Everything You Need to Know About the CalArts School of Theater

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Photo Source: Courtesy of CalArts

We’re profiling the best performing arts programs in the U.S. and beyond with Reaching Higher, our inaugural questionnaire series diving deep on all things higher education: What should you look for when choosing the right school for you? What do college admissions pros want from their freshman class? What opportunities await students during their studies and post-graduation? Learn everything you need to know right here!

Located in sunny Santa Clarita, California, the California Institute of the Arts was the first college or university in the U.S. dedicated specifically to degree-granting curriculums for students of visual and performing arts. Priding itself today as “one of the preeminent theater training grounds in the country,” the school is worthy of making any prospective performing arts student’s shortlist. Travis Preston, artistic director fo the CalArts Center for New Performance and the dean of the CalArts School of Theater, responds to our Reaching Higher questionnaire below. If you’ve got questions, he’s got answers. 

What makes your program different from other top performing arts programs in the country?

CalArts continues to evolve as a singular place in which theater students train alongside filmmakers, animators, dancers, musicians, writers, and critical thinkers who constantly expand their creativity and professional pursuits. World-class faculty and staff continue to revolutionize theater training across a wide variety of platforms and opportunities. The graduating actors showcase and voiceover showcases, available to stream online, enable our students to be engaged directly by numerous industry professionals. David Hollander, showrunner of “Ray Donovan,” personally led a team of Hollywood casting directors in an extraordinary workshop for all CalArts actors. Our Experience Design and Production faculty have likewise developed innovative classes and professional partnerships, including Walt Disney Imagineering. These ongoing developments have resulted in the emergence of our recent alumni succeeding increasingly across a wide array of fields in the performing arts.

Walk us through your program: What are its guiding tenets and what’s it all about?

Dedicated to the development of new voices and forms, the CalArts School of Theater is one of the preeminent theater training centers in the country. The school’s goal is to educate the whole person, forging a community of citizen artists fully equipped to enter and transform the field. Students are encouraged to build professional experiences and relationships, as we create various opportunities for them to realize effective careers after graduation. The CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP), the Institute’s professional producing arm, embodies our commitment to open such possibilities, providing students with hands-on professional experience well beyond the conventional academic approach.

What can students expect each year to look like at your college or university? What are the core requirements for graduation?

The Performance Program focuses on rigorous classes in acting, voice, speech, movement, and theatrical production—augmented by a wide range of performance and production experiences—and tailored to the individual needs of the student. First-year students explore significant texts across a vast landscape of the American canon. The second year is devoted to the study of classical world texts. The third year engages modern dramatic classics as well as contemporary cinema, poetry, and other narrative sources. The third and fourth years are devoted to on-camera technique as well as advanced scene study. Throughout their training, students work on defining, developing, and deepening their craft and individual vision. 

The Experience Design and Production Program exposes students to a variety of collaborative practices including live performance, film, dance, themed entertainment, immersive environments, as well as social and civic entrepreneurship. The first year lays the foundation for future exploration into the métier(s) of one’s choice. In subsequent semesters, students specialize in one or more of the following areas: costume design, experience design/themed entertainment, lighting design, scene design, sound design, stage management, and technical direction. Curriculum is designed to provide students with the skills necessary to advance in their particular métier, while allowing the flexibility for them to follow their individual goals and artistic impulses.

All students are required to pass a mid-residence and graduation review in order to complete the program and obtain their degree.

What does your audition process typically look like? What do incoming prospective students need to prepare? What advice do you have for the audition room?

In a typical year, prospective students register for an in-person audition with faculty after completing the online application for admission. Auditions consist of two monologues, one Shakespeare and one contemporary, each up to two minutes in length. Faculty may work with students in the room, or ask them to perform a third monologue. In the current pandemic, CalArts will be accepting taped audition submissions. A select number of applicants will be invited to attend a virtual callback with faculty following submission. 

We encourage students to remember that the pieces they select to audition with are an indication of their taste and type of work they want to explore in college. Students should choose audition pieces they personally connect to, not just those which showcase their technical proficiency.

What are some of the main qualities you look for in your incoming class?

We are looking for artists with agency and students passionate to become citizen artists. Our students are storytellers looking to impact their artistic and civic communities, and grow as collaborators across a myriad of creative forms.

Do you have a performance showcase for graduating seniors? When, where, and for whom do your students perform? What’s required?

As part of the transition from their training to the professional world, graduating CalArts BFA and MFA actors present their annual showcase in New York and Los Angeles. The showcase affords students the opportunity to perform before industry professionals—including agents, managers, casting directors, producers, directors, and various creative professionals—presenting scenes and monologues from both published and original works. The work is also shot, edited, and presented online to maximize the visibility of our graduates’ wide range of talents and singular artistry. Additionally, the CalArts School of Theater is thrilled to be the first actor training program in the country to have a fully realized voiceover showcase. This extraordinary partnership with ProADR Looping & Voice Casting embraces voiceover as a crucial facet of the professional actor’s career. These experiences launch our graduates into an exciting professional landscape and have produced countless opportunities.

What advice do you have for students to narrow down their search? How can they find the right school for them?

In selecting a program, you are embarking on an incredible artistic journey, through which you will become the pioneer of your own artistic expression. Look for a community where you will be challenged and nurtured to build the artistry and skills needed to sustain a professional life in the arts. The training at CalArts is singular in many ways, but most importantly in that we are committed to helping you discover your individual artistic self. Experimentation, innovation, adaptation, and resiliency are at the heart of a life in the arts.

What’s one thing that all high schoolers thinking about studying the performing arts should know before pursuing a degree?

Developing your artistic voice is more essential than ever. We cannot stress enough that theater training is rigorous (physically, intellectually, and emotionally), and you need to be prepared to bring 100% of yourselves to the work.

In what ways is your program adapting to the restrictions and demands of the coronavirus pandemic?

As a community of forward-thinking creators, CalArts has been singularly able to adapt to the current season. Our faculty discovered new and creative ways to engage their students and use this time to deepen their training and professional development. In addition to the David Hollender audition initiative, notable alumni and guest artists have joined remote classes—among them Don Cheadle, Nataki Garrett (Artistic Director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and Helen Hunt. This school year will also afford faculty and students the opportunity to dedicate more concerted energy to essential skills necessary to the 21st century theater artist—engagement with the camera, long-distance collaboration, self-producing/devising new work, program specific software, etc. These new developments promise long-term opportunities for our training model.

What advice do you have for students and performers during this particularly difficult and extraordinary time?

This year has revealed the increasing importance of being adaptable and forward-thinking, both as a citizen and as an artist. Now is the time to invest in your training with a renewed focus and depth of engagement. Now more than ever, artists must lead the way in a dynamic cultural landscape. 

Anything else you’d like to highlight?

The current environment invites us to embrace the creative potential of ensemble work in a more expansive and profound way. Working across disciplines and cultural boundaries, we are enfranchising our students to step beyond the traditional bounds of their given métier—highlighting our dedication to experimental practice and cross-cultural engagement.

Looking for remote work? Backstage has got you covered! Click here for auditions you can do from home!

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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