College for Performing Arts: Do's, Don'ts & Some Food For Thought

Oklahoma City University

Oklahoma City University

  • Rose Riley

Conservatory, or liberal arts school?  What aspects of a program should I look at? What’s up with the “Big Ten”? Should I pick up a minor or double major, or put everything into my performing arts major? For students considering pursuing an education in performing arts, particularly musical theatre, these questions are among the many flying around as they consider different schools and prepare to audition and/or choose where to spend the next few years of their lives. Let’s discuss!

Conservatory, or liberal arts school/university?

This tends to be one of the first things taken into account when performing arts students choose a school. The answer to this question is that there is simply no right answer for everyone. Each has its pros and cons (many aspects of each could be seen as both in different lights) depending on your overall career intentions, and neither outweighs the other in benefits or drawbacks. 

As far as conservatory schools go, it usually ends up being the case that you will spend a much more significant amount of your time, energy, thought, and money on courses which pertain directly to your major and post-grad prospects, and you can hone in 100% on your craft. The typical argument against this is that you don’t get as many intellectual benefits as an education with “core classes” (math, science, history, etc.). Granted, most BFA conservatory programs will include variations of these classes which are geared towards your major (i.e., finance for actors, anatomy of the voice, history of theatre, etc.), which can be and usually are extremely beneficial. However, issues may arise if you want to transfer to a different school, and may not be able to transfer your credits from a conservatory, or may be behind on regular core classes. 

As far as four-year liberal arts colleges/universities go, you would typically be majoring in your area of the performing arts, taking a handful of classes pertaining to that major, among many core classes which do not usually pertain to your major. (The exception would be the handful of schools out there which include a conservatory program within a general college or university.) Many people see this (incorrectly) as a reason to believe that liberal arts schools are in fact, a better idea for everyone than conservatory programs. In my junior year of high school, as I was beginning the process of looking at schools, an adult colleague performing with me at a community theatre at the time told me that I “needed” to lean towards liberal arts schools because, and I quote, “you need to go full liberal arts to learn how to be a person.” This is simply untrue. You do not need to go to any postsecondary education institution whatsoever to learn how to be a well-rounded individual, and a conservatory would provide you with just as much opportunity to develop as a well-rounded individual as a liberal arts school would. 

But I digress- regarding conservatory vs. liberal arts, my advice (which you should take with a grain of salt, as I am not you and therefore don’t know what’s best for you) is this: look over what YOU think of as the pros and cons of each option, and decide what works for YOU, or if it even matters to you much at all. My top two schools ended up being one of each, which is not uncommon. Decide what works for YOU.

How Important Is “Broadway’s Big Ten”?

Every year, thousands upon thousands of prospective college theatre students pore over Playbill’s annual “Broadway’s Big Ten” list; a comprehensive ranking of the most represented schools on Broadway that season. Here’s the thing about school representation on Broadway: it is liable to change pretty drastically every year. A school can land at #6 one year and not even make an honorable mention the next. Likewise, a school can go unnamed the year before it’s listed at #5. While there are some schools which have maintained a pretty consistent streak among the top few (i.e., NYU, AMDA), you must not forget that Broadway is NOT the only great major gig out there! This annual list doesn’t include off-broadway productions, workshops for up-and-coming shows (which could be the next “Hamilton”), national tours, film, etc. Anyone of these and many more opportunities could lead to your “big break.” Overall, however, the thing to keep in mind is this: you could go to a school which has been sitting at or near the top of the Big Ten list, or one which has never been mentioned on there since its theatre program has existed- neither will increase or decrease your chances of “making it”. At the end of the day, your school will give you training, experience, and maybe some good connections. After that, it’s up to YOU to take those tools and opportunities and run with them as YOU choose, to forge YOUR path. Is professional representation worth taking into account? Sure it is. But, there are plenty of other things to consider before. 

