The world of theatre is cutthroat. Being talented isn’t always enough to land a role in the competitive world of professional performance. Actors need to look, dress, act and be the part of the character they’re pretending to be. A whole slew of factors can throw a wrench into the best laid plans, especially when hundreds of people are competing for the same role.
The same goes for making it into theatre school — especially at the University. Competition doesn’t end once students are accepted. Throughout the course of their careers in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, actors audition for hundreds of plays, musicals and movies. A lot of time, they don’t get cast, but that rejection is all a part of a learning process.
The culture of theatre school is a lot like the harsh realities that face actors and actresses after graduation. But does that mean that actors and actresses are ready to face professional challenges by the time graduation rolls around?
For actress Jacqueline Toboni, the answer was a resounding yes.
It was Winter 2014 when Toboni hit her big break. She had been cast in the Screen Arts & Cultures 423 film, “Bad Girls,” and Grimm Executive Producer Jim Kouf paid a visit to the class. He was impressed with some of the actresses in the film and had them do a practice audition for a role in the show, Trubel. Kouf was so taken with Toboni that he cast her in the role.
Tobani’s training at SMTD gave her he skills to snag the acting opportunity, while still graduating on time in May 2014.
Currently, she’s filming in Portland.
“Not every school would let me do that,” Toboni said. “I think Michigan is really good at seeing the bigger picture. They’re good at saying, ‘Listen, we’re teaching you all of this stuff, in order for you to get work.’ And as an actor, that’s really hard. So when that opportunity presented itself they encouraged me to take advantage of that. I think that’s something that is very special, and I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t do that.”
That’s one of the overwhelmingly positive things about SMTD — through their coursework and academic opportunities, the school has been trying to teach their actors the skills for them to succeed, and if they find that success earlier than expected, students are allowed to chase after it.
Music, Theatre & Dance alum CJ Eldred, a musical theatre major, had a similar experience to Toboni. He was cast as the standby-for-lead in the first national tour of “Book of Mormon” the semester before he was supposed to graduate.
“Michigan gave me all of the tools, and all of the opportunities to really start my career strong,” Eldred said.
But not everyone in the theatre and musical theatre programs had the same experiences as Toboni and Eldred. Other than talent, Eldred admitted that something else comes into play as well — luck.
“I was lucky compared to other people in my class that I had this fortunate opportunity that there was a show that suited me so well, and that I also had producers that were trusting that a kid who hadn’t even graduated college yet could jump in and play the role,” he explained. “I definitely think that there’s the same opportunities for people, and it’s just as possible for anyone in my class to have had the same thing happen to them.”
Music Theatre & Dance senior Adam Quinn, specializing in directing within the theatre performance program, was given the opportunity to leave and assume a associate director role in a show during Winter 2014 at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and is currently directing at Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., widely known as the home of the American musical.
Even though SMTD let him leave to pursue these opportunities, Quinn didn’t feel as if he was encouraged or appreciated for doing so. Instead he felt quite the opposite.
“I found that many times, I am looked at negatively by some people in the department,” he said. “Not only faculty, but also students, and the way they think it’s supposed to be run versus what is going to give me the best education possible.”
Quinn said he is often times disappointed in that way that faculty members at SMTD respond to non-SMTD theatre productions, like the musical group MUSKET, or independent Basement Arts that often offer opportunities to students in and outside of SMTD.
“The faculty sometimes looks down on things like MUSKET and Basement Arts, and I think that’s really negative,” he explained. “It’s allowing students to become better. No, they’re not being directed by faculty but sometimes, students can really learn from other students.”
Despite the pushback that he received when trying to take time off, Quinn admits that he really couldn’t have gotten the same quality of education at any other school. For that reason, he says the University’s program is really unmatched.
“I would not be where I am today,” Quinn said, “and as prepared as I am today to go into the professional world, than if I didn’t go to school at Michigan and learn from these faculty members and take these courses and be given these opportunities,” he said.
Music Theatre & Dance senior Teagan Rose, specializing in acting within the theatre performance program, knew Michigan’s acting program was the place for her from the moment she visited campus.
“Michigan was actually the very last place that I auditioned for, and the last place I visited, and it was the only place when I came here, as cliché as it sounds, I had the moment — the ‘this is my school’ moment, the feeling in my gut that this is the place that I’m supposed to be,” she said. “It was the faculty, and the auditions and the campus.”
Part of what intrigued Rose the most about SMTD was the competitive nature and the constant challenges that the actors face. Difficult shows, classes, auditions and roles keep the students constantly on their toes, and, as a result, constantly improving and striving to be better.
“I never want to settle on what I have, I always strive to be better because I know I always can be better. So I find being in a department where everybody is so talented, and it is very competitive and the caliber is so high, it’s actually even more encouraging because it just makes sure that everybody is on their A-game.”
Rose is looking forward to a semester full of shows, including playing the lead role in the play “Fuenteovejuna,” which centers on themes of female empowerment. Life after graduation is still up in the air, but she hopes to move to California to start her career acting for film or stage.
Even though Music Theatre & Dance alum Al Fallick made it into the school of musical theater, which is the most competitive program at SMTD, he isn’t doing musical theatre in his post-grad life. Instead, he’s moved to L.A. to pursue a career in comedy.
“I feel like musical theatre and comedy are very closely tied,” he said. “Some of the same things that help you succeed in musical theatre and some of the same things that help you succeed in comedy: high emotions, big characters, you know?”
Because there isn’t really a graduate school for comedians, Fallick is taking classes at The Groundlings, an improv and sketch comedy school that has cranked out comedians like Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. While he’s taking classes, he is supporting himself through a job at Starbucks.
“The big negative, I think, is getting seen for job interviews that don’t have to do with the industry, when my resume says I am a musical theatre major.”
Unlike Fallick, many of the musical theatre majors end up in New York City, auditioning for Broadway productions. Acting majors are more divided, with some pursuing stage plays in New York and others trying to land roles in TV or movies, like Toboni.
The upcoming class of graduates will wind up spread across the country, or even the nation, trying to use their Michigan education to their advantage while auditioning for shows.
Maybe they’ll hit it big. Not all of them do, but it’s like they say — that’s show biz, kid.