A Backstage Pass to Performing Arts Schools

by W. Randy Hoffman
A Backstage Pass to Performing Arts Schools

Before the Curtain Goes Up: Introduction

Perhaps the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the word "performance" is the PBS-style "Great Performance": Your favorite actors bringing a great story to life on stage or screen. Singers and musicians filling the hall with sound in a band, orchestra, or opera. Dancers exploding with energy in a ballet, musical number, or music video. But the word "performance" is popular in other contexts as well. Take television commercials: A car is a "high-performance machine." An energy company urges you to "watch our performance elevate." A financial company touts the "performance" of its mutual funds. This is because performance is as much about business as it is about creative expression, and that's true of the performing arts as well. For each dancer, there is somebody sewing the costumes; for every musician, there's somebody placing the microphones or running the sound board; for every actor, there's somebody calling potential production sponsors or running the theater concessions.

Prelude: Preparing for School

In that spirit, if you enjoy the performing arts "scene," you are cordially invited to make a study of it during your higher education, regardless of what you think of your own talents. And you can get involved in performing arts even before you're finished with high school or your GED. Julia Ward, Programs Director of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, has a great deal to say about this:

"Working in the performing arts doesn't just mean dancing or singing onstage. Almost any skill you excel at and are inspired by can be applied to the arts. Get to know what you're good at and what types of activities you enjoy. If you're good at getting your friends excited to go out, you might enjoy working in publicity or promotions. If you're good at taking care of people, you might want to work in artist services. If you are intensely well-organized, stage management might be the place for you. If technology is your thing, there's no shortage of work in sound and lighting.

"While you're in school or before seeking out a college program, I would recommend checking out the local theaters and performing-arts centers in your town. Often times, these organizations need volunteer ushers, who get to see the performances for free after seating patrons. If your school has a music, theater, or dance program, participate in it. Do you prefer being backstage or onstage? If you want to be an actor, musician, or performer, many colleges will have you audition -- so previous experience is important -- but there are always exceptions to the rule. If you're interested in arts administration, any previous leadership experience with school clubs, sports, community theaters, or museums would speak well of your abilities.

"And, if you're really gung-ho about a career in the arts, you can always do an 'information interview' with an arts professional. While people are very busy, most are willing to set aside time to talk to you about their careers, education and the field in which you're interested."

Johann Zietsman, CEO of the International Society for the Performing Arts Foundation (ISPA), recommends that if you're interested in a performing-arts education and career, you should read as much as possible about the industry (on the Internet, in trade papers if you have access to them, and so on) while you're still in high school or preparing for your GED. If you want to be a performer, be as active as you can in school performances, classes, and productions. And if you want to be a musician or dancer in particular, music and dance lessons can be helpful; the younger you begin taking them, the further along you can be, although it's never too late to start.

Amy Dolan, National Education and Outreach Coordinator for the theatrical union Actors' Equity Association, urges aspiring actors to "do as much performing as you can" in that same time frame. Find a theater that supports a mixed cast of both professional and non-professional actors, she says; that way you can get both valuable experience and opportunities to network with pros. If possible, get involved with a theater that offers the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) program for Actor's Equity; once you put in your acting dues, you can join the union. "Being in a union," she advises, "is the difference between being able to do acting as a hobby and being able to do it as a career."

The First Movement: Picking a School

When you're ready to choose a school, there's plenty to investigate about each school besides the usual criteria like how much it will cost, where it's located, and how long the program of study is. Zietsman recommends that you ask what percentage of the graduates of any given school have gone on to successful performing-arts careers, because "it's a very difficult field to break into." He also suggests that you find out how many performance opportunities there will be during any given school year, and how many different groups or ensembles you could potentially perform or crew with (without jeopardizing your academic studies, of course). Other questions to ask: Are there any local performing groups that you could volunteer or intern with? Are the faculty experienced in the performing arts -- that is, "not only do they teach, but also do they perform or have they performed professionally themselves?" And do at least some of the faculty members have "a strong reputation as a teacher who turns to successful performers or other performance teachers?"

Dolan agrees that faculty who aren't performers are "less likely to reach out to the theater community," and thus less likely to be able to make their students aware of current trends and opportunities in the field. She also mentions that, if you eventually want to be a professional actor, you might want to choose a school affiliated with a summer stock theater. You'll be able to audition there during spring break, and if you're picked up for a summer production, you'll have a chance to network with pros, choreographers, etc. For more guidance in picking a program of theater education, Dolan also recommends consulting the latest edition of the "Directory of Theatre Training Programs" by Jill Charles et al (many college libraries have a copy).