Questions You Should Ask

As you browse different schools and programs, make sure you are as aware as you can possibly be about the details of each program you look at, so that you are able to make as educated a decision as possible when you commit to a school. Look at each institution’s curriculum for your major (usually listed comprehensively on the school’s website). Does the program of studies sound interesting, beneficial, well-rounded, and enjoyable? What are the class sizes? What opportunities does the school provide both during and after your education there? Who are the faculty members? What are their credentials? What is the student to faculty ratio? What is the attrition/graduation rate? What are the career trends among alumni post-graduation? What are the dorms like? What are the off-campus living options, if any? What is the tuition cost? How are they with scholarships? Make sure you can answer as many of these questions as possible, if not more. Familiarize yourself with the gist and feel of each program. What do you like? What do you not like? How much bang would you get for your buck? Where can you visualize yourself? Make a list of your potential schools in order of preference. Make sure you know what you will or won’t be committing to when you choose a school.

Should I Avoid Programs That Don’t Let Me Audition Outside of School?

This is a common subject when discussing collegiate theatre programs. Obviously, it’s subjective, but if you ask me, my answer is: Nope! Many people theorize that this policy indicates that a program wants to “trap” you and get all of the money they can out of you. I’m not saying that’s untrue for all institutions, but I think the general idea of it is this: if you audition externally, the name of whichever school you attend(ed) is more than likely attached to you. If a school’s policy prohibits outside auditioning, it is probably because they don’t want you representing them out there before you’ve completed your training. It’s as simple as that. It’s highly unlikely that there’s a big agenda behind it.

Should I Also Minor/Double Major In Something Else To Fall Back On?

If you are aiming for a career in something like theatre education, marketing for shows and theatres, or something of that nature, then it may definitely behoove you to minor or double major with whatever that second aspect of that field is (education, communications, marketing, business, etc.). This can be crucial to prerequisites for many jobs in those fields, and will undoubtedly help you excel in the skills needed for them.

If your true goal is to make a living performing, however, I have observed that this question tends to be spawned from seeds of doubt. Sometimes you wonder, “Should I make a backup plan?” “What can I do with just a theatre degree?” This is sometimes because others (parents, relatives, friends), ask you the same thing. That was the case for me at age 12 after I left a masterclass with Eden Espinosa. In the Q&A session, she had told us about her life as a professional performer, her education, and how she had made a living since then. Hearing a real, live human talk about that lifestyle from the first-person point of view sparked a mini-epiphany in me. This was a real thing that people could do- that maybe I could do. That was when I made my decision. I got in the car, and I told my parents that I wanted to pursue this career, that I planned to major in musical theatre in college and then audition for work. They responded with a very measured and hesitant agreement, mentioning minors and backup plans. We had that same conversation about three times before I heard the term “backup plan” once more, and I sort of snapped. “Look, I really can’t have a backup plan,” I told them. “That takes away from the PLAN plan.” They were taken aback, and after a moment of mulling it over, they agreed. And that was the end of that. 

I didn’t realize at the time how right I was. If you feel the need to have a plan B that you already need to start working on now, years before you’ve even started auditioning and networking professionally, just be aware: by taking it on as a minor or second major, that takes away that much time and effort from your progress on plan A, and fuels whatever doubt may be behind the plan B. So, my brutally honest advice (again, grain of salt) is this: pick a plan. Do you truly believe that you have the unbridled passion, grit, and adequate potential to pursue this amazing, but also soul-crushing, business? If your answer is no, or that you’re not quite sure, then I’d encourage you to browse other options, and see where else you might picture yourself thriving. You can always come back to performing later if/when the time comes- just look at Jessica Vosk! If your answer is yes, well then, to put it bluntly: screw a “backup plan.” Take what you’ve got, put it all into your art and then some. If it doesn’t work out, you can always do something else later, don’t forget that.

So do some soul searching. Ask and answer some questions of yourself. Do what’s right for YOU.

In Conclusion…

To all the high school junior theatre kids out there, I wish you the very best in your journey with the college process. It’s scary and stress-inducing, so work hard, but more importantly, take care of yourself. Do what’s right for YOU. You got this.

“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and the world’s gonna know your name.” 

-Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton)