BWW Feature: Paper Mill Playhouse Leads Revolution in Musical Theatre Education
The Musical Theater Common Pre-Screen is streamlining the process for students to apply to universities
There are dozens of colleges providing top-notch training for hopeful musical theatre students, but each one is so selective that even the best performers have trouble making the cut. The best way to secure a place in a musical theatre program is to apply to multiple schools and trust that a place will be waiting if it's meant to be.
But what does it take to apply? Traditional college applications are hefty enough with their varying requirements like transcripts, letters of recommendation, not to mention SAT and ACT scores. A musical theatre hopeful has to do all of this, but is also required to submit any number of pre-screen or audition media such as monologues, songs, and dance performances.
Stephen Agosto, Senior Manager of Artistic Engagement at Paper Mill Playhouse, began to notice a trend among schools and their requirements for what students had to submit. "There's such diversity in the criteria that's being required, every school's asking for something different," he says. Putting his theory to the test, he laid out a spreadsheet of what it would take to apply to eight of the top musical theatre schools such as Carnegie Mellon, Ithaca, and Pace. His result? "If I were just to apply to those schools, I would have 37 different pieces of media. Not because they're asking for something different, because if you look at the criteria, it's close. But it's because the verbiage is not universal."
This was all part of what led to the creation of the Musical Theater Common Pre-Screen, a solidified, universal collection of pre-screen requirements. Agosto sought out a way to take pressure off of students but also to streamline the process for the schools to screen applicants. "We've got university programs where the heads of departments and faculty have to sift through all these pre-screen videos," he notes. "Because every school is asking for something different, the schools aren't even getting the things that they're asking for."
When developing a more streamlined process, a large part of Agosto's goal was to increase access for students. With a background that includes work for the New York City Department of Education and the public school system, Agosto realized that privilege played a huge part in who was applying where.
He says, "There are students that are heavily funded or in some ways sponsored, and they get these college coaches and spend all this money and have professional acting reels that are done for them and they send them off to these schools. But then you've got these kids that don't come from privileged means, and it's their stories that are being told on Broadway today. We're looking for students of color. We're looking for students that identify as a gender or sexuality that might not be what we refer to as mainstream, students that might be otherly-abled in some way. We need to offer access to these actors."
For Agosto, his background combined with his position at Paper Mill made him acutely aware of the journey an actor takes from training to the professional stage. Paper Mill strives to elevate performers and accurately and thoughtfully represent the real world on stage. But they can only do so much if those with Broadway dreams are being shut out at the very beginning stages of training.
"Our mission statement is to provide access. And in providing access on our stage, we looked at how we were casting shows and what our needs were in terms of a professional casting pool. We went 'well, we're looking for trained actors of color, we're looking for trained actors with disabilities, we're looking for trained actors from marginalized groups.' How do we find those actors and how do they get trained? We've got to go to the training programs, these training institutions, and say 'what are we doing to get these groups of people represented in your freshman classes?'"
Agosto began reaching out to schools and launched a conversation. "I was able to start these dialogues. The department directors were really shocked because what it comes down to is no university is going to call another university and say 'how are you guys doing things?' It's not because they're trying to be difficult, but because they're trying to establish a culture of training. When universities would get questions from an applicant, they just came up with an answer. And then the next school would come up with their answer, and the next school would come up with their answer. So it wasn't the fault of the university, so much as it was strictly that no one had ever put everybody in the same room to talk about it."
This is exactly what Agosto did, assembling individuals from eight of the top universities to discuss what they could do to make the process easier for everyone.
One of the helping hands Agosto turned to was the online arts platform Acceptd, which, similar to the Common Pre-Screen, was founded with the initial goal of giving artists a way to centralize their digital media portfolio. "Our mission is to help artists flourish and streamline the process, so when Stephen approached us we were eager to be involved in this vision of making it easier and more meaningful for these applicants to showcase themselves in a manner that will allow them to find the right match," says Jerry Tsai, Director of Business Development at Acceptd. "We want the artists to get the best opportunity to find the right match. Stars come from everywhere. There's a passion for arts that we all have and we want to help applicants share that with the world."
"We got a lot of data from Acceptd," Agosto says. According to that data, the average number of media files in an applicant's library is 15, 7 being the average for just one application. Tsai explains, "We went through and evaluated all the data we had in our system specific to musical theatre. We confirmed that yes, in terms of media items, it was a lot. If you were to apply to eight programs, you would have a lot of different things that you would have to create.".
Nearly forty schools have signed on with the Common Pre-Screen including some of the industry's most elite institutions such as Elon, Marymount Manhattan, Shenandoah, Boston Conservatory, Carnegie Mellon, Texas State, and Ithaca.
"This is good for everybody," Agosto claims. "For the big schools, it's going to help streamline their process and make this easier all the way around. For the small schools, being a part of this early on brings them exposure in a positive way. It makes a statement about their institution and how they train. We even have a few schools where this will be their first year with a BFA in musical theatre and they're announcing their program by joining the Musical Theater Common Pre-Screen."
But for Agosto, this endeavor is indeed about streamlining, but first and foremost it's about reinforcing the sense of community within the industry. "There's this quote I love that I used to use with my students in New York City, when I worked with inner-city kids. I used to say that 'talent in this world is handed out liberally but opportunity and privilege are not.' It's really an important thing to remember because everyone, every group of people, however you want to subdivide us, is blessed and gifted with talent but what they are not afforded is opportunity and privilege. That is something that has been reserved for special groups of people. The more we can do to equally distribute opportunity, the more we are following through with our mission statement, which is to provide access to the arts."