College Decisions & the National High School Dance Festival

I just returned from the National High School Dance Festival, which was held at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. About 1500 dancers from across the USA, Canada, Australia, and Bermuda attended, along with 500 teachers, chaperones, and recruiters. The festival lasted for four days and included scholarship auditions, master classes, performances, and a college-fair-style room filled with schools and festivals promoting their various dance programs.

Coming off of Juilliard’s intensive audition process, I have to say that I wasn’t sure about attending another day-long audition process with about 800 dancers vying for scholarships from colleges and summer programs. But it was actually great to see a different audition process, with a huge group of dancers performing the same combinations. Certain dancers really stood out, and it was interesting to see who rose to the challenge and who blended into the background. As a former dancer, it was really eye-opening to be on the other side of the audition process and to feel what it is that adjudicators are looking for. I was also happy to see the familiar faces of several dancers who had auditioned for us prior to the festival.

We also found some new talent at NHSDF, and were excited to offer two half-scholarships to our Summer Dance Intensive to dancers who had not auditioned for us earlier. It was really great to see the whole cycle of dance admissions in a large-scale perspective: we met young dancers who are ready for a summer program but college is a few years off; dancers who are ready to graduate from high school and embark on their college dance career; and the teachers who train these dancers from the earliest stages and then pass them along to college programs like Juilliard.

It was also interesting to be in the room with other colleges and summer programs. In a sense, it’s an audition for us too, and there was definitely a sense of competition in the air! Schools would post callback lists with dancer audition numbers, hoping that those dancers would stop by their table and be wooed by the glossy brochures. It became clear to me that it is really important that dancers find the program that is truly the right fit for them, as opposed to getting wrapped up in the name of a school or choosing a program simply because their best friend is attending as well. My alma mater, the University of Minnesota, was in attendance. They have an excellent dance program, but it is vastly different from Juilliard’s – so students who are seriously considering one of our programs probably would not be happy with the other. There was a representative from Towson University at the table next to me, who was teaching master classes in addition to speaking with prospective students. They offer a certification for teaching dance in grades K-12 in addition to a BFA, so their program is a great option for dancers who are really interested in a teaching career – again, a vastly different program from Juilliard’s!

All in all, it was a valuable learning experience for me and I hope a great tool for the young dancers who attended. I wish I had attended as a high school student; I think it would have given me a better perspective on myself as a dancer and the options available to me as a college student. I encourage any prospective dance student to visit colleges, take tours and master classes, and really explore your options fully before making a decision!

Collaborating with the Playwright’s Program: A Second-Year Actor Reflects

By: Nick Choksi, Second-Year Drama Student

I explained it many times to various family members and friends. I’d say just that, “We’re doing the playwrights project, where we do three new plays by our three second year playwrights” and they’d either smile and nod and ask me again a week later or say “What the!?” or burp and turn away but I saw you, and I can smell it! I forget sometimes that the playwright’s program at school isn’t as wide a currency in the “real world” as the acting program. It’s a very unassuming program, it seems. It’s the party guest that sits near the punch table as everyone dances and sweats, the one that everyone talks about as they gyrate, because someone heard a rumor that they own the building, that they invented that dance move, that they spiked the punch and made this party awesome.

So the program kind of goes like this: It’s called the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program. Gezundheit! It is essentially a yearlong fellowship in which a select number of playwrights (around 5) with varying degrees of experience under their belt (some are produced, published, fresh from undergrad, but most have had some experience in the industry) get to work with Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, who head the program. They have class every Wednesday, in which they read and discuss from pieces they are all working on. Even Chris and Marsha will bring in materials to read. I was fortunate enough to get to help read a new piece of Chris’s in class two weeks ago, a crazy new piece about a one night stand that ends in marriage, the threat of terror, porn and butterflies. But they work on pieces in class and twice a month-ish we will have an all-division play-lab, in which students from all four years of the acting program, and occasionally alums as the script calls for, will read a new play by one of our playwrights, followed by a discussion with the author, led by Marsha or Chris, all in the interest of developing the piece. At the end of the yearlong fellowship (for which the playwright receives a stipend – I wish the actors did), some are invited to return for a second year as a Playwright-in-Residence. Part of the second year for the playwright is the playwright’s project in the winter, in which a guest director comes to direct the second year actors in a production of a new play of theirs. Sometimes this play will be one that made an appearance in some form at a play-lab that year before, or sometimes it’s a brand new piece that was hot off the printer just after the deadline in December. These plays end up making it into the real world in various forms after their initial production at school, on and off Broadway and even sometimes on the big screen.

