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How New York drama schools are focusing on the world of work

The Juilliard School on 65th Street and Broadway: in 2016-17, 90% of its full-time students are receiving financial aid. Photo: Chris Cooper
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Christian Parker, chair of the graduate theatre programme at Columbia University School of the Arts, notes how times have changed. “Culturally, we’re looking at a generation of students who are much more doggedly professional,” he says. “They’re far more focused on how to get the brass ring – on how to connect points A, B and C, to get ahead on the schedule they want to get ahead on.”

And, in the US (as in the UK), these students have to be. A continuing decline in the teaching of the liberal arts in American public schools, coupled with a tough economic climate for an already financially uncertain profession, has contributed to what Parker calls “a much bolder choice to train in the theatre”. This, in turn, has mobilised new approaches to training in New York City, the crucible for a theatre career in the US.

Richard Feldman is acting director of the Drama Division at the Juilliard School. He notes a “great deal of evolution” since the division’s establishment in 1968. Then, he argues, the explosion in drama schools in New York and elsewhere was about preparing students for regional repertory theatre.

“But those companies don’t exist anymore,” says Feldman. “That model of ‘we train you, then you go out and there’s work for you’, is no longer there.”

He continues: “Now, you have to not just know your craft, but also have a sense of why you want to do this, be something of an entrepreneur, have the skills to make work, as well as be a performer for hire, and be a spokesperson for your art.” To this end, says Feldman, “your role as citizen as well as artist is strongly emphasised in all of Juilliard’s divisions”.

Ruben Polendo, NYU Tisch School. Photo: Greg D Chan
Ruben Polendo, NYU Tisch School. Photo: Greg D Chan

Feldman’s emphasis on a proactive, community-focused framework of education is echoed by Mark Wing-Davey, chair of New York University Tisch School of the Arts’ graduate acting master of fine arts conservatory programme.

“Some in the faculty are well versed in the ‘classical’ tradition,” he says, “but, equally, we are moving towards a kind of curious, resourceful, robust and engaged citizen actor, who can create their own work.”

But how do such principles translate into practice?

At Columbia, says Parker, the theatre MFA programme seeks to “foster active collaboration” between its acting, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, stage management and theatre management and producing students. “We have coursework that pushes them together to practise their craft, so they’re building the relationships they’re going to need to take them forward in their profession.”

At the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University (famously rooted in the Stanislavski method), actors, directors and playwrights often train together. “It’s good that everybody understands the process of the actor,” says Andreas Manolikakis, the chair of the school. “You become a better director, a better playwright.”

For university-affiliated drama schools, utilising educational resources to enrich theatre practice – with an eye to a post-degree career – is ever more important.

“Research is most often defined as a space within which a field is investigated, interrogated or innovated,” says Ruben Polendo, the new chair of Tisch’s undergraduate drama programme. “This, to me, is paramount, and it happens in every rehearsal room here.”

This is part of what Polendo refers to as the “sustainability” of preparing students for a field, not just an industry. “They can do a Broadway show, a global collaboration, work in political performance, pedagogy or training.”

This interdisciplinary approach is integral to the NYU undergraduate drama division’s “three-point structure,” explains Polendo. Also central to this is students spending their first two years at one of a number of ‘primary’ studios, each of which teaches a different theatre methodology. “After that, the next two years are up to you,” says Polendo. Students can stay where they are, move between studios or focus on directing or camera-acting, for example.

In a field where creating your own work can now be key to sustaining a career, the divisions between acting, playwriting and producing are no longer as fixed as they once were.

When a single, clear route into a theatre career no longer exists, a multi-track approach to training is crucial in readying students to be resourceful and dynamic in their post-graduation lives, argues Polendo. “Having a richness of views is important,” he says. “It arms you with the beginning of an individual vision.”

At the Actors Studio Drama School, students end their three years not with a handful of full-length productions, but with a public repertory season of up to six weeks. In this way, explains Manolikakis, “all these people get to star in their own piece”, as well as play other roles.

“It’s a laboratory of information – of how to work with designers, stage managers, everybody,” he observes. And each show simulates union rules, as a microcosm of professional theatre.

One way to equip drama students for the professional world is to expose them to it during their training. And where better for that than the Big Apple? Many of New York’s drama schools have forged long-standing relationships with a range of venues. Columbia, for example, runs an internship that places students in jobs in theatres across the city, with artists and with commercial producers.

