How to Get Into American Conservatory Theater’s MFA Program

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

While not every performer wants or needs an MFA, getting one may be essential to the career you’re looking to have. So what do you need to know? There are dozens of programs across the U.S., but San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater offers one of the very best. As its name implies, the MFA program is attached to a professional theater, so students get to see and interact with working professionals during their three years of study. Danyon Davis, the head of movement at ACT, and Lisa Anne Porter, the head of voice and dialects, explain what they look for in a graduate class, as well as what you should know about pursuing an MFA no matter where you decide to go.

“Actors learn by acting. Acting is a lot like any other mode of expertise; you have to put in your 10,000 hours, and the conservatory is the best context to do that in.”—Danyon Davis

What can a student gain from the MFA program at ACT?
Danyon Davis: We’re looking to really elevate the artists that join us; we want to elevate their artistry. We want to help them to be proficient in any mode of acting, make them better collaborators, and make them better contributors to their community. 

Lisa Anne Porter: We are in a unique position because we are a working theater; it’s a permeable cell wall between us and the main stage so that our students really get firsthand exposure to what it means to create theater. They work on the main stage, they understudy the main stage at times, and they’re in the building and in the world of a working theater, so they’re constantly seeing what they’re training to do. Especially in these times, they’re seeing how we can pivot and turn with them and what it means to be an artist.

What makes ACT stand out from other programs?
DD: Actors learn by acting. Acting is a lot like any other mode of expertise; you have to put in your 10,000 hours, and the conservatory is the best context to do that in. We feel that actors learn the best by doing plays. There are all kinds of conservatories you can go to around the country, but we’re really unique in that you’re always doing plays in an overall context that is right next to professionals doing plays. We’re a linchpin in the West Coast corridor of professional theaters—certainly here in the Bay Area—along with Berkeley Rep. We really bring the best theater artists from around the area under the auspices of our organization. You’re going to be able to come to ACT, [and] you’re going to be able to work on your artistry and continue to develop yourself as an actor by working alongside other professional artists.

What are some indicators that a person is ready for this type of training?
LAP: They need to think about what it is that they want to do; and if they want to teach, it could be helpful. If they feel that they as an artist need more training, they should really look at the program and go, “What is it that I feel I need to learn, and how do I need to grow? Does this particular program seem to offer that?” It’s somebody who is very interested in any medium but is also very interested in being in live theater, because that’s what’s going to set us apart from most of the other programs. More generally, they really should think about where they feel they need to grow. What is it that they want to do? And then look for a program that’s going to give them that opportunity.

In a normal year, what is the process for applying to the program, auditioning, and getting in?
DD: In a normal year, we have an audition tour. They share monologues, and there’s also an essay component to it—questions that they have to write and answer. Then we have a callback weekend where they get exposed to a lot of what’s happening around the theater in a real-time scenario: They get to see rehearsal, meet with different staff members around the theater, see different productions that are happening, and see different parts of the city as well. And we get to see them interact with each other and the greater community within ACT, which does include our staff people but also the people who support us—our audiences and our community.

READ: 3 Things to Consider Before
Committing to an MFA Program

LAP: In the initial audition, they do two pieces. And then usually right after the morning session and right after the afternoon session, we do a callback and spend about an hour with them when, usually, they will do another piece for us or possibly one of the two that they did. 

And then they’ll also sing a little bit for us. We may do some sort of group exercise, and then we sit down and talk with them. From that group, we pull together a callback group that we bring back to San Francisco at the end of the entire process. So for auditions, they definitely want to have a third piece and to be able to sing. 

“If it’s meant to work out, it’ll work out. We’re deciding whether we should work together. You should come in as yourself and really be yourself. If we’re the people for you, we’ll see it and you’ll see it.” —Lisa Anne Porter

What are you looking for in the people that you end up working with?
LAP: We’re looking for the beginning of someone flexible with an instrument that can be trained, that can go through the movements and the voice work. In the room, does someone come in and, in their audition, give us a sense of who they are? The piece that they chose and them doing it—it isn’t them playing, necessarily, a character; it’s them revealing a little bit of who they are as a human being. We are really creating an ensemble of 12 or 13 people who need to work together and be able to create a great learning space together. So we want to know if they are generous and open and interested in other people. It’s not just each actor in the group; the group itself is going to go through the three years together, and they really can be a critical force in supporting one another.

DD: There’s definitely an aspect of their artistic point of view, which is important in terms of the material that they choose, but also in their approach. Oftentimes a student will think that they have to be perfect, or they work on these monologues to the point where they try to get it letter-perfect. What we’re looking for is someone who has the capacity to work from moment to moment to stay, as we call it, on action. These are things that we can develop in the course of the training, but [we] look for their initial instinct in making strong choices as an actor. It’s easier to take away and edit a strong choice than it is to generate something. We do definitely want to make sure that they are people we want to be looking forward to spending three years with. Do they have an affability, and do they have a curiosity about others and the world? How are they trying to make an impact in the world with their artistry?

What type of preparation or training should prospective students have or not have
LAP: We can usually tell when somebody’s audition has been heavily coached. I think it’s great to get used to doing their pieces for people, and I think that there are some coaches who are really good at helping students find pieces that are good for them in a genuine way. A good coach will possibly help them with that, and a good coach would help them be free. What the coach is not doing is, like a director, sculpting every moment of the audition. We can see [when] that’s happening. It makes me think that I actually don’t know who you are because what I’m seeing is sculpted choices. If we ask you to make a shift in the room, someone who has an extremely sculpted piece has a really hard time taking new direction and shifting in the room, and that will definitely not serve them. They need to choose pieces that they love. They need to know them well enough that they could take lots of different pieces of direction with them, that they haven’t set the blocking so firmly that that’s the only way they can do the piece. And if people are thinking, I have this audition season coming up, I think that really getting into movement classes and voice classes, speaking voice classes, just extending their training so that they’re always training their instrument to be flexible and available and relaxed and energized and all of those things will only serve them in the audition process.

DD: It’s not just knowing the speech; it’s knowing the play. I’ve been in scenarios where people will come in to audition and, when asked about the play, the person who’s auditioning doesn’t really know the context of the play. They knew the speech from top to bottom but not the full context of the play. Just make sure that the work is informed.

READ: 5 Tips for Finding the Right
MFA Program

What advice do you have for prospective students?
DD: If you’re seeking advice, you want to get advice from someone who has walked the path that you see yourself heading down. I think some of the best advice that I’ve ever gotten is that you should always seek to go where you’re celebrated and not stay where you’re tolerated. And also, you always have the job. This goes for auditioning for conservatories, but also auditioning in the professional world. You always have the job until you don’t. When you cross the threshold, the people who are evaluating you want you to be the person. You are the person that we are waiting for.

LAP: If it’s meant to work out, it’ll work out. We’re deciding whether we should work together. You should come in as yourself and really be yourself. If we’re the people for you, we’ll see it and you’ll see it. I think sometimes people in an audition feel they need to present themselves in a certain way [so] that they look better than they are or more professional than they are, and all of those things are really going to get in the way. The more that they can walk in and really be themselves—if it’s a match, it’ll be a great match.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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