College Recruiting + Audition Process

the thread Jun 25, 2019

Today’s topic is the Recruiting Audition process. The topic was proposed (and is moderated here) by Sharon Kinnison (SK), a voice teacher, educator and director based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Also participating are:

  • Audition coach Mary Anna Dennard (MAD)
  • Southern Illinois University professor and music theater program director Tim
  • Fink (TF)
  • Pace University professor and music theatre program director Amy Rogers Schwartzreich (ARS)
  • New York-based voice teacher and coach Tom Andolora (TA)
  • Voice teacher, author, and entrepreneur David Sisco (DS)
  • Director of theatre/associate professor at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY), Ryan McKinney (RMcK)


As is the case with any Facebook or comment thread, the opinions expressed below are solely those of the contributors, and do not reflect any official stance or opinion held by MTEA. (Content has been edited for length and clarity.)

SK: Of the thousands of students who make their way annually through the audition process for a theatre or a musical theatre program, young artists will audition for upwards of twelve colleges or universities while hoping to be admitted into their “first choice” school. Students wrestle with the best way to show potential professors and mentors they are the right fit for a specific program, and college and university faculty seek to recruit and audition students who will flourish in their program and beyond. Let’s talk first about the number of programs students are auditioning for.

MAD: I find that very few of my students have a #1 top choice. Most have a small handful of schools who offer the majority of what they are looking for, but no one school has everything. I require my students give me their 3 “Must-Haves” for the program and 3 “Must-Haves” for the university. Usually some of the Must-Haves are somewhat negotiable. Like, “I would like to be able to have a study abroad option, but if the school doesn’t have that, it is not a deal breaker if I really like the program training.” But some “Must-Have’s” might not be negotiable. Like tuition limits.

TA: I think having a “first choice” school is a fine goal. I think it is my responsibility to suggest schools that are not as popular but have great programs. Students are not usually aware of these schools. To tell you the truth, it’s a constant education to keep myself up to date with the quality of the programs at each school and the facilities. SUNY Fredonia recently did a multi-million dollar reno to its Arts Center that includes new dance studios, acting studios, etc… it’s amazing and I think bumps it up a tier. But would any of the rest of the people reading this thread even know about SUNY Fredonia?

TF: Speaking both as a professor of a smaller program in the Midwest (I only audition about 40-50 students each year and matriculate 6 - 10), and as a parent of a daughter currently in a MT BFA program you can ask them, “What are the must haves?” But in the end, they are 18-year-old kids, and they might make a discovery or have a campus visit that changes their views. Also, being able to go home for holidays or have family come see productions can be important for a student’s mental health.

ARS: How many schools to audition for is very personal, but needs to be strategic. I agree with Mary Anna that each student needs a well-curated and thought-out list. There needs to be Safety schools (where no audition is required), Match school (program accepts a large amount of applicants), and Dream (programs that take a very select few). New programs are built all the time and reputations change. Your dream school from when you were twelve may be very different after you have a school visit. Every audition will have a fee of some kind and I think that budget comes into play in a big way when deciding how many schools to audition for.

MAD: If schools are requiring an on-campus audition, it would be helpful if they could implement a prescreen. Students are more likely to attend an on-campus audition if it is a “call-back.” Also, financial aid for mandatory on-campus college auditions for those applicants who qualify.

TA: I think you are suggesting that there be financial aid available to help pay for audition expenses. Is that correct? I think that is a great idea. 

RMcK: This conversation is very valuable. My perspective is informed by the fact that Kingsborough is an open-access theatre program, and any student can declare a theatre major. My intersection with the above audition process comes when I am advising students where to continue their studies after earning their AA (Associate’s Degree). I believe one of the strengths of our program is in preparing our students for these types of auditions, which some students may not have been equipped for right out of high school. We also work with them to create a shortlist of 4-year institutions to apply to, as time and money are frequently a significant concern.

SK: Preparation for the audition process has become an industry in its own right, with coaches and teachers helping students to select and prepare the best audition package. Yet, even with all this preparation, the question for the student often remains, what are they really looking for? When I help prepare students for their college auditions, the same concerns come up year after year. Students want more information about how to prepare for each specific program. The successful student understands that they are auditioning for individual programs and not merely “a bunch of colleges.” By offering a broader base of information, faculty might find their selection process more intentional.

