College Auditions: Tips from a BFA Drop-Out and the Class of 2020

-By Emma Sue Harris

If you’re a theatre kid about to enter junior or senior year of high school, there’s one thing you’re looking forward to that you may have been preparing for your whole life- no, not prom, not graduation: college auditions.

At this point, there are countless universities offering BFA/BA programs in Acting, Musical Theatre, and various DTSM (Design/Tech/Stage Management) focuses. Most of these programs are incredibly competitive, many accepting 25 students or less each year, and with thousands of students auditioning each year, the process for getting into one of these schools is often demanding and, let’s be real, cutthroat.

I was one of those thousands of students just four years ago- my senior year of high school, I auditioned for 15 different theatre performance programs all across the country. I started preparing for these auditions (choosing/rehearing material, making spreadsheets of audition requirements and dates, filling out applications and taping pre-screens, etc.) during my junior year, meaning that by ‘college audition season’ (January/early February) I’d been training for the very few moments I’d get in each of those audition rooms for over a year. At the end of it all, I wound up committing to a BFA Musical Theatre program at a school that actually hadn’t been high on my list until after I’d auditioned for them- Webster Conservatory in St. Louis, MO.

Lara Teeter, who auditioned me at New York Unifieds in 2016, made me feel seen in the audition room like no one else had, and afterwards, when he called to say he wanted me in his program, he told me it was most important to him that I end up in the best place for me, even if it wasn’t at Webster- though I’m grateful every day that it did end up being there.

I loved my time at Webster Conservatory. The years I spent there helped me solidify what kind of theatre-artist I want to be, and gave me the technique to be whatever that is. I don’t regret a single moment I spent there- and I also don’t regret leaving. 

My dropping out was a result of a conflict between me and the University, not the Conservatory, but that story is far too long to get into right now. I will say I probably wouldn’t have left if the situation hadn’t necessitated it- I really thought I’d finish out my time in Conservatory and get my BFA like I’d planned, but life takes unexpected turns sometimes, and (at least for me), the road you end up driving isn’t always the one you could see and plan for on a map. 

Many of my classmates who started with me at Webster also ended up leaving, others stayed, but all of us are exactly where we’re supposed to be. When we started together in 2016, we’d all come from different places, different backgrounds, different levels of privilege- but we were connected by our love of theatre and our dedication to the development of our craft; we watched each other fail and grow in all our rawness for however long we were there, and that’s an inseparable bond.

(Sidenote: I encourage you, wherever you go, to school, to relish in ‘ensemble.’ Community is a life-force, and especially in this industry, your ‘ensemble,’ whoever that may be at any moment, will be your family) 

Now, it’s 2020, and my classmates who stayed at Webster will be graduating soon. Considering that we all went through the audition process and have all had diverse experiences in pursuing collegiate theatre training, I thought I’d call in some of my former classmates and mentors to help give some tips to the next round of auditionees. Below, you’ll find my top 5 tips for college program hopefuls, plus quotes from my classmates, some that stayed at Webster, some that didn’t, AND a bonus tip from Lara Teeter (Dean of Musical Theatre, Webster Conservatory). I hope these tips provide some insight into the process and help launch you into your audition prep with confidence.

My Top 5 Tips

  1. Don’t buy into those “Top 10 Program” lists 

If you search for theatre programs you are bound to end up elbow deep in lists that each claim to be the *official* source for the most prestigious collegiate theatre programs in the nation. It isn’t that the top schools on those lists aren’t great, they’re on those lists because they have a high volume of students who end up working on Broadway, and in some ways, you can’t deny the numbers- but there’s more to a program than the number of graduates who have booked OBCs or won Tony awards. Every school has a different technique, different teachers with different training and opinions about the craft, which brings us to the next tip:

  1. READ UP

Every schools’ curriculum and their professors’ bios can be found on their website. Read them! 

You’re about to pay a lot of money to further your development in this craft. Think about how you want to go about that investment carefully. 

Who do you want to learn from? What sort of things are you interested in doing in the theatre? 

Do you want to do Shakespeare? Look into programs that have professors who are acclaimed Shakespearean actors/directors. 

