BWW Interviews: Catching Up With UPTA
In 1995, Playhouse on the Square founded the United Professional Theater Auditions (UPTA) to give professional actors and technicians from all over the country access to quality, paying theatres, as well as to offer theatres access to quality talent that can work year-round.
This year, between Thursday, February 6th and Monday, February 10th, more than 900 actors and production personnel came to Memphis to audition and interview for 82 theatre companies from across the U.S. and around the world. According to Associate Playhouse Producer, Michael Detroit, "It's sort of like American Idol meets Job Fair."
If you're asking "Why Memphis?" it's a two-part answer: First of all, the event was conceived here. Second, Memphis is a geographically-central location. (Part of the reason it's also the Fedex Hub.) This talent clearinghouse started out much smaller, but more labor-intensive to run. Today's digital technology has streamlined its logistics and administration.
I dropped in on this busy event to see what it was all about. The parameters of the auditions are spelled out on the UPTA website. If you're interested in auditioning or casting, or are just plain curious, please refer to this resource. What follows here is purely anecdotal:
Due to my own time constraints, I only covered this event on Saturday and only from the warm-up room at Playhouse. The warm-up room is a welcoming, cafe-style area, bisected by French doors. The space was divided into two distinct areas, a larger "Social Area" and a smaller "Quiet Area." The "Quiet Area" had four occupants while the "Social Area" appeared to hold over 100. Had it not been for the numbered UPTA name tags and stacks of headshots, I'd have thought I was at a coffee shop bustling with attractive people. In addition to complimentary coffee, tea and soft drinks, there were refreshments for sale and a display of well-chosen theatre books available for purchase at "kinfolk" prices.
To my delight, I was greeted by a supportive, collegial atmosphere with no palpable tension. One of the reasons the vibe was so upbeat was that everyone present belonged there. Most "hopefuls" were experienced and credentialed in their craft, and not all of them were young.
The first person I approached was Greg Collins, a mature character actor out of Louisville, Kentucky:
A former health care consultant, Greg has been a full-time actor for four years. He had attended UPTA several times in the past, says it's a welcoming community which he has found beneficial. "For the non-traditional actor who doesn't have a theatre degree," he said. "These auditions are valuable in that they afford is exposure and potential access to New York-based casting companies as well as individual theatre companies in all market sizes, all in one setting."
I followed up with Greg this evening (nearly two weeks after his UPTA auditions) and he reported callbacks--both equity and non-equity along with some others signs of interest. One of the callbacks included a call to come to New York to audition for national tour. He's keeping his fingers crossed.
In contrast to Greg who had was embarking on his second career, was Wen Powers, a first-time UPTA attendee who is a Memphis native and is scheduled to graduate the University of Alabama with a degree in Musical Theatre this June. I was intrigued to learn that Wen had written and rehearsed an original monologue. "This way," he explained, "I can get it into my own voice and present myself at my best." As to his hopes for UPTA, he said, "I only hope to find a way to spend the next year doing what I'd be most happy doing."
The next actor I spoke with was Karen Yvette Reid. This was Karen's second time at UPTA, having come from the Charleston Stage in South Carolina. She was prepared with two songs ("Zero to Hero" from Hercules, and "I'm Leaving You" from The Life) as well as a monologue from "The Piano Lesson."
"This is our Hunger Games," Karen told me with a smile. She has since reported that UPTA yielded three callbacks and as well as three other companies interested in keeping her on file. Like Greg Collins, she doesn't know the final outcome just yet . . .
Seated at a table near Karen in the warmup room were Elizabeth Higbee, who had come from Kansas City, and her friend, Allison Scheer who was both auditioning as an actress, (she brought 40 headshots) and and attending as a producer. Allison told me she had traveled from Barrett, Minnesota with six colleagues from The Praierie Fire Chidren's Theatre to hire performers. "Coming here is a big investment," she said, "But it's worth it"
Elizabeth added, "It gives us the opportunity to let eighty-two companies see what we have."
"Beyond that," Allison said, summing it up. "Becoming an actor is a big decision. Being surrounded by all these actors reaffirms my decision that I have made the right choice."