Does that all make sense? That was a long paragraph with a lot of parentheticals.

Refresher. Aaah.

It’s a pretty fantastic program. It’s a thrill to work with all of them. This series of new plays we just finished was incredible. It’s an incredible thing to have the writer in the room as you rehearse a play. It’s always been my favorite way to work. Not that there’s anything wrong with Shakespeare or Chekhov, but it’s a completely different process, creating a role versus interpreting a role. The text becomes more of a discussion than a tome, as we all discover together what the play wants to be.

I worked on a tremendous play by Liz Meriwether called “Who is P.T. Butterhouse?”. It’s a crazy, brilliant, fascinating play. The first time I read it I put it down and said “Wha?” and flushed and left it in the bathroom, then I read it again and said “Oh. Wow, this is kind of incredible. I’m thirsty.” I was thirsty, that had nothing to do with the play. But I came to the first rehearsal with such a love for the play, just hoping I wouldn’t mess it up. Over the course of the four weeks the text kept changing as we discovered things, as Liz discovered things. Sometimes she’s bury herself in her cardigan and say “What the —- did I write?” Sometime we’d have a question that would lead to a discussion that would end up in a rewrite. Sometimes we’d get into a discussion with the director and Liz would say “Well, this part’s all capital letters so could you try shouting it” and everything would make sense. A week before the play opened we had a discussion that resulted in a major discovery about the identity of one of the central characters, which resulted (for me) in the hitherto undiscovered through line of that wacky play. By the end of the process we had all created something together, because Liz was there to be the ambassador and custodian for her wonderful play and we all got to mess around in it to see what we could find. It’s tremendously rewarding in a very different way than doing Chekhov or Shakespeare, especially since the majority of the projects we’ll work on when we graduate will probably be new works.

I’ve also been lucky enough to get to take part in a few readings over my year and three quarters at school. There was a particularly exciting project at the end of last year, a “Tag Play” which was essentially a parlor game for all the playwrights. It started with a scene written by Christopher Durang, and then the script essentially became a digital game of tag. He emailed it to one of the first year playwrights who wrote until they saw fit then passed it along. The next playwright would continue on, taking the story and characters wherever they wanted, sometimes in an attempt to tie things together, sometimes just to screw up whoever came next, and on it went through the five first years, the two second years and the one third year, and ended with Marsha Norman who had to tie it all together (penicillin was difficult to invent, I’m sure, but Marsha’s job was probably harder). Incidentally, the portion written by Chris, the beginning, is being developed into a new play commissioned by The Public Theater. The porno-butterflies one. Crazy.

Since I’ve been at the school, since Jim Houghton has been the head of the Drama Division, the playwrights program has become more and more integrated into the division, not something separate but something parallel. Apparently this wasn’t always so. Geoff Murphy, a third year, says that in his first year he didn’t even recognize the first year playwrights, let alone their names. Now the first year playwrights are “orientated” right along with the first year actors, and the all-school play-labs have made them as regular a fixture as any other student of the division.

I can’t imagine it any other way. These guys and gals are pretty great, to understate properly. The three second-year are already having pilots made, films, getting runs on and off Broadway and across the country, and the first years all have sizable accomplishments under their belts and have turned in some stunning work to the play-labs, and the alums of the program include heavy-hitters like David Auburn and Adam Rapp. We’re so lucky as actors to have our fingers on the pulse of what is and will be new in the theater community when we get out of this crazy place. It’s tremendously rewarding and informative to be there to observe and facilitate their development as artists.

