Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Back to School

So if you follow me on Twitter, you already know about this. But if you don't, hey, guess what: I'm applying to grad school! And the process has been a bit of an ordeal so far!

More specifically, I am hoping to get my MFA in Acting, or something similar (more on that later). I don't feel like I should have to elaborate on why exactly I'm going down this path, but trust me: I don't want to hear about how your uncle's neighbor's cousin's best friend's dog got a degree in acting and he's unemployed and homeless and now. I know it's not a degree that often leads to ultimate riches. I've made my choice and I am more than happy with it. (Not I think any of you guys would judge me! It's'd be surprised at what some people think is okay to say to another person.)

Anyway, the reason I'm getting my MFA (which stands for Master of Fine Arts, by the way) is not because I want to be a movie star. In that particular field, a degree isn't super necessary to take one's career to the next level. My end goal is to eventually  work at a university, and most universities won't hire you if you don't have an MFA. Of course, most subjects would require a Ph.D, but Ph.Ds in Acting don't exist, so an MFA is the equivalent. It's a terminal degree: once you have it, there's no higher level.

Applying to an MFA Acting program can be a weird and backward process. There are two ways to go about it. One is pretty straightforward: choose the schools you like and send in your applications, and then any schools that think you might be a good candidate will invite you to audition in person. The second way is the weird way. Any guesses as to which one I did?

The second (and actually much more common) way to apply is to do the URTA auditions. That's essentially a huge audition where you get seen by about thirty or forty different schools. There are two days of auditions, but the second day is optional. (I chose to do both days, because the second day had way more schools.)  When you sign up, you get a two-minute time slot (or two time slots if you're doing both days) to do whatever you want (they strongly suggest two contrasting monologues: one classical and one contemporary). Then later that same day, you find out if any schools are interested in you, and if they are, they'll interview you--again, all in the same day. If they're still interested after the first interview, they'll follow up with you--and that's when you actually fill out an application. At that point, the application is more of a formality to get you into their system, because they've already seen your work and have a good idea of whether or not they like you. (It's also worth mentioning that there are a lot of schools that don't attend the URTA auditions, and if I'd been interested in any of those I would have had to apply directly. I didn't end up interested in any non-URTA schools, though.)

I chose to do URTAs for a couple of reasons. One was that I didn't want to waste my time and money applying to schools that might not even be looking for someone like me. I mean, as much as I'd like to go to Yale or Julliard...that's probably not in the cards. I'd much rather start by figuring out which schools are as interested in working with me as I am with them. The second reason was that there are a LOT of schools to choose from, and this made it a lot easier to narrow down which ones I wanted to pursue.

So that's what I knew going into it. I also knew that most MFA programs don't take very many people--some take less than ten a year--so my odds weren't great. Nevertheless, I persisted. Some time in mid-November, I got myself an audition coach (which is a whole other story--long story short, I was extremely lucky to find her because she is both reasonably priced AND an excellent coach). With her help, I found two really great monologues and got them into a shape I never would have achieved on my own. Fast-forward to the end of January, and I was...well, I wouldn't say ready, because I don't think any amount of practice would have made me feel truly ready, but my monologues were at a point my coach and I were both happy with. The only thing left to do was the audition!

Oh wait, there's one more thing I forgot to mention. The auditions take place in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The San Francisco auditions took place at a hotel that is--I am not even kidding you--a twenty-minute drive from my house. AND I WAS NOT AVAILABLE THAT WEEKEND. It conflicted with a show I'd been cast in. (Because, oh yeah, this whole thing went down while I was also working on a show. Sleep is overrated, anyway.) If you've ever been in a show before, you know (and even if you haven't, you can probably guess) that the performance schedule is non-negotiable. So, off to Chicago I went.

The first day of auditions did not go very well. I mean, I thought my audition was good, but none of the schools in attendance seemed to agree. There were a lot of factors that could have potentially played into it: many schools were looking for men and/or POC (of which I am neither), some schools only recruit every other year, some schools only had three spots available...the list goes on and on. And, I mean, it's also possible that they just didn't think my audition was that good. FINE WHATEVER I admit that's a possibility.

