THE ONLY THING more grueling than the college audition process — the road trips, the endless monologue and vocal performances, the physical and emotional stress — is the start of college, when theatre students are thrust into a whole new world of demands, responsibilities, and anxieties. At well-respected college theatre programs around the country, fresh high school graduates accustomed to effortlessly landing their desired role may experience a humbling jolt when suddenly surrounded by other high-caliber talent.

Zach Barela, a senior at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, says one of the most valuable lessons he has learned was how to put his ego aside. “The needs of the character always need to outweigh the needs of the actor,” Barela says. “More important than your need to look good, or be good, or come off a certain way as an actor are the needs of your character.” Barela says that is a lesson he’ll never forget, and though it came from a Tisch instructor, he learned it while still enrolled in high school, as a student in the university’s pre-college summer program.

University faculty members across the country agree that students can prepare for both the audition process and the transition into college by getting an early taste of campus life. Many go on to audition for — and enroll in — the universities where they’ve spent the summer. Others may realize that the rigors of a conservatory or studio training are not worth it for them or that they are ill-suited for the same. But across the board, those who’ve attended a pre-college program agree that in a few short weeks, they matured, as both actors and people, and gained a clearer understanding of what they wanted to do for the next four years.


Ted Gibson at MPulse Theatre and Drama Academy.

 Ted Gibson at MPulse Theatre and Drama Academy. Photo courtesy of MPulse.

Ted Gibson was a standout performer at his arts-focused high school in Connecticut. When he attended MPulse, the two-week program that takes place each July on the university’s Ann Arbor campus, he says he wasn’t treated like a star. He was treated, instead, like a professional.

MPulse program director Janet Maylie says their curriculum covers a range of skills that young actors will go on to use in their college training and professional careers. “Our students take classes in drama, voice and speech, stage combat, play analysis, scene study, and on-camera work,” Maylie says. “The classes are a sampling of what students learn in our B.F.A. program in acting, taught by professors in our programs of theatre and drama.”

MPulse admits rising high school juniors and seniors, who live in campus dorms for the two-week duration and spend full days in classrooms and rehearsal spaces working on one scene from analysis to performance. “Once they feel comfortable, they’re more willing to take risks and are a lot more inclined to not be cautious with each other,” Maylie says. “They establish a sense of ensemble, and that allows them to experiment and try things. That’s how they learn: by being free to make mistakes and make fools of themselves.”

Gibson, who’s currently a sophomore in the university’s B.F.A. in acting program, participated in MPulse in 2015 as a rising high school senior. “I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have had the chance to attend the university’s summer MPulse program before enrolling in the university,” Gibson says. “I got a taste of what the relationship is like between college students and professors. For the first time, I felt like we were being treated like fellow artists who had something to contribute towards the learning space.”

The two-week curriculum is carefully crafted to give students a glimpse into the acting profession, refine the way they think about scenes and characterization, and ensure they have some fun. “The classes all inform each other in the course of those two weeks, as they work that one scene all the way through to putting it on the stage,” Maylie says. “It’s an introduction to how to work professionally. They leave the program having had fun exploring basic elements of the craft and learning about professionalism. They’re going to discover stuff by enjoying the process. It’s about learning, but it’s also not about stressing them out.”

“After only two weeks, the professors inspired me to approach a work of acting with a new and less complicated perspective,” Gibson says. “I felt inspired to utilize my physicality in an entirely different manner. It made me a way more physical actor and more comfortable in my body — not just standing onstage and saying words. It opened the door to making me a more selfless performer. I had a habit of over-dramatizing. At MPulse I learned to ‘take a breath, take in your partner, don’t try to force it.’”

Students at MPulse are offered campus tours and invited to attend information sessions on the university and the audition process. Almost all the students who participate in MPulse end up auditioning for the B.F.A. program. While there’s no official admissions advantage for students who’ve attended the summer program, Maylie says they do tend to be more confident and at ease during auditions.


Tisch’s four-week summer program for high school students is many things. One thing it is not? Leisurely. In a condensed version of the professional training in the school’s undergraduate drama program, students spend nearly 30 hours per week undergoing intensive studio training in the Experimental Theatre Wing, Meisner Studio, New Studio on Broadway, Stonestreet Screen Acting Studios, or Production and Design Studio.

