How the UNCSA School of Drama Prepares Undergraduate Actors for Broadway + Beyond

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

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Scott Zigler, the Dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, doesn’t want to convince you to apply to his undergraduate program. He just wants to convince you to apply to the right program for you. “There’s a lot of great programs and acting schools in this country, and there’s not one program that I think is right for every student,” he says. But sitting with him between a recent string of student auditions in New York City, and considering the slate of recent graduates taking over the New York theater scene (Isaac Powell in “West Side Story,” Rebecca Naomi Jones in last season’s “Oklahoma!” revival, David Thomas Brown in “The Book of Mormon,” and Jordan Boatman in “Medea” at BAM, to name a few), it quickly becomes evident that UNCSA should be on any student’s list of considerations. Here, Zigler walks us through the audition process (the School of Drama application deadline is coming up Feb. 3), what he looks for in prospective students, and how he feels the program especially prepares young actors for the real world.

How to Choose + Apply to an Acting College Program

Here’s exactly what UNCSA’s audition process looks like:
“We start every day with an hour-long information session. And the reason we do an information session is it’s never really our goal to sell a student on coming to our program. There’s a lot of great programs and acting schools in this country, and there’s not one program that I think is right for every student. So what we encourage students who are looking at acting programs to do is as much research as possible on every program they’re looking at. So our day starts with that hour-long information session because we want our applicants to know as much about our program as they can. When they come in the room, we do usually two or three minutes of chat with them, just basic information. Then we will do two or three monologues. The first two monologues, one will be contemporary, one will be classical. They will sing 16 bars for us. And then in some cases, we will ask them to do a third monologue. After that, we will usually chat with them for another three to five minutes. And the kinds of questions we’re asking is we wanna know why they’re looking at acting schools and specifically what do they hope they’ll get out of an acting school. Because different people are going for different reasons, and as I said, we want to make sure that what we’re offering is aligned with what the applicant is looking for.”

Auditioning actors should practice availability and flexibility.
“I would say that one major quality that we’re looking for [is] availability. One of the things that you can see in the audition process is people who have prepared their material in a very rigid manner versus people who seem to have more flexibility in the material and really are trying to play it anew each time they play it. And that sense of spontaneity, I think, is really important in terms of what makes an actor trainable. So for us, I think that’s a big part of what we’re looking at.”

The program’s newly implemented on-camera training is unlike any other.
“We just started trying a completely new approach to training our actors for on-camera work and we’re working with a gentleman who’s probably well-known to the Backstage audience, Bob Krakower, who’s one of the leaders in on-camera acting training. He has a studio here in New York that has about a two-year waiting list. But Bob and I have worked together for 30 years, and when I was given the position at UNCSA, I immediately went to Bob and said, ‘Rather than doing Monday nights or a two-week workshop, if you had four years of a conservatory, what would you do?’ And he has designed a four-year program where he comes to our campus three times a year and works with every year of students. So a student will come in as a freshman and have 12 different workshops with Bob by the time they leave, and that allows them to start with the foundations of working on-camera, but then to move into very specialized workshops so they’re able to do a specialized workshop just on self-taping, just on commercial auditioning. He does an incredible one just on working on procedurals. And by doing it over the course of the entire four years, what we’re doing is really trying to make it feel like an integrated part of the training rather than an addition to the training. And we don’t know of any other school that’s really doing it that way right now.”

Last year’s incoming class was majority non-white identifying students—diversity is a priority.
“Diversity is top-of-mind for us. Our most recent incoming class was 18 female-identifying students and 14 male-identifying students. And 19 of the 32 members of the class [are] non-white identifying. So we are very concerned about having a diverse population. But we also are aware that if you bring in a diverse population, one of the things that’s really important is diversifying the curriculum. We are really guided a lot by some of the things Toni Morrison had to say about how we should be approaching the canon, and we’re very much right now about trying to decolonize our curricula and to open it to non-European sources and to open it up to non-Western influences.”

Remember, actors: You’re the CEO of your own company. College can prepare you for taking the reins.
“One other thing that we’ve done with our curriculum that’s been an addition over the last few years is we’re actually now teaching entrepreneurship. And we encourage students before they leave to recognize that when you graduate as an actor, as a director, as a dancer, as a musician, you are graduating as the CEO of a company, and the company’s product is the work you do as an artist. But you also have to be the CEO of that company. And so one of the things that’s great about the media landscape today is that the barriers of entry for a performer that used to exist are obliterated. You can get work online right now, you can get work that you create on some venue. So we encourage students to think about creating their own work. We encourage students to think about writing for themselves. We teach students how to produce; we do producing workshops in the fourth year of our curriculum because we don’t want people to just think, ‘I go on auditions and I wait for someone to give me a job.’ We want to graduate students who create companies, who create production companies who are gonna write plays, produce plays, make films.”

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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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