Published in Backstage on November 02, 2006
From researching schools and preparing monologues to filling out applications and making travel arrangements, getting accepted into a graduate school’s MFA program can be complicated. But all that research and paperwork can pay off: Actors who apply to graduate school have decided to postpone an immediate career to pursue training that will, hopefully, expand them as artists and make them more-versatile actors.
I auditioned for grad schools for three years after my undergraduate studies, and each year I learned more about the process. But to gain even more insight, I interviewed three actors: Frances Uku, a recent graduate of the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University; Ted Stephens III, a second-year student in the MFA acting program at the University of Florida; and Carmen Gill, who graduated from the University of California, San Diego’s MFA acting program last year.
1. Research Schools
I thought I knew every MFA program in the country. But then I discovered the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University â€” only I was too late to audition. As the list that accompanies this article attests, there are over 100 MFA acting programs in the United States, and their websites are the place to start in finding the one that’s right for you. If one of them is nearby and looks interesting, go see a show or ask if you can sit in on a class. American Theatre magazine is another good source of information.
2. Select Your Monologues
Rarely performed monologues are often recommended, though a familiar one is fine as long as you can do it better than anyone else. The actors all mention that their undergraduate program or a scene study class gave them the opportunity to read newer plays and find a less-familiar piece that was right for them. The overdone works found in monologue books are generally to be avoided, unless it’s as a third or fourth backup. Uku, however, praised Alternative Shakespeare Auditions for Women by Simon Dunmore (there’s also one for men), and according to Gill, “The piece I chose from [a monologue book] was hilarious and I felt happy performing it, which showed. No one I performed it for had heard the monologue before and didn’t seem to care it was from an acclaimed play.” Of course, always read the entire play before performing a monologue, so you can understand its context and make better choices.
3. Find a Coach
An experienced hand to guide you is vital in preparing your monologues. Some actors choose teachers they’ve studied with or older actors with whom they’ve worked, while others prefer an experienced director. If you’re coming straight from an undergraduate program, your current acting teachers may be your best resource. If you’ve been out of school for a while, finding a college audition coach can be more challenging, though there are some who specialize in preparing actors for grad school auditions. Uku worked with New York’s Charles Tuthill, who teaches a class called “Auditioning for Graduate School.” I chose director Andrew Traister because he had worked at some of the schools I was interested in attending. Having sat through many auditions, he was able to suggest monologues that weren’t overdone and that would show off my personality, and under his guidance I had a confidence that my earlier auditions lacked.
Treat your audition as a performance; give it the same time you would if you were rehearsing a show. Make an appointment to meet with your coach about three months before your first audition, and discuss the monologues you might want to do and ask for alternatives. Take your time exploring which pieces you most connect with, then work with your coach to fine-tune them into a performance. When it comes to length, shorter is almost always better. A total of three minutes for your two monologues is fairly standard, though many recruiters claim they know within the first three lines whether they’re interested in you.
4. Figure Out How to Pay for It
And not just for the school itself, where the annual tuition can top $25,000, but for all the application and audition fees, which can really add up. In my third year of auditioning, I applied to 23 schools, each with its own fees, and attended the University/Resident Theatre Association auditions (see below), entailing travel expenses plus hotel and food costs in Chicago. If you’re currently enrolled in an undergraduate program, your college may offer scholarships to help students applying to grad schools. Also, talk to fellow students; if you’re all auditioning in the same place, you could travel together and share a hotel room. If your undergraduate theatre department doesn’t organize a group trip to U/RTA, start one yourself; the department may assist once it sees how many students are interested. Draft a budget and figure out how to get the most out of your auditioning money. Uku, for example, was living in New York and chose to audition at schools she could reach by public transportation.
5. Schedule Your Auditions
There are two ways to be seen: You can sign up for group auditions through U/RTA, or you can set up a private audition.
Applications for U/RTA auditions are usually due in November of the year prior to the auditions, which are held annually in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Candidates auditioning in New York and Chicago are screened by a panel of teachers and members of the professional theatre community, and those deemed eligible move on to the final auditions, where they’re seen by the colleges. (There’s no screening audition in San Francisco.) Interviews and callbacks with individual schools follow the final auditions. Those who don’t make the final auditions can attend a later open call, though there’s no guarantee the schools you’re interested in will be there. See U/RTA’s website, www.urta.com, for further details and a list of schools attending.