DS: Performing artists of all ages will forever be asking, “What are they looking for?” And, for me, the answer is usually the same: the people behind the table don’t really know. As an adjudicator and pianist for both college and professional auditions, I have seen lots of people one would not consider conventionally “right” for a school or a role, but who were selected based on how they presented themselves in the room. To me, the better question for the students to ask is, “What can I show them of myself?” Answering this question will help the student and the teacher(s) to create a diverse audition portfolio (adaptable to a program’s unique focus or concentration) that showcases the student’s gifts.

TF: We have found that we do better if we treat the audition more like a coaching. We like to see how they respond. It also gives them an opportunity to audition us, to see how we work, build some rapport and maybe have a few laughs. A positive experience might be the tipping point for their decision making. One thing we do that is a little different is put our dance combo on a video on our audition webpage, the same combo that students will do at the audition. Students who have no dance background can take the time to practice before their audition. Of course this means we can’t assess how fast they pick up choreography at auditions, but we can judge other things like their potential, or their inherent expressiveness because they aren’t worried about remembering the steps. If we let them prepare a monologue and a song, why not the dance?

MAD: I have an idea that I believe is a practical one and one that could be easily implemented without compromising each programs’ recruitment approach. The prescreens should be standardized. Right now I have a list of 42 programs who have implemented a prescreen, each with a different set of requirements. If that stage of the audition process could be streamlined, then programs could ask for more specifics at the call-back. It would take a lot of the stress and confusion out of the college audition process.

ARS: I would also like to see a standard pre-screen requirement. These kids have SO much to worry about that filming twelve different pre-screens should not have to be one of them. There is no reason in my mind that those requirements can’t be the same across the board.

TA: I’d like to see colleges post a “Do Sing” list. There are some “Do Not Sing” lists out there, but those are less helpful. I’d like to see a list of 40 songs, with students required to pick two and prepare them. It would prevent a lot of stress. The same with monologues. Or perhaps schools can have students pick one thing from the lists provided, and then choose one thing of their own. Even that would reduce some stress.

TF: I like the idea of a “Do Sing” list—a positive instruction is always better than negative. But faculty could also grow up: So, you have to hear an overdone piece one more time. Big deal. You’re getting paid—it’s your job. Is that really such a hardship? You’re not there to be entertained, you’re trying to assess potential.

ARS: I am passionate about rep and think it can really help teach us about the person that is auditioning. I want those auditioning for us to be as prepared as possible. Best way to do this is to look at the school’s showcase (if they have it) online. You can see the kinds of kids/material the school gravitates towards. Once you know this, you can make small changes based on your research—maybe change from wearing a dress to wearing pants, or sing a more contemporary song. Each program is unique and will gravitate toward certain kind(s) of applicants. That is the business, too.

TA: Just a quick comment on this. Students change dramatically during this period of their lives…and even in the years after. One of my classmates during a summer program was Renée Fleming. Renée was not the “big star” that summer, she was just one of the pack. There were others who got more attention than her because her voice hadn’t blossomed yet. I have seen the same with musical theatre students I have taught and coached for college auditions. No, you aren’t psychics, but your programs need to shake it up a little… If your school is “gravitating towards certain kinds of applicants,” you may be missing out on students that you should be considering.

RMcK: I agree with Tom on this and I am going to go a step further, which might be controversial. After teaching in four-year colleges for 5 years, I have now taught in a community college setting for the past decade. It is my hope that the field of higher education will have a more expansive dialogue among and between two-year and four-year institutions, to share academic standards and increase access for all students.

TF: Look at the NFL (and I’m probably the only musical theatre director in America who would even say that) when they introduce players at the top of the broadcast, you’ll see players from all over. Same with music theatre actors, to some extent. I hate to even say this out loud, but sometimes I think a better way to prepare for a theatre career is to get training in something else, but feverishly keep practicing, taking classes and lessons on your own. I see a lot of desperation in students around graduation time: “I got a BFA and now I have to have a career after mom and dad spent all that money.”

MAD: I tell students, “Don’t try to be what the college wants. Find the college that will give you what you want.” Wrong approach: Students have a list of colleges and ask me to help them “get in.” Right approach: Students have a list of what they want and we find the school that gives them what they want.

