you find yourself dividing your time between the sports field and the theatre? Make sure to find a school that allows you to have time for both. Do your parents want you to continue to pursue your interest in mathematics? Investigate the opportunity for either being able to get a minor in an outside interest or at least the availability to take classes outside your major.
Being able to pursue all areas that interest you can help inform you as a performer. On the negative side, spreading yourself too thin can weaken your abilities inside the classroom and theatre. Decide what things in your life you simply can’t live without. If being on a sports team is a huge part of who you are, don’t deny yourself that experience in college. Find a school that encourages you to join the lacrosse team but also works with your schedule to allow you to participate in mainstage productions. You can perhaps balance the two by going the BA route and only auditioning for shows in the off-season. Once you evaluate what you need in order to be a well-rounded and happy individual, eliminate the programs that don’t offer options to facilitate your needs and outside interests.
It may be impossible to find a school that offers everything you are committed to and excited to have in a college experience. If that’s the case, it’s important to look at what is offered in the community, town, or city that your school is located in. If you regularly attend church on Sunday, make sure to find a school that either has a strong religious background or is set in a community where a church is easily accessible. If you enjoy bike riding but the school doesn’t have a cycling club, investigate if there is one in the surrounding towns. If rock climbing or surfing is a large part of what defines you, there’s no shame in focusing your search in an area in the mountains or near a beach.
Outside Performance Options
Many schools have strong ties with the surrounding regional theatres in their community. These regional theatres are often a student’s first chance to perform professionally. Also, some schools have strict restrictions on whether you are allowed to perform off campus throughout the school year. If building your resume with outside theatre credentials during school is important to you, find a program that has a connection with a certain theatre. Perhaps even more important, going to a school in an area with thriving theatre (especially places you may not immediately think of, such as Cincinnati, Houston, Seattle, or San Diego) gives you the opportunity to see compelling and challenging theatre year-round and at a deeply discounted student price. This can be one of your greatest learning opportunities.
* To get the other nine steps on how to choose the right college acting or musical theatre program, check out Chelsea’s book: Admit One: Ten Steps to Choosing your Acting or Musical Theatre College Program at: www.admitonethebook.com or visit My College Audition www.mycollegeaudition.com for college audition preparation coaching.