Why The College Audition Process Is Actually Bullshit
Spending thousands of dollars...so that if all goes well, you get to spend even more thousands of dollars.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I discovered the musical theatre college audition process. At that point it was already pretty clear that theatre was what I wanted my life to be, and really, I couldn't imagine any other option. (I still can't. Oops.) BFA Musical Theatre program auditions sounded to 17-year-old me like the most exciting things in the world. All through my sophomore and junior year, I would pass the time planning. Washing dishes at work, I’d think of the perfect dance call outfit. Skiing with my dad, I was picking out monologues. In class, I was writing lists of all the schools I wanted to audition for and ranking them in order of how much I wanted to attend each and making spreadsheets in the margins of my notebook. During my hour between tap and ballet, I’d sneak into the empty dance studio and choreograph my imaginary dance prescreen. And let's not forget the bedroom lip-sync performances of audition material. I spent hours. Forget it, days. So much time.
The college audition process started for me as a way to continue doing what I love to do for as long as possible. It quickly blossomed into an obsession. So naturally, when the thing itself finally rolled around, I totally fell out of love with it.
Background info on musical theatre college auditions: they usually consist of one or two (contrasting) monologues (from contemporary plays, 1 minute, 90 seconds, 2-3 minutes, or in the case of one school, “until we cut you off”), two songs (one ballad, one up-tempo, one Golden Age or pre-1965, usually from the musical theatre canon), and maybe a dance call (a jazz combo, a barre, maybe a warm-up or across-the-floor--make sure you wear a solid color leotard and shoes that match your leg!). As you can already tell, there are a LOT of requirements, and they differ heavily from school to school. Or maybe slightly…but just enough to make you crazy. And that’s only the actual audition day!
First come applications, just like regular Muggles have to do! Supplemental essays, standardized tests, application fees, all that fun senior in high school stuff. Except you have to get it all done by October so you can submit the prescreens, where colleges look at a video of you and decide whether they want you to even bother to audition at all. Woohoo!
Now, as a sophomore in a BFA Musical Theatre program, I. Would. Rather. Die. Than have to go through the college audition process ever again. I don’t even want to think about it.
The first time it dawned on me that "The Process" is bullshit was when I was going to apply to an extremely prestigious school, and they required FIVE special essays just to submit a prescreen. Let it be known that the acceptance rate for said school is less than 1%. And the application fees for the program and the school totaled almost $200 together. And after all that, you still might not even get seen in person.
But as soon as auditions started, I got back into it. I was having the time of my life. I was living the dream! Going on fun road trips, staying in hotels, performing every weekend. It wasn't until I was actually in college that I looked back on The Process and realized how horrible it is.
Auditioning for college is incredibly demanding, physically and emotionally...not to mention financially. In fact, I nearly developed an ulcer from all the stress of constant traveling and prolonged uncertainty about the future. I missed nearly a month of school that I wouldn't have had to even with all of my auditions. I still sometimes struggle with stomach problems that never surfaced until college auditions. It's a crazy amount to expect a 17 year old kid to handle...which is why parents so often end up shouldering much of the burden. And if your parents can't or don't want to get super involved (perhaps they need to be working so they can pay for your audition related expenses), it's going to be significantly more difficult to even make it through The Process, let alone get accepted. This is just one of many ways in which aspiring theater majors from lower socioeconomic brackets are at a disadvantage.
Sometime during Unifieds, I started to realize how much of the college audition process is about doing things right. There are so many rules to be followed. You have to sing the right songs, wear the right clothes, and answer the interview questions correctly, all while "being yourself." It makes everyone the same. I remember walking by an audition room at Unifieds and noticing that the three girls lined up outside the door were wearing the exact same solid blue dress, and had their hair pulled back in the same way. It made me vaguely sad. That's not why I do theatre. In fact, that stupid mold that everyone tries to fit represents everything I hate about theatre. Art is really not about following the rules. And learning the rules is incredibly draining of your time, energy and, of course, money.
My major beef with the college audition process is that it's expensive as hell. The year I auditioned, my mother insisted on keeping a spreadsheet of all the costs associated with applications and auditions. I think it totaled around $12000, and we didn't even fly anywhere. Already, the astronomical cost of higher education prevents many bright kids from attending the college of their choice, or any college at all. This is magnified in the arts. There's a common attitude (not just in theatre), which I subscribed to for a long time, that says, "well, if they REALLY wanted it, they would have worked hard and found a way." It would be really nice if that was true, but the fact is, sometimes there are insurmountable systemic factors that render kids unable to pursue the education they deserve. It's so hard to get into college for theatre that many kids hire expensive college audition coaches or attend summer programs to specifically prepare themselves for their auditions. Plus, in order to become competitive for most college theatre programs, you have spend years training, taking dance classes and voice lessons. Those financially unable to do so are undeniably at a disadvantage. And yes, this makes musical theatre a political issue. It also aids in explaining the racial disparities in many theatre programs and productions. Without actively seeking out people of color, you likely won't be able to find enough to fill out a diverse class. Whitewashing is the result of socioeconomic factors, not mere bias. Simply put, more white people can afford to (and are encouraged to) pursue theatre at the collegiate level.
When you're auditioning for college, remember that like everything in America, college admissions is a business. It's sad but true that one's socioeconomic position is generally what will determine their level of success. When I was in high school, I accepted The Process as fact, necessity, and a rite of passage. But as a college student nearly halfway to the coveted BFA in Musical Theatre, I'm floored by the systemic inequalities that enable me to pursue an arts degree. It’s honestly absurd to me to think of all the time, money and energy my parents and I spent trying to get where I am now. I'm lucky as hell that I'm able to attend college for theatre and I could not be happier at my school. But nevertheless, I know that the "Process" I went through to get here was a stinking load of bullshit. :)