“What we’re trying to do here is very comprehensive,” says Shanga Parker, an associate arts professor in the department of drama who’s been running the high school program since 2012. “It’s an intense and intensive program that exposes them to different methodologies of theatre. They’ll meet theatre professors and make connections with each other that will last a lifetime, and their playground is New York City.” Parker says that while the program’s participants are still young students, they are treated as — and expected to behave like — young professionals. “The same faculty who teach in the regular undergrad program also teach in the summer,” he says. “The students are working with the same people they’ll have if and when they come to school here, and I encourage the faculty to teach them the way they’d teach regular undergrads.”

Zach Barela, a current senior at the Meisner Studio, says his first days at the summer program in 2013 were more demanding than he expected. “I had no idea how hard it was going to be,” the Colorado transplant says. “At the time I was 17, and I did not expect to get so homesick over the course of a couple of weeks, but I did. On top of that, what they were asking us to do was so mysterious in a way: these movement classes, scene studies and activities were all completely new. It was terrifying, really. And just being in New York City was a little overwhelming.”

Parker says the abrupt immersion into college life and its expectations helps students mature more quickly than their peers, which is an invaluable asset to college preparation. “They’re in studio a lot during the week,” he says. “Outside of that, we don’t have any restrictions other than a curfew. By having that amount of time where they don’t need to be accounted for, people really mature, even over four weeks. It gives them some kind of confidence and a different bearing when they go back to wherever they’re from.” When Barela returned for his freshman year at Tisch, he felt he had a leg up on his classmates. “Those first few months are tough no matter what,” he says, “but I did the Meisner summer program, and the studio I ultimately got into at Tisch was the Meisner Studio. I had the same acting teacher, the same movement teacher, and one of the other girls that did the summer program with me was also put in the same group. It helped to curb that going into college freak-out that everybody has, because I had at least a little bit of an idea of what I was getting into.”

In addition to daily class schedules in their assigned studio, students are encouraged to take evening workshops in other studios and explore less familiar aspects of theatre and performance. They often attend guest lectures from industry professionals, theatre tours, and Broadway performances.

“One day a week, there’s a class called Theatre in New York,” Parker says. “We invite actors, designers, and directors to come in and speak — everyone from multiple-Tony-winning costume designers to recent graduates. Last summer, the students saw six Broadway shows.”

Students leave the program with six college credits, as well as a better gauge on what’s required for a theatre career, and whether that trajectory is right for them. “It’s going to sound unconventional, but what pleases me a lot is when a student goes through the program and realizes they don’t want to do it anymore,” Parker says. “They see what it means to train as an actor and what it takes to live in New York. Sometimes that leads them to reexamine exactly what they want to do and what’s going to make them happy, either within the field or in something else entirely.”

Barela says he and his fellow students learned a great deal over the course of a single summer, both about the craft of acting and about themselves. “I think they pushed us so much to get out of our comfort zones and transform from these timid high school actors,” he says. “It was liberating for all of us. Some people even finished the summer and decided, ‘Wow, I don’t want to be an actor anymore.’”

Similar to MPulse, Barela says that attending the Tisch Summer High School Program doesn’t immediately influence the admissions process. Still, students who hope to enroll at Tisch may find their pre-college program beneficial. “It’s not a direct advantage when it comes to getting in,” Parker says, “but admissions understands that they are better equipped to handle what the school is like, what the city is like, and what it’s like to be here.”

Students at the Tisch Summer High School Program are active for 30 hours per week.
Students in the Tisch Summer High School Program are active for 30 hours per week. Photo courtesy of Tisch/NYU.


Leeds Hill

Leeds Hill credits CCM’s Musical Theatre Workshop with his success.

Leeds Hill played Bobby and served as Alan Cumming’s understudy in the 2014 Broadway revival of Cabaret, then toured nationally with the production. It’s only the latest in a long list of major stage credits, and the 28-year-old says he can trace it all back to one summer at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.

“During that summer in high school when I was taking voice lessons and getting my repertoire ready for college auditions, my voice really improved,” Hill says. “Without that, I don’t think I’d have been able to get into CCM. I got an agent because I went to that school, and I got on Broadway because of my agent, so without that first step, I’m not sure what my path would’ve been.”