Which is why it’s so surprising that the playwrights program doesn’t get as much press in the workaday world as the acting program. Even I was surprised upon my arrival at school, sitting in the big circle going around introducing ourselves to each other, as Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman introduced themselves like they were normal people, not staples of the American Theater and we all took an audible breath and asked each other with our eyes “Where do we go to school!?”

TRUE and FALSE: What You Can’t Know Until You Get Here

By: Jessica Love, Third-Year Drama Student

#1: Juilliard is Populated by the Same Smug Social Fugitives from Your High School Theater Department: FALSE

I came to Juilliard after going to college. And to be perfectly honest, one of my biggest night-terrors about the place was that, as a result of the fact that Juilliard accepts students fresh out of high school as well graduate students (with the ‘undergrads’ outweighing the ‘grads’ at a ratio of about 70/30 in most classes), I would find myself surrounded by a pack of teenagers with whom I had nothing in common. Patently false! It took me about a week to hurdle my own prejudices, but time and again, the zany diversity of this program has proven itself an enormous opportunity for growth and learning. First of all, the undergraduate students are for the most part people of exceptional dedication and maturity (not to mention talent). Second, the pressure of the program really dissolves any notion you might have about a person that isn’t predicated entirely upon your direct experience of them. In fact, I think I have learned more about freedom, confidence, and a buoyant attitude towards working than I have from my fellow grad students. But for the most part, these designations just cease to be something you recognize at all.

#2: I Will Have to Give Up Life-As-I-Know-It, Because I Will Literally Have No Time Outside of School: TRUE

Goodbye movies, goodbye reading, goodbye sleeping in, goodbye weekend, goodbye friends, goodbye strolls, goodbye noodling around on the Internet. The one consistent thing I heard from graduates of this program, upon being asked what it was like was, “It’s…intense.” And that has, in fact, proven to be the only accurate way to describe it. Your life changes drastically. In your first year you are at school from 9am-10pm every weeknight. You have breaks for lunch, and dinner, and the occasional half-hour between classes, but for the most part, if you aren’t in class or eating, you’re asleep. There is certain emotional fallout that results from this. I personally felt robbed of my former life. Don’t they have any consideration for my physical needs? I’m tired all the time! But, BUT, you get used to it. Slowly but surely you begin to learn how to manage yourself and you start to feel like your mind and body is this well-oiled machine of efficiency. You start feeling totally awesome. I think there are a couple of things that are particularly useful about this total-immersion attitude:

(1) Many of the things you are trying to learn, you want to learn by rote. You don’t want them to be conscious choices; you want them to be something your body just knows (for example: letting your breath drop down deep, connecting with your partner, being aware of your relationship to the space around you, etc.). And this kind of learning is like learning a sport. You just need to drill it. Constantly. Then one day you wake up and whaddya know, you can dunk.

(2) Your threshold gets higher. You learn how to not only function, but also how to be productive with less sleep, less time, just less. There is a notion that if you can figure out how not only to survive but to thrive here, you can do it anywhere. It’s practice for the real world.

(3) You learn a lot about yourself and your habits under this kind of pressure, from the mundane to the profound. You find out, ‘Wow, when I’m stressed out I have a habit of lashing out at those around me’, or, ‘When I’m tired I need to eat more protein.’

(4) Turns out that, for the work you’re doing, it helps to be cloistered away. When your beam of focus is this narrow: ‘How do I get better at acting?’ Rather than, ‘How do I get better at acting, have a job, a boyfriend, a drug problem and four hobbies?’ It becomes much easier to make headway with that goal.

#3: Juilliard Is Trying to Turn Me Into an Acting Automaton Who Talks Fancy: FALSE!

