COLLEGE-BOUND STUDENTS spend a lot of time on entrance test prep and college applications while maintaining a competitive GPA and extracurricular profile, but those aiming for college theatre programs have extra hurdles to clear. Preparing for acting auditions and assembling design portfolios are no small tasks. Not only that, but the competition is also steep. Here are some tips on how to make your presentation stand out from the lineup of talented applicants


A Thespian smiles as she shows off renderings of original costume designs during the college technical auditions at the International Thespian Festival.

 A Thespian smiles as she shows off renderings of original costume designs during the college technical auditions at the International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Most students who want to study theatre disciplines other than acting, such as design and production, will have to prepare printed and bound portfolios as part of the college admission process. Actors certainly benefit from having one, too. “It is very easy to tell how much time you spent putting your portfolio together when flipping through it,” notes Adam Zeek, resident master electrician and instructor in University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s department of lighting design and technology. “A well thought out, well-constructed portfolio shows that you have the respect and discipline to take things you create seriously.”

Most of the time, you’ll want to come to the audition or interview armed with a physical binder, but having a more expansive, multimedia collection of your work online also aids the application process. “At CCM we like a solo digital portfolio such as a website as a part of the application package, to give us a sense of the applicant, and then an in-person, typically paper, portfolio that we can go into more depth with in discussion,” says Zeek.

Zeek advises students to look at portfolios of other students and to ask colleges and professionals for advice on preparing a portfolio. “By viewing the work of others, you can recognize the techniques that you like, as well as the items that you don’t like,” he says. Photographs are usually considered the most important part of a portfolio. “The saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ completely rings true here,” says Zeek. “Think of portfolios as an avenue to strike a conversation with whomever you’re interviewing. It is the conversation that will ultimately land you the job — or admission in this case — in addition to your talent in your chosen field, as demonstrated by your portfolio.”

Some students wonder if portfolio components should be arranged in chronological order. Zeek says not necessarily. “Always put your best work up front,” advises Zeek. “It is possible that during the interview we will not make it through your entire portfolio. Make sure we don’t miss your best work, because it is hiding in the back!”

Choose portfolio elements carefully to best represent your abilities. “A portfolio is pivotal to admission in the top theatre programs,” says Zeek. “It helps the interviewer to get a sense of who you are as an individual. It tells us your artistic and personal aesthetic, and it provides us with a glimpse of your training and natural talent.”

Students interview during the college technical auditions at the 2016 International Thespian Festival.
Students interview during the college technical auditions at the 2016 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Lighting Design Student’s Portfolio Journey

Ethan Fleek, a lighting design student at the University of Cincinnati, began preparing his portfolio at the end of his sophomore year in high school. At the time, his work was focused on lighting design. He landed a job with a local lighting company and continued to work there throughout high school. Paperwork in his portfolio showing his lighting design skills included cue sheets [list of lighting cues], patch sheets [outlining relevant electrical data], magic sheets [graphical display of lighting system], etc.

“For some shows in my portfolio, I even included a script with lighting cues in it,” he says. “I recommend at least one musical and one play; photos included final and in-progress [shots] of lighting, if I did some custom wiring, which I did for Seussical and Jane Eyre.”

After that summer, Fleek began working in stage design as well. Portfolio paperwork for his set designs included drafts, final plots, and 3D renderings; photos included final full stage shots and in-progress images of construction. While still in high school, Fleek began to volunteer at local theatres helping hang plots, watching the designer program, and running follow spot. “This led me to so many contacts,” says Fleek. “I also started to get lighting experience other than theatre; I started to do lighting for bands at venues all over Cincinnati, and just kept growing from there.”

Once Fleek turned 18, he began to go out on all kinds of jobs with the lighting company: weddings, corporate shows, concerts, and musicals. “I also reached out to professional designers,” says Fleek. “Earlier this year, I shadowed the lighting designer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers from the load in to the load out — I learned so much and made some amazing contacts for down the road.”

See some of his designs on his website at

This story appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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