Carnegie Mellon Theatre Students Offer Freshman Survival Tips

Student-made video shares hard-earned advice from outgoing freshmen.

Jordon Bolden
Jordon Bolden

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It all started this past May when Carnegie Mellon freshman musical theatre students Jordon Bolden and Henry Ayers Brown were walking across campus and started to reflect on the lessons they’d learned during their first year in college.

Not just the classroom lessons, but the life lessons they had learned about surviving and prevailing as first-time college students away from home.

“We started to think, what if there were some kind of video students could watch before they arrived on campus?” Bolden said. “Something that would ease that transition?”

Two months, a lot of inspiration, a bunch of cooperation and a load of collaboration later, the video "How To Survive Your First Year in a BFA Theatre Program” has already been passed around on social media, starting with the members-only Facebook group for Carnegie Mellon freshmen, but quickly spreading to open forums and others colleges, eventually clocking more than 2,000 views on YouTube alone. The video, produced entirely by students with no university funding (but with an ex-post-facto university blessing), begins with a cluster of relaxed and wholesome-looking theatre students. “Are you entering your freshman year of a BFA theatre program?” Isabel Pask asks the viewer. “If so, get ready for the most challenging—and rewarding—year of your life.

Shot in and around the Carnegie Mellon campus in Pittsburgh, the video offers tips on everything from keeping track of assignments, managing time, dealing with pressure to maintain a “Broadway body,” getting outside the “bubble” of learning in a conservatory, keeping yourself creatively fulfilled, and being supportive of classmates.

The students offer brass-tacks advice like warming-up vocally before parties so you don’t harm your vocal cords if things get noisy, how to pace your drinking if you must make that a part of your college life, and learning how to power-nap instead of watching Netflix.

Brown said, “The college audition process is inherently competitive, but that atmosphere can become really unhealthy if it bleeds into the educational setting. We wanted to create a video that would welcome new students to college theatre programs with supportiveness and warmth.”

Bolden and Brown turned to directing major Ariel Zucker to help them get their idea on film. “She was a huge part of bringing it all together,” Bolden said. Kaye added, “Theatre school is HARD–there's no doubt about that–and in a conservatory environment, it's essential to take really, really good care of yourself. In this video, we hoped to share a few ways to do that.”

The video was shot over the course of a single day, starting at 8 AM and ending after midnight. The tight schedule was made necessary by the fact that by the time they wrote their script and organized the technical aspects of the shoot it was already the final week of exams and the student actors had only limited availability.

In addition to imparting what they’d learned to the incoming fall 2014 freshman class, the participants in the video shoot learned something more. “The whole idea of collaboration,” Bolden said. We all had to agree on the story we were trying to tell, the genre and the style and all of that. So we all had to put our heads together.”

As for the official school reaction, Don Wadsworth, Option Coordinator of the Tony-winning theatre school, said, “The fact that they created, shot and edited the video entirely on their own, not only without help or guidance but even without our knowledge, illustrates that this came from their own sense of wanting to pass on something they thought might be personal and valuable. The particular advice they offer is no doubt helpful, but the spirit of the motivation might be even more impressive. I think it shows what a caring and generous group they are.” Though it was made originally for Carnegie Mellon students specifically, Bolden and his team quickly saw how the lessons in the video could be applied to students beyond their immediate campus.

“Having a sense of trust and care in an environment where young artists are baring their souls on a regular basis and where teachers are asking students to 'take risks' is infinitely easier when they are surrounded by sensitivity and empathy," Wadsworth said. “I hope it will do the same for first year artists anywhere. The basic anxieties and mysteries exist with beginning arts students in every program.”

Visit PlaybiEDU.com to learn more about Carnegie Mellon University.