One of the biggest surprises of the program, for me, was the tremendous flexibility inherent in the training. In fact, I would say that if any principle is at the core of the program it is flexibility. The curriculum is so diverse that at times you think, but wait, I’m learning one thing in my Suzuki class and what feels like the complete opposite in my Alexander Technique class! But that is the beauty part. The faculty gives you as much information as possible and then you make sense of it yourself. Once you’ve mastered something you are free to throw it away if you don’t find it helpful. The priority is arming the actor with a bristling-full arsenal, and then the actor gets to choose which tools are most appropriate for the task. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling.

#4: Failure is Unacceptable: FALSE

Turns out, failure is one of the best ways to learn. The faculty knows this, and you are applauded when you venture outside your comfort zone and fall on your face. Of course, I’m not talking about failure as a result of laziness. I’m talking about Wright Brothers early experiments with flight. I remember something Laura Linney said when she came to speak with us at a Community Meeting, ‘You have to be okay with falling on your face. If you aren’t willing to be terrible, then you’ll be good for a time doing what you know how to do, but you’ll never get better. And after a while you will become boring.’

I think that is exactly the way to think about your time at school. The reason you are here is not to impress the teachers (they don’t want you to!) or each other (nobody cares!), it is to throw yourself into those things that come hardest for you, pick yourself up, and hurl yourself again. That is the experiment and that is where the learning is. At school, you learn to make trying the scary stuff a habit, so that for the rest of your life you’re experimenting, so that even if at times you are terrible, you are never, never boring.

Up Close and Personal: Why Does Drama Have a Final Round Callback?

By: Kathy Hood, Administrative Director – Drama Division

This year marks the second year that the Drama Division has conducted a final round callback process in New York. Last year, the east coast was hit with a major snow storm (of course!) and many of finalists struggled to make it to us for the weekend’s events. As we communicated with each candidate about their arrival status, we were hearing amazing stories of candidates driving through the night or flying forwards and backwards through several airports to find a way to land in New York or finding alternate methods of transport to get to New York despite the terrible weather. It was such a relief when everybody finally arrived at Juilliard safe and sound. I know the Drama faculty, staff and students were very moved to know what each person did to get themselves to the callback weekend with all the weather obstacles. Each person displayed amazing strength, patience, courage, desire, tenacity and humor. It was extraordinary thing to witness. With all of the challenges, it ended up being a successful first experience for the Drama Division. We were able to spend serious time getting to know our candidates better and observe their work and the candidates got to experience life as a Juilliard Drama student.

On March 15th and 16th, we will welcome forty-four finalists for an intensive two-day final round callback process here at the school. The finalists have been selected from a group of nearly 100 individuals who received callbacks during our auditions in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The callback process allows us to give our finalists a first-hand look at the life and work here in the Drama Division. Over the two days, they will take classes with the faculty and meet students; completely immersing them in the life of the Division.

The Drama Division has discussed creating a process such as this for a long time but it wasn’t until Jim Houghton came on board as the new Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division in the summer of 2006, that this came to fruition. It was one of Jim’s priorities to “open the doors” of the division and give the candidates a thorough experience that would allow for a better understanding of the training and the kind of commitment that they would be undertaking for four years should they choose to come to Juilliard. It is an important choice to devote oneself to rigorous training and we want to make sure our candidates have all the information they can in order to make the best decision possible for their education and future.

While view books, catalogs and blogs are a wonderful introduction to getting to know the school, we believe that through experience and action a candidate gets a real feel for the school; its atmosphere, its values, its energy and passion. We are thrilled to be able to welcome our finalists to the school and share with them what we love about our division and why we feel this is a special and unique program.

We are hoping the candidates bring to the final round callback their full selves and dive in with a spirit of play and curiosity. The faculty and students of the Drama Division will be doing the same.

Needless to say, I am hoping for warm weather this year!

The Drama March Callback – An International Perspective

By: Gayle Rankin, First-Year Drama Student

I’m a bit late joining the Juilliard blog bandwagon, but I thought it would be cool to reach out to all the international students out there who, like me, thought and think that Juilliard is unattainable. I was very fortunate to have very supportive parents who traveled with me over to New York for both auditions. Coming straight from high school in Scotland to the prestige of The Juilliard School in Manhattan was very daunting for me; I still have to pinch myself every day. After coming through the first audition it was a painful wait to see if I had received a callback for an intense weekend in March – St. Patrick’s weekend – so I had the luck of the Celts on my side. We came a couple of days before my audition so I had time to spend in New York, which just made me more and more nervous.

