So, you made a lifelong dream a reality and got into college for theatre - amazing! You’ve picked out a cool roommate, a chic Twin XL comforter, matching patterned notebooks, and a new pair of beige character shoes. You are ready! Go you! But, before you fill up that handy pastel planner all the way to the margins, take a moment to consider some crucial, guiding questions in order to start your four years off right:
If you ask theatre BFA and BA alum from programs all around the country what they wish they had kept in mind when starting their college experiences, there are a few themes that will show up again and again. I know this, because I did it! So, I’ll save you the time and trouble and boil it all down into these four tips to get the most out of your four years.
You’ve just transitioned from twelve years of extremely structured, prescribed, guided education. Regardless of how you feel about it, the fact is that college is going to be very different from what you’re used to. You will likely have new amounts of freedom, free time, and autonomy. You may be away from home and away from your parents for the first time. People are asking you to be in their play, come to their 70s Party, sing with their acapella group, pledge their sorority, join their club, and wait a minute “ALEXA, what did people even wear in the 70s???” Hold the phone there, tiger.
Before you say yes to everything, you have to make friends with saying “no” when it’s necessary to protect your time, energy, and effort. Those three things are finite - you only have so much to give of each. And you came to this college to give all three to one thing and one thing only: learning. Since the old structure laid out for you in previous years of school no longer exists in the same form, you must create your own structure. This looks different for everyone, but there are a few strategies that will help all types of students: create a list of goals for each semester, create a list of classes you know you want to fit in over your four years, prioritize coursework over clubs/activities/shows/outside commitments, and try to curate each semester thoughtfully and holistically. This will, inevitably, mean saying no to some things in favor of others. As the French say, c’est la vie, mon ami.
Staying Physically and Mentally Healthy
You’re young, you’re energetic, you’re healthy, you’re used to staying up late, you have a power-belt that moves people to tears. Amazing! Here’s the thing - you still need to get at least 8 hours of sleep every night, warm up vocally every day (yes “straight actors” - you too), eat mindfully, and get exercise. College is super fun and also super full of germs. Bummer. But, if you keep your body healthy and rested, you will seriously reduce the likelihood of getting sick. Additionally, remember that your voice is only as healthy and rested as you are. If you are a singer, keep these basic vocal tips in mind: always warm up before you sing, make hydrating properly part of your daily routine, be aware of how much you’re using your voice in a day and self-prescribe vocal rest accordingly, be mindful of loud spaces and talking loudly late at night (raising your voice to be heard for a long period of time, especially an already-tired nighttime voice, is extremely destructive for your delicate vocal chords and muscles), manage your allergies, moderate intake of acidic foods (coffee, soda, fried and highly sugary foods), avoid second-hand smoke, and lean on your voice teacher’s knowledge on vocal health.
No matter who you are, have a wellness routine and a sickness routine. Find the combination of rest, hydration, exercise, and nutrition that keeps your body feeling good, and make it a habit. At the same time, know what combination of vocal rest, medicine/supplements, tea, steaming, and Nettie-potting helps to best support you when you are ill, and make that a habit too, when it’s needed. This is another consistent support layer you can give yourself in the face of a fairly unstructured, sometimes chaotic new world.
Equally and sometimes more important than physical health is mental health. You’ve likely just gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond, or so it seems. Unless you have the (perplexingly) steadfast self-confidence of Kanye West, your brain will inevitably want to play the comparison game at some point, holding your own talents, abilities, and image up against those of your classmates. This might be the theme that reappeared the most when I was polling notable college theatre alum: do. not. play. the. game. Don’t do it! The moment you start comparing yourself to the person sitting next to you is the moment you have started wasting a precious 60 seconds of your life on a useless question. Let me save you some more time: you are enough. You are the only You we’ve got in this world, so please treat her/him/them with respect and kindness and care. Further, when it comes to rejection, condition yourself to let things go, especially the opinions of others. Keep your eyes on your own paper and worry only about what you have control over - your work, your preparation, and how you choose to show up in the world. Use these four years to create boundaries and healthy mental habits for yourself while you have the invaluable support of your teachers, mentors, and peers.
Diversify Your Skills
This is another widely encouraged tip from successful BFA and BA alum. Depending on what type and style of program you’re in, it can be really easy to laserpoint your focus on one thing and ignore everything else around you. Be careful that you aren’t ignoring other learning opportunities in the process! College is a great time to explore, experiment, and embrace new skills and paths. You never know - directing, playwriting, design, producing, choreography, dramaturgy, tech, teaching, marketing, or administration might excite you much more than you expected. Countless are the stories of prolific directors, producers, writers, and designers who started out as acting or musical theatre majors. Acquiring some new skills on the side can do more than make you a well-rounded, knowledgable artist and human; it can also be lucrative and extremely helpful down the road. I have many actor friends who work part-time building sets, hanging lights, constructing costumes, or house managing when they find themselves in between acting contracts. With these additional strengths, they are able to support themselves as theatre artists all year long, even during those gaps between onstage or onscreen work.