This doesn’t simply enable students to align themselves with an organisation (or person) that could prove a useful advocate for them in future, says Parker. The internship is also a chance for them to explore other professional angles – “to broaden their thinking about how they might apply their talents, while they’re plying their trade in whichever discipline they practise”.

At Juilliard, fourth-year drama students can rehearse at the Signature Theatre. It was founded by James Houghton, the former director of Juilliard’s drama division, who died in August. It is not uncommon for these students to encounter the likes of Tony Kushner or Athol Fugard at the Signature. “We want to promote the idea that, even though they’ve taken four years out of their lives to train, they’re still part of the profession,” says Feldman.

Keeping pace with the world also means responding to a fast-evolving technological landscape of webisodes, TV channels and sites like Netflix. As actors move increasingly frequently between live and filmed work, many New York theatre training programmes are now offering film classes. Students at the Actors Studio Drama School can seek advice on audition self-tapes.

From introducing work that moves beyond the traditional canon, to emphasising a play’s political and cultural contexts, to performing new writing, most New York drama schools are concertedly expanding the scope of their programmes. But what presents a challenge – as it does in the UK – is reflecting this in accessibility.

Most of the big drama schools in New York have a strong multinational element to their student base. But with fees generally in the range of $45-55,000 per year – often before living, travel and health expenses – the cost of these programmes can be prohibitive for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This has a knock-on effect on the pipeline into the theatre profession.

Student diversity is a major focus for programme directors. NYU, for example, regularly engages with high schools to raise awareness of the arts as a career, and the drama division – through a free programme called The Future Theatre Artists Workshop – offers a foundation level of performance training as well as information on the financial support available to potential students.

Most New York drama school students get some kind of support. At Juilliard, for example, of the 841 students enrolled full-time for 2016-17, 90% receive financial aid and 86% are on scholarships. At NYU, 93% of the students on the MFA programme are in receipt of scholarship aid, beyond loans and grants. Columbia’s School of the Arts awards more than $10 million in student aid each year.

There have been significant advances in terms of diversity. But drama school fees are still a hefty investment in a profession with no guarantee of a financial return. “If only the privileged can make it – because of the economics – by its very nature, it’s going to end up an elitist enterprise,” says Columbia’s Parker. “And we see that as being partially true right now.”

There are many factors at play here, from annual student enrolment size, to endowments from donors and alumni, to the rising cost of a university education in the US. But with the ever-increasing expense of living in New York, most drama programme chairs would acknowledge there is always more work to be done.


Photo: Drew Levin
Photo: Drew Levin

The Actors Studio Drama School, Pace University

Leadership: Andreas Manolikakis, chair (pictured, right)
Course: Three-year master of fine arts (acting, directing and playwriting tracks). Graduates have the opportunity to spend a year observing at the Actors Studio, and can then audition for membership.
Website: bit.ly/asds-pace

Photo: Laura Marie Duncan
Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

Theatre Programme, Columbia University School of the Arts

Leadership: Christian Parker, chair (pictured right)
Courses: Three-year master of fine arts programmes (acting, directing, dramaturgy, playwriting, stage management, theatre management and producing). Final year is devoted to thesis productions, with performances held in theatres throughout New York City.
Website: bit.ly/theatre-columbia

Photo: Gregory Constanzo
Photo: Gregory Constanzo

Drama Division, The Juilliard School

Leadership: Richard Feldman, acting director (pictured right)
Courses: Four-year bachelor of fine arts in drama (acting, movement, voice and additional aspects of craft); Four-year master’s in drama (actor training encompassing seminar track on production, directing, playwriting, pedagogy and current American and world theatre trends); playwrights programme (graduate-level fellowship). The last year of the MFA is free and includes a stipend.
Website: bit.ly/drama-juilliard

Photo: Ella Bromblin
Photo: Ella Bromblin

Drama, NYU Tisch School of THE Arts

Leadership: Ruben Polendo, chair, undergraduate drama; Mark Wing-Davey, chair, graduate acting (pictured right)
Course: Four-year bachelor of fine arts (professional training, theatre studies, general education, electives); three-year graduate acting master’s (Tisch also offers MFA programmmes in dance, design for stage and film, graduate musical theatre writing and performance studies)
Website: bit.ly/tisch-nyu

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