Everything You Need to Know About the Old Globe & USD Shiley Graduate Theatre Program

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Photo Source: Daren Scott

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!

Since its founding in 1987, the Old Globe and the University of San Diego’s joint venture, the Shiley Graduate Theatre program, has established itself as one of the nation’s very finest means of classical training. Program director Jesse Perez answered our Reaching Higher questionnaire to reveal all you need to know about what goes into the curriculum for graduate students, how to apply, and what makes an auditioning performer stand out from the pack. (Acceptance, after all, is capped at just seven students annually.) 

What makes your graduate program different from other top-performing arts programs in the country? Walk us through it: What are its guiding tenets, and what’s it all about?

The Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre program is a joint venture of the Old Globe and the University of San Diego. The master of fine arts in acting program recruits seven students each year to participate in an intensive two-year, year-round course of graduate study in classical and contemporary theater. The master of fine arts program utilizes, as primary training tools, the professional performance opportunities at the Old Globe and studio productions at the University of San Diego. Students have performance assignments continuously throughout the program, and their work is carefully mentored by voice and speech, movement, and acting faculty advisors. We strive to be a classical professional training program where all in our community can find a safe space, bring their complete selves, and find the freedom and support to take artistic risks. We believe that a 21st-century classical acting program is one that is in concurrent conversation with innovative actors of all backgrounds, the cultural history of where we come from, and the future possibilities of the American theater. 

Since I started the job of program director two years ago, we have been making strides in redefining “classical.” This is a place where we are and will [continue to] have transparent conversation, debate, and discourse about the classical and contemporary theater canon. Why Shakespeare? Why now? What is our American Shakespeare for the 21st century? This is the beginning of our journey, our laboratory, our experience, our investigation as artists to challenge, inspire, teach, and learn from each other about who we are, who we were, and where we will go. We are also making EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) training a core value of our program and are learning how to practice anti-racist theater-making. We are very interested in best practices moving forward.

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

Each student accepted into the professional actor training program is awarded a full-tuition scholarship from the university and Darlene Shiley, as well as a monthly stipend from the Globe. Financial support granted to each student exceeds $90,000. With only seven actors in each class, an exceptional amount of personal attention is given to the student’s individual training needs. Academic credit earned through performance work at the Globe enables the University of San Diego to award its master of fine arts degree after only two years of study.

Students will demonstrate the ability to apply the fundamentals of different techniques to heightened language and contemporary vernacular. This comes from a belief that there is no fixed system that can lay claim to the whole truth about acting. The faculty’s goal is to bring out the unique gifts of each student by using many techniques to accomplish this outcome.

Students will exhibit an increased proficiency at combining full breath support, the connection of imagery to rich vocal resonation and articulation, and an open emotional life when speaking texts for the stage. It is a journey that is about encouraging the creation of a personal process of vocal technique interpretation. As a resource to be used for the exploration of text and character relationships, students will become proficient at applying a variety of physical techniques to transform the body and create a base for a healthy, imaginative physical relationship [to] performance. Students will develop skills for analyzing and interpreting dramatic texts, researching literary sources, and referencing stage history as fundamental tools to inspire performance work. Through their work in production at the university and the Old Globe Theatre, students will develop a clear understanding and appreciation for professional behavior, artistry, community, and healthy industry practices. For [a] more in-depth, detailed curriculum, you can view each year via our website

To apply for our program, applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited and approved institution. The degree does not need to be in theater. International students are welcome to apply to the MFA program.

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

Typically, we audition in NYC, San Diego, Chicago, [and] San Francisco. And as soon as safely possible, Atlanta is a city we have our eye on for the audition tour. This year, all auditions were via Zoom. We had many applicants! The audition consists of two two-minute contrasting monologues, one Shakespeare and one contemporary. Additional monologues may be requested at the time of your audition. [There is] no singing or dance audition. Then, we have a short conversation about your work, why you want to attend this graduate program, who are you as an artist, etc.

The advice I would love to give any artist auditioning for graduate programs is: Come in prepared to play and investigate the work right in front of us. I am greatly interested in artists who are on the verge of discovery and are engaging the full capacity of their imagination. What that means is taking risks with the material, full commitment, the ability to be curious, [and] transparency [about] where you are in your process as an artist. I am interested in the artist standing in front of me. The more the artists are themselves, the more I’m pulled in. And this means artists of all backgrounds, cultures, gender identities, sexualities, classes, and abilities.

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

Curiosity. Playfulness. Empowerment. Confidence. Vulnerability. Irreverence. Highly imaginative. Adventurous actors who are ready to grow and transform. Someone who is fully present and flexible in a rehearsal hall. Actors who are ready to participate in conversation and debate about our work and expanding our vision of the American theater, helping us lead the way to becoming a more inclusive training program. Actors who want to build ensembles and support their communities. Actors ready to wrestle with Shakespeare and find themselves in heightened text. Actors who want to be leaders in the profession.

What performance showcase options do you have for graduates? When, where, and for whom do your students perform? What’s required?