Your Career Starts Now
There are some key traits that are essential to a successful theatre maker at any age or stage: compassion (for yourself as well as for others), strong work ethic, preparedness, bravery, an open mind, self-sufficiency, self-reflection, flexibility (not just of the body), and collaboration. Don’t sit around and wait for the right time to start embodying the attitude you want to carry forward through your entire career! Use these four years as the time to build your confidence and brighten your attitude, knowing that it all counts and it all matters from here on out. Always, always, always treat others (classmates, teachers, guest artists, technicians, directors, security guards) with kindness, respect, and grace. Look for opportunities to build bridges and chances to create meaningful relationships with others. You never know when that good relationship will turn into a job later down the road. Likewise, if you aren’t great to work with now, you never know when it will turn into a rejection later. Karma has a special way of rewarding some and coming back to bite others in this business. Don’t poison yourself. Be easy to work with.
A few more words to the wise student looking to jumpstart their career while in college: see everything artistic you possibly can. Go to every show, movie, poetry slam, dance exhibition, concert, opera, and funky experiential/experimental physical theatre basement performance. Just go! Meet everyone you can but respect everyone’s time, start looking at Backstage and Playbill for auditions but always make going to class your priority, start exploring summer unified auditions like StrawHats, NETCs, SETCs, and MWTAs but don’t be discouraged if you don’t book a job yet, and stack your deck as much as you can (take piano, music theory, dance, summer programs, internships) while giving yourself room to breathe, balance, and rest.
So, here’s the TL/DR, my cool college cats: There are so many things you can do now to set yourself up for success later. Use your four years well and wisely. Give yourself room to fail a lot. Be kind. Go forth with a full heart and open mind, ready to manifest the qualities you wish to call into your life and your career in the future. And please, for the love of Hamilton, have fun! Here’s to a fabulous four years. Your friends at MCA are always cheering you on.
Monologue Coach/Acting for the Song Coach
In addition to coaching with My College Audition, Gigi is a Boston-based actor whose work can be seen and heard on the stages, screens, radios, and dog instagrams of New England and beyond. She has a BFA in Musical Theatre from Emerson College.
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So you want to be a performer, right? You eat, sleep and breathe it, right?
Let me ask you a question. How many of the following statements could you apply to yourself?
I mean c’mon… at least a couple of those apply to you, right? Let’s be real- in high school this is
so many of us. We get bitten by the theater bug and it infects us with this incredible sensation
that we have never felt before.
So what do we do? Like Alice on her way to Wonderland, we fall deep down the rabbit hole. We
become OBSESSED. And that obsession is partly what makes us good at this. Our passion
drives us and fulfills us in a way that nothing ever has before. It is why we choose this career
But being obsessed with all things theatre/film/musical theater can only take us so far. Sure, it
gives us the ground work to be solid actors, singers and dancers. We learn from, and try to
emulate our heroes and it in turn makes us better. But it doesn’t take us to that next step.
So, what does get us to that next step? What helps us add that extra layer to our work that
makes people want to watch us on stage? Being interested in EVERYTHING. Science,
directing, history, stage design, math, art, arts management, politics… you name it!
Now I know you are probably scratching your head at this one. “How the heck does an interest
in any of those things make me a better performer?” Think for a second- if our job is to honestly portray a person in imaginary circumstances, it helps if we can put ourselves in their shoes. How do we do that? By being INTERESTED. By being curious in the classroom and in the rehearsal hall.
IN THE CLASSROOM
I know what some of you are thinking. “Joe- I got into theater so I could get out of the
classroom.” Believe me, I hear you. But stay with me. While you may not go on to be a
physicist or lawyer or writer, what you learn in class influences your art. Treat it all like
dramaturgy, like research for a play you haven’t been cast in yet. Because it will come in handy
some day. Tony Award Winning director Tommy Kail was an American History major. Think that helped him when he was working on “Hamilton”? Natalie Portman was a psychology major, giving her huge amounts of insight into how and why people act the way they do. TV’s Mayim Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience which proved to be useful when she landed on “The Big Bang Theory.” Edward Norton was a history major, John Krasinski was an English major… and the list goes on.
Now I am not saying you shouldn’t pursue an Acting or MT degree. What I am saying is be open to learning about as many different things as possible. That Art Appreciation class you are forced to take will bring new understanding to works like “Red” or “Sunday In The Park With George.” Your math class can bring new depths to your portrayal of Claire in “Proof.” The possibilities are endless.
Every person you learn about in school is another character in their own play. There are insights about who they are, how they operate, and why they created/discovered/did the things they did. I guarantee you that they will inspire your work in the future.
IN THE REHEARSAL HALL
“Collaboration is the biggest word in the theatre. It is the most important element in theatrical
success… if any man could write and produce and direct and act and play the music, shift the
scenery, design the costumes and in short, do everything that could be done on stage and come
up with what was literally a one-man show, he would still need one more thing: an audience.