Ward sums up: "Whether you're interested in becoming a performing artist or working in arts administration, hands-on experience is crucial. You want a school that will provide with you plenty of opportunities to ply the craft you're learning. Check out how many productions are offered a year by a school's music, theater, or dance department. Are internships required to graduate from the program? Look very carefully at the interests of the faculty and the types of work they tend to produce. This information is easy to find online. Even if a school isn't a top name, there may be a couple of key professors whose interests are right up your alley. You may also want to find out what percentage of the school's courses are taught by graduate students versus the professorial faculty. While graduate students often make great teachers, you want to have equal time with the more experienced professionals."

There is certainly no shortage of institutions to choose from:

What are the pros and cons of studying at a dedicated performing-arts school as opposed to a traditional or community college? Dolan says it's up to you to "decide how [broad or] narrow you want your education to be" and that "if you're passionate that [performing] is all you want to do, you might thrive at a conservatory." But for most students she recommends a college or university education leading to a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or similar degree. Not only should you "make sure there are other things on the [school's] educational palette that interest you," just to avoid burning out, but she also asserts that if you're more widely educated, "you're better at auditions, better at writing cover letters, and more." She points out that you'll be more convincing and have better acting insights if, for example, "you're in a play about the Depression and [you've studied] American history." She qualifies Zietsman's earlier comments about reading as much about the industry as possible by urging students to learn how to function in the outisde world as well: "Don't just read BackStage and the trade papers. Read newspapers, research health insurance, and find out for yourself how 401(k) retirement plans work!" Zietsman agrees; while he acknowledges that students who've been "dedicated to the field since a young age and have ambitions to be soloists, etc., might only get distracted in a university setting," he says he thinks most students need a broad educational background; with it, they "bring more to a performance than just narrow skills."

The Second Movement: Scholarships and Subject of Study

Paying for school can be a challenge; some exclusive performing-arts schools, in particular, are very expensive. Besides the usual mix of student grants and loans, be sure to carefully investigate whether you qualify for any scholarships. Though scholarships are sometimes offered by the school, Ward says that "depends on the program." She goes on, "Some colleges have special scholarships for exceptional actors. Some have scholarships for band members. Be sure to speak not just with the college's financial aid office, but with the office of the actual arts program itself. You will get more detailed and reliable information this way."

Johann Zietsman points out that you can also get scholarships from "orchestras, dance companies, and theater groups," although many of them will have a very specific idea in mind of the type of student they want. For instance, "Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater gives scholarships to students who fit their profile." You can also get scholarships to ballet camps and other intensive or seminar events to supplement what you learn at school.

Once you're in school, what kinds of subjects should you study besides those of your chosen specialty? Ward has some good thoughts here as well: "If you are interested in pursuing arts administration, it might seem logical to minor in an arts discipline. However, this isn't always the best choice. It is extremely important to remain up-to-date on a variety of art forms, but your business sense may be even more important. Even the arts are about the bottom line. A business background and some marketing savvy go a long way in the performing arts business. And, if you're interested in becoming a performer, don't forget that it's a tough market out there. It may take years before you get your big break. If you don't want to end up waiting tables, it's a good idea to learn skills that can keep you close to the art you love, but can also provide a regular paycheck. You might consider taking courses such as dramaturgy, marketing, arts administration, and K-12 education."

Dolan heartily agrees: "Business writing, economics, finance...it's a business like anything else, and you need to know how to operate in the world as a functioning businessperson."

Zietsman thirds the motion: "Take business management." Even if you don't end up becoming your own manager, as many performers do, you still want to know enough about business to avoid being taken advantage of. He also makes the poignant observation that "dancers and operatic singers have a fairly short shelf life"; if you go into one of these professions, there's a good chance that you'll someday have to acknowledge that you can no longer meet the job's demands. "The need to have an exit strategy in place is not often talked about," he acknowledges sadly. "I've seen too many people reach the end of their performing career and become bitter, because they have no other life or place to go." He strongly recommends studying some of the subjects you'll need for a second career while you're still in school: "You'll have to find something else to do, and you need to be prepared for that going in."

The Third Movement: Internships and Employment

As you pursue a higher education in the performing arts (or just about any other field), it's always a good idea to try to get some experience under your belt before you graduate by interning somewhere. Your school and faculty members should be able to help you find internships. Beyond that, Dolan says that the EMC program is the internship vehicle for Actors' Equity, and that lots of prospective actors and theatre crew intern by apprenticing (she recommends the New York Times article "The Apprentices," printed in the Theater section of the Sunday, August 22, 2004 edition, as a good look at the process in action).

Ward affirms that "All kinds of internships are available for performing arts students. All you have to do is contact your local theater or performing arts organization to find out what types of opportunities are offered. You may also find that an organization doesn't have a formal internship program, but can use your help in other ways that will allow you exposure to the creative process at work."