The advantage of auditioning at U/RTA is that you’ll be seen by a large number of schools in one trip, minimizing your expenses (more schools audition in New York and Chicago than in San Francisco). The downside is that with so many people auditioning at once, you don’t get to choose a school as much as the school chooses you. When I auditioned for the University of California at Irvine, the head of the acting department said the program sees over 1,000 people a year and selects only eight. If you’re choosy about which school you attend, U/RTA may not be right for you.
If you’re staying in a hotel while auditioning at U/RTA, “I would really recommend having a laptop or computer at your disposal,” says Stephens, “so that if you do get some [interviews], you can take a few minutes to learn about each school before your callback.” Individual interviews take place in the evening after your morning callback, leaving you the afternoon to research the schools that expressed interest in you. You’ll likely be asked why you want to attend the program, and research could give you an answer that will make you stand out.
For the schools at the top of your list, you should schedule a private audition. Don’t leave your chance of being seen in the hands of a screening panel. Many top schools require private auditions, as they don’t attend U/RTA, while others schedule a round of private auditions at the same time and place as U/RTA. (Also note that some schools audition only every three years.) In my second year at U/RTA, I didn’t get passed on to the final auditions, and though I attended the open call and interviewed with some schools, I didn’t feel good about my prospects. The next year, I knew I needed to be seen by as many schools as possible, so in addition to auditioning at U/RTA, I found out which schools were holding private auditions there and scheduled slots with them in order to maximize my face time.
After the callback, it’s time to follow up, which could include visiting the campus. Gill found that talking to current students was her best resource: “It’s hard to get a sense of what you actually are doing each day in graduate school from the course listings. I was able to ask them what their day-to-day life was like at school, what the vibe of the program was as a whole, and if they were happy with their choice. They were all surprisingly honest about their school’s pros and cons. I never felt like people were trying to sell me on their school.”
6. Keep Studying
If you’re not accepted on your first try, keep studying. I spent the two years after my undergraduate program studying voice and the Meisner technique, and in my third year of auditioning, many schools were impressed that I was still taking classes even though I wasn’t in a formal program. Schools like to see students who are committed to their craft and who won’t quit under the rigors of grad school training. Some of them, such as American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, offer summer programs with the same instructors who teach in the MFA program. It’s a good way for them to get to know you better, it gives you a taste of the grad school experience, and it could help you stand out when auditioning for the school in the future.
7. Get Some Experience
Schools also appreciate professional experience. “While I was getting my [undergraduate] degree in theatre,” says Stephens, “I continued to act, both academically and professionally with some of the regional theaters around the Quad City area, and also dabbled in producing, stage management, theatre marketing, and even sound-designed a show. I really treasure the four years or so that I wasn’t a full-time student, because it allowed me to gain some real-world experience, travel around the world…all things that I use every day as an actor in graduate school and professionally now. I really believe that the time off allowed me to gain a worldly perspective. In that time off, I gained a better understanding of myself so that I could in turn share that strong sense of self in my acting.”
Uku agrees: “I took two 12-week advanced scene-study classes back to back at HB Studio in New York City, one strictly Shakespeare-based and the other using contemporary plays, both taught by Austin Pendleton. I had never taken an acting class before Austin, so I found both classes useful in introducing me to contemporary American and British writing, as well as to the vocabulary of acting and the theatre.”
8. Be Yourself
Most important when auditioning for graduate school is to be yourself. “I think the key with these auditions is being comfortable in your own skin,” Uku says. “I thought I was unworthy because I was new to acting, hadn’t studied acting as an undergraduate, grew up abroad, looked like an ingenue but had the aura of a leading lady. It’s funny how it’s exactly because of those things that I’m now one of those rare people who lives off acting income alone.” Says Stephens, “The most important part about auditioning is not who you know, what show you’ve been in, or what reviews you’ve gotten, but rather that you are yourself. That you’re a person interested in not only furthering your own abilities but also sharing the arts with others. People that are [themselves] are always the most interesting and honest, and the most fascinating on stage.”
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