Do you want to create your own work? Look into playwriting programs or schools with professors who specialize in experimental or devised theatre. 

Musical theatre geek? What sort of vocal teachers and dance instructors do you want to have? Do you want to have a program with a heavy acting focus or just focus on singing and dancing? 

You get to decide what you want to learn and where you want to learn it, and it could very well be at one of those top 10 schools. But you need to go wherever will make you feel freest to explore, and fail, and learn- and no list can ever tell you where that’ll be. Think about the sort of people you want to work with and learn from, and when you read through the descriptions of programs, you’ll be able to know what you do/don’t want. 

  1. Choose material that shows off who YOU are

Choosing material can be one of the most daunting parts of the process, we put an inordinate amount of thought into it, so first I have to say: take a breath. Keep it simple. 

It’s natural to lean towards things we think the adjudicators want to see. Initially, we’ll almost always pick things we think are impressive; monologues that are overly dramatic, songs with big belty notes. We stress over finding the latest version of the dreaded ‘do not sing list’ to avoid the humiliation of singing an overdone song. Here’s the thing, guys: if you connect to the piece, if it’s comfortable for your voice, if it’s something you feel GREAT about, DO IT, whatever it is. 

You will have no more than three-four minutes (if that) in any audition room, and those minutes are precious. In them, the people on the other side of that table want to be able to see who you are. They can tell when you’re being who you think they want you to be, and doing what you think they want you to do, and they’d much rather you just be yourself. Find material that resonates with you, that makes you happy, that excites you and makes you feel seen. Choose material that makes your insides feel warm and full of light- that makes you feel like your best YOU. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, they will be too. 

  1. Read the dang play 

When you choose a monologue, read. the. play! It will only help inform your performance more. Yes, of course you can pull the monologue out of context and pull it off without reading the play, but the reality is that if you’re aiming to be in any BFA program, you’re going to have to get used to reading the play before jumping into the work. 

  1. Your degree will not determine your career 

Despite what you may think, the program you get into and the degree you end up getting (or not getting!) will not be the end-all-be-all for the rest of your theatre career. 

Yes, those top 10 schools may look great on the resume, but looking good on paper isn’t everything; and yes, in these four years, you will develop many of the skills that you’ll need to make your life in the theatre, but that’s up to YOU, not the school- or the degree! I sometimes hear debates about BFA vs BA programs for performance, and there’s an elitist view in the industry that BFA programs are inherently more valuable than BA programs. Don’t listen to that. Choose a program that works best for YOU. If that’s a BFA, great. If it’s not, also cool! 

Wherever you go, you will have the opportunity to learn, and making the most of whatever opportunities come your way is way more useful than stressing about getting into the ‘best’ programs. 

Also, you don’t have to go to a university to get training. Many actors still work at two-year conservatory programs/fellowships with different theatre companies or do various specialty training programs instead of pursuing degrees. 

No one can tell you what your path in this industry is going to be, or what’s going to be best for you. Your journey in this industry is your own, there is no one-size-fits all track to Broadway, and it’s up to you to determine your own definition of ‘success.’ 

The real secret is that it doesn’t matter what collegiate theatre program you get into or if you get a degree at all, what matters is that you make the most out of whatever opportunities present themselves to you, and that you stay true to your mission as an actor and as an artist. 

“Do not ‘audition.’ Do the work of a story teller. Dig into your pieces so deep, with so much specificity, living so very completely in THE WORLD OF THE PLAY that we forget that it’s an audition. 

Take your time going INTO the piece but also coming out of it. Use the transitions between your pieces as if there is a seamless light/set change happening- a vista for all to see. 

Be you. Be all of you. Be the rawest you that you’ve ever imagined. Enjoy the ride.”

Lara Teeter-

Dean of Musical Theatre,

The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University

Of all these tips, the most important thing to take away is this: your journey after high school will be all your own, no one can tell you what the best path to take is, and all you can do is put your best foot forward and know that YOU ARE ENOUGH. YOU are enough to get into college, YOU are enough to be a kickass, life-long theatre-artist, whatever that ends up meaning for you. All of us who’ve done this process before are cheering you theatre kids on from different corners of the industry- we can’t wait to see where you end up!