Group 40 (my class) was the first class to undergo the weekend callback process. I wore a mustard colored woolen jumper to my audition and I remember it to this day as I have a very vivid memory of what happened to the jumper and in turn what happened to me on that day. My nerves had me changing every five minutes. I was sweating, I was freezing – it was bitterly cold outside and New York had been hit by a snowstorm. My dad and I arrived at Juilliard and we were quickly informed that this was to be an interesting weekend; half of the auditionees hadn’t arrived due to travel constrictions because of the weather. Juilliard was busy and there were several cliques of people from the same school or who knew each other from another training programme, and I was sitting worrying if people could understand my accent. Quickly I had no time worry – at all. When they said “intensive weekend” I had no clue that I would be living and breathing the Juilliard life for two days. I felt and still feel so privileged to have gotten the chance to do this before being accepted.

We had a schedule for the two days; we ate, worked and basically lived with the faculty and each other from very early in the morning to very late at night. What shocked me the most was, when we were having breakfast the faculty were all chatting to us, and they remembered us! I didn’t want to get my hopes up and so ate a piece of pineapple (I was too nervous to eat anything else) and changed out of my wooly jumper. We were ushered around the corridors from class to class. I have a specific memory from each class; we had such a mixed bag of opportunity, mask class, movement, voice, theatre games, singing, approaching the play, poetry and we had to show our monologues again. Each class was really exciting and fresh and not anything to be frightened of in retrospective. Being from a different country I had what I thought were massive disadvantages or worries: “Will the exercises be completely foreign to me?” “Will they be able to understand my accent?” “Will I be able to adapt to how they work here?” What I realized is that everyone who is willing to come here and share a part of themselves with a group of people can be understood; the way in which the weekend and Juilliard is constructed is totally international and universal. So any prospective student, whether they are from California or Scotland, the teachers just want you to do well and see how you do it in your part of the world! The exciting part of the callback is the fact the faculty would like to see you work some more and just have fun with them, as most of them are in the room for the classes that you take, which isn’t as scary as it sounds. I remember I was surprised when some of the faculty were laughing during mask class, which put me and everyone else at ease

I remember needing to drink a lot of water after each class (sounds silly); I had either cried or perspired and it really proved all the teachers were really allowing us to experience something. We got the chance to meet some of the first years who would be our prospective second year, they were so excited to meet us and genuinely interested in what we had to bring to the weekend. After doing some classes, eating with the faculty and students we were given a taste of the community meetings the Juilliard drama students have once a week. I was really taken with this idea before I even stepped in the room: a large gathering of enthusiastic people willing to learn more about Art and how it fits into society and humanity. The event that was arranged for us was a poetic performance by Robert Bonair-Agard. I was so touched by his performance.

The memory that will stay in my mind from the callback weekend was the last game we played, in studio 306. I was beside a girl from Minnesota and a boy from Dallas, and I tried to replay everything that had happened during the weekend but I realized it was something that I couldn’t change and even though I had the most fun I still thought I could have relaxed even more and had more fun rather than worrying. Looking back it’s kind of amazing the amount of different emotions you go through during this weekend and the great thing is, they are all integral to your enjoyment and will help in a weird way. Whether you feel nervous, unsociable, detached, insecure or ecstatic and hyper, you will find a way to feed you and that adrenaline will make the experience even more intense.

As for New York the city itself is a piece of art, it’s somewhere and something that can’t be duplicated, something that’s happened by sheer accident of so many diverse cultures existing in several boroughs. Coming to this wonderful, but overwhelming city you can let it get to you and allow it to take over your experience. It’s not something to worry about, I was able to feel safe and comfortable, if a little crazy, on the subway in Times Square and at night in my hotel.