• Mary Lea Floden


MARCH 26, 2014 BY LEA FLODEN Interviews from Students at Top College Theatre Programs


How many are in your class (graduating class)? How many boys? How many girls?

There are eleven of us. (That’s right, eleven.) Eleven students in the class of 2017. There are 4 boys and 7 girls. But it’s different every year. Some of the higher classes have more boys than girls. It depends on the year. They pick who they want, and don’t seem to pay attention to how it breaks down.

Is your class supportive? Cut throat? Is your class like other classes on either side of you?

My class is very much like a family. We are all very supportive of each other– but a part of being family is being able to ask each other for what we need. It’s really nice to have a class where you can say, “I don’t want to talk to you right now,” or, “Look, I really need something right now.”We function really well together. The dynamics are always changing, but there is a large foundation of consistent support underneath it. We are a family. And we function as a unit. Other classes seem to have the same family feeling.

How much pressure do you feel?

I do feel pressure to do well, but not because it’s thrust upon me. I feel the pressure because I want to get as much as I can out of my experience here. It would be stupid not to. There is so much expertise here. Plus, I don’t want to disappoint my teachers. They help us to learn to not want to disappoint ourselves. They let us know there’s always further to go. I want to thrive in this program. Partly because they have taught me to want to thrive. They have set up the atmosphere, where I want to thrive.

What is the atmosphere? Process oriented? Result oriented? Both?

I would say the program at Penn State is a mix of being both process oriented and result oriented. The faculty really takes everything step by step, but what’s ahead of us is always in sight. They let us know what is expected a few years down the road, and tell us what will be happening then, what we will then know because of what we are doing now. They are very clear about the length and structure of the program, and what time certain things should be happening within that program. They work with you to get where you are going.

Is it highly competitive? Nurturing? Both?

It’s very nurturing. Five of my classmates are currently in the departmental musical, and I’m not. But it’s not at all weird or disappointing. In this department, it doesn’t feel like we’re competing. We all just are where we are in developing our craft. If we are right for something, we are. If we’re not, we are not. It’s great.

What is a typical day like?

For freshman, the order of a typical day looks like this:

A. Ballet or movement. B. Gen Ed– whatever you want to take to fulfill that C. Musical Theatre Class (type varies) D. Design Class (right now, we have stage design). E. Acting After that, we hurry to the practice rooms, to practice our piano, voice, etc. Freshman year, we tech a show at night.

What is a typical week like?

DANCE: Days are divided between Actor Movement and Ballet. (The two advanced ballet dancers go to Ballet 5 days a week, the rest of us have three days of ballet and two of movement.)

MUSICAL THEATRE: Days are divided between Form & Analysis and Voice Class–

DESIGN: We do different design classes different semesters. (This semester we have a stage design class. It is not weighted as heavily as our main three components. )

ACTING: This is the longest class, 2:30-4:30 twice a week.

What acting techniques do you study?

We do a ton of Meisner– Whether you are doing the straight two year Meisner program depends on which teacher you have. My regular teacher changes it up. He is working right now, and our sub tends to do straight up two year Meisner.

In Voice and Movement class, we’re doing Linklater Work and Fitzmaurice Voice Work. We have Script Analysis classes as well.

What are voice classes like? Do you have group and individual? What do you do in them? We have one private and one group lesson a week.

Our group lessons are designed for us to be able to bring in new work that we want help with. Or we can bring something that we want our peers to see us doing, to get comfy with an audition piece in front of people, for example. It’s just your eleven fellow class members, and they can give you feedback in a very regulated and organized non confrontational way.

We also have Voice Forum every Friday, where we can go to perform or to watch other singers from MT and the vocal department, Every week they have a a different voice faculty member working with us. It’s nice, because you can go there to get help from a teacher that isn’t your regular teacher.

Do you have sight singing? Music theory?

Yes, I love sight singing. Again, Dan is amazing. He will teach you how to sight sing in a new fun way. It just makes sense. It’s magical.

Does your school focuses on a classical sound?Contemporary? Belt?

The voice training at Penn State has everything- classical and contemporary. I believe we are one of the last musical theatre programs to have a strong classical program. A lot of musical theatre BFA’s have traded that in for more soft contemporary stuff. They actually held a meeting with us, and talked about this, then asked for our opinions.

They asked, “Should we get with the times or do you like the classical training?” We all agreed that we wanted the classical stuff. We each do two art songs per semester till we graduate. And that has as much importance and emphasis as our musical theatre repertoire.

In what ways has your voice changed because of your voice teacher?

It is stronger and I have a lot bigger range. It is also easier. More consistent.

What are dance classes like? How many options in terms of level and style? In our class, all but two of us were put into beginning ballet. We had all had a lot of ballet, but they wanted to focus on the details of our technique.

What is the focus in terms of styles? Is your dance training classically based? Jazz based?

After freshman year, you take jazz, tap and style– and then you take that all the way through senior year.

Are other styles taught? Hip hop? Contemporary?

There is no hip hop or contemporary dance within the musical theatre program, but that is the advantage of studying at a big university. There is a strong dance department apart from our program, so if you want to take hip hop or contemporary, you can.

Is there a significant tap program?

YES. I’ve heard the teacher is amazing, but I don’t know her yet.

Do you have theatre theory classes? Theatre history? Theatre Literature?


