Finding a Home in College Theater
OnStage New York Columnist
When I was in high school, theater was one of the most influential aspects of my life. So, when I started looking towards my future, and deciding which college to go to, a big part of my decision was influenced by the theater community and space on each campus. For me, since I knew I would spend much of my free time in and around the theater (and that corresponding community of people) I had to be sure that I was 100% comfortable with the theater on campus.
When it came down to it, I applied (and was accepted) to four schools: University at Buffalo (Buffalo, NY), Wells College (Aurora, NY), Chatham Women’s College (Pittsburgh, PA), and Le Moyne College (Syracuse, NY). Each school had its own pros and cons, but the thing that I found really drew me from a school was the theater (both the building and the community). These were all pretty different schools, and I could not be more thrilled with the one that I ended up at, but I do remember how hard the decision was for me when I was just 17-18 and still so confused and uncertain about the future.
First, I toured Wells College. It was the smallest of all the schools. It was December when I toured, and it was not a very large campus, but that did allow for an in depth tour. However, one of the stops on the tour was NOT the main theater. Instead, there was an assembly type program in a smaller performance space. I was not allowed in the main theater, not because they weren’t taking tours, but because they said it would be pointless for me. Like I stated before: I was not planning on being a theater major. I was registering as a prospective English major on all the forms I was filling out for everything. So, everyone I talked to said that I would never really see the inside of the theater, except as an audience member. Auditions were not public, they were closed so that only theater majors would be allowed to audition. While I can see the value in that for larger schools (like UB, or other SUNY schools) I did not see HOW a school with a population of less than 300 undergraduate students could afford to do that. Naturally, I did not end up going there.
My next trip was far more enjoyable (possibly my most enjoyable). I went to visit Chatham Women’s College in Pittsburgh, PA. It was a slightly larger school than Wells, and it had been a couple months since that tour, so I was much more prepared the second time around. Again, the theater was not on the tour route, but I was fortunate that my Mom, Grandma, and I had some free time to explore the campus and wandered our way in. Sure, the building was closed (although not locked), so we didn’t get to really see anyone, or much more than the lobby of the building. However, the administration representatives I had spoken to throughout the day assured me that the auditions were open to everyone. One of the college employees even said that the nearby Penn State campus sometimes opened their auditions to the Chatham girls. While this was better than the previous school I toured, ultimately I decided not to go to Chatham. It was a nice school, but nothing there really made it feel like home.
The third school I visited was the one I ended up attending, so I will skip that experience for now. All I will say is: it was a really good trip.
The last campus I visited was University at Buffalo, UB for short. It was the only school I visited without a guided tour. It was the largest school. And it just didn’t fit for me. Honestly, I felt like it was all too big. Coming from a high school where my graduating class was 62, suddenly upping to one of the largest schools in the state was a real “fish out of water” experience. I was able to wander around the Art and Theater building, where I saw some of the students and professors. But the problem there was that, while it was certainly very impressive (I still dream of the glimpses I got of their prop and set storage), it was also totally impersonal. I could tell that many of the students and professors I saw really didn’t know if I was another student that they had seen before, or a total stranger. Even the building felt impersonal, with large industrial corridors and minimal decoration. The look of the backstage didn’t really throw me off until I thought about it in hindsight and compared it to other theaters (both college and professional) that I ended up touring in later years. Ultimately, while I was impressed, I didn’t end up going there, because I just wasn’t ready for that big of a transition.
So then there is Le Moyne College. Situated right on the line where Syracuse meets Dewitt, about an hour north of my hometown. It is perfect. When I came to my first visit at Le Moyne, I was shown the theater. I was encouraged to get involved in the Performing Arts Center (PAC) even though I didn’t want to major in theater. A student, and later a professor, showed me around the building. There was an A Capella group that performed at the reception for the prospective students. After their performance, the singers mingled among the prospective students. I remember meeting someone who eventually became a good friend of mine. I never told them this, but those students I talked to were a large part of my decision to go to Le Moyne.
Ultimately, Le Moyne, for me, was a perfect fit. I loved it, and it was because it had a just right blend of community and opportunity for me to plant roots and flourish in the theater. It was because I was encouraged to get involved that I became a double major, and abandoned my first plan (a decision that has made me a much happier person since). Finding the right theater for you can be tricky, and you might make the wrong choice at first. For me, I was lucky that the school I chose was my perfect fit. Others are not always so lucky. My point being that for people who want to make their lives all about theater (or at least make theater an important part of their lives), then it is always important to see the theater you will be entering.
So if you are looking to start college, and theater is part of the future you want, then I say make sure you go for it, and look into it. You never know who you might meet. Make sure that the theater is one that you will fall in love with; otherwise, nothing else really matters. The theater is what you will base your life on, make sure you pick one that works for you. And if you don’t? Then keep looking. I believe that there is a place for everyone, especially in the world of theater.
Photo: College of the Holy Cross