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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