What styles of theatre are represented in play selection? In class, we read it all. Theatre 100 was basic theatre history– we read all kinds of things from absurdist– musicals– The Antigone Project. In terms of productions, there are always a lot of shows going on at once.

How hard is it to get cast in plays?

Right now five of the eleven freshmen are in Into the Woods.

What other performance opportunities are there? Do you have time for them?

There is always a lot going on, so even if you are not cast in something in the actual department, there are numerous student groups. You can make time if you want to. It’s hard, though. You have to be really motivated and have all your other stuff in check. Remember that when you get out of class, you go to the practice rooms to practice piano and voice. And then you go home and work. They make you motivated. Which means very long days.

Who are your favorite teachers? Tell us about them.

Penn State has an entire faculty of miracle workers. I could go on and on about each of them. But here are a few—

Dan Riddle is the theory teacher and also music directs shows. He is first of all a genius. I’ve always had trouble with theory, but he makes it so understandable. He knows how to break it down, and he’s just such a really super good teacher. And he’s also just a very cool person, very understanding. He’s the kind of person you want to be around, and that makes him the kind of teacher you want. Can’t say enough good things.

Bev Patton is my voice teacher. She, knows so much about the voice. When I observe her working with other people, I see how quickly things change for them. She gets in there and just immediately knows what they need. Consistently.

Cary Libkin is the director of the program. I have him for freshman musical theatre form and analysis. (It includes musical theatre history. Plus we read musical scripts and discuss why they worked and why they didn’t.) He is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He has a lot of insight into the art of musical theatre and really lets you look at the intellectual side of it rather than studying just the shiny fun side.

How consistent is the faculty? Are the changes constant, or is it fairly stable? Is it too stable? Faculty is pretty stable. Acting teachers sometimes get work and have to leave- but other faculty members sub when they are away, so the subs are always awesome. Voice teachers are very consistent. They are the backbone of the department.

How old is the faculty? How experienced?

All of the faculty is incredibly experienced but they are very humble, too– they don’t really talk about it. So sometimes things will come out– like Dan will reference doing something with Sondheim and you’re like, ” Wait. Did you just say that Sondheim held your baby?”

All the faculty have been working a long time– and a lot of them have had a ton of schooling as well, doctorates and such.

How much contact do you have with the star faculty? I did have class with Susan Schulman last week– Students usually get her junior year. But Cary was doing Unifieds last week, so she came and taught our musical theater form and analysis class, and she’s just brilliant.

What is your living situation like? Do you room with theatre folk? What is the food like? I live in the nice dorms. Most theatre people do. They are little suites. I don’t live with theatre people, but some of the girls in my class live together. They are the best dorms on campus, but with the worst food. It’s funny. Most dorms have not such great dorm situations but, awesome food. It’s not that far to walk to other dorms to eat, though. I rarely eat at my actual commons.

What is the town like?

This town is super cute, and really easy to get around– just like a cute college town. It’s adorable.

How often do you get into the city? Do you feel connected to it? I personally haven’t been, except for the once. Once a year, there is a class trip. We all go together. We see shows and have master classes. I know that people in my class go in on a regular basis, though, so it’s easily accessible.

What do you love about your program choice?

I love everything.

What do you wish potential students knew about it, that they might not?

It’s an amazing program, and really is on a par with the other so-called “top” programs. Sometimes, people tend to overlook Penn State, or think of it as, “that other program” that isn’t one of those top tier ones. Or they overlook it because it’s a state school. But the potential for growth here is amazing. The program itself is very small, and rigorous. And the teachers are miraculous! Truly, everything is really good. When friends in other programs complain to me what’s happening where they are, I say, “Whoop, well, that doesn’t happen here.” Here, they are interested in building our skills. Making us the best possible musical theatre artists. Period.

What makes your school special? What else would you like us to know about it?

Here is a really special thing about Penn. They take in people who are not perfect. In the auditions, they are looking for that whiff of talent and for people who are willing to learn. You go in imperfect, but talented, and by the end of the four years, you are a completely different performer and person.

The transformations that happen in the musical theatre department are insane. When I look at the seniors now, and hear the stories about the freshmen that they WERE, it’s difficult to understand how they can be so amazing.

That is something I really love about this place– They take you in because there is something good in you, and then they actually have a plan to build your skill. They see that you have something, and they take that something and they make it grow.

It may just be a weird coincidence but when people in my class told each other how our auditions went, we had all messed up in some way. I went in the wrong door and interrupted Cary talking to someone. I remember thinking, “That’s it, I’m out.”

One of my friends tripped on her way in. But they want to see what you do in those moments. A lot of us who got in made mistakes in our auditions.

Is there anything you would like people to know about the college musical theatre? When my class arrived at Penn State, we all thought we were serious dancers. We had been dancing for years, and when we almost all got put into Ballet 1, we were all like, “Excuse me why aren’t we in advanced ballet??” We didn’t realize how important basic technique is– and how much there is to learn.

Getting the basics is everything. You can only build on a solid foundation. At Penn State, freshmen only take ballet. And all but two of us take basic ballet. This levels the playing field for everyone, but it also ensure that all of us have the same solid technique foundation. This is crucial.

And here’s another thing about (most) college programs. Coming in as a freshman, there will be a place where you think you know best. What I now know is this. They know what you need– so get over it!

#PennState #musicaltheatre #collegeauditions #musicaltheatreBFAS #musictheatreauditions #BFAauditions #theatreBFAs

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