You cannot get away from collaboration.”- Oscar Hammerstein II
Sometimes, the easiest trap that actors can fall into is just focusing on themselves. Which is, to
a degree, understandable. There is a lot to think about. You have lines to learn, choreography to master, songs to practice. It is A LOT. However we must always remember- the performer is
only 1% of a production. There are directors, stage managers, designers, crew members,
administrators, marketing members, and so many others that make a production successful.
You are only one piece of the puzzle. So learn about the other pieces.
Instead of sitting and chatting with your friends when you aren’t being used in a scene, sit and
watch how the director is putting the show together. Why are they staging something in such a
specific way? What themes or messages are they bringing across in these scenes? What
questions are they asking your fellow actors to think about? Or go talk to a designer. Learn how
and why the lighting was laid out, how the sound and light boards work, how a costume
influences an audience’s feelings about a character- learn all of it!
When you are interested in each language of the stage, and have even a basic level of
understanding of how and why each is working the way it does, your ability to collaborate will
grow exponentially. Which in turn, will cause your performance to deepen and reach audiences
in new ways.
So be interested in EVERYTHING. Take that super hyper nerd focus that we all share and
spread it out over more topics! The more interested you are in the world around you, the more
interesting your work becomes!
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I was coaching a child today on a scene for a popular musical. We were working on elevating her enthusiasm and energy level and making bolder choices. After a few minutes, I realized my advice to her was something she’d been told by several people over and over again: Have fun. But she didn’t look like she was having fun. How could I get her to have fun?
You’ve heard this one, right? "Oh, you’re going in for an audition? Just have fun! Don’t worry about it it. If you’re having a good time, they’re having a good time." Today, for the first time, it hit me that telling a child to have fun in a strict audition environment is the equivalent of telling a non-photogenic person to act natural in front of a photographer or, even worse, telling a friend they just need to calm down when they’re having a panic attack. It’s obvious, but it doesn’t work. And why doesn’t it work? It isn't a direction!
Having been a college audition coach for about seven years, I’m sure I’ve told my fair share of students to have fun either in a scene or before an audition. The sentiment is right, but the practicality is not. So, today, I gave a more specific direction to this kiddo for her scene. I said, “Don’t think about having fun while spinning around in a circle. The goal is to spin around in a circle as fast as you can to make yourself dizzy.” My hope was that the act of making herself dizzy would allow her to feel silly, loosen her up, and result in a bit of fun when she attempted to recover from the dizziness for her next line. It seemed to strike a chord!
This isn’t a new idea at all. We all know some basics about finding your objective in a scene and using various tactics to achieve your goal. But sometimes these little moments within a scene or a monologue can feel clunky or fake. Let’s take an example where you are supposed to cry in a scene. I know a few directors who would take umbrage with the fact that a script necessitated crying at all. But let’s assume this is the case with your monologue. What can you do? Think of something sad? Pull a nose hair to induce crying? Begin breathing heavily and squinting your eyes together? I’ve used all of these. There is some truth to doing something physical to induce something emotional when you’re just not feeling it. But I know that the most powerful thing I can do as an actor is to try to be present and to fight for my objective. Maybe my character ends up crying in the scene because I’m trying so hard to get what I want and no matter how hard I try, new obstacles keep stopping me. Crying, then, is not the goal, but the reaction to my frustration at not being able to achieve the goal.
Remember that whomever you are playing in a scene is based in some sense of reality. And what happens if you get what you want in the scene? Have you ever personally had an experience where you said, “Great. I just got cast in my favorite show. I’ve done it all. I’ll be satisfied with less from now on.” NO! You get what you want and then the goal post gets moved further away. The same is true for a scene or song. You just got the guy in the first verse of the song? Great! Oh, no. Now there’s trouble in paradise. He’s not what you expected. Should you stay or leave? You know it will be hard to leave, so you fight with yourself. Eventually, you leave because you know it’s the right decision. Great! Oh, no. Now you want him back. You’ve made a terrible mistake. You go find him, but he’s hurt and doesn’t want you back yet. You have to fight for him again… and so on. We are complicated creatures. There is always something new to discover!
When you are studying a scene or a song, take each piece of your text and ask yourself questions:
Why would the character (you) say that line?
How do you say it in a way that your ‘other’ in the scene would not?
What are you fighting for?
There are many other questions you can ask yourself to get closer to your truth. I ask my students to put away youtube after a certain point in the learning of their songs. To watch someone else makes it too easy to mimic them and, while they may give you some inspiration, your audience isn’t likely to see truth from you.
So, why would I ask this child to run around and get herself dizzy? Because it was fun! We both laughed and played. We asked why the character was having fun, then played an action that informed that quality rather than playing a quality to inform an action.
Whether you are working with an audition coach or not, remember, no one has all the answers. We coaches try our best to get you to reveal your truth through these scenes and songs. But if you’re feeling that you’re having trouble finding it even with a coach, start by asking yourself, “What do you want?"
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