Dee Anne Bryll, director of the summer musical theatre workshop, says she brings in professors and instructors from theatre programs all over the region during the two-week program. “Some of the faculty is from CCM, and we also get a wide variety of other area teachers,” she says. “It gives them a little taste of a lot of different things and helps them to be honest with themselves about the kind of college experience they want. There are so many great programs, but not every program is perfect for every student.”

In addition to helping workshop attendees, who range in age from 14 to 18, find their ideal college program, Bryll says audition workshops, panels, and feedback help students polish their audition materials long before they’re faced with the real thing.

“I really appreciated getting to do this crash course musical theatre intensive before entering the fully fledged college program,” Hill says. “I had more confidence, the pressure was alleviated, and I had a better understanding of what to expect.”

Workshop attendees take acting, voice, and dance classes in addition to master classes taught by area professionals. The program culminates with an informal cabaret, but Hill says the program is more about the process than the performance. “You get your priorities focused when you’re being treated like a professional,” he says.

“Instead of kids putting on a play, you’re adults honing your craft. Your level of commitment was as if it were your career and you were training to better yourself in your career. It wasn’t just an appreciation class. You have all these students with a passion for theatre, who for the most part are intending to pursue it as a career. It was great to be surrounded by the energy and that level of commitment.”

Bryll says the 40 students accepted to the program each summer come from all over the country and, often, around the world. “It’s a place where there are incredibly talented kids from all over the place,” she says. “They start to see what their competition really is, and I think that’s really good. They learn from each other. They form bonds, and they make each other better.”


Laura Flanagan, director of the four-week acting intensive at USC’s summer conservatory for high school students, is quick to point out that her program is not a summer camp. “A program like this is a very important introduction to two things,” she says. “First, to the experience of being on your own — at college, in a dormitory situation with other kids. Second, it’s an introduction to the experience of being in an environment where high demand is placed on you.”

Students enrolled for the summer in the conservatory’s acting intensive, musical theatre, or comedy performance programs take classes Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in addition to rehearsing shows and stand-up routines.

“It’s nurturing, but it’s also challenging,” Flanagan says. “Our program is really about developing as an individual artist. We have final shows, and we rehearse for them, but we also have classes. Everyone is in two final workshops as part of an ensemble. There’s a huge focus on getting out of the high school mentality of who got the lead in the musical this year. It’s more about, ‘Hey, let’s improve your tap dancing. Let’s explore what goes into telling a story.’”

Brandon Warfield, 21, first participated in the Summer Theatre Conservatory the summer after his junior year in high school. In the years that followed, after enrolling in USC’s B.F.A. program, he returned first as a resident assistant and then as a teaching assistant for the high schoolers. “I’ve been with the program for about four years now,” Warfield says, “and I can say with confidence
that it changed my life.”

“I considered myself an entertainer before that first summer. I didn’t necessarily have any technique. I was just relying on my vocal abilities from high school classes. After that summer I came out of it with an understanding that acting is way more professional than anyone who isn’t in the industry realizes. Seeing the technicalities made me want to be an actor rather than ‘Brandon who knows how to be a personality.’”

Warfield auditioned for 11 college programs and was accepted to every one of them. His USC audition was less stressful thanks to his experience over the summer. “When I walked into the room it was just like, ‘OK, I’ve worked with you before, I’ve worked at this level before, and I’m ready to show you I’m going to work here for four more years,’” he says. “You’re so much more confident with yourself knowing you’ve worked at the level they want you to be able to work at. I know we all have our insecurities, but when it came down to it, I knew how I wanted to be seen. I’d found my best self, and that will follow you into the room and show them you know what you want and where you want to be in the world.”

Flanagan say the biggest benefit to enrolling in the summer program, which leaves students with three USC credits after four weeks, is geography. “We’re in Los Angeles. We’re all in the industry, and if we’re not, then we used to be or our spouses are, so we invite our friends over. It’s all very real. High school is this torture chamber of terrible self-consciousness. When these kids step beyond that for a month, it’s transformative. They grow up in a month and become themselves.”

Students in the acting intensive present final presentations during the Summer Theatre Conservatory at USC
Students perform a final presentation during the Summer Theatre Conservatory at USC. Photo courtesy of USC.

This story appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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