SK: While the mention of successful alumna can serve to attract potential students, programs should consider adding more information on websites about how the college or university works to help the student take the giant leap from academia to the real world. Beyond a senior year showcase, how does the training accomplished and relationships made during a four year program serve to support the entry into summer stock, summer internships, tours, regional theatre, and Broadway theatre? What classes are offered to help in this transition? How does the university help develop the business acumen of the young artist in addition to their talent?

TA: It seems to me that ten years ago Career Preparation wasn’t part of the curriculum of most schools. Happily, I think that almost every college has added it. I try to go to as many showcases as I can each year since I live in NYC. I find them very helpful and quite interesting to see what the schools are turning out. I have to let you know that the venue is important. I would advise schools to spend the extra money for a decent venue.

TF: We have an audition class. We also have our own summer stock. We encourage students to attend various combined auditions like SETC, MWTA, UPTA, etc. We don’t do a showcase, and after talking to a variety of people it seems that unless you’re in one of the top programs the cost/benefit doesn’t seem to be in your favor. All our seniors graduate with a website with a variety of videos, pics, resume, etc. It then is very easy for an agent or casting director to point and click and assess if they want to see more. I suspect that will increasingly be part of the process.

ARS: It is our job to get them as ready as possible. Both skill-wise and industry savvy- wise. There is no guarantee in job security and I assume and hope these parents get that when they agree to pay for a theater degree. Our entire senior year is focused on career preparation and with students’ access to the city, we hope that our they have used all of their resources to help with a job out of school. But a job out of school does not mean the next one is guaranteed. The industry is hard and only for the most resilient. We can only train them to the best of our ability and give them the resources to succeed. At the end of the day, if a student commits to our program they have come to some level of acceptance as to what it means to be in this industry.

DS: We’re currently living in an age where, if we’re being completely honest, there aren’t too many guarantees of financial security for anyone. We’re also entering a time when the term “working artist” means something very different than it did even ten years ago. Now, young artists are performing, yes, but while also running a successful web design, personal training, or head shot business. And not as a “support job,” but in tandem with their successful performance career.

RMcK: More than 70% of my students leave Kingsborough debt-free, which is a testament to CUNY and some of the student support services that are in place. Furthermore, theatre is frequently the thing that keeps my students in school, committed to their studies and focused on a career path. Students frequently find themselves part of a community and passionate about learning and education, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

MA: Parents are wary about taking an a lot of debt for a career that has a high unemployment rate, and rightfully so. Programs who offer generous financial aid options are beginning to be more popular for families who look at the performing arts field from a practical standpoint. I have also noticed more colleges hiring industry professionals to head their acting and musical theatre programs knowing that getting hired is all about is “who you know,” and developing a professional network. Emphasizing that fact to prospectives is a very smart thing to do and leaves an impression on families.

SK: Final Thoughts?

ARS: We must understand that in most instances musical theater is a form that is for the privileged. How can we break down barriers of entry so we can see more diverse talent? It costs a lot of money to be in musical theater. A lot. I would love a conversation on how to move this forward. I know that on our (the university’s) end there needs to be a commitment to scholarship money, but what about before that? Also, what can we do for our Trans and gender-non-conforming kids to make those who are wanting to be in this field feel safe and comfortable to audition in “their own skin”?

RMcK: I agree with Amy. The industry privileges certain groups, it lacks racial diversity, socio-economic diversity and non-binary gender diversity. I teach in a richly diverse college, where I am fortunate to lead a program where the majority of theatre majors are students of color. In the cases when our students finish at Kingsborough and move on to top B.A. and B.F.A. programs, they are frequently informed that they need to retake coursework they have already done. And here’s the thing – many of them cannot afford to do that. It increases student debt, stalls progress toward graduation, and can make the incoming student feel inferior to their peers. So, if we want a more diverse industry, some solutions can start with us, like finding ways for students from diverse backgrounds to finish their training in a more time-efficient, cost-effective way, which invites two-year and four-year institutions to work together. I recognize there are challenges within this proposal but I am passionate about contributing to a solution.

TF: The theater likes to preach humanitarian principles on the stage. We need to practice them off the stage, and perhaps no better place to begin than in the audition process.

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