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!
With its centennial just a few years away, the Theatre School at DePaul University (founded in 1925) is about as established as you can get in the world of higher education and the performing arts. Speaking with the school’s assistant dean Jason Beck in our craft and training Reaching Higher questionnaire, he explains just what gives the program its decades-spanning staying power.
One of the main tenets of the Theatre School is learning by doing and providing every student equal and guaranteed experience in our production process. That is why we produce more than 30 plays each year. It’s very important to us that every student gets the experience every quarter to take their learning from the classroom and put into practical experience within the production process. Our actors are cast in a minimum of seven shows in their four years with us, and that does not even include additional productions they may participate in within our student-produced activity. We keep ourselves and our students very busy.
Our Chicago location is also an important component of the experience for our students and has a big influence on our program. The Chicago theater community serves as an extended classroom where our students get the opportunity to see and experience a vast array of theater as part of their education. Our faculty can remain working professionals without needing to leave town or miss classes, and we get to draw upon the wealth of talented professionals in the city as adjunct faculty, guest artists, guest directors, etc. Ultimately, this means our students get exposure to a wide variety of teachers beyond just our full-time faculty.
Every actor has an acting class, a voice and speech class, a movement class, and a production assignment every quarter. Sometimes there may be multiples of these classes in a quarter depending on where they are in the training. We begin the program with a year of exploration where students get to really dig into who they are as actors and what they bring into the work–their imagination, their physicality, their voice. This first year is really about opening up access to these parts of themselves and identifying and addressing any unhelpful habits that might be blocking full access to the whole self–that imagination, physicality, or voice. The second and third years are then about providing them an array of tools—the technique—to empower them and provide the confidence within this work that they need to be successful as actors for whatever path they may be on for their careers—stage, screen, voiceover, etc. The final year is focused on making the transition to being a working professional actor with a focus on networking, auditioning, and the business of being an actor.
Our audition involves an initial video prescreen and then a live callback with a small team of our faculty. The prescreen asks actors to submit two contrasting one-minute monologues and a third video that is a response to one of a few prompts we provide. This last piece is a chance for us to see a bit of the actor’s humanity and personality.
Actors that pass the prescreen are then invited to a live callback which we do with groups of actors to approximate our class environment. That callback lasts a few hours and is meant to emulate some of the student training experience. We take the group through a demo class to both warm them up but also see their work in an ensemble environment. We also have them do one of their monologues as part of the class just like we would in an acting class with our current students. We then partner actors up and provide them short scenes that we work with them on in a rehearsal process and finish with short individual interviews. Our hope is that the applicant walks away with as much information about us—how we work and what the experience of the Theatre School will be like—as we do in terms of what kind of fit that actor is for our program.
We look for actors who have a strong imagination and an ability to both access that imagination in the work but also connect it to physical and vocal expressiveness. It’s also important to us that actors can thrive in an ensemble environment and be a strong and supportive partner to other actors in the work. We also are interested in actors with an entrepreneurial drive and who have a strong sense of their own identity within the work.
Our Graduate Showcase is a class that’s taken in the final year and develops both an online portfolio and a live showcase performance of scenes that we present in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. We also wrap a number of alumni and industry networking opportunities around the Grad Showcase—both the class and the performances themselves—to give our actors a chance to make connections and learn about the industry in each of these major markets.
I think focusing on the right school for them is the most important component of the search. There are so many options, both in [terms of] locations but also how programs are structured. I really think students need to first focus on what is important to them about the experience and be really honest about what type of environment will allow them to thrive. A conservatory like ours is definitely not the right choice for every actor, depending on what they want as part of their experience. If a student craves an intensive training environment in a large urban cultural center, they should definitely consider us. Other students may find our intensive training too restrictive if they have other academic goals or may not be interested in a big city campus. The good thing is that there are a lot of good options all over the country; they just have to be really honest about where they might individually thrive.
The performing arts can be a rewarding career but can also lead students in directions they may never have considered. Our skills and abilities as storytellers are highly sought after in many fields—probably now more than ever before as our world has become so focused on content in so many forms. There are so many opportunities, but actors have to be willing and able to both put in the work but also iterate and adapt to take advantage of opportunities or, and actually maybe more importantly, create opportunities for themselves.
We have had to be flexible and really have an imagination about how to adapt and still achieve the learning goals for our students. Luckily, I think that theater artists are probably better equipped for this adaptation than anyone. It is really what we do all the time: make magic from whatever we have available, right? Last spring, we had very little time, so it was really about: How do we shift what we had planned to an online or virtual environment? We made the decision pretty early on to stay online for our fall quarter, which allowed us the time and space to really have faculty rethink what our classes could look like in this situation. Sometimes that meant different ways of teaching. Sometimes that meant changing the learning goals for this quarter to better lean into and take advantage of the online platform. We also shifted our planned production season into our winter and spring quarters with the hope that we would be able to return to some in-person work by then. But we also created a new festival of all online devised work for the fall so that our community could still engage in making and telling stories together and gain experience trying new forms of storytelling.
I think that we all have to focus less on what is lost in this time and really take the opportunity to explore what new possibilities we can discover for doing our work under the current circumstances. It is not like once the pandemic ends that these tools will go away. There are some very exciting things happening in the online and virtual platforms. It is also a powerful way to reach audiences you might never have reached before.
The Theatre School offers 15 undergraduate degree programs in all aspects of theater. Our newest programs include BFA programs in comedy arts, projection design, and wig and makeup design, and technology. Therefore, our students really create their professional networks the day they arrive on campus as they are working alongside and collaborating with writers, directors, administrators, designers, and technicians, who will become their life-long collaborators.
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