Zietsman suggests that if you're interested in arts management (that is, if you think you might want to be a performing-arts manager, agent, or administrator), you can find internships at foundations, entertainment companies, and similar organizations. If you want to be a performer, he concurs with Ward: "You can get internships with dance companies and orchestras, although these are often not advertised. Even if you end up with a box-office job, things can happen; if they suddenly need an extra violin, you're already there!"

Before and after you graduate, you can look into the requirements for, and benefits of, joining professional associations and unions, of which there are many -- international, national, regional, and local. In addition to Arts Presenters, ISPA, and Actors' Equity, there are the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), North American Performing Arts Managers and Agents (NAPAMA), International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Canadian Institute of Theatre Technology (CITT), International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ), Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA), Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), International Dance Teachers Association (IDTA), American Federation of Musicians (AFM), and American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), just to name a very small sample.

Once you get your diploma or degree, you'll want to have a good resume ready and be ready to network through your family and friends and anyone else who might help, because the search for jobs (or, if you're a performer, auditions or casting calls) will commence. Lots of websites can help you in the hunt; you should monitor performing arts-specific sites such as PerformingJobs.com, dance.net (which lists job postings for musicians, actors, and other personnel as well as dancers), Crew Net, and Playbill's job pages. dance.net (which lists job postings for musicians, actors, and other personnel as well as dancers), Crew Net, and Playbill's job pages. In addition to the ISPA's job postings, Zietsman recommends MyAuditions.com as a good site to check for performing arts opportunities, and also encourages students to get involved with organizations like ISPA, of which he says: "Organizations like ours are bringing peope together regularly to rub shoulders with pros. There are costs involved, but we try to make it easier for younger emerging artists to pay for them. That's the catch-22: The people who need the networks most are those least able to afford them. Sometimes...you just have to hustle."

Dolan also advises checking websites and trade papers and puts in another plug for unions, which "create an automatic community and networking opportunity." Ward again sums it up: "Finding a job in the arts is about who you know and what you know. Build up as many contacts as you can through your school career, and don't be afraid to use them. Your greatest source of promotion might be an old professor or the house manager you ushered for back in high school. You never know who will have the connection that helps land you a job. In terms of what you know, there are many organizations serving artists and performing arts professionals by providing job listings. Those listings include TCG's ArtSEARCH, Arts Presenters' JobBank, and the job bank of your local or regional cultural alliance. It's also a good idea to target your research. What are the places and who are the people you dreamed about working for while you were in school? Each of those organizations has a website - often with a Human Resources page dedicated to job openings. And, if they aren't too busy, arts professionals are available for 'informational interviews,' which can help you by both educating you and getting you on the person-in-charge's radar screen."

As to what kinds of jobs and performance opportunities might be more available than others when you graduate, Ward suggests, "In the future, there will likely be a great demand for professionals to act as CEOs and Presidents of organizations. This kind of work is increasingly business-oriented and requires a good deal of skill in development. It's true now and will undoubtedly continue to be true, but if you can make money by writing great grants or schmoozing the right people, there will always be an arts administration job for you. Working as a technician or performer is more tricky. Technicians, in addition to having well-organized unions, often work in an apprentice-master style. So, it's important to have an "in." As for performing on stage or recording albums, it's never been easy. That won't change, but what you can do is start thinking about what success means to you. Few artists are able to make a living touring, and even fewer artists qualify as rich and famous. Would you be happy putting on performances in your home town and teaching kids how to act, sing or dance? Would you like to sing in a local choral group or review performances for newspapers? There are other ways to put your performance talents to work -- in arts administration, music therapy, criticism or training business professionals in public speaking and performance. Your skill and capacity for recognition isn't limited to the stage -- only to your imagination."

Dolan wraps up the career discussion with a little down-to-earth advice for performers: "No matter what kind of [performance] you do, you need to come back to the ABCs of acting, singing, [playing,] and dancing. Do what you do intelligently and it will come across the footlights."

CODA: Conclusion

When they're done well, there's nothing like the performing arts to lift the spirits of the performers, support staff, and audience. Few other professions afford such a simultaneous gratification to the "workers" and the "customers." Yes, you might have to do some other kind of work on the side to support yourself, even if you do excel in your performing arts education and any jobs or roles that follow. But in all your endeavors -- on and off the stage, during and after your career -- if you concentrate on enriching the lives of others, you will be enriched yourself, in ways that go far beyond the numbers in your bank account. Life itself is a performance, after all; make yours a good one.

W. Randy Hoffman sings tenor...ten or twelve miles away, preferably. He also writes a lot of songs that he doesn't publish. Silly boy.

Note: Mention of any particular institution in this article does not constitute endorsement of that institution by Education.org or vice versa.

Related Articles