How To Get Into a College Theater Program & Survive Trying
I spend a lot of time with ridiculously gifted kids. You could say I’m lucky that I get to teach, choreograph for, and foster the talent of Broadway’s future cast members. I get to be able to say “I knew them when...” I love working with kids because I delight in seeing someone’s potential for greatness. I really care about the growth and wellbeing of my students. Recently, I’ve become worried about some of them. I’m talking about my seniors who are about to start auditioning for college theater programs. It breaks my heart to see so many bright, talented, well intentioned, hard working kids completely and utterly overwhelmed by this process. If you’re a high school senior feeling like you’re just barely keeping your head above water, this one’s for you.
Let me start by leveling with you. This process isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that so much work is required of you. Especially because you’re still full time high school students. I mean if senior year was just a whole year dedicated to college applications and writing essays and filming pre-screens and attending auditions and finding your academic place for higher education, then sure, bring it on! But senior year is all that plus being a regular student with homework, tests and papers, after school commitments, and of course your senior year musical (or play). It’s a lot of work. Staying as organized as possible is really helpful. Starting early, not saving everything to the last minute, will be a lifesaver.
On the other hand, and this is where the real talk begins, a life in the arts isn’t stress free. The never ending search for theatrical work alone can be too much for some people to handle. For many of you the college audition process will be the first time you experience being a small fish in a big pond. Yes, this process is grueling. It can be stressful. You’re getting a small taste of what it’ll be like once you enter this industry for real. All sugar coating aside, use this journey as an opportunity to be honest with yourself about whether or not this lifestyle is for you. It isn’t for everyone and there will be many moments in the next four years of college where you can continue to ask yourself that question. Heck, you can continue to ask yourself that question throughout your entire life. You never have to answer it indefinitely. I bring this up because I think sometimes people feel pressured to go into the arts professionally because that’s all they’ve ever done and they don’t know what else is out there, what else they might be interested in pursuing. So stay curious, always stay curious. And try to be as honest with yourself as you possibly can every step of the way.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff: little nuggets of advice I wish for all of you to know deep down in your soul as you go through these next few months.
YOU ARE SPECIAL BECAUSE YOU ARE YOU
Both Barney and Mr. Rogers were right. You are special just because you are you. There’s nobody else out there in the world with your unique makeup of DNA, your precise gift, or perspective on the world. It is your job as an artist to find your voice, own it, and express it as truthfully as you can. Nobody else can replicate your artistry. Show that to your perspective college professors when you audition for them because that is what makes you irresistible.
REMEMBER YOUR WHY
Why do you want to major in theater in college? Why do you want to go into this as a profession? When you feel that you’re almost at a breaking point take a moment to remember how much you love doing this. Remember how it felt the first time you performed onstage. Was there a moment that it just clicked for you and you knew you’d want to do this for the rest of your life? And get really specific about your answers. “I want to major in this because I love it.” Okay, well what do you love about it? “I love being able to make people laugh and cry and look at themselves differently.” Okay, well why? “Because it makes me feel like I’m making a difference in their life.” Play detective. Try your very best to get to the root of it all.
YOU WILL END UP WHERE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE
I! Cannot! Emphasize! This! Enough! No amount of bold, underline, or italics can infuse how strongly I feel about this sentence. And not only in terms of which school you end up at, but for the rest of your life. However, since this is a blog specifically about applying to college theater programs I will try and not let my passion spin endlessly out of control and off topic. I’m not a religious person, and God isn’t really my thing but I do believe that the universe has a bigger plan for each of us and the universe gives each of us what we need to learn the lessons most suited for us in that moment. You will end up at the school that’s the most right for you. It might not be your dream school. In all honesty, I originally didn’t want to even apply to Wagner because I didn’t want to go to any school outside of Manhattan but my Mom strongly encouraged me to do so. And spoiler alert, it was exactly where I needed to be and I’m so grateful I ended up there. Also, you aren’t signing your life away. If you end up at a school that isn’t right for you, you can always transfer. There’s nothing wrong, bad, or shameful about that. I repeat: transferring schools doesn’t make you a bad person or a less talented person. It just means that for whatever reason you needed to make a pitstop at another school first because there was something you needed to learn about yourself before settling down at the place you’d eventually get your diploma from.
IT’S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
There’s a lot to do and you have a long school year ahead of you. Pace yourself as best you can. Block out time to relax and remember that you’re still a teenager. Hang out with friends on a Friday night. Go to school dances (but don’t scream at said dances) and then eat way too many pancakes at iHop afterwards. Take care of yourself. Drink water. Eat your fruits and veggies. Get as much sleep as possible. Wear a jacket outside when it gets cold. We want to avoid getting sick.
YOU’RE NOT EMBARKING ON THIS JOURNEY ALONE
I encourage you to find your tribe of people who are in this industry and to lean on them throughout this process. If you have supportive parents that’s amazing, and absolutely talk to them about your doubts, fears, and frustrations. However, if your parents are muggles I think you would also find it helpful to seek out a theater mentor, dance/voice teacher, or older friend who has been through the college audition process already. You don’t have to be strong all of the time. There’s an unnecessary yet immense amount of pressure put on you high school students. It’s okay to get overwhelmed and need a shoulder to cry on or a good ear to vent to. We are your community. We believe in you and we’ve got your back. That’s what we’re here for.
Now as much as I love being able to express my own voice through writing these blogs, I also value the importance of hearing different people’s points of view. So I reached out to some friends of mine, people who are in my own tribe, and asked them if they had advice they could share with current high school seniors and future theater freshman. Here are their answers:
“From helping run Wagner’s audition day my junior & senior year, I learned that it really did NOT matter what material the kids picked, as long as they did it well!!…Also, if you can find a way to relax and have fun with the audition, your confidence will already set you miles above the rest! Remember, it’s not all about the high notes or high kicks — they want to see your confidence and personality!”
-Samantha Rose (@samantharose520)
“Don’t try to show off — show you…practice being yourself — not some contrived musical theater kid robot version of yourself…Don’t view the other students auditioning with you as competition — they are your biggest allies in this journey because they are the only ones who know exactly what you’re going through…A bad audition doesn’t mean a bad life! One audition (whether good or bad) doesn’t define you. Take what you can, reflect and learn from each experience, and then let that shit go and focus on the next”
-Sabrina Kalman (@sabyykalman)
“When auditioning I looked at each audition as a free workshop and dance class; you want to take every opportunity you are given and use it to the fullest while still challenging yourself…who cares if you’re not perfect and make a mistake; don’t try to be that perfect cookie cutter cut out.”
-Ava Dell’Aquila, current college student (@ava.lee.dellaquila)
“Know that all that you need lies within you. Trust yourself and the process. You will get into the school that's the best fit for you. You are enough as you are so walk into every room and shine your light!”
-Sara Safari, current college student (@itssarasafari)
As stressful as this can be, and as much as it can seem like the stakes are really high, I hope that you’re still able to find the joy throughout all this. Because at the end of the day, where you get accepted is completely out of your control. But what is in your control is how you go about conquering this audition marathon. What is in your control is how brightly you’re going to allow your light to shine when you walk into those rooms. I want to commend you for believing in yourself and chasing this dream. Not everyone gets to stand where you’re standing. So take a moment to feel proud of how far you’ve come already. You got this.