Yes, There Is a College Campus in Times Square

News   Yes, There Is a College Campus in Times Square
 
A lot of colleges have gorgeous and impressive theatre facilities, but none quite like Circle in the Square Theatre School. As part of Playbill.com's Back to School week (#BwayBacktoSchool), we take a closer look at Circle in the Square–the only college program headquartered in an actual Broadway theatre.

When the students of CitS put on a show, the campus theatre they use is the Circle in the Square Broadway mainstage, currently occupied by the 2015 Tony-winning Best Musical Fun Home.

"Nothing compares to studying theater at Circle in the Square," said Jonathan Mann, outreach and development director and son of founder Theodore Mann. "Taking classes in a program built on the depth and quality of performance this great theater is known for, rehearsing and performing on our Broadway stage, in the center of our Times Square Theater District ‘campus’ gives students the sense of professionalism, great contacts and the confidence many use to step straight into theater careers."

Joshua Spencer and Chelsea Wheatley strike a pose in front of Circle in the Square.
Joshua Spencer and Chelsea Wheatley strike a pose in front of Circle in the Square.

Though the Circle in the Square doesn’t confer a college degree, it offers a full two-year conservatory program with a deep plunge into the real world of theatre for approximately 54 students a year, selected from about 700 applicants. Executive Director Colin O'Leary, who has managed daily operations of the School since 1981 explains, "We've never pursued a degree status because most of the students who come here have already gone through four years of college and already have degrees. They're now trying to translate that into becoming a professional actor."

Among the school's notable alumni: Idina Menzel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stefani Germanotta a.k.a. Lady Gaga, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Cahoon, Gina Gershon, Amanda Green, Winnie Holzman, Felicity Huffman, Luba Mason, Thomas Sadoski and Jeremy Shamos.

Alumnus Philip Seymour Hoffman
Alumnus Philip Seymour Hoffman

The school was founded in 1960 as an outgrowth of the Circle in the Square theatre company, which was started in 1951 by Mann’s father, Theodore Mann, and partners, and drew its name from its circular space at the Sheridan Square Theatre, which once stood opposite the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

By the time the school was launched, the theatre had moved to its new home at 159 Bleecker Street. Both were so successful in the 1960s that they were invited to create a new home on Broadway when the Paramount Plaza office building was under construction on West 50th Street in 1970. The new theatre and the new home for the school opened in 1972. It's also in the same building as the Gershwin Theatre where Wicked plays.

Paul Libin
Paul Libin Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Young people going into acting today are challenged by the fact that there is no one single dominant acting style that will be required of them. Not only will they likely be working in TV, film and stage at various points—each of which requires very specific acting skills--but working for different directors, each of whom adheres to different acting techniques.

Paul Libin is President of Circle in the Square Theatre and School, co-produced all the productions at Circle with Ted Mann for 50 years, Producing Director of Jujamcyn Theatres for 20 years, Executive Vice President for the last five years and winner of 11 Tony Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. Libin said that Circle in the Square is oriented toward preparing young people to work in all areas of professional theatre.

Students at work in a voice class
Students at work in a voice class

"Our students get extraordinary exposure to work in the professional theatre," Libin said. "They literally come in the same doorway [as the Fun Home cast], see the professional actors warming up and get ready to perform. Sometimes they invite the students to warm up with them, sometimes to throw a football around. When Hugh Jackman was here [in The River], he spent an hour and 20 minutes talking with the students about his career path, and then went on and did his show. Where else can you get that?"

Going to school on Broadway helps the students think of themselves as professionals. They're not there just at curtain time with crowds of audience members. They are in the theatre district all day, watching professional actors living their normal offstage lives and preparing to go on as performance time approaches. They become a part of the backstage theatre community.

A scene from a graduating class production of <i>Into the Woods</i> on the Circle in the Square stage
A scene from a graduating class production of Into the Woods on the Circle in the Square stage

Libin recalled that a number of students asked Jackman about the Method, and which training techniques he recommended. "He told them something profound. His response was that all the different disciplines are important to experience. You have to learn and be willing to accept that not every director is going to embrace one particular acting style. Ultimately, if you want to be a professional actor today, you have to be able to do many different things. You have to be flexible and learn all the different approaches to a role. You have to accommodate a director's style and your own style to make it work."

O'Leary agreed. “That’s precisely the concept of our approach to teaching acting: a very eclectic approach. We expose actors to a broad range to give them many different tools. This way they are not locked into one thing, but can be extremely adaptable. That is very much our philosophy."

Thomas Sadoski and Judith Light speak with students during a seminar
Thomas Sadoski and Judith Light speak with students during a seminar

Faculty includes legendary fight director B.H. Barry, actress Maria Tucci acting instructor Alan Langdon, vocal coach Lucille S. Rubin, musical theater director Sara Louise Lazarus and director Edward Berkeley.

Performing on the Circle in the Square stage is a challenge all its own. It can be configured several ways, but it was built so shows could be presented "in the round" as it currently is with Fun Home, meaning the audience completely surrounds the playing area.

When the CitS students perform there, said Susan Frankel, general manager of CitS, "We tell them, you will always have your back to some theatregoers, so you have to speak up. And you always have to stay in character. You always have to be on your toes because on that stage there is no place to hide."

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