Because the mission of the program is to provide students with the skills necessary to pursue successful acting careers, every effort is made to facilitate the transition into the profession. The program’s showcase presentations in New York and Los Angeles are a way to launch our graduates into the industry and help them establish acting careers in theater, film, television, voiceover, and commercial work. With the pandemic, we provide many options to the graduating class, in accordance with safety protocols, for how they would like to share their work with the industry. This year, the graduating class will be filming their scenes, self-tapes, and monologues to create a virtual showcase. We will be sending out a link to industry professionals with all the resources they will need to meet our students all in one place online. We also have many industry professionals teaching audition workshops and guiding our students in how they want to present themselves to the industry. We help the start of their career or a reintroduction to a career already in process by inviting and introducing our students to agents, casting directors, directors, showrunners, commercial agents, and managers.

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

I look for work professionally that inspires me and challenges me to grow as an artist, so I suggest the same for a student looking for the right program. Look for a program that fits your desired trajectory as an artist. Not only do you have to fit the program, the program has to fit you. I think students interested in graduate programs need to examine the curriculum and quality of faculty. Does this program’s work inspire and excite you? Will you grow with the curriculum offered? Can you have an honest, direct conversation with the faculty about the work? For global majority [BIPOC] students, I would say: investigate, thoroughly, what the program is doing for you and how they will support you specifically. Do you see yourself represented and valued at that institution? This is extremely important for the self-care of an artist. A program should uplift and challenge you, not diminish your artistry or who you are.

What’s one thing that all performers thinking about studying the performing arts at the graduate level should know before pursuing a degree?

Graduate programs built on the conservatory model are an extremely intensive and dedicated span of time for each individual artist to passionately investigate who they are, were, and will be. This requires a strong sense of self-examination and courage. The desire to learn and fail as an individual and an ensemble are a must, knowing that they’re working in a laboratory setting. It also requires financial resourcefulness and a dedicated time commitment to classes, workshops, rehearsals, final projects, and performance. Graduate programs across the country are all finding ways to make education more cost-effective and sometimes even debt-free for students. However, it requires financial planning on behalf of the student. It’s an investment that hopefully becomes clear as you enter your profession of choice. A graduate program like ours, with free tuition and a very active two years of education, is an investment in yourself and your artistry. A commitment to grow, passion to endure. The foundation you build in a graduate program is for the longevity of a professional artistic career.

In what ways has your program adapted to the restrictions and demands of the coronavirus pandemic? Are there any big-picture ways the curriculum has been changed for good in the future?

I think we have looked at this time during the pandemic as an opportunity to explore other ways and possibilities to work, in search of new forms, rather than restrictions or limitations. Limitations are sometimes the key to creativity, and one thing I know is artists adjust. We have produced a majority of our production schedule with the addition of new technology to our theatrical vocabulary. We have engaged with Zoom, webinars, OBS, Instagram Live, and Twitch. How can we continue to grow as theatrical artists within the framework of Zoom, HD cameras, and other devices and platforms? The artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit, Sam White, directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” via Zoom for our fall Shakespeare production—that usually would be performed at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at the Old Globe. This virtual production that streamed for a little over two weeks had full production support from the Old Globe and was the Old Globe’s most viewed online production thus far. It was also viewed by many public schools in San Diego and Detroit with the help of Arts Engagement. We brought Shakespeare to many students that would have never had the opportunity to see this production. So many more people had access to our program during this unprecedented time. We’ve also had access to so many more guest artists because of Zoom. Our guest artist roster almost doubled during this time. We have invited many BIPOC women artists to join our program.

The pandemic also brought on a very necessary social justice reckoning and the work of acknowledgement, atonement, and action for the USD/Old Globe program. My goals as a BIPOC leader, when I arrived in this position two years ago, was to bring more diversity, equity, and inclusion to the then 32-year-old, predominately white institution. We are evaluating and changing curriculum to support every student in our program. What are we teaching, how are we teaching it, and why? We are prioritizing the hiring of BIPOC faculty. Our faculty, staff, and students all participate in EDI and bystander training throughout the year. This past year, students had the opportunity to work with a wide range of professionals for production and class: Madeline Sayet, Sam White, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, James Vasquez, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, PlayOn Shakespeare, Taibi Magar, Amrita Ramanan, Sean San Jose, David Anzuelo, Rocio Mendez, Whitney White, Mark Brokaw, and Stephanie DiMaggio—to name a few. You can also view on our website where we are headed for the next five years in our evolving Social Justice Action Plan. We are also having ongoing conversations on gender and gender identity; we encourage gender diversity in our program and will work to ensure our spaces are safe and welcoming for all genders and gender identities. It is also important that all LGBTQIA+ and trans persons are respectfully included in program structure and decision-making.

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

Take care of yourselves. As the lights start to turn on in the theater, make sure you come back at the speed of safety. The craft of acting is difficult, and you are required to explore the full spectrum of the human experience. Know your stretch zone and don’t go any further. Your art should not cause you harm. We know the world pre-pandemic, but we don’t know post. We are making our way out of a pandemic and have to move forward together. I believe there’s a renaissance coming, and we have to ride the wave of creativity and new stories that will emerge. I also tell my students to fight for their stories, because we need them now more than ever. We are also amongst a new community that survived so there is no longer a separation between performer and audience, we are all one. I dream and hope for a more inclusive theater for everyone. The work begins at the education level.

Anything else you’d like to highlight?

We are in the midst of new hires for our program. We are seeking professional professors of practice that are helping build the future of the American theater at our program. We believe in a classical theater for the 21st century. We want to build theater for everyone.

This story originally appeared in the May 13 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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