Needless to say, I wasn't feeling super jazzed about Day Two. The one thing that gave me hope was that a friend of mine said she also hadn't gotten any callbacks the first day, but the second day she got ten. That made me feel a little better. Also, one of the recruiters on the second day was a person I'd worked with before, so I had that going for me.

And, lo and behold: TEN SCHOOLS were interested in me! Three of those schools wanted interviews that day, five didn't interview me but asked for headshots and resumes so they could get in touch later, one (the one where I knew the recruiter) said to feel free to sign up for an interview spot because he wanted to get a chance to talk to me, and one invited me to an optional workshop. I decided to go to the workshop because why not, and I'm really glad I did. (Again, more on that later.)

The interviews were a mixed bag. One was a group interview that was more of an informational presentation about the program, and the program didn't seem to be a good fit for me. (It looked cool, but the emphasis was on physical theatre, which isn't my focus.) Two schools looked amazing in almost every way, but they were both non-accredited conservatories, which means that they offer a certificate and not an MFA. Since I need an MFA to pursue my career of choice, that was a deal-breaker. The school where I knew the recruiter interviewed me just for kicks, because might as well.

The optional workshop I attended, though? It turned out to be more of a group audition/interview than a workshop. They had us do a bunch of short acting exercises, and then had us each say what we noticed or what we got out of it. It was clear that they were trying to determine how well we worked in a group setting. At the end they mentioned that they have two different MFA programs: one is a traditional acting course, and the other is more geared towards ensemble theatre. They had us go around the circle and say which one we'd be more interested in, should they choose to give any of us a second callback. Almost everyone said acting, one person said ensemble theatre, and I said I'd probably prefer acting but I'd like more information on the ensemble theatre course so I could make an educated choice. The school, by the way, is in London. (If you follow me on Twitter, this is the place I've been referring to as Fancy English School.)

Over the next few days, I got a handful of emails from schools. Most contained information about their program with a link to the application, but not very many turned out to be programs that appeared to be a good fit for me. I got a second callback from a school I'd already interviewed with, but that was one of the ones that didn't offer an MFA. At first I planned on doing the callback anyway, but ultimately decided not to waste anyone's time. Surprisingly, I ended up on the waiting list for the school where I knew the recruiter. They'd interviewed me, but I hadn't thought they were actually considering me.

As I was leaving for work one morning, I noticed I had an email from Fancy English School. I gave it a quick look, and saw that it seemed to mostly be informational about their ensemble theatre program with an invitation to apply. I was in a hurry, so I didn't really look at it, but made a mental note to email them later to ask for information about their acting program as well.

Later that day, I had a meeting with my audition coach to discuss the next steps of the process. She confirmed what I'd already suspected, which is that many of the schools that had expressed interest in me are cash cows who go to the URTAs to advertise their programs. They might be genuinely interested in me, but the programs probably aren't worth pursuing. Disappointing, but again, not unexpected. She also advised me not to follow through with any school that can't offer me an MFA, since it doesn't make sense for me personally. We both agreed that Fancy English School seems like the best fit for me--they have a good reputation, I liked the faculty I'd met at the audition, their program looks interesting, and their student satisfaction rate is excellent. Plus, you know, London. She also said that their ensemble theatre program looks interesting and is definitely worth researching more.

When I got home, I opened the email from Fancy English School to read what they'd sent me about the ensemble theatre program. It turns out that I should have read it more thoroughly the first time, because I hadn't realized exactly how interested in me they were! It was pretty straightforward: they liked my audition, they thought I might be a good fit for the program, and they wanted to set up a Skype interview. The email wasn't trying to sell me on the program, unlike the other ones I'd gotten--it was basically, "This is what it involves; it may or may not be what you have in mind; if it is please contact us."

And another thing: the program looks really, really cool. It seems to be a combination of acting, writing, directing, and some other stuff, with a focus on collaboration and cultivating a group mentality. Not exactly what I'd been picturing, but actually a better fit for me in a lot of ways. I'm trying not to get my heart set on it because I haven't actually gotten in yet, but man. It looks amazing.

The interview is set for this Friday at 9:00 AM. Wish me luck, please?